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As Gov. Jerry Brown neared the end of his last State of the State speech on Thursday, Jan. 25, he invoked a name that has become a frequent theme: August Schuckman, his own great-grandfather, who left Germany in 1849 and “sailed to America on a ship named Perseverance.”

The 79-year-old Democrat cast his ancestor’s journey—and the ship’s poetic name—as a metaphor for California in an era of natural disasters and deep rifts with the federal government. “We, too, will persist,” he said, “against the storms and turmoil, obstacles great and small.”

Brown, delivering his 16th such speech during an unprecedented four-term tenure as California governor, contrasted California with the direction the United States is heading under Republican President Donald Trump—touting the state’s efforts to combat climate change and its embrace of Obamacare. He reiterated his commitment to two major infrastructure projects he’s long championed: a high-speed train that would eventually connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, and a massive tunnel to move water from the north end of the state to the south. And he gave an impassioned plea for legislators to look at the big picture of California’s criminal-justice system instead of passing new laws in response to crimes ripped from the headline.

Democrats praised Brown for an optimistic speech that demonstrated the hallmarks of his leadership. Even some Republicans offered mild praise: Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle called Brown “one of the most conservative Democrats in this place” for his relative prudence. But he criticized the governor for signing laws, like the gas tax, that raised the cost of living in California.

What Brown didn’t mention: the fact that California has the highest poverty rate in the nation; that housing prices that have skyrocketed beyond affordability for many residents; and that the state’s tax structure exposes it to perpetual cycles of boom and bust.

Also absent were the obscure intellectual references that have studded his past speeches—although he did contrast the state’s bloated penal code with the Ten Commandments.

His also struck some themes that are vintage Jerry Brown. He cited California’s recent wildfires and mudslides, as well as the Doomsday Clock, echoing past speeches in which he predicted environmental disaster. He advocated remedies to slow global warming—like clean cars and renewable energy—that resembled ideas he espoused when he was first elected governor more than four decades ago.

“We should never forget our dependency on the natural environment and the fundamental challenges it presents to the way we live,” Brown said to his 2018 audience. “We can’t fight nature. We have to learn to get along with her.”

Yet as he looked forward for California, he also looked back at his own family history. When Brown was first sworn in, in 1975, he rarely talked about his ancestry. As the years mounted, however, he has increasingly turned to his family-origin stories to illustrate his belief in California’s potential.

Now the Brown family’s California Dream is a common trope in his rhetoric. He talks about the great-grandfather on the Perseverance, the grandmother who was the youngest of eight children, and the father, Pat Brown, who preceded him in the governor’s office.

Some of that reflection may be the natural consequence of age. But it also reveals a governor more assured of his own accomplishments and less fearful that he’s riding on his father’s coattails, said political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. A professor at University of Southern California, she’s been following Brown’s career since he ran for the Los Angeles Community College board in 1969.

The younger Brown first moved into the governor’s office less than a decade after his father had moved out. During those first two terms in office, Jeffe said, Brown went to great lengths to distinguish himself from his father.

“He did not want to live in his shadow,” she said. “Jerry wanted to build his own legacy, his own philosophy of governance.”

His early speeches reflect the schism. Brown—a 37-year-old bachelor at the time, who famously slept on a mattress on the floor of an apartment—opened his inaugural address in 1975 with a quick quip about his dad. “My father thought I wasn't going to make it,” to become governor, he said. “But here I am.” He went on to talk about problems with environmental and land-use rules, and the need to provide a better system for funding schools and farmworker rights.

For the next six years, Brown used his State of the State speeches to float ideas: developing more clean energy, building more prisons, making housing more affordable, putting a satellite into space, and overhauling the bail system. Then, as now, he acknowledged the uncertainty of the future and urged lawmakers not to spend too much.

But near the end of his first two terms, Brown’s 1982 State of the State speech reminisced about his father, his grandmother and his great-grandfather Schuckman, who traveled the plains from St. Louis to Sacramento during the Gold Rush.

“Let me read to you from the diary that was kept during that trek westward,” Brown said then, recounting in detail their journey across deserts, through rivers and over mountains. He spoke of oxen dying of thirst and wagons going up in flames.

“These were men and women who matched our mountains, and in not too many years, built these walls,” Brown said. “We are bearers of that powerful tradition. It still drives our people and the hundreds from foreign who arrive in our state each day.”

Most people assumed, of course, that 1982 speech would be Brown’s final State of the State. But after serving as Democratic Party chair, Oakland mayor and attorney general, he reclaimed the governorship in the November 2010 election. In his inaugural address in January 2011, Brown again read from Schuckman’s diary.

“We can only imagine what it took for August Schuckman to leave his family and home and travel across the ocean to America and then across the country—often through dangerous and hostile territory—in a wagon train. But come he did, overcoming every obstacle,” Brown said.

In 2015, Brown reflected on his father’s leadership in ways he never did in those speeches during his early years as governor.

“The issues that my father raised at his inauguration bear eerie resemblance to those we still grapple with today: discrimination; the quality of education and the challenge of recruiting and training teachers; the menace of air pollution, and its danger to our health; a realistic water program; economic development; consumer protection; and overcrowded prisons,” Brown said. “So you see, these problems, they never completely go away. They remain to challenge and elicit the best from us.”

Whatever challenges lie ahead for 2018 and beyond, Brown said on Thursday: “All of us—whatever our party or philosophy—have a role in play in defending and advancing our democracy. Our forebears set the example.”

Now he’s planning retirement on the rural land in Colusa County where Schuckman settled in the 1800s. Though Brown’s upbringing is very different from most Californians, his family stories can make the austere governor more relatable, said Roger Salazar, a Democratic political consultant who works for the Legislature’s Latino Caucus.

“It’s a story that I think a lot of legislators can relate to,” Salazar. “When you look back at your familial history and the context in which they came to California, I think that’s something that we all can connect with.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

The metal tab pulls back with a familiar click-click-hissssss as bubbles rush to the top of the can. The alluring scent wafts through the air, a familiar smell that hints at what’s to come.

If you’re drinking a 20-ounce Mountain Dew, you’re consuming the equivalent of 18 teaspoons of sugar. A same-sized Pepsi equals 16 teaspoons, and a Coke comes out to 15. A 16-ounce Rockstar Energy Drink slams more than 15 teaspoons.

Here’s the problem with what you’re drinking, some scientists say: Humans are not biologically designed to deal with that much liquid sugar at once. Since there’s no digestion involved, it enters the bloodstream and is absorbed more quickly than food.

As it does, the sugar overwhelms the pancreas, the organ tasked with regulating blood sugar, and over time wears it out. Welcome to Type 2 diabetes.

Harold Goldstein, a doctor of public health, is the founding executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA), a Davis-based nonprofit whose mission is to look for solutions to what scientists say is an alarming increase in diabetes and obesity in California.

About five years ago, the CPHA commissioned a study by the UC Center for Weight and Health to see if there was a correlation between obesity and sugary beverage consumption.

The UC study found that Americans on average were consuming 278 more calories a day than they were about 2 1/2 decades before, with 43 percent of those calories defined as new beverage calories.

“I had no idea what the answer was going to be, but what they came up with was simple and compelling,” Goldstein says. “I was stunned. It was twice as much as I guessed.”

We weren’t just eating more. We were drinking more. And mostly, we were drinking more sugar, a phenomenon that coincided with the “soda wars” of the ’70s and ’80s, where Coca Cola and Pepsi went head-to-head on television advertising campaigns. It also coincided with an increase in portion sizes: In the ’70s and ’80s, a 12-ounce can was the norm. Now, fast-food restaurants offer 32-ounce cups with free refills.

Another surprising statistic, this from the National Institutes of Health, via Goldstein: A quarter of teenagers, or 23 percent, have pre-diabetes, an increase from 9 percent just 10 years ago.

“These beverages are tricking the body,” Goldstein says. “The pancreas goes wild and the liver says, ‘Look at all this. I’d better save it for a rainy day and turn it into fat.’ There is a cohort of teens that will be entering the health-care system with higher rates of diabetes than ever.”

The grim statistics are why state Sen. Bill Monning, a Carmel Democrat, backed by CCPHA and the Health Officers Association of California, continues a battle with the beverage industry.

On Feb. 11, Monning introduced Senate Bill 203, which would have required a warning label to be placed on the packaging of sugar-sweetened beverages including sodas, sweet teas, sports drinks and energy drinks. The label would have been required on drinks with 75 or more calories per 12 ounces and would read as follows: “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING—Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.”

However, the beverage industry was willing not only to put a lot of muscle and money behind the effort to stop him, but also to try to stop information they deem harmful to their industry from reaching the public—and their efforts paid off on April 29, when the bill was effectively killed by Senate Health Committee. Only four of the nine members voted for the bill; one senator voted against it, with four abstaining.

Last June, on the same day Bill Monning’s previous labeling bill died in the state Assembly Health Committee, PepsiCo spent $2,200 on a catered event for 13 legislators and more than three-dozen legislative staff members from the Latino Legislative Caucus, as the Sacramento Bee reported. Of the legislators who attended, two voted against SB 1000, the previous iteration of the labeling bill.

In 2014, the American Beverage Association California Political Action Committee, also known as the American Beverage Association Strategic Advocacy Fund, spent $11.8 million on various candidates and measures. Of that, $9.24 million went to the successful opposition of a soda tax floated before San Francisco voters. The group also spent $2.43 million to defeat a Berkeley soda tax, which passed despite fierce industry opposition.

The PAC donated $4,100 to Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, who this year became head of the Latino Legislative Caucus, and the same to the Senate campaign of Ben Hueso, the San Diego Democrat who is vice chair of the Latino Legislative Caucus.

It put $27,200 into Gov. Jerry Brown’s campaign and $3,000 into Attorney General Kamala Harris’, too. It gave $46,000 to the Democratic State Central Committee of California and $10,000 to the California Republican Party.

Fast-forward to this year. The PAC started 2015 with $504,000 in the bank. The spokesman for the Latino Legislative Caucus PAC and foundation, Roger Salazar, is now the spokesman for CalBev, also known as the California-Nevada Beverage Association, the trade association representing the non-alcoholic beverage industry in California and Nevada. The Cal-Nev Soft Drink Association PAC spent $37,371 on various campaigns in 2014, mostly as $1,000 contributions to individual legislators.

In the hours and days that followed Monning’s announcement of his labeling bill, CalBev went on the offensive.

In a written statement, CalBev Executive Director Bob Achermann said obesity and diabetes are more complicated than a warning label. Monning’s bill is “misguided,” and singles out soft drinks while ignoring sugar-rich cupcakes, donuts and processed foods. It’s also riddled with loopholes that will confuse consumers, according to the statement.

For example, the release says, fountain sodas purchased at restaurants with table service will be exempt from labeling. The release also calls out milk-based products like Frappuccinos and lattes, which contain as much sugar and more calories than soft drinks.

Salazar says the industry has taken on an initiative to reduce sugar-sweetened consumption 20 percent by 2025.

“There are ways you can have a collaborative effort, but bills like this seek to demonize an industry with a shocking label when there are other, broader causes to obesity and diabetes we should be looking at,” Salazar says. “It’s about balancing calories, and there’s no question we support programs that educate people about nutrition and exercise.”

But the statement that there could be a collaborative effort came as news to Monning.

“They haven’t proposed any compromises to us that would work for them,” Monning says. “I think we’ve maintained open and cordial conversation. Their position on labeling is: They provide caloric information on the label, and consumers have that at their fingertips.”

Monning acknowledges other sources of sugar are out there, but says none are as dangerous.

“While sugar is in other foods,” he says, “medical evidence is clear that liquid consumption of sugar is more immediately damaging. When you eat it, more is eliminated through digestion.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Monterey County Weekly.

Published in Politics