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Ronald Reagan's Nuanced Legacy As California Governor

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

A statue of President Ronald Reagan was unveiled in the California state Capitol rotunda Monday. It’s funded by private donations under a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012. Much has been said of Reagan’s legacy as president – but as his time as California governor often goes overlooked.

Reagan ran for governor in 1966 on a conservative platform: fiscal responsibility, limited government, cracking down on student protests and welfare reform:

“Working men and women should not be asked to carry the additional burden of providing for a segment of society capable of caring for itself but which prefers making welfare a way of life, freeloading at the expense of these more conscientious citizens,” Reagan said in a video announcing his 1966 gubernatorial campaign.

And he made good on those promises, says Reagan’s gubernatorial chief of staff who later served as his U.S. Attorney General, Ed Meese.

“He governed on the basic principles that he campaigned on – business-like methods, making sure that the government did not unnecessarily expand, welfare reform – those kinds of things that he had talked about when he ran for office in 1966,” Meese says.

But Reagan’s full record was more nuanced. For example, he raised taxes to balance a state budget deficit left by his predecessor.

“It was a progressive tax increase,says Lou Cannon, who covered the governor for the San Jose Mercury News and later wrote a book on Reagaon's rise to power, and it kind of fueled the government for the next couple of years. And I think it showed how practical he was when the rubber met the road. I mean, he gave conservative speeches, but his actions were more pragmatic.”

Reagan also signed the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) – a law now decried by Republicans for slowing, and sometimes killing, new building projects. And he signed a bill that made it easier for women to get abortions – which Cannon says Reagan later regretted.

“He told me, in fact, a year later, the only time in all the years I covered him as governor and president that he kind of admitted that he’d done what he thought was wrong on a major bill,” Cannon recalls.

“If you look back at Ronald Reagan’s tenure as governor, he was not heavily ideologically to the right,” says USC Public Policy Professor Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, who worked for Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, a leading Reagan adversary.

“What he was, she says, was true to what he thought – at that point in time, I think – were his values, his political values and his personal values.”

So yes, he raised taxes – but when those tax revenues produced a surplus, he gave the extra money back to taxpayers.

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Meese says Reagan may have been pragmatic – but he still accomplished his goals.

“He often said he’d rather get 80 percent of what he wanted to accomplish if that’s all he could get, rather than getting nothing, but that then he’d go back and try to get the other 20 percent later, Meese says. And that’s in fact what he did.”

Observers of Reagan’s governorship say the experience he gained during those eight years – particularly with a strong opposition Legislature – helped prepare him for President of the United States.

Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio 

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