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Ronald Reagan's Nuanced Legacy as California Governor

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A statue of Ronald Reagan will be unveiled in the California state Capitol rotunda Monday. Much has been said of Reagan’s legacy as president – but his time as California governor often goes overlooked.";s:

A statue of Ronald Reagan will be unveiled in the California state Capitol rotunda on Monday. It’s funded by private donations under a law signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2012. Much has been said of Reagan’s legacy as president – but as Ben Adler reports from Sacramento, his time as California governor often goes overlooked.

Reagan in 1966 campaign video: “As of now, I am a candidate seeking the Republican nomination for governor.”

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

Reagan in 1966 campaign video: “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.”

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:

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.”
"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. And that's in fact what he did." - Ed Meese

But Reagan’s full record was more nuanced. Lou Cannon covered the governor for the San Jose Mercury News and later wrote a book on his rise to power. Cannon says Reagan raised taxes to balance a state budget deficit left by his predecessor.

Cannon: “It was a progressive tax increase, 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 – 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.

Cannon: “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.”
Bebitch Jeffe: “If you look back at Ronald Reagan’s tenure as governor, he was not heavily ideologically to the right.”

USC Public Policy Professor Sherry Bebitch Jeffe worked for Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, a leading Reagan adversary.

Bebitch Jeffe: “What he was, 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. Meese says Reagan may have been pragmatic – but he still accomplished his goals.

Meese: “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. And that’s in fact what he did.”

Meese says Reagan’s eight years as California governor – particularly his experience with a strong opposition Legislature – helped prepare him for President of the United States.

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