California’s most intriguing up-and-coming political figure isn’t Gov.-elect Jerry Brown.
It’s his wife.
Anne Baldwin Gust Brown is viewed by her campaign colleagues as tightly organized and professional, reflecting an impressive corporate and legal background. They say she wears the pants and calls the shots, while reporters regard her as evasive, even prickly.
But in a wide-ranging interview with Capitol Weekly, she proved disarming and remarkably candid. She discussed her route to becoming California’s new first lady, her upcoming plans, her relationship with Brown and her doubts about the role awaiting her.
“We’re just really good partners with each other. We enjoy working with each other. I think I’m more linear and organized where he is more of a creative thinker. I’d say he thinks like more of a long-term visionary and I’m more ‘let’s make sure every train is running on time;’ more in the moment, making things work,” said Gust.
When Brown told reporters recently he probably wouldn’t be hiring a chief of staff, rumors caught fire that Gust would fill the niche. But she, like Brown, is unimpressed with the title. She noted that she’s flexible to do whatever the job requires of her, although down the road, her private, unofficial role as Brown’s top adviser could raise political negatives.
“I don’t know what that means, ‘chief of staff,’” said Gust. “I think the way Arnold has run the office, with Susan Kennedy, there pretty much really is one person at the top of the pyramid. That’s not really Jerry’s style. Obviously Jerry has a lot of (people). Jim Humes (chief deputy attorney general) will also be working with him very closely. I don’t know what my role will be. I certainly don’t know what my title will be,” said Gust.
Did Gust, who grew up in exclusive Bloomfield Hills, Mich., ever think that one day she would be engaging in politics at the highest level in California, a nation-state of 38 million people?
“No, no I don’t think so – but here I am!”
Hers is the classic tale of the California dream.
After she graduated top of her class in high school, Gust’s mother took her on a tour-de-college, where the two scoured the east coast for schools. But after she returned, Gust just felt she had to check out Stanford University before making a final decision.
“I was told I would never get in but I was surprised people thought I couldn’t get in. I was first in my class,” said Gust.
But she did get in. “And I was thrilled,” she added.
Barely 18 years old, the high mission arches and fresh, expansive sky of California’s Stanford University won Gust over.
“I kind of knew I’d end up here because I fell in love with (California). The weather; you can’t beat the weather here. I liked the people, I liked the scenery, all the things you can do. Skiing and hiking,” said Gust, who likes trekking through the Oakland Hills with Brown when spare moments allow. The couple lives in Oakland.
Gust came to California under the wing of her family’s political influence. Her father – Rocky Gust – was the 1962 Republican candidate for lieutenant governor back home in Michigan.
But Gust began to form her own political views in California, first as an Independent and eventually as a Democrat.
“I came right out to college here and within a year or two I was volunteering in John Anderson’s campaign. He was the independent. I was in political science. I liked what he stood for. I wanted to get involved,” said Gust. “In those days, we just stuffed envelopes.”
To Gust’s surprise, she would have ample opportunity in her later political life to do a lot more than stuff envelopes.
Gust’s father, grandfather, and great grandfather were all lawyers, a legacy that Gust herself has carried on. She even studied at the same law school as her predecessors, the University of Michigan, before heading back to California to put her newfound skills to use.
“When I graduated I went into litigation. I did big trial litigation. I was at a few big firms here in San Francisco,” said Gust.
Gust worked her way into corporate law and about a year before snagging a gig as legal council for the clothing conglomerate Gap Inc., Gust ran into California Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Brown at a party in San Francisco and the two hit it off.
By that time, Brown – a member of California’s most famous political family – had served two terms as governor and run for president. He was California’s best-known political figure, for good or ill.
During their fifteen-year courtship, Gust worked her way up to become The Gap’s chief administrative officer. In 2005, she left The Gap to marry Brown and help run his successful campaign for attorney general in 2006.
It was in that campaign that she earned her chops.
“I loved it. But by the time I left [The Gap] I was kind of ready to go. I’d been there over fourteen years. A lot of the people I’d worked with [were gone], including Mickey Drexler, who had been the CEO. I loved the company and still do but I was ready to go,” said Gust.
“I was excited to get started on the campaign and Jerry and I had just gotten married,” added Gust, a subtle but undeniable lilt in her voice.
An obvious question: Why did they marry after dating for 15 years?
“I don’t know, good question,” Gust said. “We were doing just fine without it. But I guess, you know, we’d been together. So, I don’t know. But we’re awfully glad we did,” she added.
Since their wedding in 2005 the couple has also been a synchronized duo, both professionally and politically. For some, the word “synchronized” may come as a surprise when applied to Brown. But as a pair, Gust and Brown are exactly that, colleagues and other sources say.
“Jerry is an imaginative free spirit in many ways and [Gust’s] impact on him has been quite profound in helping to turn on a gravity machine around him. She provides an important reality for Jerry that he didn’t have in such a constant way since he was governor last time,” said Orville Schell, who wrote Brown’s biography, Brown, in 1978.
After Gust helped Brown win his seat as attorney general she served as his special advisor during his tenure. Sources familiar with the operations of the attorney general’s office said Gust played a significant role in decision-making.
In 2010, Gust practically ran the fundraising portion of Brown’s campaign. When a series of negative ads from Republican candidate Meg Whitman’s campaign took to the airways early in the summer, Gust was the little bird telling Brown to lay low until later in the campaign season in order to protect financial reserves.
It was the single, most important strategic decision of the Brown campaign and it sealed his victory.
“Even though we suffered a barrage of negative ads against us, Jerry held firm all summer, the polls stayed even and that really helped us conserve our resources,” Gust told reporters after the election.
So with Brown in the Corner Office, what’s her No. 1 priority as first lady?
“Help him,” she said. “Just that – to help him. I have no other sense that I want to promote literacy or help hun
gry people. I’m just gonna help. And we’ll figure it out. I don’t have some separate issue I’m looking to advance.”
Gust was hoping to pass on the responsibility of organizing the annual Women’s Conference to current first lady Maria Shriver, but no such luck.
“She is not [going to take it over]. I begged her. She may get involved some period later on. What she put together was extraordinary. I think about the amount of work one has to do to accomplish what she did — it would take about a year-and-a-half of planning. There’s no chance she could put it on in this time frame. So I gotta figure out what to do with that. I think we’re going to have to scale it way back,” she said.
The next item on Anne Gust’s agenda: Try to fend off Jerry Brown’s pleas for a dog.
“Jerry wants another dog but I’m resisting, for now,” said Gust. “Ya know, I don’t think it’s a good idea to take on any more responsibility right now.”
The couple recently had to put down their fifteen-year-old black Labrador because of cancer. Her name was Dharma.
“Jerry thought she was a Buddhist,” laughed Gust.