A sweltering day in September and Jerry Brown, again, is running for governor. He’s running against his own Democrats – the same party that already has given him $2.27 million, the same party he once headed, the same party he often shunned.
He’s running against the Legislature, the budget morass and the Capitol’s ruling Democrats, distancing himself from the same people who came out to support him at a Land Park rally.
He’s running against himself.
“Now one thing, it is a little screwed up, but I just want everybody to know I’m not in Sacramento, I’m from Oakland, okay?” said Brown who, unlike nearly everyone else within earshot, wasn’t sweating. “And all the stuff that’s going on here, it’s under – well, I know I’ve got some legislators here.” But he added quickly, “He’s in charge, Mr. Schwarzenegger, he’s representing the Republican Party.
The irony is sublime. As Brown’s governorship wound down, he ran for the U.S. Senate back in 1982. And at an equally sweltering Labor Day picnic at the Alameda County Fairgrounds, then-Gov. Brown was shunned by his fellow candidates for statewide office. Even on the stage for a unity showing, the Democrats edged to one side, Brown to the other. After two terms as governor, Brown was a political pariah. That theme held for the rest of the general election campaign, as statewide Democratic contenders distanced themselves from him.
In the intervening 28 years, Brown has run for president, served as mayor of Oakland, been a talk show host, headed the state Democratic Party and served as attorney general and is now California’s top law enforcement officer. At 72, he is the most intriguing political figure to emerge in California in decades – more so than Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger, even more so than his late father, the conventional and collegial Pat Brown.
People are rarely neutral on Brown. The either love him or hate him – sometimes both at once. His enemies cite his relentless ambition, his ability to tap dance around volatile issues, his inconsistency. His admirers laud his intellectual prowess, his spiritual side, his social liberalism, his embrace of change.
Both sides acknowledge his grasp of governance, his aggressiveness and his penchant for surprise. “You never knew what he was going to do then. You don’t know what he’s going to do now,” said one Democrat who supported him earlier for governor.
In the end, nobody quite knows what he’s up to. He has said publicly that the Capitol needs somebody who can “knock heads,” and he appears ready to oblige. Certainly, many in the Capitol believe him: Few Democrats want to discuss him for attribution. Lawmakers and lobbyists are quick to acknowledge a respectful fear of Brown, an emotion that surfaces less with Meg Whitman.
“Well over a year ago, we had a fundraiser for him, and he said he would only serve one term because he probably would have to do things his supporters wouldn’t like,” said one veteran political player who has been critical of Brown. “I think he meant it. I know he’s a master at telling an audience what it wants to hear, but I think he meant it.”
Brown campaign manager Steve Glazer has denied that Brown only wants to serve one term.
At least one union group, the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, also thinks Brown means what he says. Brown said during an editorial board meeting with the San Francisco Chronicle that he would have to ‘do things that labor doesn’t like.’ The CSLEA hastily endorsed Whitman.
Brown seems to be running for something, somewhere, all the time. And, as he himself has acknowledged, he has said many things in many campaigns. His ferocious confrontation with Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential debate is still remembered – especially by Clinton – and cost Brown Clinton’s endorsement in favor of Gavin Newsom earlier this year.
The Brown-Clinton imbroglio continues: Brown complained that rival Meg Whitman used Clinton’s comments in an ad to inaccurately portray Brown’s record as governor, and Brown questioned Whitman’s choice of Clinton, who had his own ethical problems. “I mean Clinton’s a nice guy but whoever said he always told the truth?”
Brown quickly recanted – “It was wrong for me to joke about an incident from many years ago, and I’m sorry.”
Clinton, meanwhile, announced his endorsement this week of Brown and planned to campaign for him.
So after 44 years in elective politics, Brown has baggage. “I have warts,” he says.
He also has a fervid following of people who support collective bargaining rights for farm workers, private-sector workers and state employees; alternative energy, resource conservation, expanded education funding, prison reforms, and the like. He says so, every chance he gets. His unscripted stump speeches are passionate, without notes and push forward. Despite his age, he’s the closest thing in California politics to a rock star – a Rod Stewart minus the hair, although the voice is just as hoarse – and his most enthusiastic supporters are unionized workers and the young.
And he has a message.
“But the question is whether the message is transcendent or incoherent, because on the one hand, you have a fellow who was governor years ago and state party chair,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican strategist. “On the other hand, he isn’t exactly an outsider. But he isn’t exactly an insider. He’s simultaneously running on his experience and his outsiderism.”
“Probably, not unlike me, his future is behind him,” John Burton once said. He said that 20 years ago, but he was wrong about himself and wrong about Brown: Burton went on to lead the state Senate and state Party, and Brown went on to serve as mayor of Oakland and state attorney general after serving as governor and secretary of state.
Brown is perhaps California’s most adept politician at using his office for maximum political effect. As secretary of state in the early 1970s, he pushed for reforms and used his office as a platform. As attorney general – California’s most powerful office after the governor – he has done likewise, on global warming and local officials’ compensation reform.
Brown, warts and all, is a recognizable character. Whitman, despite her wealth, was politically obscure until 2008.
”When does Whitman’s money reach diminishing, marginal returns? Jerry Brown doesn’t have to buy any name ID – he’s already got it. He’s already very much in the game. He’s not going to be able to spend as much as Whitman, but he probably will have enough to get his message out,” Pitney said.