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Brown Knows

The excellent reinvention of Governor Moonbeam.

It was mid-September, and I was driving around downtown Oakland, trying to find the campaign headquarters of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown. Some weeks earlier, I had decided to cover the close-fought California governor’s race, and, after contacting both campaigns, I promptly began getting several e-mails a day from the efficient operation of former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. But Brown’s outfit was a different story. His press guy, Sterling Clifford, promised to put me on a list, but I never received anything. I called and e-mailed Clifford several times, but he didn’t respond. So when I arrived in California, I decided to show up at Brown’s campaign office.

The address was in a business district near Jack London Square. I was looking for the usual rented storefront, festooned with banners, with campaign workers toiling behind plate-glass windows. Instead, I found a nondescript brick warehouse with nothing to distinguish it as the nerve center of a statewide political race, except for a “BROWN FOR GOVERNOR” bumper sticker slapped on the front door. It looked like the front for a drug operation or a house of prostitution. I rang the bell, and, after several minutes, a young woman opened the door a crack and nervously asked what I wanted. I felt as if I should request drugs or broads, but instead I inquired if I could speak to Sterling Clifford.

I was led through a dark anteroom into a large, open expanse where volunteers sat around tables chatting, and Brown’s campaign staff—that is, Clifford and campaign manager Steve Glazer—worked on a raised platform. I was invited to sit on a recycled couch, and, after a while, Clifford came over. He was a scruffy, thirtysomething operative whose prior political experience consisted of doing press for former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who was forced to resign earlier this year after a jury found her guilty of embezzlement.

According to Clifford, I was sitting in the campaign’s only office in the entire state. Brown’s plan, such as it was, relied on outside groups (presumably unions) and phone volunteers working from their homes to get out the vote, as well as name recognition, an edge in Democratic registration, unpaid media from his current job as California’s attorney general, and ads purchased from the campaign’s comparatively modest budget, which is less than half the size of Whitman’s. Later, I asked someone who had worked closely with Brown over the years about the wisdom of this strategy. He laughed, sighed, then paused for about 20 seconds. “It’s not the way I would wage a campaign,” he said finally.

This visit left me with a potent feeling of déjà vu. I lived in California during Brown’s first term as governor and had voted for him in the 1976 California Democratic presidential primary. I loved his eccentricities—such as his fondness for outré intellectuals and his insistence on replacing the state limousine with a Plymouth. His call for America to acknowledge an “era of limits” seemed right for a country mired in an energy crisis and facing fierce economic competition from abroad. But, like many other liberals, I soured on Brown after he belatedly embraced Proposition 13, which gutted California’s finances by slashing residential and commercial property-tax rates while requiring a supermajority for any state or local tax increases. My disillusionment only deepened after covering his nutty presidential campaigns in 1980 and 1992.

Brown’s platform in 1980 was eclectic, combining Buckminster Fuller’s futurism—the campaign slogan: “Protect the earth, serve the people, explore the universe”—with support for a balanced-budget amendment. In late March that year, I witnessed the so-called “Apocalypse II,” when Brown, his fortunes flagging, enlisted Francis Ford Coppola to stage an elaborate happening in the Wisconsin primary. Brown and Coppola bought up the major stations in the state for a live 30-minute media spectacular that was intended to combine Brown’s oratory with Coppola’s multimedia artistry. But Brown’s microphone wouldn’t work, while on television, his face broke into pieces as images of hippies and astronauts whirled in the background. Brown—memorably dubbed “Governor Moonbeam” by Chicago columnist Mike Royko—had believed the event would clinch him the primary. Instead, he got 12 percent of the vote and dropped out of the presidential race that night.

As I listened to Clifford expostulating on how the volunteers could make up for the absence of campaign offices by using databases to call up voters, my first thought was that Governor Moonbeam was at it again—and in a race that the polls showed to be winnable. Had Brown learned nothing over the past 40 years? That’s certainly what Whitman was charging in a multimillion-dollar barrage of attack ads. So, I decided to revisit Brown’s history—as governor and, more recently, as mayor of Oakland. And what I found surprised me. Brown has had his share of failures and snafus—not to mention a characteristically quixotic political midlife crisis from 1982 to 1998. But his record was more impressive than I remembered. I can’t quite believe it, but the Jerry Brown I discovered turned out to be an older, wiser version of the guy I once admired.


When Brown was elected governor of California in 1974, he was 36 years old and Hollywood handsome, with chiseled features and dark, piercing eyes. Now 72, he looks the part of an aging politician. Conservative suits sit uneasily on his small frame. He’s balding, with wisps of white hair and sagging cheeks that recall his father, Pat Brown, the two-term California governor and Democratic powerhouse. But, in his jarring, raspy voice and questioning gaze, Jerry Brown retains the intensity of his youth.

Brown’s eccentricity may have developed partly in defiance of his glad-handing, big-spending father. Brown once said that he was both “attracted and repelled” by what he saw of politics growing up: “The adventure. The opportunity. The grasping, the artificiality, the obvious manipulation and role-playing, the repetition of emotion without feeling, particularly that.” After a year of college, Brown entered a Jesuit seminary in Los Gatos, where he took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and lived in seclusion for three and a half years. He later said that he learned two fundamental principles from the Jesuits-agere contra, or “go against yourself,” and ignatian, “detachment from creature comforts and worldly desires.” In college at Berkeley, he demonstrated against the execution of celebrated cellblock author Caryl Chessman, which his father had allowed to proceed and joined a group that supported the state’s farmworkers.

By the time Brown himself reached Sacramento, succeeding Ronald Reagan, the recession was kicking in. The state’s unemployment rate was 9.1 percent, and later hit 10.5 percent. Yet Brown’s popularity rose from the day he took office. In March 1976, his approval rating in a California poll was 69 percent—the highest that the poll had recorded. Two years later, he was reelected by a record margin of 1.4 million votes.

Brown’s appeal partly derived from a savvy self-image. He had a gift for sound bites and symbols, and, by playing the part of an anti-politician, he captured what a generation of post-’60s Californians wanted in a governor—especially in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Disdaining the perks of high office, he lived in a plainly-furnished, $250-a-month apartment, which he insisted on paying for himself. He shunned the usual interest groups and power brokers of Democratic politics, instead surrounding himself with idealistic intellectuals such as the anthropologist Gregory Bateson and Stewart Brand, the publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog. The British economist E.F. Schumacher’s book Small Is Beautiful became the sacred text of the Brown administration.

Brown also developed a political framework that other Democratic politicians, from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, would later emulate. Borrowing a metaphor from Bateson, Brown compared his politics to steering a canoe straight by paddling on the left and then on the right side. He backed collective bargaining for public employees and brought women, blacks, and Latinos into the highest circles of state government and the judiciary. In his finest achievement in office, he ended a decade of bitter struggle between farmworkers and growers by getting both parties to agree to an Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which oversaw secret-ballot elections for unionization. But he also railed against waste and “big government,” vetoing pay raises for government workers and cutting spending on education and welfare.

From today’s vantage point, however, Brown’s most striking accomplishment was his response to the energy crisis of the ’70s. During his two terms, California became the nation’s leader in conservation and renewable energy, adopting the nation’s toughest air- and water-pollution standards. Brown got the legislature to pass tax credits for solar, wind, and geothermal energy, and a new energy-efficient building code. He also championed high-speed rail and mass transit, and changed the way utility prices were calculated, so that companies would no longer be rewarded for selling more power.

By the early ’80s, Brown was trumpeting the possibilities of micro-technology and a green economy. He called on the education system to prepare students for “information-technology related businesses” and pointed out that energy efficiency could create millions of new jobs. His crusade for renewable energy was abandoned by the two Republican governors who followed him and was only recently revived by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Brown’s preference for mass transit over new highways and his installation of designated lanes for, say, car pools and cyclists, was widely mocked at the time but is now a staple of metro planning. He was way ahead of his time.

To be sure, Brown had serious weaknesses as governor. The office failed to hold his attention: He was infatuated with the idea of being president—perhaps as a way of surpassing his father, and perhaps, too, for the publicity it afforded him. In 1980, he told Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Scheer, “If I wasn’t running for president, would you be talking with me?” As Peter Schrag, the author of several authoritative books on California, put it, he also tended to “dither” when faced with crises or popular pressure—a function, perhaps, of his scorn for interest-group politics. By failing to respond forcefully to California’s anti-tax movement, he left the door open for the passage of Proposition 13. And he also became too enamored of his own political formulas. Seeking to paddle on the right as well as the left, he came out for the balanced-budget amendment in 1980 and for a flat tax in his 1992 presidential effort. He eventually ditched these proposals, but they contributed to the failure of his campaigns. They also suggested that Brown, who in 1974 was perfectly attuned to his electorate, had lost touch.

Brown departed the governor’s office in January 1983, and, for the next 15 years, he got lost—very lost—in the political wilderness. He lived in a mansion in San Francisco’s posh Pacific Heights and travelled to Japan to study Zen Buddhism and to Calcultta to work with Mother Teresa. He was elected chair of the California Democratic Party but quit after two years, explaining that he was bored with the “nuts and bolts” of party organization. His failed 1992 presidential run was the last straw. He sold the mansion, moved to Oakland, and installed himself as the aging leader of a commune, describing himself as a “recovering politician.” He also had a regular radio show on Berkeley’s KPFA, where he aired opinions on capitalism and globalization that would not have been out of place on the World Socialist Web Site. He once referred to President Bill Clinton and Congress as “criminals” who “continue to destroy this country and the world itself.” (Most transcripts of the broadcasts have recently been removed from the Web.)

Then, in late 1997, Brown unexpectedly returned to politics, entering the race for mayor of Oakland. He’d clearly missed the spotlight. But Oakland also appears to have appealed to Brown’s Jesuit sense of mission. It was a decaying industrial town with a wretched school system, rampant crime, and a history of civic corruption.

As Oakland’s mayor, Brown retained some of his familiar quirks. He lived in a downtown loft with Anne Gust, the former chief administrative officer of Gap Inc., whom he married in 2005, and her dog Dharma. He dressed in ratty clothes—when I showed up to interview him five years ago, he was wearing a t-shirt and jeans. But in other ways, he seemed to have become a textbook urban reformer. He pushed to revitalize the city’s deserted downtown, backed charter schools, and adopted New York City’s crime-fighting strategy. At night, he and Dharma could be seen strolling through the central city, without bodyguards, talking to shop owners and passersby.

To revive the downtown, Brown persuaded developers to build 5,832 units, expected to house more than 9,000 people. Shops and restaurants and high-tech start-ups followed, eager to avoid the soaring rents of neighboring Berkeley and San Francisco. An art scene—a key ingredient of a thriving city center-flourished; the Oakland School for the Arts, which Brown started, is now housed in a renovated old theater. Dan Siegel, an Oakland lawyer and former school board member who clashed with Brown over school reform, credits him for making it clear that “developers would be treated honestly and decisions would not be made on the basis of whose palm would be greased, which was clearly the case before.” A former official in the Schwarzenegger administration says, “He cared about his city. That was clearly to his credit. He came up to Sacramento and argued for projects for his city. Very few mayors did that.”

Brown didn’t fare so well with the schools, but nor did he “damage” them, as Whitman has claimed. Brown championed charters to set an example for the public system and tried to pack the school board, which is independent of the mayor. At the end of his tenure, however, Oakland’s schoolchildren were only doing marginally better in state tests. Crime rates fell during his two terms, but homicides rose again during his last year in office, as they did elsewhere. Still, his achievement in making Oakland “cool,” as the East Bay Express put it, outweighed his shortcomings in other areas.

Brown clearly matured during his time as mayor. He dropped both the radio show and his incendiary rhetoric, engaging in a kind of practical politics that he had often avoided in Sacramento. And he was no longer obsessed with being president—perhaps because he had come full circle in his relationship to his father, who died in 1996. Former associates say that instead of competing with his father, Brown now wants to live up to his legacy as one of California’s great governors. Jodie Evans, who served under Brown in Sacramento and ran his 1992 campaign, thinks his current election bid “is the way you give back to your father.” John Geesman, who was executive director of the California Energy Commission under Brown, says, “It is a lot about personal redemption and communing with your dead parent.”

In his first debate with Whitman, on September 28, Brown was funny and irascible about his long and colorful political journey. One reporter asked him why voters should believe that he wouldn’t run for president again if he was elected governor. Brown replied, “Age. Hell, if I was younger, you know I’d be running again.” He added, “One more thing, I now have a wife. And, you know, I come home at night. I don’t try to close down the bars in Sacramento like I used to do when I was governor of California.”

If the election were decided on the basis of the candidates’ experience in government, Brown would certainly win. Daniel Zingale, who was deputy chief of staff for former governor Gray Davis and a senior adviser to Schwarzenegger, draws a sharp contrast between the two candidates. Brown, he says, “should know what he is getting into. He has always been someone who liked to rock the boat, and I think that fits the time.” Whitman, he says, “does not have any idea what the job is like ... For a CEOer like her, who is used to telling the comptroller what to do, it would be a rude awakening to discover that the comptroller is going to be running against you in the next election. She doesn’t know how powerless she is going to be.” But voters don’t always make decisions based on résumés.

Whitman has poured more than $119 million of her own money into her campaign, making it the most expensive self-financed campaign ever. By November, her spending could exceed $150 million. Some of that sum is being put into ads targeted at wavering constituencies, such as young voters (who lean Democratic, but know nothing of Brown’s past) and Latinos. Whitman has inundated Latino voters with Spanish-language ads, while Brown does not even have a Spanish-language website.

Whitman initially seemed to be a good fit for California’s electorate, which leans Democratic but is fond of moderate Republicans. She only entered politics in 2008 and before that contributed to Barbara Boxer’s Senate campaign and went on a cruise to investigate global warming with Van Jones, who later became Obama’s green-jobs czar.

But, since entering the GOP primary, Whitman has tacked right. Her campaign chairman is former Republican governor Pete Wilson, who championed the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and is widely blamed for wrecking the California GOP. Adopting Wilson’s playbook, Whitman has accused Brown of being “joined at the hip” to the public employee unions—which has had the effect of firing them up on behalf of a politician they always distrusted. In addition to the unions, she has blamed the state’s problems on teachers, illegal immigrants, and welfare recipients, and proposed to cut 40,000 state jobs, eliminate California’s capital-gains tax, and suspend its far-reaching global-warming statute. (Her stance on illegal immigration has recently been overshadowed by the revelation that for nine years she’d employed an undocumented worker as a housekeeper.)

Brown’s desire to be governor appears to stem from the same impulse that led him to seek office in Oakland. He wants to stay in the limelight, but he also wants to revive a dying state. To that end, he’s refined his old formula. He paddles to the right by promising to “cut waste” and to pass “no new taxes without voter approval.” He paddles to the left by rejecting Whitman’s plan to reduce the ranks of public workers or suspend Schwarzenegger’s climate-change initiative. Perhaps most important, he has a vision of how to rehabilitate California’s ailing economy, one that has its roots in his first term in Sacramento. He is championing a clean-energy plan that would reward conservation, boost the state’s capacity for renewable energy, and provide jobs for construction workers as well as scientists and engineers.

If Whitman’s money prevails, the legislature will quickly disabuse her of her plans, and if she is smart, she will decide, as Schwarzenegger finally did, to govern from the center and not the right. But if Brown can win in spite of his shoestring campaign, he won’t have to endure a similar initiation—he knows how Sacramento works. He stands a much better chance than Whitman of breaking the fiscal deadlock, and his cleanenergy program could restore California’s place as a vanguard of American industry. And if that’s not enough, there’s another consideration: A Brown administration, whatever its faults, would be infinitely more entertaining.

John B. Judis is a senior editor for The New Republic. This piece ran in the October 28, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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