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Jerry Brown's return to Washington lacks long-ago presidential ambition

Published: Monday, Feb. 27, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 4, 2012 - 12:27 pm

WASHINGTON – Gov. Jerry Brown, whose ambition to be president faded years ago, went running one recent morning along the National Mall.

The affliction known as Potomac Fever, he later acknowledged, can never be cured. But he said his longing for the higher office he sought three times is "in remission."

Back in Washington this weekend for the National Governors Association's winter meeting for the first time since he was governor before, the 73-year-old Democrat is wandering in and out of meetings and is frequently late.

But he is socializing with other governors, working rooms he once ignored.

"I'm trying to understand these governors," Brown said, "and work with them."

No longer is Brown capitalizing on the national stage to warn of taxpayer unrest or to promote "planetary realism," as he did when he was last governor, from 1975 to 1983. For three days in Washington, the former "Governor Moonbeam" has appeared almost to fit in.

"He's the once and future governor," Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, said Sunday. "He's a lot of fun."

Frustrated for a year by Republican opposition to his tax proposals in Sacramento, Brown said he views the nation's governors as a fraternity that "might promote collaboration in a very poisonous partisan environment."

"I'm not sure," he said, "but as I sit there, they're all very congenial."

For Brown, the congeniality is not without effort.

"What time is the lunch?" Brown asked a senior adviser, Nancy McFadden, after a Sunday morning appearance with Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer on NBC's "Meet the Press." The television reporters who had waited for Brewer outside the studio were already gone.

"11:30," McFadden said.

"We'll be there at 11:15 to start shaking hands, start working the room," Brown said before climbing into a car.

Brown did not attend last year's winter meeting of governors, and he avoided such gatherings early in his first term, in the 1970s. When he did attend meetings, it was often in conjunction with political appearances, and his colleagues sometimes resented him for it.

If his absence last year was resented, no governor said so. Given the state of California's budget crisis, said Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, the Republican chairman of the National Governors Association, "I kind of understand why he didn't come."

This year, governors and other state officials crowded around Brown's table Friday night after he spoke at a private dinner for the Democratic Governors Association. At a luncheon the next day at a JW Marriott, the conference hotel, Brown was the last to leave. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear lingered with him at the back of the room.

It is helpful to Brown's relationship with other governors that his interests are more provincial than they were when he was governor before. When he arrived in Washington this year, Brown said his primary reason was to lobby the Obama administration for authorization to enact further cuts to Medi-Cal, part of the federal Medicaid program, and to exempt California from provisions of the No Child Left Behind law.

The Obama administration recently denied California's bid to charge co-payments for prescription drugs, hospital visits and other services.

After meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Sunday, Brown suggested negotiations are ongoing.

"I think there's a willingness to work together," he said, "and exactly what that will result in will require more meetings."

Other governors are seeking similar relief. The subject arose during a private meeting on Friday between governors and President Barack Obama, governors said.

Talking to each other in the hotel lobbies as Brown walked by, governors and other attendees chuckled about Brown's address at the Democratic Governors Association dinner – it was a lighthearted reflection on his family's political history, they said – complimented his physical fitness and remarked on the small size of his entourage.

Brown, who is staying at the home of Lucie Gikovich, a former aide, was accompanied by McFadden, first lady Anne Gust Brown and press secretary Gil Duran.

Out of public view, Brown raised money for his November ballot initiative that would raise the state sales tax and income taxes on California's highest earners. He said he did not know how much money he raised at a private fundraiser Thursday at the home of Washington lobbyist Tony Podesta, but he downplayed the event, describing it as "an opportunity for people to come together and talk a little bit."

He also met privately with labor representatives, including Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union.

Brown attended a black-tie dinner with other governors at the White House on Sunday night, and the governors plan to meet with Obama again today. Brown is scheduled to return to Sacramento on Tuesday, after meeting with California's congressional delegation late this afternoon.

Brown did not attend the association's opening news conference. He arrived in the hotel lobby Saturday as groups of reporters surrounded Brewer and chased New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

When Brown suggested to his smaller audience that the alternative to government investment in transportation is "carts, you know, pulled by donkeys or something," a photographer said, "I love this guy."

On Sunday, when a Washington reporter insisted that California was going bankrupt, he asked her, "Are you a Moonie, by any chance?"

Mostly, however, Brown left the microphone to others. When a group of governors assembled Friday to address reporters outside the White House, Brown stood restlessly at the back of the group.

Interested in promoting Chinese investment in California, he was on his way to visit Chinese Ambassador Zhang Yesui, and he had arranged for a briefing on China in a windowless conference room at the State Department that afternoon.

He wasn't among the speakers, and he left the White House grounds quickly through the northwest gate.

But he told the few reporters following him, "I don't want to be late for my lunch."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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