Returning to the city where he announced his final campaign for president in 1992, Gov. Jerry Brown drifted into a downtown Marriott at nearly 2 a.m. on Tuesday and lingered over a club sandwich.
The city, he said, has “a little more glitz” than it did when he appeared on the steps of Independence Hall, lamenting “the whirlwind of decline” and “an unholy alliance of private greed and corrupt politics” in America as he touched off his campaign.
The run would end in failure, and Brown said he had not been back to Philadelphia since. But having resurrected his political career in the intervening decades, Brown flew east to address a Democratic National Convention on Wednesday for the first time in 24 years.
His appearance reflects the maturation of a governor who, once less effective at Democratic Party politics outside of California, has recaptured a measure of prominence at age 78 and in his final term. He is now – as he was a quarter-century ago – a politician seeking to shoulder liberal causes on a national stage, while drawing comparisons to Bernie Sanders, this year’s unsuccessful insurgent Democrat.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
“Sanders made it real clear that things aren’t right,” Brown said at an event hosted by The Washington Post on Tuesday. “The legacy of Sanders is a wake-up call.”
Like Sanders at the earliest stages of this year’s primary campaign, Brown in 1992 got “mocked a lot,” said Steve Barr, the charter school founder who worked for Brown during his brief tenure as the California Democratic Party chairman, from 1989 to 1991.
“He had to reinvent himself,” Barr said.
Following his defeat, Brown, governor before from 1975 to 1983, went on to become mayor of Oakland, state attorney general and governor again in 2011. Amid an economic recovery in heavily Democratic California, his public approval ratings have remained unusually high approaching the second half of his final term.
Now, Barr said at a reception at the National Constitution Center, “Jerry Brown, man, he’s the best governor in the country.”
Brown said he will spend much of the week promoting policies to address climate change, including in his convention speech. But he has also moved in recent months to broaden his agenda beyond climate and immigration to wages, terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
“There’s a lot of sleepwalking,” Brown said in an interview, “so I’m trying to wake a few people up.”
There’s a lot of sleepwalking, so I’m trying to wake a few people up.
Gov. Jerry Brown
Brown arrived in Philadelphia in a Suburban and a blue windbreaker on the night that Sanders urged his loyalists to shift their support to Hillary Clinton.
The speech came two months after Brown, noting similarities between Sanders’ insurgent campaign and his own presidential bids, suggested the Vermont senator was running a “scorched earth” race that could damage Clinton heading into the November election.
But as proceedings unfolded this week, Sanders and his appeal for party unity stood in contrast to the disagreeableness of Brown as he approached the last convention he addressed, in New York in 1992.
At the Democratic National Convention that year, Brown openly resisted efforts to project a unified front around Bill Clinton, the nominee. His supporters chanted “Let Jerry speak!” on the convention floor, and when he did – for 20 minutes – he did not once mention Clinton by name.
Instead, Brown channeled the same outrage that fueled Sanders for much of his campaign, urging Democrats to challenge “the basic fact of unchecked power and privilege” in America.
“We have to break the growing and dangerous tie-in of economic and political power,” Brown said at the time. “We have to save our souls as Democrats, return to our roots, listen to our ancestors and once again fight on the side of the people who pay the bills and fight the wars but never come to our reception.”
Like Sanders, Brown, who accepted no contribution greater than $100 in 1992 – but who has now amassed millions of dollars from large donors – said “we’re at the beginning of a long journey.” He vowed to make the themes of his campaign “part of the whole spirit of the Democratic Party.”
He has a better relationship with (Hillary Clinton) than he had with Bill.
Former San Francisco Supervisor Angela Alioto, chairwoman of Brown’s 1992 California campaign
Yet Brown largely failed at the time to move the Democratic Party platform or Bill Clinton to the left. He did not exact significant concessions from Clinton such as Sanders did this year, including on health care and education and the inclusion of a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage in the party platform.
Brown, while acknowledging that “Bernie got a hell of a lot more votes than I did,” endorsed Hillary Clinton in May, and many of his senior staffers have worked for Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton’s campaigns. In an election year marked by anti-establishment sentiment, he said Clinton must “embrace the elements of anti-establishment, while providing the dignity and leadership that we expect of a presidential candidate.”
He said he trusts Bill and Hillary Clinton “given their experience.” He said they have “been through the wars.”
Brown’s relationship with the Clintons was far worse in the 1990s. Then-San Francisco Supervisor Angela Alioto, chairwoman of Brown’s 1992 California campaign, said Brown and Bill Clinton, who feuded bitterly, were “blasting each other back and forth in their private rooms” at the convention.
Not only did Brown finish the campaign with far fewer supporters than Sanders – and less leverage at the nominating convention – there were “just such different personalities between Bernie and Jerry,” Alioto said. “It’s a world of difference. … We’ve seen these speeches with Bernie and Hillary together being totally united that I know you wouldn’t have seen in ’92.”
Still, Alioto said, Brown’s campaign garnered outsized media coverage, invigorated non-establishment Democrats and focused attention, however incrementally, on poverty and money in politics.
“Jerry will always have an impact,” she said. “People really understand the visionary part of Jerry’s brain.”
Since returning to the governor’s office in 2011, Brown has gained international attention for his promotion of policies to address climate change. While struggling at home to extend California’s cap-and-trade program, in which polluters pay to offset carbon emissions, he has signed more than 125 subnational jurisdictions onto a nonbinding pact to reduce emissions around the world.
“I think Jerry has a deep desire to make a contribution,” Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist, said one morning at the hotel where the California delegation to the convention is staying. “I think it’s a personal thing. I mean, I’m sure it’s an ambition, but I think it’s deeper than that. I think he really understands the value, and … I think he realizes California has to be a leader on this.”
For most of his third term and the first year of his fourth, Brown largely constrained his out-of-state ambassadorship to issues of the environment and, to a lesser degree, immigration. Last year, Brown said of nuclear weapons that “when you’re governor, you don’t have to talk about this international stuff.”
Last time I was here I declared my candidacy right down the street ... because this is where liberty was first sought, and my campaign was to take back America.
Gov. Jerry Brown
But by December, influenced in part by the thinking of the French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Brown began to draw comparisons between nuclear and climate threats. During the international climate talks in Paris that month, he urged the ingenuity to “imagine the horrors that might unfold, and then be able to take steps to prevent it, delay it, minimize it.”
Brown, who met with advisers in a restaurant off the hotel lobby until just before 3 a.m., said Tuesday that climate change “is not getting anywhere near the attention that it needs to get the job done.”
But he said the threat of nuclear weapons used in regional conflicts or by terrorists is “as dangerous now as it’s ever been … and yet, almost nobody is noticing that.”
When Brown endorsed Clinton, Sanders dismissed him as part of the “Democratic establishment.” The fourth-term governor, like many chief executives, has become more compromising than he was as a presidential candidate, disappointing some liberal activists within the party. Most significantly, Brown has been heckled for declining to ban hydraulic fracturing, a controversial form of oil extraction.
Heidi Harmon, a Sanders delegate from San Luis Obispo who ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly in 2014, said Brown reflects a moderate “track or the moment that the Democratic Part is in.”
“While I get being moderate and compromising and all those things … it really is sort of an all or nothing moment in terms of fossil fuel extraction,” she said. “You know, is he the worst? No, but could we do better? Yeah, I think.”
On other issues festering in Philadelphia, including trade, Brown has maintained a distance that a presidential candidate could not. Brown, who opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement during his 1992 campaign, later called it the “principal foundation” of expanding California-Mexico trade. But he has declined to provide an updated assessment of the pact.
Nor has Brown stated a position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, a deal infuriating to many Sanders supporters.
“I’m not articulating my position on that,” he said, “out of deference to the president.”
Brown called Sanders “extraordinarily graceful” in his exit from the campaign. He was asked at The Washington Post event if he thought at any moment in the past two years that he should have run again for president.
“No, I never thought I should run again. But do I like running for president? Yes. Do I think I could be a good president? Yes.”