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Jerry Brown redux: A second act in California politics

Attorney General candidate, Jerry Brown, holds his own support sign while touring the different caucus meetings at the California Democratic Convention, at the Sacramento Convention Center, Friday April 28, 2006. Sacramento Bee/ Brian Baer
Attorney General candidate, Jerry Brown, holds his own support sign while touring the different caucus meetings at the California Democratic Convention, at the Sacramento Convention Center, Friday April 28, 2006. Sacramento Bee/ Brian Baer Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

After losing his third bid for the White House in 1992, Jerry Brown’s political career appeared to be history – another provincial politician who couldn’t make it to the big leagues.

A movie of the era had a scene that ridiculed his status. In “Jade,” a 1995 crime thriller set in San Francisco, a fictional California governor presses a prosecutor to drop a sensitive case “unless you want as much of a future in this state as Jerry Brown.” The prosecutor responds, “Who’s Jerry Brown?”

However, Brown wasn’t ready to become a footnote to history. He was still relatively young and still had things to say, if he could find a platform to say it.

His platform turned out to be talk radio.

As “Jade” was being shown in theaters, a radio station in Berkeley, KPFA-FM, began airing Brown’s daily call-in talk show from a former warehouse near Oakland’s Jack London Square. It was his home, broadcast studio and headquarters for a political action organization he called “We the People,” which built on the populist themes of his third presidential campaign.

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In addition to airing locally, Brown’s program, which explored a wide variety of social and political issues, often with guests, was carried by left-leaning stations across the country.

Jacques Barzaghi, the former actor who had been Brown’s companion for two decades, also lived in the building, along with his sixth wife, Aisha, and there was always a cadre of young acolytes around to do the scut work of maintaining a political presence, even if it was somewhat unconventional.

walters
Dan Walters

After living a somewhat transient personal life, with bachelor pads in Sacramento, the Hollywood Hills and San Francisco, Brown had found a home in Oakland, San Francisco’s much-less-glamorous, troubled neighbor on the other side of the Bay Bridge.

Out of the media limelight, he was exposed to the grittier side of urban life and had acquired a girlfriend, Anne Gust, an executive of the Gap clothing store chain whom he later married.

After three years on radio, Brown moved back into active politics. One day in 1998, he signed off his radio show and walked downstairs to tell his young devotees and a few reporters that he would run for mayor of Oakland and work on revitalizing a city mostly known for poverty and a high crime rate.

It was still another new political beginning, more than three decades after he had begun his political career by a winning a seat on the Los Angeles Community College District board.

Brown could not, however, just wipe the slate clean. At one point in his announcement, he lamented a freeway that had cut through Oakland and divided the city along socioeconomic and racial lines.

“Didn’t you build that freeway?” a journalist who had covered his governorship asked. Somewhat sheepishly, Brown acknowledged that he had.

Brown pledged to work on urban revitalization – particularly Oakland’s declining downtown area – and on reducing crime and improving education. Oakland voters saw him as both a fresh face and as an experienced politician who could breathe new life into their city and he won 59 percent of the vote in overwhelming nine opponents.

His eight-year reign as Oakland’s mayor was generally successful, particularly in spurring downtown development and bringing new residents to the city. He tried, but failed, to gain more control over the city’s troubled school system and had to settle for founding charter schools, including one with a military ethos. Crime continued to plague the city, however.

Brown said later that dealing with the day-to-day problems of a city gave him a new appreciation of local government and such prosaic problems as fixing potholes. He was to carry that attitude into his second governorship, concentrating on practical issues rather than existential theories.

Brown’s mayoralty did have one embarrassing episode. After decades at his side, Barzaghi’s rather strange persona became a liability and in 2004, he was forced to resign from Brown’s staff, after police had responded a complaint of domestic violence at his home. By then, however, Gust had replaced Barzaghi as Brown’s top advisor and she and the mayor were married in 2005.

Being mayor whetted Brown’s appetite to resume his political career and the next step on his revival tour would be attorney general – a position, he often reminded acquaintances, that his father had held before becoming governor. He was strongly implying that he wanted to follow his father back to the top of California politics.

Brown easily bested other candidates to become the state’s top legal official in 2006 for one largely drama-free term. Its most interesting aspect was Brown’s stout legal defense of the state’s death penalty even though he had long been a capital punishment foe.

As a young former seminarian, he had beseeched his father to spare kidnaper and rapist Caryl Chessman in 1960 and as governor, he had vetoed a bill to restore the death penalty.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Brown sought the governorship again in 2010, 36 years after winning it the first time. With Anne Gust Brown deeply involved in planning and executing his campaign, he easily rolled over Republican businesswoman Meg Whitman even though she spent more than $100 million of her own money on her campaign.

In 2010, California was a much different state than it had been in 1974. Its population had doubled to more than 37 million, thanks to a surge of foreign immigration and high birth rates during the 1980s and 1990s.

It was no longer, as someone once said of the state, “Kansas on the left coast,” but rather home to people from dozens of racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds, thanks to that immigration surge. Very soon, Latinos would become California’s largest ethnic group.

The state’s economy had also undergone massive evolution, from domination by manufacturing to a post-industrial mélange of services, technology and communications, particularly after the end of the Cold War clobbered California’s aerospace industry in Southern California. What later became Silicon Valley was in its infancy during Brown’s first governorship.

Immigration and economic change had begotten massive social change, including the decline of the middle class and the emergence of a two-tier society – a mostly white and Asian overclass and a mostly black and Latino underclass. Soon, the federal government would reveal that California had the nation’s highest poverty rate.

The state government that Brown would head for the second time was also different because the state’s politics had also changed, from purple and sometimes red to deep blue.

Democrats had ascended to power at all levels and Republicans were becoming an endangered species. Public employee unions – which had been empowered by Brown’s signature on collective bargaining legislation in the 1970s – had replaced horse racing moguls, farmers, bankers and other business interests as the Capitol’s biggest players.

Brown had also changed, from the ambitious – probably too ambitious – and glamorous young politician of the 1970s to a much older, more cautious and more pragmatic political manager.

He still liked to dazzle audiences with Latin phrases and obscure bits of religious dogma carried over from his days in the Jesuit seminary a half-century earlier; he still sought national attention by making himself readily available for interviews by journalists from anywhere but California, and he still preached long-time causes such as environmental stewardship.

However, in his 2010 campaign for governor, he focused on repairing the state’s much-damaged finances and closing a multi-billion-dollar budget deficit he inherited from Republican predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger, thanks to a severe recession.

That focus signaled that Brown 2.0 would be more engaged in governance and, although he insisted otherwise, more interested in establishing a legacy that would compare favorably to that of his father and erase the “Governor Moonbeam” epithet that had been hung on him by Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko many years earlier.

Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series from Walters on Jerry Brown’s long political career.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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