It might not have added up to much when Gov. Jerry Brown declined, during his recent trip to Mexico, to state an opinion on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Politicians refuse to answer questions all the time.
Yet the reason Brown gave for his demurral was unusually illuminating. He had consulted Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor, about the trade agreement, but since “we didn’t complete our conversation,” Brown said, “I can’t give you an assessment.”
This is how the third-term governor of the nation’s most populous state makes up his mind. In the most eclectic administration in California’s modern era, the decision-making apparatus is less a Cabinet than a cerebral orbit around Brown.
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“He likes to sort of blue sky with people ... just sort of see what’s cooking,” said Orville Schell, who wrote a book about Brown in 1978 and remains in contact with him. “I don’t know any other politician in the world who sort of free ranges as widely intellectually as he does.”
As Brown seeks another four-year term in office, associates estimate he maintains contact with at least 50 – and likely more than 100 – subject area-specific advisers whose degree of significance fluctuates depending on his interests at any given time.
In late 2011, when he was preparing to travel to China, Brown met privately with Schell, a China expert; Peter Schwartz, a business strategist; and Jack Ma, the e-commerce tycoon. Two years later, amid pressure to modify California’s prison realignment, which shifted responsibility for certain offenders from state prisons to counties, Brown traveled to Palo Alto to confer with Joan Petersilia and Robert Weisberg, two Stanford Law School professors, about the impact of the law.
This information-foraging is in addition to Brown’s consultations with a small group of senior officials inside government – chief among them his wife and special counsel, Anne Gust Brown – and several longtime associates outside of the administration, including Tom Quinn, a political adviser, and Lucie Gikovich, a former aide knowledgeable about Washington.
Many of his advisers are holdovers from Brown’s first two terms in office, from 1975 to 1983, and he has brought several of them back into the government. They include Diana Dooley, secretary of the Health and Human Services Agency; Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board; and Marty Morgenstern, the retired secretary of the state Labor and Workforce Development Agency.
Informally, Brown relies on pollster Jim Moore for public opinion advice and still meets with his former college roommate, retired federal Judge Frank Damrell Jr., though Damrell said their relationship is strictly personal.
The Brown administration is notoriously unstructured, and the governor’s official schedules are sparse. Many of the telephone calls Brown places to his advisers ring on weekends or nights.
Nichols recalls Brown dispatching her and Quinn to Michigan in the 1970s to discuss tailpipe emission standards with Henry Ford II, with the trip continuing on to Washington for meetings on nuclear power with Ralph Nader and the ecologist Barry Commoner.
“We were looking for information, perspective,” Nichols said.
“If you were the sort of person who relied on a military command structure to make decisions, you’d be unhappy working for Jerry Brown, who refuses to be boxed in,” Nichols said. “But I think people who have worked with him find that while he may not always observe the chain of command at all times, he has a very good way of extracting information when and where he needs it, and that he does make decisions, even if he doesn’t always make them on (the media’s) timetable.”
Brown, a Democrat, is running for re-election this year against Neel Kashkari, a little-known, underfunded Republican. Nichols said the only difference in Brown’s intellectual outreach in this administration from when he was governor before is that “he knows even more people.”
The Rolodex is in part a form of recreation for Brown. A governor tends to get his telephone calls returned, and Brown runs in intellectual circles. He met with the sociologist Jurgen Habermas last year and with the poet Homero Aridjis in Mexico in July, and he counted the late social critic Ivan Illich among his friends. Yet the subject of Brown’s inquires is most often state business.
“He obviously has lots of people that he calls, and he frequently will call several people on the same subject, because he loves to have that sense of what is the broadest analysis that can go into an issue,” said Kirk Marckwald, who oversaw Brown’s Office of Appropriate Technology when Brown was governor before.
Marckwald said Brown “wants to get it right.”
The process can be slow. NAFTA – the subject of Brown’s conversation with Shaiken – is now two decades old, and Brown has been criticized for reacting sluggishly to political controversies and flare-ups in the bureaucracy in his third term.
There is also no official list of the people Brown consults, and “the public has no idea who these people are,” said Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance and ethics expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
To Levinson, though, this concern is tempered by the breadth of opinions Brown solicits.
“The fact that there are a lot of people should be comforting,” she said. “No one person has a stranglehold over a specific issue.”
George Kieffer, a Los Angeles lawyer with whom Brown has discussed matters related to the University of California, where Kieffer is a regent, said: “I wouldn’t say I’m advising him so much as I’m giving my thoughts.”
Kieffer, president of the nonprofit foundation that pays for Brown’s housing in Sacramento, said Brown, unlike some governors, “doesn’t need to go through somebody to tell him how a substantive debate ought to be looked at given his worldview.”
“He doesn’t need the interpreter,” Kieffer said. “He wants the specific information.”
Last year, at the announcement of an agreement between San Jose State University and Silicon Valley’s Udacity Inc., to provide online courses, Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun said he first encountered the governor when he received “an email from a guy named Jerry Brown.”
Brown, who was heavily interested at the time in online education, said he approached Thrun after reading about him in The New York Times.
“I saw his name, and it looked interesting to me, so I just went online, found out his email and sent him an email,” Brown told reporters at the time.
The partnership sputtered and has since been abandoned, and Brown shifted his attentions elsewhere.
Brown has treated some of his advisers favorably. He named longtime aide Jim Humes to the 1st District Court of Appeal in 2012 and appointed him presiding justice of the court’s first division earlier this year.
But Brown does not appear overly burdened by loyalty. Steve Glazer, who managed Brown’s gubernatorial campaign and stayed with him afterward as an unpaid political adviser, was involved in the run-up to Proposition 30, Brown’s successful ballot initiative to raise taxes in 2012.
But when Glazer, who first helped Brown with a campaign as a student in 1978, ran for state Assembly this year, the California Labor Federation, an ally of Brown’s, formally blacklisted Glazer, and he was outpolled in the June primary election by Tim Sbranti, a leader in the political arm of the California Teachers Association. Brown did nothing to help Glazer in his campaign.
Asked about Brown’s lack of assistance, Glazer said people are “always confronted with tough choices on almost every issue.” He added, “I remain incredibly committed to his successful governorship.”
Shaiken, an expert on Latin America, called Brown “someone that has, I think, a natural curiosity.” He said he has known Brown since the 1990s, and he was primarily in Mexico with the governor to discuss immigration.
It was in Mexico City that Brown made his first substantial remarks on the recent crossing of thousands of unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border, after summoning bishops and other religious leaders to a private meeting at a men’s club to discuss the crisis.
Participating in that meeting, according to a list of attendees distributed by organizers, were Brown, the first lady, a scheduler and an interpreter – but also Shaiken.
He was classified under the heading “California government.”