At 72, California gubernatorial candidate is the same old Jerry Brown

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010; C01

SACRAMENTO -- Hate to break this to you: Time's whizzing by. You're getting older.

Need proof? Brace yourself.

Jerry Brown is 72 years old.

Yes, that Jerry Brown. The endless-summer wonder boy who dated Linda Ronstadt many moons over blue bayous ago. The bliss-following political son who was sooo California cool -- back when California really was the empire of the laid-back, and fiscally solvent at that.

These days California is feeling its age. Sure, the state's still got Google and the movies, but unemployment is over 12 percent -- 3 percentage points higher than the national average. Troubled cities are shortening the school year because of a stubborn budget crisis. The state ranks fourth in foreclosure rates. When Californians talk about being underwater, they're referring to their mortgages, not afternoon dips off Malibu. Things are so bad they've even found asbestos in the official state rock.

Enter Jerry Brown, the Sequel. Episode Number . . . well, we've lost count. The man who was the youngest California governor in the 20th century is trying to become the oldest governor in the state's history now that we've fast-forwarded into the 21st century. In this age of anti-incumbency rage and the demonizing of career politicians, Brown -- ever counterintuitive -- is emphasizing his four decades of public service, stretching through two terms as governor, eight years as mayor of Oakland and to his current perch as the state attorney general. Oh, and the three presidential bids.

A man with "insider's knowledge and an outsider's mind" is how he describes himself. "Someone at my stage in life wants to apply all the skill I have to solving a problem," he says. "It's almost a natural evolution to come back and try to fix things at this time of serious crisis."

He saunters up -- sans entourage -- for coffee one sunny afternoon at a little place called Chocolate Fish a couple of blocks from the state capitol building where his abstract, slightly dazed official portrait hangs, memorializing two terms as governor more than a quarter-century ago. Brown is balding now, shaving short the gray that's left behind his ears -- no comb-over for him. He's trim and lanky, folding into a low-slung chair with only minimal signs of discomfort.

Staying in shape isn't without hazards. Early last month, while running in the Oakland Hills, Brown chanced upon veteran KCBS Radio reporter Doug Sovern and compared the tactics of his Republican opponent, Meg Whitman, to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. Brown has said he thought they were off the record, though Sovern has undercut that argument by writing that other joggers were listening in. Once Sovern posted the remark on his blog on June 9, the former governor and his staff had to sprint into damage control mode and issue apologies to offended Jewish voters.

Always unpredictable

Long before lapsing into Nazi metaphor, Brown scared off all the serious Democratic opposition and waltzed through his primary, setting up a November showdown with Whitman, the bazillionaire and former eBay chief executive. Recent polls have shown Whitman with a small lead or none at all. She is burning through millions on attack ads; Brown has spent precisely nothing on advertising.

He's not much into speechifying, either. Rallies? Not interested. At times, his campaign feels like a rumor. "There are a lot of anxious Democrats worrying Jerry's not doing enough," says Bill Carrick, a seen-it-all California Democratic strategist. University of California, Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain says Brown is conducting his campaign "just the way you would expect Jerry Brown to conduct it: inexplicably and unpredictably."

After the waiter at Chocolate Fish comes over with cappuccinos on the house, Brown harrumphs: "I have no idea when my next event is." (Neither does his staff. Five days pass before they confirm that he'll even make a public appearance.)

In Brown's estimation, rallies and photo ops are things of the past. In this way the senior citizen is reflecting a reality of modern politics in California, a state so vast that retail politics -- the actual shaking of actual hands -- was long ago supplanted by media-driven campaigning geared toward getting candidates onto television in far-flung media markets. He mocks Whitman for "posing in front of Harley-Davidsons" two days before. (Never mind that it was actually a Yamaha dealership.)

The headlines scream about California's massive budget deficit -- $19 billion and counting -- police layoffs, furloughed state workers. One wonders how Brown would solve the problems plaguing a state economy so mammoth that it would rank in the top 10 in the world if it were a country?

"Patiently," says the student of Buddhism, outlining his economic plan in a single word.

That's it?

"With a lot of collaboration," he adds. "It's just a matter of working through the process to align spending and revenue."

Does this mean he'll cut services?

"Sure it means cuts," he says.

Cut what?

"You have to look everywhere," he says.

He insists he won't make cuts or raise taxes without a vote of the people. Of course, California already has a blizzard of votes on citizen initiatives -- a system that is frequently criticized as out of control and responsible for some of the state's budget woes. Could asking voters to sign off on cuts add to the chaos?

"You tell me a lesser problem," he says, gruffly.

A few moments later he goes all Government 101 -- but not any more specific. The problem, he says, is that California waits too late to start working on its budget. If he's elected, he wants to start the budget process even before he's inaugurated. His detractors have taken a certain delight in posting a clip of him talking on CNBC recently. When the anchor presses him for details about his economic plan, he says: "The process is the plan."

Revolutionary ideas

Lately, Brown's been communing, through a history tome, with his elders, namely Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. "Hamilton was considerably younger than Jefferson," says Brown, whose opponent, Whitman, happens to be 19 years younger.

Brown sees California's current crisis "as analogous to the Federalist period when states debated what kind of country this would be." He envisions literally "re-founding" California if he is elected governor. He wants to call in the entire legislature -- a dysfunctional bunch, if there ever was one, that can't seem to pass a budget -- for marathon sit-downs to discuss "what kind of state California should be."

"I'm prepared to conduct very lengthy sessions; to do that day after day," he says. "There's never been a governor-legislature engagement that went on for weeks and months, and was conducted in a way that shaped up the debate."

Debating -- and debating and debating and debating -- is the kind of campaigning Brown does want to do. He's been trying to goad Whitman into 10 town-hall-style debates; she has committed to only one more formal debate.

On the morning of the interview at Chocolate Fish, Brown goes on the radio and invites Whitman to his house for tea to discuss debate schedules. Whitman fires back through a spokeswoman. "Meg will pass on Governor Brown's gracious invitation to visit his Oakland Hills mansion," spokeswoman Sarah Pompei says. "She doesn't want to distract Brown on the off chance that he actually decides to come up with some policy proposals." Brown is soon back at it, inviting Whitman to a barbecue at his house. And so it goes.

Ken Khachigian, a prominent Los Angeles lawyer and Republican strategist who served as chief speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, thinks Brown tripped himself up with the cheeky invitations. "People are looking for meat and potatoes and he's still serving up quiche and organic tomatoes," Khachigian says. "The tea invite is the kind of behavior that ties a red ribbon around the claim that Jerry can be very flaky and erratic."

Whitman's people are attempting some image-bending of their own by calling the populist's pad a mansion. The former governor lavishly emphasizes his own frugality while making much of Whitman's wealth -- she has already spent more than $90 million, and the political wags here expect her to break all existing campaign spending records for non-presidential elections. (Brown's campaign has raised about $23 million.) But Brown isn't exactly a pauper. His $1.8 million home is said to have a sauna, wine cellar and sweeping views of San Francisco Bay. (And it's considerably less crowded than the communal arrangement at Brown's former loft in Oakland, where he hosted yoga classes and shared living space with various roomies, including a recovering drug addict, a Buddhist monk, an organic-cafe owner and a renowned philosopher.)

Brown will only barely admit that he's moved on up. "Is that expensive?" says Brown, who referred on KGO Radio to his home as "a modest little tree house."

"Have you priced the real estate market?" he continued. "I'd say it's the essence of frugality. It's our dream house. I think my money is more secure there than in any other investments. I have been frugal and I have saved and it becomes relatively easy to have a nice home."

As further evidence of his frugality, Brown ticks off a list of apartments where he has lived over the years.

"I lived downtown," he says. "There were murders!" He lists some of his street-cred addresses, complete with body counts: "Third and Harrison -- two murders. Twenty-seventh and Telegraph -- nine murders."

On his campaign Web site, Brown posts a few lines about how being California's "top cop" didn't keep him from having two tires stolen from his car. He parked at the top of his driveway, rather than in a more secure location, so he wouldn't have to walk as far to the door. "That turned out to be an error," he says.

Brown's overall finances are unclear. He declines in the interview to reveal his net worth. The Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters has written that Brown's family was enriched by lucre that his pop, the former governor Pat Brown, amassed through oil dealings with the Indonesians. But it has never been revealed whether Jerry Brown got any cut of the action, whether at the time or as an inheritance. He's also married to a successful businesswoman -- Anne Gust, a former chief administrative and compliance officer for the Gap.

What's certain is that Brown can lay legitimate claim to the title of California's most flamboyant tightwad. His staff proudly points out that he flies the discount airline Southwest, and he is calling for more austerity in the governor's office and state government. Although Whitman has hired high-powered and expensive campaign help, such as mega-consultant Mike Murphy, Brown presides over a low-budget campaign managed by a city councilman from the small suburban enclave of Orinda. His press spokesman, Sterling Clifford, was last seen damage-controlling disgraced Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon about the federal probe that led to her corruption conviction.

Brown's been flogging his frugality for decades. When he was governor, he's happy to remind anyone who's listening, he said no thank you to living in the governor's mansion and rented an apartment instead. He also canceled the lease for the state plane. Gray Davis -- who served as chief of staff while Brown was governor and later became governor himself -- remembers once telling his boss that he'd asked someone to repair a hole in the governor's rug. Brown would have none of it.

" 'Do you know that hole has probably saved the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars?' " Davis remembers Brown telling him. Brown reasoned that no one could come into the office and ask for too much money for their projects when there was a hole in the rug, Davis says.

"He understands the power of moral leverage," says Davis, now a lawyer in Los Angeles.

Waxing philosophical

Davis, as much as anyone, was able to observe Brown's Socratic rhetorical style up close, a discursive habit that sometimes confuses his audiences. One memorable time, Davis says, Brown jumped into a heated discussion about development around Lake Tahoe, an environmental jewel that straddles California and Nevada. "He said, 'Wait a minute. We have a bigger National Guard. We'll take 'em by surprise. We'll get all the gaming revenue!' "

In moments like this, Brown is workshopping ideas, sometimes espousing positions absolutely opposite of his intentions. Afterward, "Jerry doesn't say, 'Oh, I was kidding,' " Davis says.

Such flourishes are probably responsible for the eternal quality of Brown's nickname, "Governor Moonbeam," coined by the columnist Mike Royko in the 1970s. Brown says the nickname came about because he was proposing using a satellite for communications, saving the state the cost of sending workers from one end of California to another for meetings. The nickname became synonymous with eccentricity, and it stuck, even after Royko himself lamented that it was nothing more than an "idiotic, damn-fool, meaningless, throw-away line."

"Moonbeam" has become so embedded in California's cultural vocabulary that Brown now uses it himself, though he spins it as representing "innovation, creativity, not being status-quo-conventional-politics-as-usual."

His detractors want to spin other cultural legacies against him. While Brown was governor, the legendary punk band Dead Kennedys released the now-classic song "California Über Alles," which skewered him as a kind of hippie fascist.

"I am Governor Jerry Brown/My aura smiles/And never frowns . . . I will be Fuhrer one day/I will command all of you/Your kids will meditate in school . . . Zen fascists will control you/100% natural/You will jog for the master race/And always wear the happy face."

Since Brown's primary victory, Jello Biafra -- the song's co-author and Dead Kennedys lead singer -- says he's been contacted by "right-wingers" who think the song is some kind of pro-Meg-Whitman anthem. Biafra is no fan of Republicans or Democrats, but figures Brown would be a better choice than the former eBay exec, whom he calls "Miss Evil-Bay."

"I realized early on that maybe I'd misfired and exaggerated," Biafra says.

Biafra has met Brown a few times over the years, even hanging at the former governor's Oakland loft with Brown and filmmaker Michael Moore. "I explained to him how the song evolved," Biafra says. "I don't think he was terribly pleased."

Just call it a comeback

At another downtown Oakland hipster space, Jerry Brown plots his comeback. There is no sign out front, no hint that a campaign is headquartered inside. Brown's campaign manager, Steve Glazer, props a moccasin-style shoe with no socks against a table and praises his boss as a man who "doesn't need to have handlers. He doesn't need policy ghostwriters. He doesn't need speechwriters."

Brown's raspy voice booms from the loft above and echoes around the exposed brick walls.

"This is the spark," Brown can be heard saying from on high.

Then he's clomping down the stairs, all grumbles and impatience.

"You ready, babe?" he calls out to his wife, who stammers a yes.

"Well, hurry up."

It's Friday before the Fourth of July weekend. There will be parades tomorrow and crowds, crowds of voters. Brown is headed in the opposite direction. He'll escape to the river for a couple of days off.

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