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Two mayors make Jerry Brown look traditional

Two mayors make Jerry Brown look traditional
Maritally speaking, California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown is seemingly the most traditional of the top Democrats looking at a race for governor. In the three decades since he was last governor, the eccentric enigma known for his serial dates with pop stars and actresses morphed into a hipper Ozzie. His Harriet is Anne Gust, whom he married four years ago after a 15-year courtship. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
The mayor of Los Angeles has another girlfriend, we learned last week. Like a previous one, whose presence inspired the breakup of his marriage, she is a newscaster; she had a bikini shot on her website -- at least before it was blocked.

The actress wife of San Francisco's mayor has a bikini portrait on her website too, as well as a bunch of what once would have been described as come-hither shots. In one she is lying in a wispy, negligee-like dress on a sheet; in another she is topless, with a scarf trailing across her breasts.

If you have any doubt that California has spiraled off its axis, consider this: Among the top Democrats looking at a race for governor, the most traditional of the bunch is Jerry Brown.

Maritally speaking, that is. Somewhere in the course of the three decades since he was last governor, the eccentric enigma known for his serial dates with pop stars and actresses -- a jaunt to Africa with singer Linda Ronstadt made the cover of Newsweek -- morphed into a hipper Ozzie. His Harriet is Anne Gust, whom he married four years ago after a 15-year courtship. There is no indication that she has a website with bikini shots (or any other kind), but he has let it be known that she baked his mother's banana cake for his birthday.

The collision of public and private lives inevitably stirs passions from the passionate. Supporters of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spent last week defending his right to a private life, much as they forgave the affair that broke up his marriage and an earlier one that led to a lengthy separation from his wife. (The divorce is not yet final.)

Similarly, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's supporters argue that his affair with a woman who was not only his employee but also the wife of his then-campaign manager -- which occurred before his current marriage -- should have no bearing on his execution of his job, or on his qualifications for governor.

Opponents, of course, differ. At some point, the arguments give way to the question: Do voters care? Do they still covet tradition, or does anything go?

For some of them, if history is any judge, this matters.

Villaraigosa said last week that voters don't care about his private life and it would have no bearing on his decision whether to run for governor. He, like Brown, has yet to formally announce his plans.

Campaign observers note the distinction between acknowledging a new relationship while separated from his wife and the more difficult circumstance of admitting to having an affair while still living with her.

The problem for Villaraigosa is that the current situation may remind voters of the past, especially given that the occupation of the women was identical. "It reminds people of naughty behavior, if you like," said Shawn Rosenberg, a professor of political science and psychology at UC Irvine, who has studied voters. "It would have less of an impact if it didn't remind of other things."

More sensitive is the question of whether Villaraigosa's private complications are more damaging to him, because he is Latino, than they would be to another candidate -- say, Newsom. There, too, the answer may be yes.

In the last presidential campaign, political scientists carried out an experiment in which they told voters in a study group that Barack Obama and a similar-in-ideology white candidate each had had an affair. The result: Obama suffered a greater loss in popularity than the white candidate. The scientists surmised that word of the affair activated negative stereotypes about black men, particularly among white voters.

(The white candidate in question was John Edwards, the former vice presidential candidate who, unbeknownst to the researchers, really was having an affair at about the time the experiment was conducted.)

Rosenberg and others who study voters say the most insidious damage can be done subliminally, particularly when it comes to minority candidates. Voters tend to brush aside overtly biased accusations, hoping not to be associated with them. But a subtle cue can reverberate hugely and unpredictably.

"The question is, what's the stereotype of Villaraigosa that might be invoked?" he said.

Subliminally, too, Jerry Brown's marriage, planting him in the more traditional end of the scale, could give him affinity with voters who formerly thought of him as an odd duck -- and could blunt the efforts of his opponents to cast him that way.

"It's hard to paint a 70-year-old married man as a wild man," Rosenberg said.

Like most veterans of the Clinton White House, Chris Lehane has had a bracing immersion in things public and private. He argues that, in the end, much of this won't matter. Voters focus on what the political figure in question has done for them, he said, and that assessment carries more weight than the success or failings of their private life.

Hence, Bill Clinton left the White House a popular man, despite his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. George W. Bush left the White House wildly unpopular, although his fealty to his wife was never questioned.

Villaraigosa and Newsom -- all candidates, indeed -- have the chance to educate voters about the totality of their lives, said Lehane, a strategist based in San Francisco.

In the end, as always, voters will decide. In the circuitous calculus that they employ, will the candidates' struggles be seen as human frailty or a lack of personal discipline? Will their significant others' websites suggest comfort with strong and independent women or seem too suggestive?

"You're going to have positive and negative," Lehane said. "What you want to do is emphasize your positives and minimize your negatives -- and do the opposite to an opponent."

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Each Sunday, The Week examines one or more major stories and their implications. The Week is archived at latimes.com/theweek.
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