Once a crusader against big money, Gov. Brown is collecting millions

Gov. Brown built his career crusading against big money in politics. Now, that fight comes with a qualifier

Twenty years ago, one of the first callers to Jerry Brown's radio show, "We the People," asked whether campaign money had influenced him as governor in the 1970s and '80s.

"You bet I was influenced," he said. "You think you can collect $10 million or $20 million and not let it affect your judgment? Your behavior is influenced, and that is the vice that is destroying us.

"People who work in a fish factory," he added tartly, "don't realize they stink."

Brown, 76, built his career crusading against big money in politics. In his first run for governor, in 1974, he refused donations from lobbyists and co-authored a ballot measure that put California's landmark Political Reform Act on the books, banning direct contributions from lobbyists and requiring detailed disclosure of other donations.

A generation later, campaigning for president in 1992, Brown challenged Democratic rival Bill Clinton to join him in capping donations at $100.

These days, as he seeks a fourth and final term as governor, Brown is back in the fish factory, as it were, collecting millions of dollars from donors with a stake in decisions he makes as governor.

Brown and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, have asked donors to give his campaign $54,400, the legal maximum, and to donate to the state Democratic Party, which has no contribution limits.

The party, for its part, has transferred more than $4.7 million — nearly 20% of the governor's reelection money. No other candidate in the state's last four gubernatorial contests has received as much money from a party.

At the same time, Brown has raised more than $10 million in a fund he uses to promote Propositions 1 and 2 on next week's ballot. Much of that money has come in checks of $100,000 or more, from such sources as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Philip Morris USA Inc., labor unions and construction contractors.

Whatever the source of his money, Brown has vowed to save much of it for potential ballot-measure fights and other needs — a hedge against "whatever infirmities lame-duck governors" might suffer.

Brown said that, although there was "definite truth" in his radio commentary about campaign money's effect on his judgment, it's also true that it takes a lot of money to run important campaigns.

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Oil companies, the California Teachers Assn., the news media, his wife and what he eats for breakfast all sway his decisions, Brown said: "It's all a hot catenation of forces and influences that shape decision-making in government."

During Brown's 1974 run for governor, the political abuses of the Watergate scandal were consuming the Nixon White House. Brown's push for the Political Reform Act fit the era and helped the 36-year-old defeat more seasoned Democratic rivals in the primary.

Four years later, Brown raised large sums of special-interest money for his reelection. And in 1989, as state Democratic chairman, he acknowledged soliciting as many lobbyists as he could for donations to the party from their clients.

By 1992, running against Clinton, Brown was again vowing to purge politics of big money, a message that helped him win a handful of primaries.

"I have had my nose rubbed in the stench," he told the New York Times then.

Today, Brown and his wife spend time raising money at state Democratic headquarters in Sacramento. On his way into a recent wine-and-cheese reception for donors at the party office, Brown said there was nothing unusual about his fundraising, because everyone in California has a stake in state government.

"The system is: Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent, including by the newspaper publishers, to have representatives advocate for them in the state Capitol," Brown said.

Last year, Brown paid a visit to the Sacramento board room of the State Council of Laborers, a union that represents construction workers.

"He sat down with our principals and asked if we could financially assist him for his reelection campaign," said Jose Mejia, director of the Laborers' political action committee.

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In December, the Laborers gave $27,200 to Brown's campaign on the same day it gave $250,000 to the party.

Scott Wetch, a lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said he met last year at party headquarters with Gust Brown, a former senior executive at the Gap Inc. clothing company, and Angie Tate, the chief fundraiser for both Brown and the state party.

"They just wanted to know the leaders of IBEW, because they were going to call them about fundraising," Wetch said.

In December, the State Assn. of Electrical Workers, affiliated with IBEW, made donations to Brown's campaign that reached the legal cap of $54,400 on the same day that the group gave $471,600 to the party.

Gust Brown and Tate also met with lobbyists for the Wine Institute, a major Brown donor, and California Business Properties Assn., which represents shopping-center and high-rise owners. And they dropped by the office of Rex Frazier, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, a group that lobbies for seven major insurance companies.

"They outlined the governor's upcoming reelection campaign and the need for resources," said Frazier, who oversees three lobbyists.

The insurance group and its seven companies have donated $272,000 to Brown's campaign, $350,000 to the state party and $50,000 to the governor's ballot measure fund.

Brown has raised more than $25 million for his campaign. A Brown spokesman and John Burton, the state Democratic chairman, both declined to say how much the governor has raised for the party.

Asked why the party gave the $4.7 million to Brown's campaign, Burton said the governor's success helps the entire Democratic slate.

"That's what we're in business for," Burton said.

The party moved much of the money to Brown after it was already clear he was unlikely to need it to win reelection. Brown has raised three times as much as his Republican challenger, former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari, who has trailed badly in every public opinion poll.

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Brown has run no TV spots asking voters to reelect him, advertising instead for Proposition 1, a water bond measure, and Proposition 2, which would bolster the state's rainy-day fund.

Derek Cressman, a longtime advocate of tighter campaign finance rules, said Brown's fundraising practices were reminiscent of Clinton's controversial pursuit of "soft money" donations during his White House years.

Although legal, Cressman said, it exposes loopholes in state fundraising limits set by a 2000 ballot measure authored by Burton when he was legislative leader.

"You're in essence just creating a giant pot of money and allowing two political leaders, Jerry Brown and John Burton, who've known each other for decades and trust each other, to figure out how to spend that money," Cressman said.

A spokesman said Burton alone decides how to spend the state party's money, regardless of who raised it.

Brown campaign spokesman Dan Newman said the governor "very scrupulously and carefully follows the rules."

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FOR THE RECORD

Oct. 31, 9:35 a.m.: Earlier versions of this post identified a person in a photo caption as Anne Gust Brown, Gov. Jerry Brown's wife. The person is Nancy McFadden, an aide to Brown. The caption also stated incorrectly that McFadden had asked for donations to the Brown campaign and the state Democratic Party.

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com
Twitter: @finneganLAT

ben.welsh@latimes.com
Twitter: @palewire

Times staff writer Chris Megerian in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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