Brimming With Fresh Dreams : Jerry Brown Seeks a Small Job but He’s Thinking Big
He gloried in the success and celebrity of politics as few have. They called him visionary and said he would blaze a route to the future. But on his way, the romance with voters crashed on the rocks. He was defeated, his legacy was left to wither into a stale caricature. Flaky, they called him. And this was all before he was even 45.
Now brimming with fresh dreams and full of his old exuberance, Jerry Brown has welcomed himself back into politics.
The former two-term governor and two-time Democratic presidential candidate is running for, of all things, chairman of California’s Democratic Party.
“Some people, ahhhh, they’re worried. Brown is back!” he said with a grin.
“I guess I feel a little bit like Typhoid Mary. I walk in and people want to step back a little. Ohhhh boy, it’s going to be Hayden, and Bird, Willie Brown, death penalty, Cesar Chavez, Farm Workers. Whewww!”
There was no formal announcement or ribbon cutting. No one around him knows when his latest campaign started exactly. “It just began,” his spokesman said. But now Edmund G. Brown Jr., at age 50, is at full throttle in pursuit of political redemption. And by most accounts he is happier than he has been for years.
The party chairman’s job has been small. But Brown is thinking big.
He is campaigning virtually door-to-door among the 2,800 or so party delegates who will elect a new chairman to a four-year term next February at the state Democratic Party convention. A chunk of 600 of these delegates will be chosen at neighborhood caucuses throughout the state today and Brown has been seeking their support for more than a month now.
With the help of a new wave of California political reforms, Brown is promising Democrats a colossal expansion of party power in the state. He is talking about adding tens of thousands of new Democrats to the voter rolls, about creating the largest base of citizen-contributors in the history of politics, about reshaping the party into something resembling an old-fashioned political club where everyone can get involved and enjoy themselves and discover a purpose to politics.
And not incidentally these days, Brown has in mind overcoming his own laughable stereotype and proving that he can set out a straightforward goal and accomplish it straightforwardly.
Aiming for Power
In other words, denied the power of high office, Brown is setting about making his mark by transforming a low office into a position of power, helped with a little boost from the reformers.
Sound vaguely familiar? Yes, Brown did the same thing almost 20 years ago in advancing his career.
The son of former two-term Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr., was elected governor twice--in 1974 and 1978. The first time he employed the then-obscure office of secretary of state to capitalize on the campaign finance reform initiative known as Proposition 9 to win the governorship. He ran unsuccessfully, although colorfully, for President in 1976 and 1980. History will record that he was the original “new ideas” Democrat, and for a while he was one of the most talked about and popular politicians in the nation.
All the fireworks fizzled in 1982 when Brown was beaten for the U.S. Senate by Pete Wilson, a hard-working but staid Republican.
In the years since, Brown has pursued a quixotic search for self-awareness. He studied Zen Buddhism under a master in Japan, worked for three weeks in the mission of Mother Teresa caring for the dying of Calcutta, visited Mexico and the Soviet Union and Bangladesh.
“The search for perspective,” he calls it. “And I recommend it to anyone who has the chance.”
He told himself and many others that he would write a meaningful book on public policy. It remains unfinished.
All along, though, Brown let it be known that he was watching California out of the corner of his eye for a chance to get back into elective politics.
Associates kept trying to entice him. Run for mayor of Los Angeles, they suggested. Or make another try for the U.S. Senate.
Few could have imagined that he would instead set his sights on the chairmanship of the state Democratic Party.
After all, Brown never showed anything but contempt for the party apparatus. It was a toothless vestige of 19th-Century machine politics, as he saw it. And this was the shining age of media politics, and California was the vortex. Jerry Brown was its prized product.
Not Bound by Convention
But Brown, by his own description, is never bound by convention. Even when it’s his own.
“My greatest strength is envisioning what hasn’t been and bringing it about, " he said the other day as he campaigned by sedan across Southern California. He traveled to Hawthorne where he met grass-roots party activists for coffee and later was driven by an aide to a Los Angeles back-yard barbecue meeting of members of the Los Angeles County Democratic Central Committee.
For a man who romanced rock star Linda Ronstadt, who trailed an entourage, who once enlisted movie stylist Francis Ford Coppola as a campaign media assistant, this is a true back-to-basics course in politics.
“This is different stuff. This is not wholesale politics. It’s retail. It’s vote by vote,” Brown said.
That is today’s party. The Democratic Party he envisions for tomorrow is much different.
“No one is going to dispute this fact: If I’m elected chairman, we’re going to have the most exciting Democratic Party in the country?” he says by way of challenging his audiences.
Looks at History
He asks Democrats to consider history. Turn-of-the-century reformers led by Hiram Johnson gutted the power of the political parties in California in the name of a citizen revolt against entrenched special interests. Demise of the parties was helped along by advances in mass media and communications technology.
Along with withering of the parties, Brown noted, has been a decline in voter participation to near-record lows.
“We cannot have a democracy worthy of the name when so few people give their consent to governing,” he said.
In the 1950s, activists tried to make up for the moribund condition of the parties with the rise of political clubs throughout the state. For instance, Alan Cranston, now California’s senior U.S. senator, was instrumental in the formation of the CDC, or California Democratic Council, a popular and influential political club for many years.
These days, clubs, too, have wained in prestige and power. Successful politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, typically go around the parties and the clubs to reach voters. That means essentially that all important politicians have their own networks, which do the tasks of the parties--the fund-raising, the telephone banks, organizing volunteers and door-to-door canvassing.
Brown talks of rekindling the spirit of the club era of the 1950s. To that he would add high-tech telecommunications and direct mail “marketing” techniques to build registration and expand manifold the Democratic base of small contributors. There are 7 million Democrats in California. Brown figures that if one out of 10, or even one out of 20, can be tapped for $25, the Democratic Party would suddenly be a massive force to contend with.
Reforms Are at Work
Wholly apart from Jerry Brown, reforms are at work to make parties stronger.
New voter-passed limits on contributions for candidates for state office mean that politicians will be hungrier than ever for outside help. Parties apparently will be able to raise large sums of cash outside the individual limits for such things as voter registration. The parties also will be able to actively endorse and assist candidates in primary elections for the first time.
Money is one big reason Democratic legislative leaders, including Assembly Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco and Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti of Los Angeles, are supporting the former governor. He is a proven fund-raiser and a star-quality commodity on the fund-raising circuit.
“Remember,” one legislative aide said, “shaking Jerry Brown’s hand is still the kind of thing people rush to put in their diaries.”
Other Democrats are decidedly split over Brown and his candidacy, if not his dreams for the party.
Some party leaders are convinced that Brown is just the man to accomplish the other goal of enlarging the party. Better than anyone else, they believe, Brown can inspire and enlist Latinos and blacks and the poor. And he appeals strongly to organized labor and environmentalists.
‘A Shot in the Arm’
“He will give the party a shot in the arm,” Speaker Brown said.
“He’ll give Democracy a shot in the arm,” Sen. Cranston enthused.
“The Democratic Party desperately needs a theoretician . . . a person who can offer a rationale for being a Democrat,” said state Controller Gray Davis, a former chief of staff to the ex-governor.
Public opinion polls are inconclusive. The percentage who say they are favorably impressed by Brown seems to be on the increase, but he has a long way to go. Last year, the California Poll of Mervin Field found that 44% of California voters felt that he would do a good to excellent job if he held office again. Another 25% said he would do a good job and 22% said he would perform poorly.
But there is a cloudy past to reconcile; nobody disagrees with that.
Reduce it to a Zen riddle: In the past, Jerry Brown represented the best of the future, but today he symbolizes the oddity of the past.
“Yeah, I’ve got some baggage out there,” he said. “Guess what, I’ve made some mistakes. I made some enemies. Not every appointment turned out the way it should have.
“Well, I’ve been six years doing penance. And I’m asking you to take me back.”
Load of Baggage
True aficionados describe Brown’s baggage as if it is an overtime job for United Van Lines:
- His appointment of Rose Elizabeth Bird, a temperamental woman with no judicial experience, to be chief justice of the Supreme Court. She and three other Brown-appointed liberals were thrown off the court in a 1986 confirmation election. Brown is now left with a reputation as being soft on crime.
- Medflies. He was indecisive about aerial spraying of urban Santa Clara County with pesticide in 1980 to counter an infestation of destructive Mediterranean fruit flies. He ended up angering everyone--farmers for delaying, environmentalists and residents for later proceeding. A reputation persists that he is not a leader in a crisis.
- His style. For all his pizazz, Brown as governor had an exceedingly short attention span for administrative detail and follow-up, both qualities to be prized in a party chairman. By reputation he was flighty, more interested in airy talk than gritty doing, a master of symbol but lacking in substance. To many, he is still Gov. Moonbeam.
For just these reasons, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda) is one of the most vocal Brown opponents.
“Jerry Brown is the wrong symbol, the wrong person and the wrong direction for the California Democratic Party,” said Katz, whose San Fernando Valley district is rich in those Democrats who are increasingly willing to vote Republican. “I think the Democratic Party needs to move forward to the 21st Century, not back to the 1970s.”
Share the Concerns
Powerful California Democrats such as Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy apparently share these concerns. Friends and associates of both say they are uneasy about Brown’s spillover effect on the party and other candidates.
“If he wants to get back into politics, that’s fine. But is it fair for all Democrats to share the burden?” asked Darry Sragow, former campaign manager for McCarthy and Cranston.
Even some of his dearest friends, like former chief of staff B. T. Collins, now a Sacramento bond broker, think Brown is setting himself up for a broken heart. “I’m on the speaking circuit steadily, and everywhere I go people still are delighted to tell me something bad about Jerry Brown.”
Brown has answers. And there is an edge of impatience mixed in with his self-effacing humor as he delivers them.
Bird’s appointment was a decade ago, he said. What about the court today with a majority appointed by his successor, Republican Gov. George Deukmejian? It just voted to postpone 20% insurance rate rollbacks passed by voters.
“That’s what we should be thinking about today,” Brown said.
But most important, Brown insisted that he is determined to establish a new image as a man of substance, a man willing to take on the shirt-sleeves job as party chairman.
An Early Report Card
“I want to do it. And some of the reasons are the concerns people raise about me and the past. I’d like to overcome those things. . . . I want to take what is an obstacle and turn it into an achievement,” he said, cheerfully. “And my report card is going to be in real early. It’s registration; it’s money. If those thermometers are not going up pretty soon, then rumblings should start.”
To reassure those who view this as a casual steppingstone, Brown has pledged to serve all four years of the term and not run for any other office in 1990 or 1992. After that, however, some believe, Brown would like another crack at the U.S. Senate seat held by Wilson.
Brown seems less concerned today with symbolism than he once did. Yes, he participated last winter in a splashy photo essay for Life magazine showing him working with the sick at Mother Teresa’s House of the Pure Heart in Calcutta. And, more recently, he was photographed feeding the hungry in Bangladesh.
This is the kind of media grandstanding he is famous for. Remember Brown’s aging blue Plymouth that replaced the gubernatorial limousine? His bed on the floor of his Sacramento apartment? His cheap plastic digital watch?
Today Brown is seen in top-line, high-fashion suits with padded shoulders and pegged pants. On his wrist, big as can be, is a glittering gold Rolex, the watch of CEOs and entertainers, not ascetics.
“I’m not going to be ashamed of my success!” he snapped when the watch was noticed.
Things Pile Up
Then, mellowing a little, Brown added, “As you get older, you accumulate a little more than when you were younger. Equity in your home goes up. . . . Things begin to add up, pile up.”
One other change in Brown’s life has stirred up a much bigger fuss among Democratic activists. That is his new-found turnabout on abortion which has left his once-unshakable feminist constituency rattled.
A one-time Jesuit seminarian, Brown as governor was nonetheless a supporter of abortion rights. And his Administration championed public financing of abortions for needy women. But no longer.
His journeys of self-understanding and his meeting with Mother Teresa convinced him, as he told a reporter for the National Catholic News Service, “the killing of the unborn is crazy.”
Further, Brown wrote a letter to Florida authorities earlier this year seeking parole for a well-known anti-abortion activist. The woman had been sentenced to prison after more than 130 arrests and a burglary conviction. She was among those in 1986 who stormed a Pensacola abortion clinic in which equipment was damaged and two workers slightly injured. Brown wrote the letter at Mother Teresa’s request, he said.
The former governor, unlike many politicians, does not mind showing himself to be torn by his own views.
Changes on Abortion
Yes, he changed his mind on the morality of abortion, but he still believes women should have the right to obtain one.
“I feel strongly about the entitlement of a woman to control her own life,” he said.
In general, he said, “I don’t plan to be an active person on this subject.”
What about government financing of abortions?
“I’m thinking about it, I’m talking with people,” he said. “I supported it in the past and I haven’t done anything to change that.”
Bylaws of the Democratic Party require the next chairman to be from Northern California. To meet that stipulation, Brown rented an apartment in San Francisco and is now buying a home there. He said he has placed his Los Angeles house in Laurel Canyon up for sale.
Two lesser-known men are challenging Brown for the chairmanship. San Francisco investment banker Steve Westly, 32, has worked his way up from the grass roots and has mounted a game effort against big odds. Westly has been a party officer since 1981 and, given the protocols of succession, was supposed to have the job by rights.
Party Is Stronger
“While you’ve been gone, we’ve done much to strengthen our party. . . ,” Westly said in a open letter to Brown. “You generate publicity and media attention. However, our state party is designed to serve all of us and our elected officials, not the state chair.”
Most elected officials believe that Westly and a third candidate, San Francisco attorney Neil Eisenberg, are doomed to disappointment. Brown’s foes, many of them feminists, have been searching quietly for weeks for some big-name Democrat with a willingness to run as a more credible anti-Brown candidate. So far they have been unsuccessful.
But the election process is tricky. And grass-roots activists have shown independence before.
And this is overwhelmingly a grass-roots exercise: One-third of the voting delegates, or about 960, will be chosen at Assembly district caucuses among loyal party workers. Another third are chosen by county central committees. The final third are representatives of officeholders and defeated nominees for office.
An aide said that Westly has 406 signed endorsements, almost one-third of the votes needed to win. “Jerry doesn’t have this wired at all,” he insisted.
But Brown is well received almost everywhere he goes. Public speaking, after all, is his strongest suit.
“And ask yourself when was the last time you saw any news media cover one of our little elections?” Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne) told a cheering group of Los Angeles Democrats recently. “This is going to be good for the party.”