Jerry Brown Elected to Lead State Democrats

Times Political Writers

Mobbed by fans, cameras, reporters, excitement and controversy--just like the old days--a beaming Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. Saturday night was elected chairman of the California Democratic Party, seizing his first important rung on the political comeback ladder.

“Some would say this is a vindication. I call it a heroic challenge,” the former governor said after learning he had more than the 1,166 votes need to assure his victory and was leading his rival, party activist Steve Westly, by a 2-1 margin.

“Pure joy.” That’s how long-time associate Richard Maullin described Brown’s mood on the occasion of his return to the spotlight of California politics. “I’ve seen this guy in many moods,” said Maullin. “He is absolutely happy. It is pure joy. For it to come to this, for people to say--yes, they want him again. It’s exhilarating. And it’s written all over his face.”


Brown brings to the unpaid office hopes of rebuilding the Democratic Party and expanding its fund-raising base into a new, energized army of small contributors. He says his aim is to counter the rightward drift of politics caused by the participation of fewer and fewer people.

“It is the major job of a political party to move the millions and millions of non-voters. That’s what we’re here for and that’s what I intend to do,” Brown said.

Although some have wondered about Brown’s ability to manage the nuts and bolts of a political party, the fact is that he is inheriting an inward looking organization of minimal influence and unfocused leadership, and thousands of grass-roots volunteers eager to be put to meaningful work.

Delegate Challenges

The announcement of Brown’s election was delayed until late into Saturday night as party purists filled the daily schedule with speeches and challenges to delegate seatings.

This resulted in an unusual challenge to the ballot cast by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), one of the most powerful Democrats in California. He arrived late to cast his ballot for Brown.

“I went down there to vote and I couldn’t believe it,” said Speaker Brown. “Some guy from the Steve Westly campaign challenged my right to vote. I shoved him aside, I said, ‘What do you think this is, Mississippi?’ ”


Jerry Brown told delegates all through this three-day convention that the party he envisioned would have new spirit and would not run from its traditions. He expressed it with the wry humor for which he is known.

“My advice to Democrats is that they are going to be labeled taxers and spenders, so you better spend wisely and make friends!” he said.

Steals Spotlight

Up against all the Jerry Brown hoopla, the Democratic contenders for governor found it difficult going as they faced the convention.

Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, state Controller Gray Davis and Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy delivered speeches and tried to catch the interest of the 2,802 delegates and hundreds of observers. None of the contenders could claim much of a victory.

Van de Kamp, whose campaign is farthest along among the gubernatorial possibles, organized supporters to conduct a floor demonstration. “Today we begin the process of electing a new Democratic governor of this state,” he declared.

If so, it was an inauspicious beginning. Probably less than half of the delegates bothered listening to his speech, their imagination instead captured by the former governor.


Van de Kamp’s campaign theme proved to be a common one for the Democrats who are looking ahead to the 1990 elections--a verbal drubbing of outgoing Republican Gov. George Deukmejian.

Van de Kamp’s Message

“We cannot afford another administration in Sacramento that hears no one but the special interests, sees nothing but the self-interest of the powerful and offers nothing but complacency and neglect.”

Van de Kamp emphasized his own credentials as a law enforcement official. But later at a press conference he was confronted with one law-and-order issue sure to dog him in the forthcoming campaign--his opposition to the death penalty.

“I don’t want to get into that now,” Van de Kamp said. But he added that he would uphold a capital punishment law. “By God, that is a role I think the governor has to carry out.”

He also was asked if he would seek a tax increase.

“That remains to be seen. I’d like to pass on that,” Van de Kamp said. “But clearly we have some things to do on such things as transportation. . . . I believe in a pay-as-you-go system.”

Potential Down Sides

On the prospect of having Brown as the chairman of the state party, Van de Kamp acknowledged some potential down sides, given Brown’s controversial past, but he refused to go into specifics or to say who he would vote for.


“I’m going to use the secret ballot,” he said.

The attorney general did say he took up his concerns face to face with Brown and came away convinced that the ex-governor needs nothing so much as to succeed at the job of party chairman.

“I spent three hours with him one night explaining the ups and downs of the job,” Van de Kamp said. “In terms of his reentry into politics, Jerry has to succeed.”

Davis, who served as Brown’s gubernatorial chief of staff, had a different reaction to his old boss’ political return.

“Welcome back Jerry!” Davis enthused.

‘Phones Were Ringing’

“During my seven years as chief of staff with Jerry, America looked to this state for leadership. Our phones were ringing off the hook with other states that wanted to follow our lead. . . .

“Under George Deukmejian, California has come to a screeching halt. Our phones do not ring anymore. And it is no wonder.”

To a less than attentive audience, Davis contributed his ideas for a successful Democratic theme for the 1990s.


“There is a new politics emerging across this state. A politics where people are coming together, taking stock of their lives and demanding their elected officials get out of the special-interest protection racket,” Davis said.

Davis is expected to announce on Wednesday that he will continue as an exploratory candidate for governor. But an adviser said Davis will keep his options flexible enough to later switch back and seek reelection as controller.

Restless Audience

McCarthy likewise faced a restless audience of convention delegates.

And in his speech, he expressed pointed impatience with the attention lavished on Brown.

“Star quality may have a place in California politics. But without the will to lead, stars don’t guide,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy, whose grudges and rivalry with Brown go back years, earlier endorsed the candidacy of Westly, saying that the former chief executive is not the “right fit for state chair.”

As for his own future, McCarthy said at a press conference that he will wait until March 1 to announce whether he will jump into the race for governor or seek reelection as lieutenant governor.

But McCarthy is having increasing difficulty in countering doubts about his willingness to take on another grueling campaign so soon after his November loss in a run for the U.S. Senate.


Money Concerns

And his own words are part of the reason. Almost everywhere he goes, he expresses his concern with the demands for raising money for such a race.

A fourth major Democratic contender for governor is Dianne Feinstein, the former mayor of San Francisco. She attended the convention but only to shake hands and be seen, not to speak or be heard.

She approached the gathering of the party’s grass-roots activists apprehensively. Last year, she chose to give verbal support for Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson in his reelection campaign, and not endorse Democratic nominee McCarthy.

But Saturday, she seemed to fit in like any other Democrat and called the reception she received from the rank-and-file “fine.”

“What I’ve seen is that people have an open mind,” Feinstein said.

The former mayor noted that for two consecutive years, she has been the front-running candidate in Mervin Field’s independent California Poll. During that time, Feinstein has done virtually nothing to build an organization or foster a candidacy.

‘Give It a Go’

“The lead held for a year anyway so we’ve decided to give it a go,” she said.

Democrats also got a glimpse of two 1992 presidential hopefuls--the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri.


Gephardt cautioned against a popular bit of Democratic wisdom--that the party can capture the White House if it patiently waits for the “pendulum to swing.”

“The Republicans win only if we let them--only if we fail to stand our ground and stand up, clearly and unequivocally, for economic strength and economic justice,” he said.

Among the daylong, seemingly endless lineup of speakers, only Jackson was truly successful in breaking through and grabbing the attention of the delegates. The audience sat pin-still and frequently cheered the former presidential candidate.

Jackson gave Brown a boost in his comeback bid.

‘The Moral Center’

“He’s been to the valley. He’s been up the mountain, and now he’s back in the mainstream again. We need his ideas,” Jackson said. He exhorted Democrats to forget the left wing and the right wing and shoot for “the moral center--the bull’s eye.”

Scattered through the audience were many political faces unfamiliar at party gatherings--the reunion of old-time Brown Administration officials. Among them was Brown’s enigmatic personal adviser Jacques Barzaghi, former press secretary Cari Beauchamp, former legal affairs secretary Byron Georgiou and former legislative aide Diana Dooley.

Most of these people, like Brown, were not interested in party functions for all the many conventions proceeding this. They were interested in Brown.


So were news correspondents from Chicago, Baltimore, Washington and Boston, and writers representing Vogue and GQ--none of whom would otherwise cover a state political convention in California.