Revenge of the Brownies

Hello, America. California calling. You remember California, the state that Chicago columnist Mike Royko once declared should be fenced off from the rest of the country, with psychiatrists posted to prevent escape by the native loons.

"California's major export," Royko wrote, " . . . has been craziness. If it babbles and its eyeballs are glazed, it probably comes from California."

What set off Royko that day in 1979 was Jerry Brown. Specifically, he was upset that our governor had gone to Africa with Linda Ronstadt. Rereading the column, it's not clear whether Royko was bothered by Brown's interest in Africans or Ronstadt. Whatever, he produced a seminal piece of character assault, calling Brown a "science-fiction candidate who wants to bring his moonbeam ideas into the White House."

There it was: Moonbeam. It was the first time anyone called Jerry Brown that, and the label stuck. The slur, of course, went beyond Brown. It also implied that California voters, who twice elected Brown governor, were flakes, or suckers, or both.

The Moonbeam business was especially rough on the coterie of Brown aides known collectively as "the Brownies." They had worked hard for him, run his campaigns and attempted to translate his eclectic notions into a coherent state administration--only to be hounded from the political stage amid snickers and laughter. Medflies, hah hah hah. Windmills, hah hah hah. Less is more, hah hah hah.

Well now, after a long, dark season, it is time for California and the Brownies to laugh. Jerry Brown, unconventional as ever, is back. His victory in Connecticut changed everything. Despite months of relentless ridicule from fellow candidates, party officials and the press, the 800 candidate not only is still standing, he has Slick Willie on the run in New York and is being treated as a serious political force for the first time in a dozen years.

"Time has caught up with Jerry Brown," said Jodie Evans, the longtime Brown aide who manages his current campaign. "Sheer vindication," said Lucie Gikovich, another faithful Brownie. "It's exciting," giggled Tom Quinn, Brown's earliest political strategist.

Unlike Evans, most of the veteran Brownies have been unable to work full time on this campaign. They have families to raise, businesses to run. Quinn missed out on drafting Brown's debut speech in order to attend a Lamaze class. Still, they offer informal assistance when they can and watch their old boss with a renewed respect.

These are smart people. They understood the old gig was over even before Brown was beaten for the U.S. Senate in 1982. Some tried to talk him out of that race, and also out of a more recent stint as state party chairman. He seemed cynical, burned out, almost lost. The Brown they see now--making up a national campaign on the fly, bedeviling a better-financed opposition--is the maverick they remember from early on, when he first emerged as a brash political reformer.

"This is really the first time since Jerry Brown has been in office where he feels totally unencumbered," said Wally McGuire, another former Brownie. "He is now talking in public like he has talked in private for 20 years."

Soon, national attention will be placed on Brown's record as governor, and those who remember it only as windmills and Moonbeams will be surprised. A decade later, most of the flaky stuff seems pretty tame, even conventional.

Medfly? Brown's sin was wanting to strip trees and ground-spray, rather than dispatch pesticide-bearing helicopters over houses; after the latest infestations in Southern California, his approach now is pretty much standard procedure. Windmills? The CEOs of the state's utilities will tell you it's a hot technology. They also will tell you that the major source of new energy for California will be conservation, that less really was more.

Looking back, it is hard to find anything weird about dating Linda Ronstadt, or refusing to ride in a limo or live in a Nancy Reagan-designed mansion. Some Brown positions on farm and business issues can be challenged, but not his willingness to take on powerful interests. And what of Chief Justice Rose Bird? Well, tell me, are your streets safer now that she is gone?

What Brown and the Brownies did was set a tone and toss out ideas, many of which only now are taking hold. That's what California, and Brown, have to give this country. My guess is that, a decade from now, 800 numbers and flat taxes will be standard fare in national politics. I wonder what Jerry Brown will be up to by then.

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