On Waiting for a Fire to Be Lit

The setting was the steps of the Hall of Justice. The subject on this hot, sunny Thursday in San Jose was sex offenders. Kathleen Brown, Democratic candidate for governor, had called a news conference to declare that the state had "lost track" of 49,000 registered sex offenders. Rapists were "on the loose." Pete Wilson was to blame. She would do better. She would make public safety her "top priority." She would take action against sex offenders from "Day One." Unlike Pete Wilson.

Arranged behind the candidate were nine functionaries of San Jose government. They nodded somberly, kept their hands folded in front, fig-leaf style, and said nothing. From a towering jailhouse next door, the muffled, inaudible shouts of inmates intruded briefly on the news conference, but no one seemed to notice. Brown read from a text and said nothing she had not said before in other cities; when questions were invited, the reporters strained to conjure up a few.

After 15 minutes, this dreary business was done. Brown shook a few hands and was driven away. The three television crews present broke down their tripods. The functionaries disappeared inside the Hall of Justice. The inmates quieted down. And California moved one more shuffling step down the road toward Election Day. . . .

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Maybe it is because it's August. Maybe, as the candidates say, the press has ignored their finer ideas and concentrated instead on campaign venom. Maybe it's O.J. For whatever reason, the contest for the California governorship is stuck in a rut. Brown and Wilson have spent the summer squabbling over how best to micro-manage state government--and who most abhors crime. Millions have been spent on self-nullifying television spots that, in the end, established only that neither candidate is a proponent of rape. Perhaps in September and October new commercials will outline their opposition to hostage-taking and homicide.

The surprise in this is not Pete Wilson. He always has been an attack-dog campaigner, nicknamed "the slasher" in his earliest statewide race. As governor, he does not go much for ideology or the vision thing; he regards his role as the leader, not of California, but of state government, and campaigns accordingly. Finally, as an unpopular incumbent, he could not be expected to run on his record or launch a campaign built on new ideas. All he could do was go after Brown.

The surprise--the tragedy, to hear some of her earliest supporters tell it--has been Kathleen Brown. When she first started to lean toward a campaign, electricity shot through California Democrats and preliminary polls gave her huge leads. Here was a candidate blessed with a charismatic personality and a California pedigree, the quintessential native daughter of the Golden Land. Hers would be, as one consultant put it, "a threshold candidacy," turning California as it has not been turned since her father.

Now, the polls inevitably have evened out--and doesn't every California race wind up 52-48?--and voices that once could not contain their enthusiasm have gone flat, bitter. Listen to a former adviser, who worked with Brown during her treasurer campaign: "Kathleen Brown the candidate is not Kathleen Brown the person we know, or at least thought we knew. She is a candidate whose positions are governed by poll results and focus groups. In person, she is much brighter, more forceful. It's as though she didn't trust her own natural instincts, her appreciation for the California mystique, her ability to articulate a plausible vision of the state's future. Instead, there are no big ideas. It's all about Pete Wilson. And Pete Wilson should be irrelevant to her campaign."

This is not an isolated lament.

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In fairness, Brown remains slightly ahead in most polls. Her aides argue that Wilson struck first on the rape issue, forcing their candidate to fight back. Despite the dreariness of August, they insist, important groundwork nonetheless has been laid. They talk of Wilson's "spent bullets," and also of high energy in their field offices. They say ignore the insider chatter. And they counsel patience.

They always have counseled patience. Asked when the real Kathleen Brown might emerge and catch fire, they always have said wait. Wait until the primary. Wait until after the primary. Wait until the general. Wait for the fall.

Now they say a new television campaign is ready to run. It will be "positive," with a focus on Brown and her California roots and her ideas about the California future. Wait until you see it, they say. Wait until next week.

Yes, wait. But remember, there are only a dozen or so "next weeks" left in this race. After that, any waiting must be discussed in terms, not of weeks, but of years.

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