It wasn't supposed to be like this, Democrats said to each other in the final days of the campaign, as the grim reality of Kathleen Brown's fate became apparent.
She was the crown princess of California politics, the telegenic daughter of one governor and sister of another, a bright shining star on whom the Democrats had been pinning their future hopes for years.
Yet when she lost her bid for the governorship to Republican Pete Wilson, she lost big, her defeat taking on the dimensions of a political train wreck. She lost the state by 15 points, lost even Democratic-leaning Los Angeles County. She carried fewer votes than several lower-ranking members of the Democratic ticket. She won five counties, half the number Democrats count on even when they lose.
Looking back, Democrats and Republicans now say, there were signs of the impending blowout all along.
No one moment turned the course, no one event crystallized Wilson's advantage over Brown. Rather, she had--to borrow one of the political world's favorite phrases this year--three strikes against her: message, money and the voting environment.
Poll after poll showed Wilson controlling the issues Californians deemed important. Poll after poll showed that Brown's support came from people who just liked her or her family, not from those committed to her because of a deeper political issue. She was ideologically estranged from the bulk of California, both in her stance on the death penalty and on the initiative to which she hitched her final hopes--the polarizing Proposition 187.
She was outspent over the course of the campaign by several million dollars, and she ran in a year in which having a "D" after one's name on the ballot was very nearly a death knell.
Undeniably, her campaign made strategic errors as well, ones that haunted her effort and those of other Democrats on the ticket. She and her campaign made critical miscalculations about the issues that would motivate voters in this most angry political year.
"To some degree Kathleen came into this with more of a reputation for being a political pro than she deserved," said one prominent Democrat. "She had one run once before for a down-ballot office (state treasurer) against an appointee. In a state this big and complicated, that is not much experience."
But Democrats and Republicans suggest now that even had Brown run a strategically brilliant campaign, her chances would have been iffy, at best.
"Unless Kathleen Brown had sat down at least two years ago and rethought her basic philosophical underpinnings, she was going to have a very, very difficult race regardless of what she did," said Dan Schnur, Wilson's press spokesman, who echoed the views of many Democrats. "Ultimately, this was an election that came down to very stark philosophical differences."
Brown does not agree, and lays the primary blame for her defeat on the Republican tide that engulfed the nation Tuesday. With her genetically optimistic style, she remains proud of what she did.
"I was broke so many times in this campaign," she said in an interview after the election. "We started every Monday with $68 in the bank. It was unbelievable what was achieved. Unbelievable that we kept coming back."
The rule is a hard-and-fast one in the cyclical and frequently mystifying world of electoral politics: Never re-fight the last election. This time around, doing so was particularly lethal.
But that was what it appeared Brown was doing for much of the campaign. Like the party's 1992 presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, Brown focused a great deal of fire on the economy. Like Clinton, she had in her sights an unpopular Republican. Like Clinton, she bound up a "plan" in a shiny cover, rolled it up and used it to browbeat the incumbent.
Democrats could have been forgiven, in those glowing early days after their sweeping 1992 victory, for having illusions that the same sort of appeal would prevail two years hence. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
The signs were simple at first: Pollsters started picking up hints that voters once again considered Republicans better suited than Democrats to deal with their problems. The public rebelled at Clinton's health care plan, deriding it as a big-government solution in a time when people wanted government small.
Fear raised its head, as it frequently does when times are tough. Crime zoomed to the top of the list of issues important to Californians, followed quickly by its partner in emotion: illegal immigration.
Wilson laid the groundwork for his campaign more than a year before the election, when he started stoking the fires about illegal immigration and crime. The power of incumbency came into play: It is impossible to ignore illegal immigration as an issue when a governor uses it to declare war on the President of the United States.
Even so, the Brown campaign remained convinced that the economy would be Wilson's albatross. A year ago Wilson had historically low popularity ratings and they believed that ultimately voters would look at Wilson's tenure as governor and decide he did not merit a second term. They persisted in those thoughts even during the spring and summer as the economy began an ever-so-slight improvement and Wilson's favorability nudged upward.
Wilson was afraid they were right, so he did what all clever politicians do: He changed the subject.
"That is the genius, the shrewdness of Wilson's strategy," said John Brennan, director of the Los Angeles Times Poll. "He turned it away from himself to other things."
But what allowed him to turn the focus around, of course, were the attitudes of voters themselves.
"In 1992 there was a very strong Democratic tail wind, a very unusual Democratic tail wind, and the economy dominated the issue agenda," Brennan said. "Nothing else was even on the screen; crime was barely mentioned by voters. We're light-years away from that election now. Kathleen Brown was mistaken to think that 1992 was a pointer toward 1994. . . . One election does not forecast the next."
Darry Sragow, a strategist who managed John Garamendi's campaign against Brown for the Democratic nomination, lauds Wilson's campaign strategists as the finest in the business and uses as Exhibit A their tactical moves this year.
"What they basically did was get the dialogue in this campaign onto their turf," he said. "Crime and immigration--on those issues a Republican male is going to beat a Democratic female. They find weaknesses. . . . They put a finger in the wound and keep expanding the wound. The death penalty was obviously one. It furthered concerns about Kathleen Brown's ideology and ability to govern."
Whether a candidate creates an issue, or whether he or she merely follows developing public opinion, is difficult to assess. Whether Wilson pulled voters his way, or simply caught the issue wave earlier than Brown, he controlled the important issues entirely. Throughout the general election campaign, whether voters were asked who would better handle crime or immigration or the economy, the majority had one answer:
Once crime and immigration were established as Wilson's campaign issues, the Brown campaign was faced with a choice: Change the subject themselves and focus on other issues, or roll the dice and try to beat Wilson at his own game.
Within the Brown campaign, there appeared to be dissent over which path to take. Brown's first--of several--slogans sought to establish her as the candidate who would rebuild the economy. Then, in the late spring and early summer, Brown stood up and came at Wilson with a full-throated assault on a most unlikely issue: crime.
It was, at minimum, a long shot strategy given Wilson's decades-long public record as a friend of crime victims' groups and a campaigner against Democratic legislators for toughened sentences--and Brown's personal opposition to the death penalty.
Her maneuver turned out to be the political equivalent of Pickett's Charge, in which thousands of Confederate soldiers literally walked across a field at Gettysburg only to be mowed down by Union troops. Like the Union soldiers, Wilson's troops were waiting, and as soon as they got over their astonishment, they shot at Brown with both barrels.
Like the Southern soldiers, Brown left herself utterly unprotected. First she charged that Wilson's parole policies had let violent criminals out of jail to murder and assault frightened Californians. But in the case she cited, one involving a convict named Melvin Carter, it turned out that state officials had been required to release him under rules implemented by Brown's brother, Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.
Brown nonetheless continued arguing the case, even as local prosecutors essentially sided with Wilson's version of the facts.
In the political realm, where perception frequently outpaces reality, Brown's move allowed Wilson several shots: It made her look like she operated without regard to facts. It reminded voters anew of the familial connection between Brown and her brother, still a figure in some disrepute among California voters. It gave Wilson another chance to define Brown as a "no-show" in the war against crime. And it gave him another weapon with which to hammer at Brown on the death penalty.
Brown also sought to pin other crime-related errors on Wilson, such as his Administration's inability to account for thousands of registered sex offenders and the fact that, even after 12 years of Republican governors, Californians feel more unsafe now than ever before.
While Brown's arguments might have had logical merit, she lost the battle of imagery. Not for nothing had Wilson been pounding a lectern for years about crime. He had become, in California, the personification of the average Joe's uphill struggle against fear of criminals.
Wilson's campaign manager, George Gorton, said the campaign's internal polls showed that each time Brown launched a major offensive about crime, Wilson benefited.
"He was impregnable on the crime issue," Gorton said. "Melvin Carter was a turning point, when she persisted in something that was a fallacy. It tarnished her own image."
Later, when Brown ran out of money and had to pull her advertising the weekend before Election Day, a senior Democrat pointed back to the summer spent trying to best Wilson on crime as part of the problem.
"She was on the air all summer, with no movement," the Democrat said. "She was flat-lining. She could have taken (the money that paid for) two weeks of July and two weeks of August and socked it away."
And there was not even any political benefit to show for the millions spent. The decision to focus so heavily on crime cost Brown not only money but valuable time in which she could have defined herself to California voters. It apparently did not make a dent: A Labor Day poll taken by The Times showed that only 24% of registered voters believed that Brown was better equipped than Wilson to handle crime. By Election Day, the numbers were virtually unchanged.
Brown's campaign manager, Clint Reilly, insists that she had no choice but to go hard against Wilson on crime and other issues in the summer, regardless of the cost. That became apparent, he said, immediately after the primary when polls showed Brown behind Wilson.
"We--and I think correctly--assessed that if we went passively through the summer we probably would have been behind 20 points, and would have been in an irretrievable situation," Reilly said.
Schnur, Wilson's spokesman, suggested that Brown's strategy was driven not by a realistic assessment of her own strengths on the crime issue but by her campaign manager's most recent electoral efforts. Reilly's latest campaigns had featured two Republican men--Frank Jordan in San Francisco and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles--seeking to become mayors in Democratic cities.
While both of them were able to project an aura of toughness about an issue of striking importance to voters, Brown was not--for reasons that probably were influenced by her death penalty position, her gender and her connection to brother Jerry, whose appointment of anti-capital punishment Rose Bird to the state Supreme Court is still a fresh memory.
"(Reilly) must have thought he could either make Kathleen Brown more effective than Pete Wilson on crime or even them out," Schnur said shortly before Election Day. "You have to address it, but the most recent poll had 22% saying she was the most credible on crime. If she had never uttered a single word, that number probably would not be different."
To Brown herself, the money spent in the summer was crucial to her effort. If she did not boost herself in the polls by Labor Day, her campaign believed, she was dead.
"The whole strategy was to get through Labor Day with a good poll," Brown said after the election.
When the polls came out after Labor Day, however, the news was not good. Brown trailed Wilson by nine points among likely voters, the Los Angeles Times Poll found, and had failed to create a groundswell of support for her own candidacy. That poll and others taken at the same time did grievous damage to her fund-raising efforts.
"The poll came out and cost me a million dollars. And then another poll was even worse," she said. "The money dried up."
The Brown campaign did its best to shield from public view its shaky finances; its officials consistently told reporters that they had enough to last. But the empty pockets became stunningly obvious the weekend before the election, when Brown became the only major party candidate in anyone's memory to virtually go off the airwaves. Money spent for advertising in the last weeks, considered the most important to campaign professionals, was minimal compared to other Democratic candidates' expenditures.
The seeming shut-down unleashed bounding anger among many Democrats toward the Brown campaign and its manager Reilly, whom many accuse of mismanaging the campaign's finances. From White House officials to partisans for lower-level candidates, all were enraged that Brown would go dark at such a crucial time for the party's ticket.
But concerns about the Brown effort abounded, and in fact predated Reilly's arrival in the spring. From the beginning, under both of its management teams, the Brown effort seemed to have trouble defining its own candidate. So many slogans and campaign commercials proliferated, according to some professionals, that no one image of Brown ever sank into voters' minds.
As Schnur, Wilson's spokesman, put it in a memorable memo to political reporters, hers was a candidacy of "two years, 39 television commercials, two campaign teams, five slogans and $24 million."
What Wilson had that Brown lacked, many Democrats and Republicans agree, was a defining agenda. For Wilson, that was crime, illegal immigration and jobs, a triumvirate that he repeated like a mantra from the early days of the campaign to the last. Brown's focus, perhaps by necessity as she struggled to catch up, shifted regularly.
Bob Mulholland, the Democratic party's campaign adviser, quotes Republican ad master Roger Ailes' definition of a winner: Show me a candidate with a cause.
"Wilson told us in 1993 what his cause would be," said Mulholland, who described the Democratic defeat as a "team effort." "And the Democrats never had one. We were all over the map. We should be taken out back and shot. This was an election we should have won."
Brown did, of course, find a cause at the end: Her opposition to the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187. She campaigned in the final weeks with a fiery energy, earning praise even from Democrats who had earlier doubted her core beliefs. There was only one problem: Voters, by a 3-2 margin, favored the initiative.
Brown and Reilly lay blame for her showing on the anti-Democratic sentiment of voters and, as well, on the campaign's finances.
"He (Wilson) had an enormous amount of money . . . to define Kathleen and we didn't have the money to defend her adequately," said Reilly.
Even many Democrats, however, do not buy that excuse. They contend that the money was there--not enough to match Wilson, perhaps, but enough to define Brown had the campaign settled on different tactics. Brown is believed to have spent close to $24 million in pursuit of the governorship; Wilson spent several million more.
Many Democrats, now engaged in a familiar post-election rite of questioning their party's future, describe the Brown campaign in the most dire of terms. It wasn't even a contest, said one. Criminal malfeasance, said another. Most agree that most everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.
"Kathleen Brown was never able to enunciate a rationale for her election as governor to either insiders or voters," said Democratic strategist Sragow. "She just failed to succinctly state her own case. Whether the candidate doesn't have vision or the campaign can't articulate it, I don't know. The campaign didn't work."
Times staff writers Bill Stall and Amy Wallace contributed to this story.