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No Sign of a Savior for State Democratic Party

Jerry Brown was working delegates at the Democratic state convention Saturday, hailing old allies, imparting wisdom and handing out big “Brown for Attorney General” buttons.

Yes, the former governor -- currently the Oakland mayor -- plans to run for state attorney general in 2006. Most politicians would consider those two jobs -- mayor and AG -- beneath their dignity after having held the state’s highest office. If they couldn’t run for president, they’d just fade into the shadows.

Not Brown, 65, who recently acknowledged, “I’ve been in office and I’ve been out of office. And if I were to choose, I’d rather be in office.” He enjoys the challenge and likes shaking up things. Attorney general -- a job used by his late father, Pat Brown, as a steppingstone to governor -- has special appeal to Jerry Brown.

But that’s for another column. My question to him Saturday was, how does the California Democratic Party escape the doldrums and get some wind back into its sails?

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And Brown’s answer -- as his utterances often are -- was succinct and sensible: “It’s going to take strong candidates. The party lives or dies by charismatic leadership.”

People -- especially in California, where political parties historically have been weak -- are moved by exciting leaders. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the latest. Ronald Reagan, Pat Brown -- even Jerry Brown for a while -- stirred Californians and inspired them to follow.

“You need to have one idea,” Brown continued. “Republicans have one idea: no taxes. The Democrats need something.”

Brown had one big idea 30 years ago when he ran for governor in the aftermath of Watergate: political reform. His anti-corruption solutions were accepted by voters but largely rejected by the courts.

Despite many efforts since -- some of them facades hiding the status quo -- Sacramento sorely needs reform to protect the public from dollar-doling special interests. That issue’s out there for any ambitious politician.

State Treasurer Phil Angelides has been trying to cozy up to Pat Brown’s legacy and use that as his big issue. He’s attempting to resurrect Brown’s vision as a futuristic builder, an investor in capital projects -- highways, trains, universities, water.

“I don’t think infrastructure’s exciting,” said Pat Brown’s son. “It doesn’t stir any debate.”

Water has always stirred debate -- enough to assure both Pat Brown’s legacy and his downfall. But whatever.

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What is exciting? “Iraq is an issue,” Brown noted. “Crime is an issue. The whole business of this correctional system, these prisons.”

Is crime that exciting? “Believe me, in neighborhoods where they’re shooting at you it is. Maybe not in the protective environs of Beverly Hills. But it is in working-class neighborhoods.”

We were returning to his campaign for AG.

Give Jerry Brown this: He’s always interesting. Thinking. Provocative.

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Contrast him with most of the Democratic convention, at least the eight hours I could bear to watch.

The delegates who showed up -- only half-filling the seats -- seemed listless and uninspired. Even “cranky” -- to use Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer’s unfortunate characterization of women who booed him while he apologized for having shrugged off the groping allegations against Schwarzenegger as “frat-boy behavior.”

Many speakers were stale and depressing. Some also were not believable.

State Controller Steve Westly, after having snuggled up to Schwarzenegger on the car tax and deficit bonds and being chastised privately by Democrats, chose this speech to make amends. But it was too sudden and sharp a turn to look real.

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Westly lamented that voters had “cast a B-grade actor in the role of governor,” adding that “Arnold Schwarzenegger has turned his pumped-up back on the people of this state.”

Hardly anyone was inspirational -- a possible exception being Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City).

“I tell you straight up,” Wesson shouted, “this is not the time to be star-struck by some movie star.... This is not the movies, this is real life.... Those of you who have stardust in your eyes, get yourself a good dose of Visine.... We will cooperate, but we will not capitulate.”

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante took shots at Lockyer, who has acknowledged voting for Schwarzenegger. Democratic Chairman Art Torres admonished the two to “get together and work things out. We hate the Bickersons in our party.”

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Then the recalled Gray Davis showed up and reminded delegates why they were depressed. The former governor thanked Democrats for their support last year, but didn’t apologize for blowing the office they’d nominated him to. If he’d done that six months ago, he might still be governor.

This is a party in transition. Nobody knows whether it’s rebounding or in free-fall. Democrats still hold most partisan offices, but there’s a whiff of interior rotting.

Like Brown says, Democrats need a charismatic savior. None was apparent Saturday.


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