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New office, but vintage Jerry Brown

Times Staff Writer

Eight months into his new job, California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown has embarked on two major crusades that hark back to his past political roles.

The former governor who passionately guarded the environment is hammering local governments to take heed of climate change as they plan for rising growth. “Global warming, next to nuclear war, is the most significant long-term threat to the United States and the world,” he says.

The former Oakland mayor who struggled for years to combat violent crime is pressing a statewide campaign against street gangs. “They have become almost a form of domestic terrorism,” he says.

After four dizzying decades in public life, Brown has brought a bit of his unorthodox and unpredictable style to his new role as the state’s top cop.

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His unpaid chief advisor is his wife and former campaign manager, Anne Gust Brown, who helps him run the $800-million-a-year law enforcement operation with their dog often in tow.

And, although he is the California politician most closely associated with opposition to capital punishment, Brown elevated his office’s death penalty chief to lead the entire criminal division.

The product of a Democratic family dynasty, a Jesuit seminary and the tumultuous 1960s, Brown swung to the left as a reformist secretary of state and governor, then toward the center as a crime-fighting mayor and, now, as head of an agency armed with 1,100 prosecutors and other lawyers.

At 69, Brown is demonstrating both a streak of pragmatism and the smaller-is-better approach that marked his governorship. But he also is riding two timely political issues toward, some think, yet another incarnation.

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“His ambitions are not limited,” said Bruce E. Cain, director of the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, who has known Brown for years. “It does not sound to me that he is going to be AG and retire. I think he has in mind something else, whether U.S. senator or the governor’s office.”

His father, the late Pat Brown, was attorney general before becoming governor. Jerry Brown served as secretary of state before his two terms as governor, from 1975 to 1983.

He won the governor’s office as a reformer in the first post-Watergate election and gained national attention for his then-futuristic notions and his friendship with singer Linda Ronstadt. He was reviled by many for naming Rose Bird to the state Supreme Court, where she served as chief justice until she was recalled after consistently blocking the death penalty.

After three failed presidential bids and a political hiatus that included work with Mother Teresa in India, Brown landed in the Oakland mayor’s office in 1998, espousing get-tough crime measures. When he ran for attorney general last year, law enforcement associations endorsed him.

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Although still opposed to capital punishment, Brown said he is sworn to uphold the law. He also indicated that his perspective on crime has hardened.

“I have learned and seen life,” he said. “I live in a neighborhood with. . . murders. I talk to criminals almost every day when I leave my loft. I see methamphetamine people. . . sleeping in the bushes next to my garage.”

As his headquarters, Brown has chosen the state office building in downtown Oakland, not far from his loft apartment in a converted Sears Roebuck store. A Department of Justice agent chauffeurs him in a Lincoln, a far cry from the motor-pool Plymouth he used as governor.

Since taking office last January, his calendars show, Brown has crisscrossed the state, meeting with legislators and federal prosecutors and attending law enforcement conventions. He has flown to Washington, D.C., to accuse the Bush administration of colluding with industry to stall California’s strict vehicle emissions standards.

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At the attorney general’s annual employee awards ceremony and at large introductory forums for staff, Brown has displayed candor and a deadpan wit, employees say.

“It was everything from ‘What do you plan to do with the office?’ to his personal life,” said Deputy Atty. Gen. Patrick Whalen, who attended a session in Sacramento and is a member of the state attorneys’ bargaining team.

“He announced that [his wife] was effectively going to be his chief advisor. . .. Someone asked him about Linda Ronstadt, and he said from time to time he hears from her. . . . He knows how to work a crowd.”

Although his predecessor and fellow Democrat Bill Lockyer, now state treasurer, took an entourage of longtime legislative aides into the office, Brown’s inner circle included two young campaign staffers -- a former Peace Corps volunteer and a neophyte attorney -- as well as Brown’s former Oakland gang enforcement chief. But that official, Peter C. Sarna II, Brown’s deputy director for law enforcement, resigned Friday, a week after his arrest for investigation of drunk driving.

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Brown filled only a few of the special assistant attorney general positions on which Lockyer had placed appointees. “I believe in a more flat organizational chart,” he said. “Why do I a need a special guy to schmooze people? A lot of that is political, in my view.”

He defended his decision to make his wife, a 49-year-old lawyer and former vice president of Gap Inc., an unpaid advisor. “She’s smart,” Brown said. “She’s extremely well trained. . .. She ran a law practice at the Gap. She had high managerial experience.. . . She is the most qualified person I can think of.”

As the couple’s black lab Dharma snoozed in her office overlooking the Oakland hills -- state officials say they are unaware of any rules against pets or unpaid spouses -- Gust Brown said her unusual role flowed out of the campaign. “We found that we really enjoyed working together,” she said. “And this is a lot easier than the campaign.”

Gust Brown said the couple decided she would remain unpaid to avoid any impression that they were doubly profiting from the election.

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Not that they need to: The attorney general’s statement of economic interest reported investments totaling millions of dollars. Gust Brown said the couple eschew material possessions and own a single car, her 1993 Lexus.

The line between their personal and professional lives is blurred by long days. Gust Brown is the attorney general’s most constant advisor and gatekeeper, as well as the sandwich maker for their brown bag lunches.

“We go to Club One [a gym] together,” Brown said. “We run around Lake Merritt together. We eat lunch together. We have breakfast together. We read the paper together.”

Current and former employees portray an energetic, pragmatic, demanding boss who calls aides at all hours. Hands on, Brown has paid attention to spending for conferences and rewritten press releases. Bypassing his chain of command, he regularly calls prosecutors on important cases to discuss legal strategy.

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A former high school debater and Yale Law School graduate, Brown hashes out issues so expansively that his wife at times intervenes to focus on key questions. Employees say decision-making often is slower than during Lockyer’s tenure.

“On issues he explores, it does take longer,” acknowledged Jim Humes, Brown’s chief deputy. “But decisions are better. . . . He challenges staff recommendations more than Lockyer. This is a guy who wants to make his own decisions and not rubber-stamp things.”

When Brown took office in January, he inherited thousands of court cases but almost immediately asked for a briefing on criminal charges that Lockyer filed against Hewlett-Packard Chairwoman Patricia Dunn in a boardroom spying scandal.

“Brown wanted to know why we brought charges,” recalled Jo Graves, the now-retired criminal division chief. “I think there was an enormous amount of sympathy for Patty Dunn. And Brown questioned the statutes we were charging under. . . . After he was briefed, he was fully on board with the prosecution.”

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However, a judge dismissed charges in March against Dunn, who was battling ovarian cancer, and three co-defendants pleaded no contest to misdemeanor fraudulent wiretapping.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California’s sentencing law early in his term, Brown spoke to the deputy attorney general who handled the case, which involved a former police officer convicted of molesting his son.

“I’ve never been called by an attorney general before,” said Jeff Laurence, an 11-year department veteran. “He just wanted to talk about the case and the legal issues and the implications of it. It was a conversation. . . . not a 20-second sound bite.”

Unlike Lockyer, who had a long career as a state legislator, Brown has de-emphasized the unit that analyzes and helps craft new laws or improve existing ones.

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Although Brown figures he signed 10,000 bills as governor, he said it is too time-consuming to weigh in on legislation, except very selectively. “My job doesn’t say it’s the duty of the attorney general to propose laws,” he said.

His focuses have been both local and global.

In recent weeks, state agents have teamed with local law agencies to raid the homes of gang members in Stockton and Atwater in the Central Valley. A dozen smaller communities around the state have requested help with gangs -- a Lockyer program that Brown wants to expand -- and several investigations are ongoing.

On the global warming front, Brown has pressed California’s request for a federal waiver allowing this state and 11 others to impose requirements that automakers cut vehicle greenhouse emissions 30% by 2016. He also pursued a controversial suit by Lockyer that seeks damages from half a dozen automakers for vehicle emissions. Brown said he is optimistic he will settle his suit against San Bernardino County alleging that its long-term growth blueprint fails to adequately assess the effects of increased greenhouse gases.

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During wrangling over the state budget, Senate Republicans sought legislation that would block such lawsuits until regulators can craft greenhouse gas rules under the landmark 2006 legislation, Assembly Bill 32.

“It seems like he’s hellbent to jump to the front of the global warming parade and sees it as a popular position,” said Sen. George Runner of Lancaster, head of the party’s caucus. “Meanwhile, it can have a devastating effect.”

As for his future, Brown said that he had not thought much about seeking a third term as governor, although he said many people had urged him to run. Brown’s eight years as governor ended before voters approved term limits for the position. Because the law is not retroactive, Brown would not be barred from seeking the office again.

He noted that he enjoys being attorney general and said he might seek a second term in that office. “Most people like this job,” he said.

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It is too early to gauge Brown’s overall impact as attorney general, said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “The legal clock runs in months and years. The publicity clock runs in nanoseconds,” he said. “On the publicity front, he is doing great.”

tim.reiterman@latimes.com


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