Jerry Brown: Attorney general by day, gubernatorial candidate also by day

Standing before a bank of television cameras, photographers and reporters, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown announced last week that he was filing a lawsuit against the nation’s two largest mortgage lenders and the federal agency that oversees them.

The elected leaders who flanked Brown, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, lavished him with praise for the move, meant to allow lending to homeowners for a clean-energy program that could create tens of thousands of jobs in the state.

“We applaud the attorney general. Thank you very much for seeking to compel the discussion in court,” said San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, a Republican. “The federal government needs to get its act together. … Our clean-energy future depends on it. And once again, thank you very much Jerry Brown.”

The press conference, which was featured on nightly news programs around the state and in newspapers across the country, also served another purpose — to keep the Democratic candidate in the spotlight at a time when his gubernatorial campaign is barely treading water compared to that of his Republican rival, Meg Whitman. The former EBay chief executive is a billionaire who is spending millions on ads promoting her candidacy and castigating Brown.

“He’s reinforcing the message that he’s highly qualified,” said Jack Pitney, a former national GOP official and a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “It’s to his advantage to play to that perception.

“It’s not smart to go dark — just ask President Dole,” Pitney added, referring to the failed presidential bid of former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.

Brown can’t afford to air ads yet, although union allies have been televising them on his behalf. But the candidate has been visible in the news recently — he has had more than two dozen public appearances or media interviews since the June 8 primary. Some of were purely campaign events, but many related to Brown’s elected position.

Last week, for example, Brown appeared on “Nightline” on Monday to discuss his office’s role in the capture of the alleged Grim Sleeper serial killer — a case that has brought Brown extensive and favorable media exposure since it broke, and allows Brown to burnish a tough-on-crime image.

On Tuesday, Brown spoke at the federal courthouse in San Francisco, defending the state’s practice of collecting DNA from every adult arrested in felony cases; the policy is being challenged in a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. Wednesday was the San Diego event, where Brown announced he was filing suit against mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

On Thursday, Brown announced the completion of a law-enforcement sweep of sex offenders living in San Diego. And on Friday he announced a settlement with two major manufacturers of artificial turf that requires them to eliminate nearly all the lead in their products, an agreement he billed as benefiting children who play on the turf in parks and ball fields.

The final two announcements came in the form of press releases, which ended up scattered in news reports around the state. The media staff in Brown’s state office is prodigious and has become increasingly productive during his time in office — and as he has shaped his gubernatorial run. In 2007, the candidate issued 77 press releases; this year, if he continues on his current pace, he will blast out more than twice as many.

To steer clear of violating state campaign ethics laws or voters’ sensibilities, the candidate must tread carefully.

Brown’s ethics could be criticized “if he goes off the reservation to the point of trying to generate press over an issue that he has no responsibility for,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State.

But Gerston noted that Brown has been in public life for decades.

“One thing about Jerry Brown, this guy’s been around the block a few times,” Gerston said. “He knows how far to push the power of his office.”

Elected officials commonly rely on publicity generated by their official state jobs while running for office. But in the past, some have been accused of using their taxpayer-funded staffs to prop up their campaigns. Such charges were leveled at Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine) in his failed U.S. Senate bid earlier this year, but the claims were never proven.

Such candidates must keep their two roles — as a governing official and a politician — separate, under state ethics rules.

“Generally, if an elected official is engaged in a campaign activity, those activities should be paid for out of their campaign funds and not from taxpayer money,” said Roman Porter, executive director of the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, which investigates alleged violations. “And that includes not only travel, meals and lodging by the candidate, but staff working on campaign events as well.”

Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for Brown, said the campaign pays for trips that mix official business and campaign activities, such as an outing to Los Angeles on July 8 where Brown attended a news conference about the Grim Sleeper case before hosting a campaign event highlighting his ties with Latino voters.

Clifford added that the campaign works around Brown’s scheduled activities as attorney general.

“It’s obviously important for people to see the work he’s done and see the work he continues to do,” he said. “Obviously, we’re not going to have any objection when those things happen in the [attorney general’s] office.”

Even at events that are purely about state business, Brown is inevitably asked about the campaign.

After all the politicians finished their remarks at the San Diego event, reporters began asking Brown about the race for governor. The candidate demurred.

“I don’t want to confuse the message here,” he said. “We got to separate church and state here. This is church. We’ll do our state business later.”

After the event concluded, Brown met reporters in the parking lot and condemned Whitman as a billionaire who is saturating the airwaves with deceptive messages.

“This election is very close,” he said. “I am up against a juggernaut.”