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Older and wiser, Brown proudly embraces his father’s legacy

At times, Jerry Brown seemed to go out of his way to distance himself from his father.

Edmund G. Brown Sr., California’s governor from 1959 to 1967, called himself a “big government man.” He built aqueducts, universities and freeways. He liked to shake hands with strangers and slap them on the back. A block might take him half an hour to walk because he greeted everyone he passed.

His only son, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr., could be aloof, even acerbic. He became governor eight years after his father lost a bruising race for a third term. The son preached an “era of limits” and railed against the kind of politics his father practiced.

Now the brash young governor who thought he knew it all marvels at his father’s accomplishments, both privately and publicly. He is acutely aware of Pat Brown’s admired legacy, and invokes his name with reverence.

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Brown says he is wiser now — an admission that he was wanting before — and that he has mastered the nuts and bolts of governance. He even tries to smile more.

“I was looking for new ideas,” Brown said of his first two terms as governor. “I wanted to break the stagnation. Right now the ideas are pretty clear. We need management and forging a consensus and a common purpose regardless of party…. The very extreme positions will not hold.”

Is he attempting to vindicate himself, eying his father’s legacy and finding his own lacking? Or is his candidacy a calculated stroke, fueled by the strong ego and ever restless spirit that has primed his previous reinventions?

For answers, Brown points to the writings of a 4th century philosopher and developer of Christian thought.

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St. Augustine wrote about “not going back to what was said before, always creating and finding new things…,” Brown said. “Life is a discovery, and you are always learning and formulating anew.”

A career politician who portrayed himself as anti-politician, Brown, 72, could become the oldest California governor ever elected, just as he was once one of the youngest. With his presidential ambitions muted — he ran three times, twice while he was governor — Brown would no longer be distracted by dreams of higher office, said Wally McGuire, who worked with Brown during the early years.

“He knows his father left certain big things, and now he wants to leave a legacy as governor,” said McGuire.

The bachelor governor who dated famous actresses and had a love affair with a rock star now gets a senior discount. Most of his hair is gone, and time has left a slight stoop in his shoulders. Friends say the years also have mellowed him.

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They cite two events they say indelibly marked Brown: his two terms as Oakland mayor and his 2005 marriage to Anne Gust, a corporate lawyer.

As mayor, Brown found that environmental and political reform laws he had championed stood in the way of bringing life back to a dead downtown. After a governorship spent pressing their goals, he enraged environmentalists by making downtown Oakland exempt from a key environmental law.

His marriage to Gust, 52, formerly the chief administrative officer of Gap Inc., both softened and disciplined him, friends said. She got him out of Nehru shirts and into suits and moved with him from a crime-infested neighborhood in Oakland’s flatlands to a $2-million house in the city’s wooded hills.

“He is far less anxious than he used to be when we were young,” said Tom Quinn, a longtime friend and political aide. “He realizes you have to be patient at times and be persuasive, that you just can’t bend people to your will by wanting it to happen.”

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It’s all relative, to be sure, for much about Jerry Brown remains unchanged. His mind travels rapidly, and he is wont to examine a decision from every angle. When he was governor, he would endlessly debate bills on his desk and call an aide at midnight to announce what he had decided. He also has labored over decisions as attorney general.

Brown solicits advice but follows his own instincts. He ignored friends who urged him to run for an obtainable U.S. Senate seat in 1992, instead mounting a quixotic and unsuccessful campaign for president. He eschewed suggestions that he retire comfortably after a second term as attorney general rather than bloody himself by running to govern a state in crisis.

He still shoots from the hip. His mouth has repeatedly embarrassed his campaign this year, prompting apologies to both his opponent and a former Democratic president. He can be combative when challenged, dismissive of critics and likely to turn an interview inside out by firing off questions like gunshots instead of answering them.

During an interview with CNBC last year, Brown put a piece of paper in front of his face and told reporters not to interview him if they thought he had filed a fraud case for political publicity. “Are you pimping for the defendant in this case?” he demanded.

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Brown was born in San Francisco, the third of four children. He was shy and introverted, more like his mother, the former Bernice Layne, than his gregarious father. His early life was defined by his father’s political march. Pat Brown won his first election as San Francisco district attorney when Jerry was 5. At 12, Jerry saw his father elected attorney general; at 20, governor.

A sister later said that Jerry disliked being a campaign prop and saw too little of his busy father. The son was as cool as the father was warm.

Growing up in a political household, “he watched his dad, who was a backslapping Irish guy who could tell a good joke,” McGuire said. “He didn’t want to do it that way.”

Brown once recalled his discomfort when his father used his VIP pass to race through bridge tollgates without paying. He told an audience in April that his decision as governor to forgo a limousine stemmed in part from going to a baseball stadium in his father’s Lincoln and being surrounded by protesters who beat on the car, unsettling the young man in the backseat.

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Through the years, many have said that Brown fashioned his political career to rebel against his father. But one longtime friend suggested Brown was moved instead by anger at those who had disparaged the older man in his last race.

Richard Maullin, a political consultant and friend since 1966, said Brown told him in 1973 that he wanted to be governor in part to vindicate his father, whom Ronald Reagan had defeated.

“He felt his father was very badly treated at the end of his term, that the Reagan forces had sort of demonized him, calling him a bumbler…" said Maullin, recalling a conversation with Brown after a fundraising event. “It was the only time that he ever said that, but it was sort of spontaneous.”

Brown did not start out in politics. He graduated from a Catholic high school and yearned for a religious life. After attending Santa Clara University for a year, he entered a Jesuit seminary, where he did lowly chores and submitted to enforced silence. But the confinement was limiting, and he left after four years.

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His spiritual side, however, never faded. As governor, he meditated and in later years went to Japan to study Zen Buddhism. He also worked briefly with Mother Teresa in a hospice in India.

Brown refused in a brief interview to say whether he still meditates — his penchant for Zen helped make him the butt of jokes nationally, a symbol of wacky, counterculture California. But he said he sees in both religion and politics “a missionary component to do good” and “to do justice and seek mercy.”

“There is a personal quest here,” said his friend Maullin. “When he was in the seminary, it was a quest to discover the ultimate truths. He has never lost that. He continues questioning, looking for answers as to how we can organize ourselves and behave as a people.”

Brown enrolled at UC Berkeley, where he received a degree in the classics, and he earned his law degree from Yale. In the late ‘60s, he helped organize migrant workers and protests against the Vietnam War.

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He ran for and won public offices, including the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees in 1969, secretary of State in 1970 — and, in 1974, governor, succeeding Reagan.

Brown shook up the white-male establishment of Sacramento. Nearly 50% of his executive appointments and 40% of his judicial picks were women and minorities. He appointed his Cabinet member Rose Bird to head the all-male California Supreme Court, but voters later ousted her because of her opposition to the death penalty.

Brown, asked at a gathering of prosecutors how his appointments today might differ, said he was trying to make a point as a young governor, and that point has been made. The California Supreme Court will soon have a majority of women and its first non-white chief justice.

Overall, his record was mixed. Brown, famously “cheap,” as he put it, built a budget surplus but failed to foresee a tax revolt that led to the passage of Proposition 13. School funding slipped from 18th nationally to 31st under Brown. He told a reporter at the time that his aim was to reform schools. What kind of reform? “I don’t know yet,” he replied.

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Brown tried to segue from the governorship to the U.S. Senate but was thwarted by Republican Pete Wilson, now Meg Whitman’s campaign chairman. In the years that followed, Brown served as the state Democratic chairman, ran for president and hosted a left-leaning public radio show.

He was living in a loft in Oakland, working on the radio show, when he decided to run for mayor in 1998. Always bold, Brown became ruthless.

“He accomplished some amazing things in Oakland, but some people were concerned about how he did it,” said Oakland City Councilwoman Pat Kernighan. Brown promised to bring 10,000 people to the city’s decayed downtown, a goal he executed with “laser beam focus,” she said.

“It was no holds barred,” Kernighan said. “He did whatever he had to do to make it happen. In retrospect, it was a fabulous thing. It created a renaissance in our downtown.”

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Brown “was not afraid to offend people, including the labor movement,” she said.

It was then that Brown was confounded by laws he once embraced. When he signed the California Environmental Quality Act, he said, he never envisioned that the courts would take over land use decisions. He said the Fair Political Practices Act, which he helped draft, contained “a provision that prevented me from encouraging development within 100 blocks of my loft,” lest he profit.

Brown got voters to approve a strong mayoral system, which gave him clout over the city manager, Robert Bobb. Brown wanted to put housing on a site Bobb preferred for a baseball stadium for the Oakland A’s. Brown forced out Bobb and replaced him with a manager who later was fired for nepotism.

“Jerry wasn’t a sports fan, Robert Bobb was, and so they just bumped heads,” said City Councilman Larry Reid.

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Brown was an approachable mayor. He drank beer with the locals at night at downtown restaurants and talked to the homeless on street corners. He was often seen walking alone with his dog around Lake Merritt.

Reid said Brown’s marriage to Gust grounded him. “She brought some stability to him,” Reid said. He stopped gorging on junk food, exercised more and lost his paunch, the council member said.

“She is the boss,” Reid said of Gust. “Jerry listens to her,” and listening is not his strong suit.

After two terms as mayor, Brown ran for and was elected attorney general. He is using the office as a perch to run for governor, as did his father. It was the attempt for a third term that ended his father’s political career, a risk the son is also taking.

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But Brown has a “backup plan.” It is a ranch he owns near Williams that he leases for cattle grazing. His grandmother was born there in 1878.

“Anne and I are going to build a house up there,” Brown said. “It is quiet. There is a lot of space.” He didn’t really seem to be talking about retirement, though. “Maybe it might be my retreat, my Camp David retreat,” he said.

maura.dolan@latimes.com


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