Anne Gust Brown: Much more than California's first lady

Compared to the glamour and swagger of the Schwarzenegger/Shriver years, California's present governor and his wife are a couple of homebodies with a touch of the workaholic. Indeed, some Californians may be surprised to know that Jerry Brown has been married for the last seven years — to a woman he'd dated for 15 more. Anne Gust Brown is a Stanford grad and Bay Area lawyer who spent years as an executive at the Gap before she joined her husband's campaigns and his staff as an unpaid aide, first when he ran for attorney general and now, in his return to the governorship after nearly 30 years. She is often joined at the Capitol offices by the first dog, Sutter the corgi.

How would you write your job description?

My title is special advisor, in addition to first lady. I try to find where I can be most helpful in giving advice.

Jacqueline Kennedy said "first lady" sounded like the name of a race horse.

That's a great line. I also am not that fond of the title, but I didn't have a great quip like that.

There are women who give up their careers for their husbands'. Does that define what you did?

I don't think that defines it, although at the time we decided to get married, I had already decided to leave the Gap and move on. I might have gone on more boards, things like that, but Jerry really did want me to get involved with helping him on running his attorney general campaign and then helping in the AG office. It's been fascinating and fun in terms of the work, and it's strengthened our relationship too.

Who drags whom out of the office at night?

Usually I'm dragging him. Between Sutter the dog, who needs to get home to eat or do his business, one of the two of us is dragging him out. I am married to a person who likes to work seven days a week. He loves what he does and finds it not only his vocation but his hobby.

The governor has a tax measure on the November ballot. What about the potentially competing education tax measure sponsored by attorney Molly Munger?

I don't feel that it'll be much of a problem. We were worried more about the prior initiative [put forward by the California Federation of Teachers] because [it] was very popular, and to have two competing popular tax initiatives I thought was a worry. I was glad we were able to agree to move forward together. The Munger initiative is just very different, and I don't think it's as much a direct competitor.

I gather you called her to get a sense of whether she'd take her measure off the ballot.

No, actually she's the one who's reached out to me a number of times, probably three or four conversations.

California already taxes the wealthy a lot; we have Proposition 13, passed when the governor was first in office. Isn't it time to blow up some tax boxes?

I think everyone would love to do serious tax reform, Jerry included. It's a struggle. Arnold had a commission that came up with recommendations, and they seemed to be almost dead on arrival. It's a very complex system. People hate it [yet] they're invested in it. The devil they know is better than the devil they don't, so it's very hard to change. Right now we've got to stabilize our fiscal house, get our budget back in balance, which he went a long way last year to doing.

What are the misconceptions about the governor? I'm thinking of "aloof," "cool," "intellectual."

That would be a misconception. He's very intelligent, but he's a very caring and warm person.

There's about 20 years between you two. Do you bring him a perspective he might not otherwise encounter?

From our ages, no, I don't think so, although there is the random reference he'll make to something I've never heard of, or vice versa. Where I've brought perspective is mostly from my business background.

I don't think of him as a Luddite. Is he?

Jerry? Noooo. Are you kidding? He's very keen on all of his technology. He can tweet; he's very savvy.

It's trendy to say government should be run like a business. Would that work?

Business is just very different from how we have structured government, so I don't think that's comparable. Certainly there are efficiencies and good business practices that can be applied in government, but Jerry isn't like a chief executive officer of a company who can pretty much set directions, decide, hire, fire everyone in the company, and reports only to a board of directors. [In] government there's a chief executive, the governor, but there's a legislature and a court system, and constraints on each one that you don't find in companies.

People in politics always remark on how different campaigning is from governing.

It's like building up a whole company for one day of sales, and then you shut it down. You win or lose based on whether you can get 50 plus 1% of sales, so it's a very odd business model because you live or die off that one day. In government, you have to think for the long term. You make decisions that aren't just about what happens today but what's best for a longer period of time.

During the gubernatorial campaign, the media got hold of a voicemail in which someone is heard using the word "whore" about Republican candidate Meg Whitman's efforts to get police endorsements. Was it ever resolved whose voice that was?

No, I don't think it was.

You don't think it was you?

I have no idea, in honesty. I listened to that tape. There were two versions; one they called an enhanced version. The first, I couldn't even hear what they were talking about. The enhanced version sounded like not someone I knew. There were about 12 people all around talking. If you listen to this tape you would know, and to be honest with you, I didn't spend a whole lot of time thinking about it.

You were registered first as a Republican, then "decline to state," now as a Democrat. Has your politics changed or has the country's?

I would say it's the country's politics. I was registered Republican more in my youth. I came from a Republican family in Michigan. My dad ran for lieutenant governor with Mitt Romney's father. So I was a registered Republican; I think that's natural. When I went to Stanford, the first presidential campaign I got involved with was John Anderson [in 1980], and he was independent. I would say, though, that being a Republican back then was very different. You didn't have the social issues that they seem very obsessed on.

I think the Republicans have changed quite a bit, so I couldn't feel now I could ever register as a Republican.

Do you have a philosophy of government — what it should do, what it shouldn't do?

It's hard to express a philosophy without it becoming a label. I do think there are certain areas where government serves people better, areas where people really can't do [for] themselves, like public safety, like roads, like making sure the food supply is safe, making sure the environment is protected. People either can't do them for themselves or they wouldn't be inclined to do them on their own. I think when government veers off into places where we're restricting and regulating beyond what really is necessary, [that's] when government becomes its worst.

What's your office culture? A flattened hierarchy? You probably don't have ping-pong tables like Google.

Do you have some spy inside here? We were thinking of getting one to put out in the little courtyard [where] Arnold had a smoking tent.

I think we're an informal environment. Jerry is not someone who likes things prepackaged and presented to him. If he has [an issue] related to the environmental agency, he'll go talk to someone at the environmental agency. He's not going to wait for that to come up the chain of command.

What's surprised you about how government works, or doesn't?

It isn't a surprise, what I'm about to say, but it's always a disappointment -- how you wish government was a little more functional and that the Legislature was a little more on the same sheet, pushing initiatives forward for all of California. I take solace in the fact that it's so much better here than it seems to be at the federal level, where there just seems to be a culture that they don't want the current president to succeed at any cost, including cost to the country. I don't think there's that sort of animosity here, but you do wish people could be more all in the same boat, rowing in the same direction.

Are you and the governor one of those couples who read aloud to each other at the breakfast table?

He's always trying to engage [me] in the story he's reading, and I'm always trying to get him to just be quiet so I can finish reading the story I'm reading.

Do people buttonhole you two in public?

They accost Jerry and want his picture all the time. Whenever I am out without Jerry, I usually have my dog, and that's all anyone cares about. Sutter is very famous in Sacramento.

Who does Sutter love more?

Me, of course!

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at

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