Saturday, December 5, 2009




Jerry Brown was in the conference room of a large law firm talking to about 30 of the well-heeled supporters who have provided him enough money to drive off all early competition on the Democratic side of the 2010 run for governor – even before he officially becomes a candidate.

The meeting came just about a week after the California attorney general attended a fund-raiser for the Republican district attorney of San Bernardino County. At the time, he was being raked for this break in strict party politics by his now-departed intra-party rival, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Brown, Newsom’s campaign charged, committed political adultery and “slept with the enemy” by helping the conservative DA, Mike Ramos, raise campaign money.

This unfortunate metaphor inspired some San Francisco newspaper readers to reflect on Newsom’s own admitted adulterous history. “Newsom would know about adultery, wouldn’t he?” observed one.

Brown wasn’t about to tweak his competitor that way, but he was unhappy with the exchange. “It shows how far we’ve gotten from the old civility,” he said, noting he believes Ramos is a sound prosecutor and that law enforcement figures often cross party lines to help each other. As attorney general, Brown is nominally the state’s top lawman.

This dialog between the campaigns, Brown contended to his backers and in an interview the next day, showed what any new governor will have to overcome in order to get things done in Sacramento.

“We need consensus,” he said. “We can’t make things work unless we can get people to agree on the basics.”

That, he said, is why he’s running for governor even though he’ll be 72 by the time of next year’s vote and realizes that getting elected governor “is more like a crucifixion than a coronation.”

He jokes that he’s perfectly suited for the job, because “you need someone who has no political future.”

Brown definitely has a political past, as governor, state party chairman, Los Angeles Community College board member, mayor of Oakland and unsuccessful candidate for both president and the U.S. Senate.

Essentially, he’s saying that while he’s not beyond partisanship, he can work with Republicans. In fact, he says that’s a big reason he wants another crack at the office he held for eight years in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“We’ve got to bring people together,” Brown told his supporters. “There’s poisonous partisanship at work all around the country. There’s also a general grumpiness and the governor is often the recipient of howls of execration. But I love the excitement and adventure of taking a stalemate and moving it to a consensus. I’ve brought people together before and I can again.”

He cites the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act as a leading example from his earlier days as governor. “We got the (United Farm Workers) union and the growers together and got them both to compromise,” he said. “Sure, there might have been some buyer’s remorse later, but it’s actually worked pretty well ever since.”

The prospect of more challenges like that one plainly stimulates this former seminarian. “These things tax one’s intellect and emotions,” he said. “It’s an honorable calling and I don’t see a lot of expertise in doing it (among other candidates),” he observed. “The embedded conflicts in everything from water to the environment and public pensions and the budget take a very knowledgeable, patient, empathetic person to resolve. I may not have all those qualities, but I love the process.”

That’s a more comprehensive, deeper statement of why he wants to be governor again than any other current candidate has made or is likely to make.

It’s probably the reason Brown has led all active prospects in polls taken this year.

“The experts say I’m running well without doing any serious campaigning because I’ve worked in California for a long time and people know me,” he said. “I don’t do any real analysis on why it’s happening this way.”

But he takes nothing for granted. “I know it’s hard to change voter opinion absent very heavy advertising or at least the strong public interest that comes only in the last weeks of a campaign,” he said. “So why has public opinion moved my way at this early time? That’s an unknowable question.”

This statement shows how much Brown has changed. The earlier vintage Gov. Brown would have had an explanation, and probably not a humble one.

Which means this is both the same old Jerry Brown and a very different one. For sure, his hard knocks in presidential campaigns and his failure in a U.S. Senate run gave him pause. He all but disappeared from public life for almost 10 years after Republican Pete Wilson whipped him in the 1982 Senate race.

But every indication is that no one will easily defeat the current Brown, with his combination of old wit and new maturity.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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