Friday, March 12, 2010




So far, the most interesting thing about the formal entry of Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown into the run for governor has been the reaction of the two megabucks Republicans now vying so avidly and expensively to be his November rival. Or maybe to be his unwitting foil for the fall election season.

Both former eBay chief Meg Whitman and current state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner greeted Brown by calling him an old-fashioned tax-and-spend liberal.

But neither was anywhere near California during most of Brown’s previous eight years as governor. So maybe they don’t know he was the guy who often employed the terms “small is beautiful” and "an era of limits" to describe what government should be. Or that he’s the fellow who vetoed three bills giving state employees raises – in one year. Or that he fought a raise for university professors by reminding them of their “psychic rewards.”

It was awful, griped Jon Coupal, the head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, in a conference call set up by the Whitman campaign, that Brown saddled several new parcel taxes upon Oakland during his recent eight years as mayor.

Yep, responded Brown, there were some of those. “Are (Coupal and Whitman) saying the people don’t have the right to vote more money for police and schools if that’s what they want?” he asked incredulously. “Every one of those taxes was approved by two-thirds of the people who pay the tax. Are they trying to tell the people what to do? Anyone who says the people shouldn’t have the right to tax themselves is living in an ivory tower. That’s fundamental to democracy.”

If other charges leveled at him this year prove as easy for him to fend off as those first ones, Brown will have fun this fall.

He didn’t seem to have much fun during his last-go’round as governor.

Back then, he said in an interview, “I wanted to be governor because I thought it was an important and exciting job and I was drawn to it. I had seen my father do it and I thought I could do it well.”

He slept on a mattress on the floor of a bare apartment near the state Capitol. He famously rode around in an ultra-unpretentious powder blue Plymouth sedan. About the only fun he had, it seemed, was when he dated singer Linda Ronstadt.

Things are different now, and Brown says he is, too. He and his wife of five years, Anne Gust, live in the Oakland hills rather than the gritty downtown neighborhood he called home while mayor. “I go home at night more now,” he said. “I know I don’t need this job. But I would like to bring back a time when people worked together even if they came from different parties.”

It’s almost as if he’s saying he wants to clean up the mess made by his various successors. But can he or anyone accomplish much when Republicans who deviate from the party line risk either recall or getting knocked off in the next primary election? When Democrats who cast an anti-union vote often lose party support for their next campaign?

Brown thinks he can do it in part because he’s changed profoundly since leaving office in 1983. “I’ve seen a lot more, I’m more patient,” he said. “Being mayor of Oakland was an eye opener. Half the people in my neighborhood were below the poverty line, there were parolees just out of Pelican Bay. It gave me a real-life feel that has grounded me.”

Brown does not expect to resolve the ongoing budget mess instantly, figuring that will take at least two years. “We’ll have to hold spending down and develop a plan with everyone on board,” he said. “Starting in December, I’ll meet with every single legislator. The Republicans should say where they want to cut, too, and then we’ll work it out. Plus, I believe the economy will come back – it has every time we’ve had a recession for the last hundred years. Is California finished? That’s absurd. With a total economy of more than $1.5 trillion, our budget is less than 2 percent of the gross state product.

“The Republicans have not yet identified just how they would solve things. So you have to put the spotlight on them. Is there waste? Well, we’ve already cut $60 billion in the last three years. But one thing is for sure: California government can’t continue unless we pull together. And we can do it because I don’t believe the Republicans want to destroy California.”

That’s a speech the Jerry Brown of the 1970s and ‘80s could never have made.

So this time, it’s Brown who’s after a psychic reward, the satisfaction of restoring California’s luster. The bottom line: Even if he’s severely outspent by whichever ultra-rich Republican he faces, all indications are he will have plenty of fun this year, and maybe far beyond.

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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