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Jerry Brown: Maybe There’s Method In That Madness

Author: Peter Schrag
Created: 20 August, 2010
Updated: 13 September, 2023
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5 min read

California Progress Report

   Would Jerry Brown, the one-time Jesuit seminarian, rather be right than be elected?

   In Sacramento, at least a few Democrats worry that the attorney general, former governor and former mayor of Oakland is still too much frozen into his old moralizing anti-politics posture to campaign vigorously enough, scrabble for money and engage in the mud wrestling that both his billionaire opponent Meg Whitman and the media seem to be itching for.

   In some polls, they say, Whitman, who’s been spending lavishly on Spanish-language ads, appears to have the support of some 43 percent of Latino voters. Today’s Latino voters, they say, are too young to remember Brown’s years as governor in the 1970s and early 1980s, much less his support of the United Farm Workers and friendship with UFW President Cesar Chavez.

   More fundamentally, Brown used to pride himself on being something other than an ordinary pol. As governor, he lived in a simple apartment near the Capitol, eschewed limousines for an ordinary Plymouth and, in one race, promised to take no political contribution exceeding $100. He was the paradigm of the anti-politician politician.

   But maybe there’s method in Brown’s decision to hold back – and it’s not only that Whitman can outspend him ten-fold. People working in his bare bones campaign in Oakland argue that despite the $100 million-plus Whitman has spent so far — $30 million since the June primary — she hasn’t moved at all in the polls since the primary. If anything, they believe, she’s “oversaturated” the media with her ads, wearing out her welcome and her credibility.

   Brown’s people also argue out that the Field Poll numbers cited by those Sacramento Democrats about her support from Latino voters are based on a very small sub-sample of the poll. In a larger sample from a June poll by NALEO, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, Brown is leading Whitman 48 to 15. That was before she started catering to Latinos, and when she was still in her immigrant-bashing mode but it’s nonetheless an indication.

   That she’s now trying to associate Brown’s record as Oakland’s mayor with the pension and pay scandals in Bell, her campaigners believe, are signs that Whitman’s own consultants know that despite all the money they’re spending she’s not making any real progress.

   So when will the Brownies begin to start their media campaign? The answer – a typical Jerry Brown response – is not until they need to, meaning when they think people are really paying attention – or when Whitman’s campaign gains some traction. “It’s not a good decision,” said one, “to spend money in the summer.” They have $24 million in the bank, and they’re saving it. Steve Poizner, Whitman’s opponent in the Republican primary, spent his money early, they say, and peaked too soon.

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   It may in fact be true, at least in Whitman’s case, that the medium is the message: What her carpet bombing campaign tells, more than anything else, is that she has no end of money. But what she so far conveyed in substance – certainly to some in the media – and maybe even to the voters, is that on substance she’s got little.

   Cut 44,000 state workers? From where – the universities, the prisons, the Highway Patrol? California already has among the fewest public employees of any state as a percentage of state residents. In the meantime, she’s become notorious for her vacillation on immigration – for and against Arizona’s SB1070; for and against legalization; for and against public education for illegal aliens.

   None of that means that Brown will necessarily win. She may not beat him but he could well beat himself. Years ago, he was often his own worst enemy. As governor he sometimes sounded more like California’s chief moralist than its chief executive.

   Often he may have been right – talking about lowering expectations and the virtues of small; exhorting university professors and other public employees to accept reduced pay because they were getting psychic rewards; excoriating the universities for their failure to adequately serve their students. But it was better for the cartoonists than for his political career. 

   Brown took a lot of blame for dithering while frightened homeowners, facing escalating property tax bills, lined up to sign petitions for what became Proposition 13. But it wasn’t just Brown’s inattention that contributed to the tax revolt; it was his own poor-mouthing of the services that those taxes helped support.

   But we may have a very different Jerry Brown this year: a candidate who’s more pragmatic and focused, less enamored of space programs, as he was thirty years ago, and the charms of anti-politics.

   Certainly he’s been vigorous as attorney general – both politically and substantively in his role as the state’s chief law enforcement official. Hardly a day goes by without another announcement of an investigation of consumer fraud or political corruption; prosecution of elder abuse in nursing homes; innovation in the use of DNA evidence of other new technologies in convicting violent criminals.

   Yes, it’s politics, but it’s also a sign that here is a public official who seems to have grown beyond his disdain for the business he’s been in all his life. Certainly that’s what his people are hoping for, and what a lot of others who remember the old Jerry Brown must be hoping for as well.

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