Edmund G. Brown Jr., longtime champion of women's rights and women's causes, has found himself caught in a sudden tide of feminist opposition, suspicion and doubt about his 1989 political comeback.
The reason is the re-emergent but ever-familiar political issue of abortion.
The former two-term governor and two-time presidential contender is seeking to win a four-year term as chairman of the California Democratic Party, a position to be filled by a vote of the 2,800 or so delegates who will gather in Sacramento next month at the party's annual convention.
Among the delegates are active and influential feminist leaders. Some are worried and others furious about Brown's newly voiced personal opposition to abortion and his surprise support for a woman who is one of the United States' most determined anti-abortion crusaders.
Their concern is heightened as the new conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court re-examines abortion rights, 15 years after the landmark Roe vs. Wade case.
The dispute has triggered letter-writing campaigns by the besieged Brown and his feminist opponents. It has become a source of open contention between the ex-governor and his up-from-the-ranks dark-horse opponent for the job of party chair, investment banker Steve Westley of Menlo Park. Westley is campaigning as the only candidate unequivocally in support of abortion rights.
"The whole matter of choice, it's raising the question, 'What is Jerry Brown all about?' " said Ron DiNicola, a Los Angeles attorney and Westley supporter. "For a long time in the party, the question has been where was Jerry? Now the issue is, who is Jerry?"
Amid this kind of expressed concern, Brown dispatched a three-paragraph letter to all 2,800 delegates.
Brown wrote, "Quite simply, I believe that government should not interfere with the right of a woman to choose for herself on the question of abortion. That is her choice.
"Nor should the state pressure anyone in this regard by withholding funding from government-sponsored health plans. This is a matter of utmost privacy and touches the deepest part of us. Government and politics should be far removed."
The letter did not mention Brown's opposition to abortion, first articulated a year ago.
At that time, Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, was not on the political comeback trail. He told an interviewer for the National Catholic News Service that abortion is "killing the unborn." Brown concluded that abortion was "crazy" and showed how "we've organized society to be anti-life."
He went further. He supported freeing Joan Elizabeth Andrews from a Florida prison, where she had been serving a five-year sentence for her part in storming a Pensacola abortion clinic and damaging equipment. Two clinic workers were injured. He called it a "civil rights matter."
This was a turnaround for Brown. As governor from 1975 to 1982, his administration was strongly pro-abortion and sought public financing of abortions for women who could not otherwise afford them.
Brown's new candidacy and the flap over abortion has driven seven women leaders of various feminist organizations to counter with a letter of their own addressed to Democratic convention delegates. The two-page letter dated Jan. 25 says, "We don't need leaders who might allow the party to backslide on this issue."
It is not enough to quietly support abortion as any woman's right, the letter said.
"The California Democratic Party must continue to play a leadership role in the fight," the letter states.
Signers included the chair of the National Abortion Rights Action League, two co-chairs of the California Abortion Rights Action League, the state coordinator of National Organization for Women, a state official of the National Women's Political Caucus, the coordinator of Women For and the chair of the Democratic Party Women's Caucus.
The women also noted that Brown has refused several invitations to speak out on one abortion issue that has become a controversial part of the California Democratic Party platform: the right of adolescent girls to receive an abortion without parental consent.
On Sunday at the Norwalk meeting of delegates, Brown seemed to inch closer to feminist demands.
"I have no difficulty as state party chair in defending the whole party platform," he said.
As usual, abortion was the first question thrown at Brown when he stepped in front of the group.
But several abortion supporters in the audience remained uneasy.
"I listened, and I've come to the conclusion I just don't trust him," said Marcela Howell, a signer of the feminist letter and chair of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
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Although Brown does not use the words himself, his aides describe him as "pro-choice" in the mold of other Democratic Party leaders around the nation. That is, he personally opposes abortion but believes in the rights of others to choose for themselves.
"It's kind of sad that pro-choice Democrats are attacking pro-choice Democrats when we need to unite against anti-choice Republicans," said Cliff Staton, press deputy and one of a growing army of paid Brown campaign aides.
But rival candidate Westley sees its differently. Brown is muddying the water with equivocal statements on an issue of increasing importance to Democrats, he told the delegates gathering in Norwalk.
"I think that sends the wrong message," he said. "I will send one message."