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Brown III : Kathleen Brown Has the War Chest, the Poll Results and the Family Ties to Make It to the Governor's Office. The Question Is, What Will She Do Once She Gets There?

August 22, 1993|CATHLEEN DECKER | Cathleen Decker is a Times political writer.

In an hour, Kathleen Brown will make her splashy entrance into the California Democratic Party convention. For now, her supporters are hunched in folding chairs in an anteroom at the gray concrete Sacramento Convention Center, plotting. Some of them had stood in line for hours the day before at Brown's photo booth, where she grasped hands and smiled into the camera for intimate pictures. Others are long-time Brown aides, here to witness yet another steppingstone in her career.

Brown is the California state treasurer, but what brings her here this weekend, two bright and sun-splashed days that will be spent almost completely inside the gloomy convention center, is her quest for the governorship. A formal announcement of her intentions will have to wait until December or January, but with plenty of money in the bank and a constant flow of appearances scheduled throughout the state, it seems nearly a foregone conclusion that Brown will become a candidate. She is seeking to follow her father, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, and her brother, Jerry, in an office that could start to look like a family legacy.

Her convention appearance will be one of her first formal test runs, speaking before the party faithful in what amounts to practice for the 1994 elections.

In the anteroom, the small details that make up a political performance are calculated. When Brown comes in, the volunteers are told, they will wave their signs, facing the television cameras. In the midst of planning what will appear to be a spontaneous rush of affection, however, comes a woman's small, questioning voice. What about the issues? she asks. Are there any position papers?

"Assuming we're talking about a governor's race, that's a long way off," says Duane Peterson, a respected political veteran who today is guiding the Brown volunteers. "Right now, it's about enthusiasm!"

And so it is. When Brown arrives in the convention center arena on this spring morning, her supporters follow Peterson's commands to the letter, going wild in full view of TV cameras. She enters down a center aisle, almost dancing as the crowd sways around her for several minutes, shaking their regal purple-and-gold "Brown" signs as she mounts the stage.

Surveying the crowd, a gleeful smile etches across Brown's face. "I know I'm not supposed to say this, but if my dad were here, he'd say, 'Kathleen, just get up there and say you'll accept and sit down,' " she says to loud applause. And then she launches into her speech, equal parts apple pie and tough, motherly appeals to a California that needs to believe in itself again, a crisp delineation of the state's problems--its sagging economy, troubled schools and increasing crime--that carefully avoids the messiness of solutions.

This is typical Kathleen Brown, say her friends and her foes--a well-organized burst of affection, a bow to the patriarch who looms over her political career, a blithe remark that bespeaks either a breezy confidence or a premature expectation of victory. And on the issues? So far, a lot of unanswered questions.

Yet it seems not to matter. Even if few people have a grasp of who she is, even if her buoyant, native optimism is her best-known political trait, Kathleen Brown is the acknowledged front-runner for governor in 1994. Current polls show her running ahead of her probable Democratic opponent, Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, and, like Garamendi, swamping the Republican incumbent, Pete Wilson. Her campaign chest exceeds $3.5 million.

If political races were won on sheer likability, Brown, who is 47, would be a slam dunk; she exudes born-to-the-mission competence mixed with outright joy. Her ascension into the political stratosphere, after only a few years in public office, has drawn attention around the nation. "She's perceived as the star for the next election cycle," says Harriett Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus.

Yet if supporters see her as a charismatic, pragmatic Democrat, opponents see instead an apparition constructed by good public relations; a sort of one-woman Potemkin village, impressive on the outside but bare on the inside, bereft of the internal compass that guides effective politicians to their destiny. In short, they are asking--more insistently--the same question posed by the woman with the small, questioning voice in the convention anteroom.

Where does she stand? What would she do about the state's budget mess? Where would she lead a California that seems to be yearning for leadership? With less than three years in the treasurer's office and two years before that on the Los Angeles public works board--two decades after her 1970s service on the city school board--does she have what it takes to be governor?

"It's one thing to talk about the problems and another thing to put a solution on the table," says Republican political consultant Donna Lucas, echoing familiar criticisms.

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