OAKLAND — Say this for Jerry Brown, who's been pilloried and parodied, sneered at and scorned to a fare-thee-well: He's enjoying the last laugh.
Enjoy is a relative term, of course, for the famously ascetic Edmund G. Brown Jr. What with the elevation of Gray Davis, his former right hand, to his old job as governor, Brown allows as how his days as a political punch line may have finally passed.
Referring to his role as chief Republican boogeyman in the campaign just ended, Brown said, "To the extent they're running ads that backfire or prove totally ineffective . . . obviously that's some indication" his frightfulness has faded. But, he hastened, "I'm not going to get too excited about it."
There is the future to contemplate, and what might be has always been far more entrancing to Brown than what has passed. In seven weeks, Brown will become mayor of Oakland on the same day Davis raises his hand and becomes governor of California.
But Brown insists, "I'd rather be where I am than where he is." Why? "Because we can do something here. The mayor is a very specific type of activity, there's real estate, schools, crime, transit. The issues are embodied. I'd say in Sacramento, the issues tend to be disembodied."
Speaking at length for the first time since the election, California's last Democratic governor offered the next one some advice ("Get as much done as you can in the first year"), disparaged his old job ("The governor presides over forces and tries to make himself look like he's in charge"), and insisted he won't bow and scrape before his former underling ("It's the other way around. The governor can only be successful if cities are successful").
The interview in the mayor-elect's habitat/office in a converted warehouse in yuppified Jack London Square was a postelection coming out of sorts for Brown. He was conspicuously inconspicuous throughout the gubernatorial campaign--to the evident relief of Davis, it might be added.
Here's some reckoning why: Looking ahead, Brown was no less harsh than Republican nominee Dan Lungren in suggesting the sway special interests will hold over Democrats in Sacramento.
"These big issues, like what goes to the schools, that will be an issue of what the [California Teachers Assn.] wants," said Brown, who styled himself the scourge of big-money politics before quitting his radio talk-show gig last year to run for mayor. "You want to talk about Medi-Cal, you talk to the [California Medical Assn.] . . . . That's the way it works."
At the least, Brown went on, he expects the new governor to bring more balance to California's courts--"The judiciary's basically been turned over to the district attorneys"--words that might have curled Davis' well-kept coiffure if uttered in a campaign context. After all, Lungren tried strenuously throughout the race to affix a soft-on-crime label to Davis, who spent seven years as chief of staff to a governor who outspokenly opposed the death penalty.
Not that Brown had much influence over Davis once he ran for office on his own. Indeed, their relationship is largely nonexistent, according to one who knows both well. Davis never publicly repudiated Brown during the gubernatorial campaign, but neither did they link arms and stump together in the fashion of Lungren and his two Republican predecessors, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson.
"I've talked to [Davis] from time to time, but not a lot," Brown said. Did his former deputy ever seek advice? "No," Brown replied, "but neither did my sister." (Four years ago, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Brown lost in spectacular fashion to Wilson.)
When Jerry Brown crashed a Davis appearance at an Oakland subway station the day after the Nov. 3 election, the discomfort of Davis was plain. After a handshake and the briefest exchange of pleasantries, Davis whirled and desperately sought a hand, any other hand, to shake.
Brown professed not to notice. A mite frosty? "I didn't think so," Brown said. Still, he couldn't resist pointing out the bear hug Davis shared with his former Assembly mate and Oakland's outgoing mayor, Elihu Harris.
"That was never my style of greeting, nor did I ever see Gray doing that," Brown said. "But maybe since he has some experience in the legislative locker room, he developed a greater huggability than when he worked for me. So maybe that will serve him well in the coming months."
That sort of gentle needling was threaded throughout the two-hour conversation with Brown. Repeatedly, he mixed praise for Davis' skills--calling him better prepared than any governor-elect in decades--with ridicule of his successful campaign: Aside from protecting abortion rights and maintaining a narrow ban on assault-type weapons, what's his mandate? Brown demanded.
"Campaigns are to win," he scoffed, claiming a fundamental disconnection between the tactics required to win office and the go-ahead needed to successfully govern. "Period. End of story."
His critique aside, Brown professed to scarcely have followed the governors campaign, fixed as he was on his own June race for Oakland mayor and, since then, the transition before taking office. He did, however, notice that a late-October Los Angeles Times Poll showed Brown more popular than Lungren.
"That says Republicans exhausted that particular line," he said of the Brown-as-Moonbeam mantra that sustained the California GOP for the better part of 16 years, ever since Brown lost to Wilson in a 1982 bid for the U.S. Senate. "So now they're going to have to find someone else."
Was he suggesting that California is poised for a wave of Jerry Brown nostalgia, perhaps featuring a run on Linda Ronstadt recordings, renewed small-is-beautiful sentiment and Davis requisitioning an old blue Plymouth to tool about town?
"Not yet," the two-term governor and thrice-failed presidential hopeful demurred, dryly. "My being mayor may delay that process. It will take a while."