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For Many, Jerry Brown Is the Life of the Party

Why is the ex-governor again running for office, this time for attorney general? `Why not run? Why wouldn't I run?' says Oakland's mayor.

April 22, 2006|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

Interesting. Entertaining. Engaging. Charming. Fluent. Nimble. Formidable.

Our subject here is Jerry Brown.

And who uses words like this to describe him? Well, as it happens, it's not only his friends. California's reigning Democratic electoral war horse has cranked up his 11th campaign for public office, and once again he's the talk of politics.

In this case, these exact words are from the mouth of a sworn foe -- a longtime Republican activist who spoke anonymously for the sake of candor but who wants nothing more than to see Brown permanently retired.

That's the thing about Edmund G. Brown Jr. Love him or loathe him, it's hard to deny the strengths of a politician who has always stood apart even when he has been in the center of things.

And the journey is not over. A former governor and son of a former governor, a repeat presidential candidate, a loser for the U.S. Senate, an urban mayor, the brother of a state treasurer who was herself a candidate for governor, Brown is now running for attorney general -- the state's top law enforcement office and, also, a position once held by his father. At 68, he's on the stump in what appears to be high spirits, talking tough about crime, the environment and worker rights, but also having fun coloring outside the lines.

For starters, Brown, now the two-term mayor of Oakland, has his past to contend with.

Didn't he run all those years ago as a fresh-faced reformer? Wasn't he the guy elected Los Angeles Community College trustee in 1969 and secretary of state the following year on a platform "to throw the bums out?"

"Now I have a totally different view," he says, laughing along with his audience at a recent luncheon in Long Beach with maritime executives.

"Forget everything I said. There is no substitute for experience."

Actually, Brown is acutely aware that memories work for him as well as against him, and always have.

In a speech to the Los Angeles Business Council and in a long, relaxed interview with The Times, Brown expounded a candidacy founded on his long experience and his reputation as a maverick and a thinker.

"People say, 'Why are you running?' It's a question I sometimes find irritating. Why not run? Why wouldn't I run?"


Brown began his political apprenticeship early. Among his first memories: sitting on Dad's lap for a family-man campaign portrait of Edmund G. Brown Sr. It was 1943, the boy was 5 and his father was a candidate for San Francisco district attorney. A framed copy of that Pat Brown campaign's slogan is displayed in Jerry Brown's office today: "Crack down on crime, pick Brown this time."

He didn't use to talk about his father much. Now he draws attention to it as evidence of what he calls his "sense of history." No one in California politics can touch him, Brown says, in understanding what works and the way it works. Add it up: 12 years in statewide office, three quixotic runs for the White House, seven years and counting as mayor of a struggling big city.

Interspersed along the journey were intervals of reflection. Brown studied for the priesthood, inquired into the tranquil rituals of Zen Buddhism, tended the sick with Mother Teresa, was the host of a radio talk show, and for a time practiced law.

To him, it is a coherent whole. "You have to have tradition. That's the backbone of stability in our society. But you have to have innovation, or you ossify. I think I know how to match those two."

He describes himself in terms of the Jesuit: "A contemplative in action."


The case against him is told in strings of details and episodes that add up to damning generalities: that he is a radical thinker, that his judgment shows lapses, that he is alternately impulsive and calculating, that he is flighty to the point of, well, weirdness.

Sometimes, one still hears echoes of that old epitaph coined by the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko: "Gov. Moonbeam."

In the June 6 Democratic primary, Brown is paired against Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who has probed for soft spots in Brown's judgment and his recent record. (A recent Field Poll shows Brown with a 41-point lead over Delgadillo.)

Delgadillo needles Brown for writing to officials in Florida in 1988 and urging the release of a headline-grabbing protester with a history of disrupting abortion clinics. Brown, who has a long record of supporting abortion rights, said he wrote on behalf of the woman because she was not convicted of a violent crime and because Mother Teresa asked him to.

Delgadillo has sought to make an argument over Oakland's crime and gangs. He points to statistics showing a spike in the murder rate; Brown offers other numbers showing an overall decline in crime.

If this was a race for governor, perhaps, these statistics and details of Brown's service -- as well as Delgadillo's -- would receive greater scrutiny and reflection. But in a down-ticket contest, most politicking occurs at a different level, schmoozing for endorsements, for volunteer support, for money to be used in advertising.

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