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Bill Clinton backs Newsom in governor's race

The former president endorses the San Francisco mayor over Jerry Brown in the Democratic primary. Brown and Clinton clashed in the 1992 presidential campaign.

September 16, 2009|Michael Finnegan

Seventeen years after Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown clashed in the 1992 race for the White House, the former president made clear Tuesday that bygones will not be bygones: Clinton signed on to support Brown rival Gavin Newsom in the Democratic primary for governor.

It is highly unusual for a former president to take sides in a California gubernatorial primary.

But the bad blood between Clinton and Brown, now state attorney general, runs deep, much as Newsom would like Californians to believe that Clinton's choice is based on merit alone.

"This is not some kind of payback on Bill Clinton's part," said Garry South, Newsom's strategist. "He doesn't think that way."

"But there is history," South hastened to add. "It is interesting to note, I suppose, that the last time Jerry Brown lost a primary in California, it was to Bill Clinton in 1992, and it was in his home state" in the Democratic presidential contest.

At the time of the 1992 primary, Clinton had all but clinched the nomination and his camp saw Brown's continued presence in the race as a distraction from the looming general election. Tensions between the two men had peaked months earlier, at a March 1992 debate in Chicago, where Brown accused Clinton of "funneling money to his wife's law firm for state business."

"I don't care what you say about me, but you ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife," Clinton snapped, shaking his finger at Brown. "You're not worth being on the same platform as my wife." Brown, Clinton went on, "comes here with his family wealth and his $1,500 suit and makes a lying accusation about my wife."

Brown alleged that Hillary Clinton's dealings in Arkansas, where her husband was governor, were a "major scandal" involving "not only corruption" but an "environmental disaster" because some of her firm's clients were polluters -- not the kind of language quickly forgotten after a primary.

Clinton plans to make two appearances with Newsom on Oct. 5 -- a public event in East Los Angeles and a fundraiser in Los Angeles, South said. Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna confirmed the trip but declined to comment further.

As the schedule indicates, Clinton could be useful to Newsom if he attracts both Latinos and money to the mayor as the June primary nears; Brown presently holds the edge in both areas.

But while Clinton remains popular in California, his ability to persuade many voters to cast ballots for Newsom is open to question.

Steven Glazer, a senior political advisor to Brown, said Clinton's move comes as no surprise, but he declined to elaborate.

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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