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Jerry Brown's long political past cuts both ways

Foes have abundant material to mine for their attacks, but Gov. Schwarzenegger may have dulled California voters' attraction to outsiders.

March 05, 2010|By Michael Rothfeld

Reporting from Oakland — When Jerry Brown told Californians this week that he wanted to be their governor again, he reached into the past to explain why they should elect him in the future. His opponents invoked the past to explain why they should not.

For Brown, a Democrat who has spent almost his entire adulthood in public life, 40 years of quotes, speeches, televised interviews and debates are both a blessing and a curse as he seeks to recapture the job he first held in 1975.

In declaring his candidacy, Brown, 71, said his experiences have yielded the knowledge to lead a state riven by partisanship and budget crisis. But in an interview at his Oakland campaign headquarters, he said he understood that his long political history is also, in campaign parlance, "a target-rich environment."

"You can find a number of statements that would not be helpful to my campaign this November," said Brown, the California attorney general, who has no serious competition in the June primary election. "But so what? I've lived a life. I am not some guy who has been in some plastic bubble that has no contact with the hurly-burly of human existence. I've lived and I've seen and I learn, and yes, I can change my mind.

"But I've been very consistent in the things that I've supported," he added. "And my ideas, by the way, today are as current as they were 35 years ago."

At a moment when Californians are as frustrated as ever with the way business is done in Sacramento, the virtues and pitfalls of a long career in politics are likely to bear heavily on the race. Polls show that voters have little regard for state politicians.

On the other hand, Brown points out, many have been disappointed with the choice of a political novice in Arnold Schwarzenegger, and this year's would-be Republican nominees, Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman, have spent little to no time in office.

Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, said Brown has survived in politics living by the maxim made famous by the former U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois: "I'm a man of principle, and one of my principles is flexibility."

"No one should underestimate Jerry Brown's suppleness," Pitney said. "He is a formidable, formidable opponent. His long public record is a potential vulnerability, and he's as aware of that as anybody."

Brown has spent 16 years in three statewide offices and eight as Oakland's mayor, waged failed runs for president (three times) and U.S. Senate (once) and served a stint as state Democratic Party chairman. And he has reinvented himself time and again.

He fought Proposition 13, the landmark measure that limited property taxes, then embraced it after voters approved it in 1978. He left politics after losing the Senate race to Pete Wilson, then reemerged to become state Democratic chairman. Six years after his 1992 presidential bid, he won election as the nuts-and-bolts Oakland mayor and then turned to his current law-and-order job.

After Brown's announcement Tuesday, opponents painted him as yesterday's man. "This election will be about the future of California, not the past," Poizner said in a statement.

The leading Republican, former EBay chief Whitman, said Thursday that she needed to "set the record straight" on Brown. "He has been on both sides of many issues," she said. "There's a flip-flopping here . . . that is disingenuous."

Whitman's aides have boasted of having a team of researchers seeking ammunition in long-forgotten articles and public records on Brown's governorship.

As Brown launched his campaign, Whitman's camp issued "Part I" of a pre-prepared "Voter's Guide" on Brown, seeking to rebut his call to reduce state spending by highlighting his $230,000 office remodel as attorney general. To undercut his call to limit taxes, her campaign noted his push to raise fees as Oakland mayor. Aides tried to undermine his claim that experience matters by producing a 1974 newspaper article from his first run for governor with quotes of him calling his relative lack of experience "a big advantage."

And when Brown told CNN's Larry King that he would not fly around the world, as Schwarzenegger has, and would focus on the budget, a Whitman news release cited trips Brown made to Japan and Africa when he was governor.

"A lot of things they say are not true," Brown said. "I didn't travel very much."

In other areas, Brown's history may not play well simply because the state has changed. Gary Jacobson, a UC San Diego political science professor, said that's easy for Brown to address.

"He can say that was then, this is now . . ., and the world we faced in the '70s is not the world we are facing now," Jacobson said.

For instance, Brown, as governor during a time of great growth in California, preached a philosophy of limits, which included slowing highway construction. Brown said times are more complicated now.

"Drive down Wilshire Boulevard; it's much more crowded than it was 30 years ago," he said.

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