Reporting from Sacramento — Jerry Brown was livid.
After courting a number of police unions in his bid for governor, the Democratic nominee and California attorney general had just learned that he had lost an endorsement to his Republican rival, Meg Whitman, and feared others would follow.
Fuming as he huddled with a small group of advisors in his Oakland headquarters, Brown ordered an aide to call another police union. Then Anne Gust, Brown's wife and political confidant, stepped in.
"No, no, no, no," she said sharply. "Jerry, let's not sound desperate. OK? Really, let's not sound desperate. Now just move on. You've left messages."
The exchange was inadvertently captured in a voice mail that also featured an unidentified aide's use of the word "whore" to describe Whitman's jockeying on the issue of public pensions. It provides a rare window into the critical role Gust has been playing in her husband's political career as she helps steer his gubernatorial campaign in the final weeks of a rough-and-tumble race.
Gust, 52, says she mostly does fundraising for her husband's operation. Others say her role is much bigger.
"She's running the campaign," said Joe Cotchett, a Bay Area trial lawyer, major Democratic donor and longtime Brown friend. "It's absolutely clear that she is the strategist in the campaign."
Friends, aides and former staffers say Gust is the common-sense counter to Brown's philosophical whimsy, a former corporate lawyer attuned to detail and deadlines who tempers her husband's frenetic ways. It's a role she has played before, as his previous campaign manager and as de facto chief of staff in the attorney general's office. She could reprise it if Brown, who decades ago served two terms as governor, is elected Nov. 2.
Gust has her critics, who say her outsize role in the campaign has made Brown less receptive to outside counsel, walling off what they describe as an insular, ego-driven operation. They ask: How can Gust, someone with little professional political experience, run a campaign for California governor from a cubicle in an Oakland warehouse, with a dozen paid staffers?
Campaign insiders declined to talk about Gust on the record because they weren't authorized to speak publicly and feared alienating her or Brown. But one source close to the operation said her intense involvement promotes "a 'we'll show you, us against them' mentality."
The results hardly argue for a pink slip: The race is tied, with recent polls giving the edge to Brown, in the face of a record $141.5 million spent by Whitman from her personal checkbook. The Republican's campaign boasts dozens of consultants and a presidential-size staff of at least 75. A phone list on Gust's computer contains three names, next to a childhood picture of Brown.
Gust has been directly responsible for Brown's fundraising, helping to pull in more than $30 million — and then insisting, according to aides, that the campaign keep its powder dry for much of the summer while Whitman launched an unrelenting ad barrage. The strategy, derided by Democratic consultants, relied on the assumption that many voters simply weren't paying attention then.
"I think a lot of the campaign stuff, it's kind of common sense," Gust said in an interview in Brown's Oakland headquarters last month, resting her feet on a coffee table. "Because, as someone who likes politics and watches it, you kind of know what can resonate and not. I also know Jerry well enough to know what sorts of things he would agree to or not agree to."
Indeed, friends say Gust and Brown have an uncanny mind-meld. "You talk to Anne, it's almost as if you're talking to Jerry," said former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, who has known the couple for seven years and speaks to them regularly.
Brown agreed, saying his wife's role in the campaign is a natural extension of their marriage.
"There are a lot of businesses where a husband and wife run the business," he said. "We live together. We work together. We go to the gym together.... It's a life that we're leading, and it so happens that at this moment in time it includes this campaign."
Their relationship dates to 1990, when Brown was head of the California Democratic Party. The two met at a San Francisco fundraiser, bonding over a lawsuit. Brown was being sued by a delegate whose convention speech had been cut short. Gust offered to represent him. Brown, known to be tight with a dollar, asked how much it would cost.
"I agreed to do it for free for him," she said, laughing. "He's very frugal."
Gust's laser focus comes from her background as a corporate lawyer. She was general counsel and chief administrative officer of the clothing retailer Gap Inc. for 14 years, with a reputation for tackling challenges head-on. In 2004, she surprised executives and activists by ordering and releasing a "social responsibility" report that detailed poor working conditions in the company's foreign factories.