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Older and wiser, Brown proudly embraces his father's legacy

Jerry became governor eight years after his father, a self-described 'big government man,' lost a bruising race for a third term. Now the son who preached an 'era of limits' marvels at the elder Brown's accomplishments.

October 26, 2010|By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times

At times, Jerry Brown seemed to go out of his way to distance himself from his father.

Edmund G. Brown Sr., California's governor from 1959 to 1967, called himself a "big government man." He built aqueducts, universities and freeways. He liked to shake hands with strangers and slap them on the back. A block might take him half an hour to walk because he greeted everyone he passed.

His only son, Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., could be aloof, even acerbic. He became governor eight years after his father lost a bruising race for a third term. The son preached an "era of limits" and railed against the kind of politics his father practiced.

Now the brash young governor who thought he knew it all marvels at his father's accomplishments, both privately and publicly. He is acutely aware of Pat Brown's admired legacy, and invokes his name with reverence.

Brown says he is wiser now — an admission that he was wanting before — and that he has mastered the nuts and bolts of governance. He even tries to smile more.

"I was looking for new ideas," Brown said of his first two terms as governor. "I wanted to break the stagnation. Right now the ideas are pretty clear. We need management and forging a consensus and a common purpose regardless of party…. The very extreme positions will not hold."

Is he attempting to vindicate himself, eying his father's legacy and finding his own lacking? Or is his candidacy a calculated stroke, fueled by the strong ego and ever restless spirit that has primed his previous reinventions?

For answers, Brown points to the writings of a 4th century philosopher and developer of Christian thought.

St. Augustine wrote about "not going back to what was said before, always creating and finding new things…," Brown said. "Life is a discovery, and you are always learning and formulating anew."

A career politician who portrayed himself as anti-politician, Brown, 72, could become the oldest California governor ever elected, just as he was once one of the youngest. With his presidential ambitions muted — he ran three times, twice while he was governor — Brown would no longer be distracted by dreams of higher office, said Wally McGuire, who worked with Brown during the early years.

"He knows his father left certain big things, and now he wants to leave a legacy as governor," said McGuire.

The bachelor governor who dated famous actresses and had a love affair with a rock star now gets a senior discount. Most of his hair is gone, and time has left a slight stoop in his shoulders. Friends say the years also have mellowed him.

They cite two events they say indelibly marked Brown: his two terms as Oakland mayor and his 2005 marriage to Anne Gust, a corporate lawyer.

As mayor, Brown found that environmental and political reform laws he had championed stood in the way of bringing life back to a dead downtown. After a governorship spent pressing their goals, he enraged environmentalists by making downtown Oakland exempt from a key environmental law.

His marriage to Gust, 52, formerly the chief administrative officer of Gap Inc., both softened and disciplined him, friends said. She got him out of Nehru shirts and into suits and moved with him from a crime-infested neighborhood in Oakland's flatlands to a $2-million house in the city's wooded hills.

"He is far less anxious than he used to be when we were young," said Tom Quinn, a longtime friend and political aide. "He realizes you have to be patient at times and be persuasive, that you just can't bend people to your will by wanting it to happen."

It's all relative, to be sure, for much about Jerry Brown remains unchanged. His mind travels rapidly, and he is wont to examine a decision from every angle. When he was governor, he would endlessly debate bills on his desk and call an aide at midnight to announce what he had decided. He also has labored over decisions as attorney general.

Brown solicits advice but follows his own instincts. He ignored friends who urged him to run for an obtainable U.S. Senate seat in 1992, instead mounting a quixotic and unsuccessful campaign for president. He eschewed suggestions that he retire comfortably after a second term as attorney general rather than bloody himself by running to govern a state in crisis.

He still shoots from the hip. His mouth has repeatedly embarrassed his campaign this year, prompting apologies to both his opponent and a former Democratic president. He can be combative when challenged, dismissive of critics and likely to turn an interview inside out by firing off questions like gunshots instead of answering them.

During an interview with CNBC last year, Brown put a piece of paper in front of his face and told reporters not to interview him if they thought he had filed a fraud case for political publicity. "Are you pimping for the defendant in this case?" he demanded.

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