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Gov. Brown reinvents himself as the anti-politician politician

In his latest campaign, Gov. Jerry Brown isn't chasing the spotlight, instead continuing to run California more or less on an improvisational basis.

March 23, 2014|By Anthony York and Mark Z. Barabak
  • California Gov. Jerry Brown launches his 2014 reelection campaign without pomp and circumstance, as he files his paperwork at the Alameda County's Registrar of Voters office in Oakland.
California Gov. Jerry Brown launches his 2014 reelection campaign without… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

SACRAMENTO — On a recent Thursday morning, Jerry Brown walked unannounced into the basement office of the Alameda County registrar's office to draw reelection papers. With a post on Twitter and an email to supporters, he then declared his bid for an unprecedented fourth term as California governor.

The moment — low-key, offhand, deliberately anticlimactic — captured the essence of the Democrat's newest incarnation: Late in life, at age 75 and apparently done seeking higher office, Brown has reinvented himself again, this time as the anti-politician politician.

He shuns most trappings of the office. There's no motorcade, no entourage. The governor showed up at the elections department with a lone campaign advisor and his wife, who snapped a photo using her smart phone.

Brown fashions many of his own speeches, veto messages and even press releases. His staff in the governor's office is about half that of his Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who employed as many as 230.

He often goes months without a public appearance, sometimes holed up at his home in the Oakland hills, calling authors, experts and others he wrings for information — conversations that usually open, "Hello, this is Jerry Brown. Do you have a minute?"

It is as though Brown wants to run the most populous state in the nation more or less by himself, tackling matters large (California's budget) and small (picking a poem to mark Arbor Day) with the same degree of supreme confidence and minimal public display.

"A lot of organizations quickly take on extra layers and unnecessary procedures ... just to carry on the business," Brown said in an interview. "We're leaner, and I think more coherent as a result."

Brown being Brown, there are the usual idiosyncrasies.

For three days last summer, as the federal government hurtled toward a shutdown, the governor checked out to attend a conference in Oakland on the ideas of the late social critic Ivan Illich, opening the session by noting the two met in the 1970s at Green Gulch, a Zen monastery in Marin County.

llich, who had been a Jesuit priest, railed against institutionalized education, the prevalence of automobiles and modern medicine — or, as the Jesuit-educated Brown put it that day, challenged "the certitudes of modernity."

For Brown, a spokesman said, the getaway was "the equivalent of you or I going to a baseball game."

The conspicuously inconspicuous approach may be at odds with today's culture of rapid-fire tweets, blogging and around-the-clock news coverage. Other governors huddle with tacticians who stage-manage their public appearances, focus-group their statements and work to shoehorn them into every passing news event.

But ever since his last unsuccessful presidential bid, in 1992, Brown has shown an acute sense of political timing, serving as his own strategist and methodically climbing back to political power one elected post — Oakland mayor, state attorney general, governor — after another. (He has ruled out — reluctantly — a fourth try for the White House in 2016.)

"Going dark is not a strategy I would recommend for 99.9% of other politicians," said Steve Maviglio, who ran Gov. Gray Davis's press operation and served as spokesman for three California Assembly speakers.

For Brown, though, "if not being in the newspaper or in front of the camera every day is working for him, why mess with success?"

Still, there is no shortage of critics.

Costs have soared for one of Brown's pet causes, a $68-billion high-speed rail project, and voters have distinctly cooled on the idea. One of Brown's main GOP rivals for office this year, Neel Kashkari, has made opposition a centerpiece of his campaign.

Another major proposal, a $25-billion project to redistribute water throughout the state, is opposed by environmentalists and others.

Some fellow Democrats, speaking privately to avoid the governor's ire, say he should do more to address the state's soaring pension costs, be more daring in overhauling public education and use his high profile to become a leading national voice in the debates over immigration and same-sex marriage.

Brown, though, appears unmoved by those who question his style, practicing an almost improvisational form of governing, without the office structure or hierarchy typical of most governors. "Making it up as he goes along, day-by-day, depending on the nuances," as one insider put it, speaking anonymously so as not to anger Brown or his wife.

Late into the night, Brown pecks away at his iPhone, conducting his own policy research with a decades' accumulation of sources, people he sorts by subject. "Jerry puts us in silos, silos of expertise and knowledge," said Rusty Areias, a former Central Valley lawmaker whom Brown has known since the 1970s and typically consults about water, agriculture and other rural issues.

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