Return of the optimist
Gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown works a friendly crowd at downtown Labor Day rally
By Joe Piasecki 09/09/2010
It’s before 8 a.m. on Labor Day Monday and already Jerry Brown is surrounded by more than a dozen reporters with a barrage of questions for the attorney general and former two-time Democratic governor, who says today’s union-sponsored rally at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles marks the official start of his comeback gubernatorial campaign.
For Republican rival Meg Whitman, the political newcomer and former eBay CEO who’s already spent $104 million of her own money attacking Brown, the war started long ago.
But the Brown camp has kept things comparatively low-key until now, spending less than $2 million so far and relying heavily on support from organized labor — the Pasadena-based unions IEBW Local 11, Operating Engineers Local 12 and California State Association of Electrical Workers contributing a combined $120,000 so far to his campaign.
Brown is releasing his first official television ad only this morning.
As Brown’s time to speak draws near, the 72-year-old is led down a hallway where his tie comes off and he briefly falls into a contemplative, Zen-like silence — hands folded, head bowed.
Without instruction, campaign staff, admirers and journalists instinctively lay off their questions, if only for a minute, until an assistant brings a cup of coffee that Brown downs in a few hurried gulps.
“We’ve got to make tough decisions. We have to live within our means. But if we do, prosperity will return and California will regain its historic position as a place of opportunity and dynamic change,” Brown tells the Weekly, adding that if elected he will begin budget negotiations with the Legislature immediately, even before taking office.
Though he offers few specifics about what those tough decisions will be, everything that Brown says this morning revolves around the same relentless, infectious message of optimism that with him in charge things will get better quickly and for the long haul.
Leaving his tie behind as if to accentuate his bright blue shirt collar, Brown makes a rock star’s entrance from the rear of the cathedral dining hall, the crowd of hundreds of loyal union members and a sprinkling of Democratic politicians — US Sen. Barbara Boxer, incumbent state Secretary of State candidate Debra Bowen, lieutenant governor hopeful Gavin Newsom and Pasadena Assemblyman Anthony Portantino among them — craning their necks to watch every step.
He might as well be Bono in Dublin.
A former secretary of state, longtime mayor of Oakland, two-term governor, sitting attorney general and the son of popular former governor Pat Brown, conventional wisdom should have Brown leading his challenger.
But then again, Whitman’s unprecedented millions in campaign spending is more than 50 times Brown’s.
Heading into the week, just two months away from the election, however, it remained unclear whether either candidate was gaining an edge among likely voters. One poll has Brown down as much as eight points, but in another he’s slightly ahead.
On stage, Brown ignores the horserace.
Instead, he seizes on economic growth through green technology — “the jobs of the future,” he calls them — as a defining issue, promising to put a half-million more people to work by 2020 through proposed state investment in renewable energy.
Recalling a visit to the former Toyota plant in Fremont recently purchased by Tesla motors for the production of electric cars, Brown goes on to claim that the future of the American auto industry is California’s for the taking.
“The idea of it — that we can generate our own energy, that we can recreate an automobile industry right here in California, that’s a goal worth working for. It’s exciting. It’s new. It’s dynamic,” he says.
“As we face a more competitive global economy, we have to be more efficient, more innovative, more incredible, and that’s why the most important thing to do is invest in our skill development, in education, in apprenticeship.”
But even though this is Brown’s moment to define his own campaign, he is also constantly reacting to Whitman’s portrayal of him as a big-government liberal who’ll push jobs out of the state.
Brown criticizes Whitman’s proposed tax cuts as a deficit-coupling giveaway to the wealthy, lays claim repeatedly to the creation of some 2 million jobs during his 1975 to 1983 stint as governor, and pledges to be a frugal executive while recalling his own vows of poverty as a seminary student prior to his political career.
“If you look at [Whitman’s] lavish spending, it’s incredible — mind-boggling. …. To win the confidence of the people you earn their trust. You don’t try to buy their trust,” he says.
“I don’t have 100 people scripting me. I’m not an advertisement. I’m a real person who’s lived in this state all my life,” he continues, bringing the crowd to its feet with one last dig at Whitman’s much-publicized failure to vote in previous state elections. “Not only have I lived here,” he says, “I’ve voted here all my life.”
Portantino describes Brown’s long-view, jobs-first approach as a winning strategy.
“He’s a lifelong Californian who understands the issues facing average Californians,” he says. “It’s a very compelling message.”
In rapid succession, Brown shakes hands, poses for pictures and is guided outside by a pair of campaign staffers.
Cameras follow Brown to a black SUV waiting on Hill Street. He climbs in and assumes that same Zen position as before, head slightly bowed and hands at his lap. In two hours there’s another event in Sacramento, and he has to be ready to do this all over again.