Jerry Brown and the myth of the moonbeam

Surprise! California’s new attorney general is pro-developer and tough on crime.

Illustration By Sandra Hoover

What’s this? Military-school cadets, anti-crime strike forces, questioning his predecessor’s climate-change lawsuit against car companies because they haven’t broken the law? Not very “moonbeamish” of Jerry Brown.

“The moonbeam has landed,” says Brown, the former two-term California governor and twice a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, now California’s new attorney general. “That’s what Mike Royko said a few years after he called me that,” referring to the infamous term applied to Brown in his 1970s heyday by the late hard-boiled Chicago columnist.

He was at his inaugural reception earlier this month in the ornate War Memorial and Performing Arts Center across from the spacious Beaux Arts rotunda of San Francisco City Hall, where he was sworn into office in a ceremony featuring an a cappella Latin choir and an honor guard of cadets from Oakland Military Institute on the sweeping staircase behind him.

As mayor of gritty Oakland, Brown established the military-institute charter school, which was aimed at educating kids who were failing in the horrific Oakland public schools. But his school-reform experiment set off outraged objections from anti-military lefties in the East Bay. And Brown, while Catholic, is not a pacifist. While he thinks Iraq is a mess, he strongly supported U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Bosnia before that, and actually served on the board of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The inaugural ceremony reflected decades of Brown family influence upon the Golden State. There was none of the Schwarzeneggerian pomp and panoply. Only Brown and his influential wife, Anne Gust Brown, were onstage with Brown’s niece Judge Kathleen Kelly, who swore him in to the same office held decades ago by his father. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose father, former Appellate Court Justice Billy Newsom, is an old family friend, introduced the former governor as “one of a kind.”

Afterward, Brown mused: “I think about my father now. The law is not just about change, it’s about tradition. We have so many laws. Each governor seems to add about 10,000 of them. That’s how many I did. I want the ones we have to work.”

This is not your father’s Jerry Brown.

In a way, it’s his father’s Jerry Brown. The two governors had a sometimes spiky relationship. But after Pat Brown died in 1996, Jerry Brown began to speak sometimes of “the family business.”

Brown’s new headquarters for attorney general, at least for now, will be in Oakland, as is the loft he shares— in a funky former Sears building—with his wife. Brown says he will be in Sacramento when he needs to be, but doesn’t seem anxious to hang out there.

His purview, as head of the state’s Department of Justice, is wide ranging. Most of the somewhat far-flung inhabitants in his department are civil servants and, while he is the state’s “top cop” and as such has his own team of investigators, he will spend a great deal of his time overseeing what is in essence a large public law firm.

And now for something completely different
His plans for the job, and his actions so far, will come as a great surprise to those who have not been paying attention to Brown’s strange and fascinating political journey as mayor of Oakland.

Less than a month on the job, he already has adopted a hard line on Jessica’s Law, a crackdown on sex predators overwhelmingly approved by voters last November and opposed only by the furthest left wing of the Democratic Party— which once saw Brown as, if not one of its own, an ally. He could be a friendly ear to developers after his open war with NIMBYs in Oakland. And he’s distancing himself from an environmental-emissions lawsuit against car manufacturers by his splashy predecessor, Bill Lockyer, who critics said was pursuing a media-sexy case that had little to no basis in law.

Although Brown was a more centrist governor in the 1970s than people remember, pushing use-a-gun-and-go-to-jail laws and ushering in an era of sharp increases in incarceration rates, another major factor in what seems to casual observers to be creating a more down-to-earth and politically moderate Brown today is his wife.

Many people wanted to be on Brown’s transition team, but in the end there was really only his wife, who was his campaign manager. “Oh, Jerry takes direction extremely well,” she says with an impish laugh.

Though she has a dog named Dharma, Anne is not especially moonbeamish. She’s a very smart, witty graduate of a top law school, the University of Michigan, and a former corporate executive. First as the Gap’s general counsel, then as the company’s executive vice president and chief administrative officer, she was deeply involved in its management.

The former two-term California governor, who ran for America’s top job twice, is seen here at a 1992 stump speech when he was running for president.

SN&R Photo By Noel Neuburger

Now, she’s deeply involved in the management of a major politician, and she’ll serve as an unpaid “special counsel” to her husband. Says Jerry: “If you can’t get in to see me, you can talk to her. And if you can’t talk to her, you probably can’t get in to see me.”

Shedding light on his decidedly non-ideological political views, Brown says he will focus on four areas in 2007 and beyond: cracking down on crime, protecting workers, promoting more intelligent growth and fighting global warming.

His crime-fighting passions, adopted as Oakland mayor, might be jarring to anyone who remembers the Brown who studied Zen Buddhism and spent time with Mother Teresa. “I never got to know Jerry very well,” says Garry South, the longtime consigliere to Gray Davis, who was Governor Brown’s chief of staff in the 1970s and went on to become governor himself. “We were always distancing from the moonbeam stuff of the past,” says South of Davis’ relationship with Brown. “But he did a very effective job of becoming a pragmatic mayor in Oakland.”

Now, as attorney general, Brown says he will “help local law enforcement and other agencies to make our streets and communities as safe as possible”—his constant theme in Oakland. And to do that, he’ll set up an attorney general “strike force” to descend on troubled communities.

He also wants to use his office to “promote urban growth in a sustainable way,” what he calls “elegant density.” As mayor of Oakland, Brown built or won approval for new housing for 10,000 residents in an area that had been a relative dead zone in long-troubled downtown Oakland. He won widespread praise from the real-estate and investment businesses—and criticism from the left for promoting gentrification.

But, ever the mixed bag, he also plans to heavily focus on global warming, an issue he first championed as governor years ago. He intends to be very involved in implementation of California’s landmark climate-change law curtailing greenhouse-gas emissions, and as attorney general will play the lead role in defending the state’s efforts against opposition from the Bush administration and various industry groups.

Nevertheless, don’t assume you can second-guess Attorney General Brown. Despite his longstanding green credentials, he is skeptical of a high-profile lawsuit filed by Lockyer, now the state’s treasurer, against major U.S. and Japanese automakers over vehicle emissions.

Lockyer thinks the big car makers should pay for damages to the state’s environment from greenhouse gases emitted by their cars, but Brown has been leery about Lockyer’s high-profile lawsuit. Anne Gust Brown notes that what the car manufacturers have been doing is legal, and Brown himself says, “I’m going to enforce the laws vigorously and with common sense.”

An unexpected team
Awkward as it may seem to be the new guy backing away from a widely watched and highly political lawsuit against car makers, Brown may have found an ally a few days ago when former prosecutor and Republican Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox filed a friend of the court brief siding with the automakers. It was another reminder that Brown today chooses his issues first and worries about party affiliation second.

Brown actually riffed a bit on using more “common sense” in his inaugural address, saying, “There was a time, by the way, when people thought that common sense was an actual organ just behind the pituitary gland. Maybe it’s not so common.”

Already, some environmentalists are worried about Brown. “I think Lockyer’s suit against the car manufacturers can be a creative way to get at global warming,” says John White of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. “I hope Jerry doesn’t abandon it.”

Brown says he will work with Schwarzenegger on global warming. Both Schwarzenegger and Brown speak to many of the same themes—themes that define an emerging independent spirit that could transcend the conventional boundaries of the two political parties.

Schwarzenegger and Brown worked closely together to defeat a 2004 initiative to water down the three-strikes sentencing law, with Brown and many prosecutors convinced that the new relaxed rules would have given soft treatment to thousands of hard-core criminals. And they both talk up bipartisanship and emphasize climate change, stem-cell research and new technologies.

His comfort with taking a broad range of political stances may be, in addition to his famous name and storied if controversial history, why Brown won by nearly 19 points last November, a higher margin even than Schwarzenegger’s victory over the hapless Democrat Phil Angelides. Indeed, L.A. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo said later that there is much he can learn from the former governor.

Delgadillo ran a harshly negative campaign against Brown, gaining what seemed at first a surprising number of endorsements, such as the California Teachers Association and a host of labor groups. Brown, on the other hand, having been a political lightning rod since the 1970s, not only had plenty of enemies on the right, but as Oakland’s tough-on-crime mayor and a champion of charter schools, he ran afoul of groups on the left—the teachers union and some other public-employee groups.

Even so, during the campaign, Brown’s popularity actually increased. He says he had a favorable rating of 38 percent and an unfavorable rating of 31 percent when he began the campaign. Now, his pollster John Fairbanks notes he has a 54 percent favorable rating and a 36 percent unfavorable rating, putting him in the same range of popularity as Schwarzenegger and Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Now California’s attorney general, Brown was introduced by an old family friend at his inaugural ceremony as “one of a kind.”

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

He won in part by holding out great appeal to independent voters, sweeping that category in his general-election race against conservative Republican legislator Chuck Poochigian, who, with former Reagan chief speechwriter Ken Khachigian at the helm of his campaign, ran the most relentlessly negative campaign of 2006.

Right on crime
As California attorney general, one of his key themes clearly reflects his key theme as Oakland mayor. “I want to fight crime,” says Brown. “A lot of people in this business just want to manage it.”

Brown, a fixture of police ridealongs around his tough East Bay town, tried many tactics as Oakland’s mayor. They worked pretty well for the first seven years of his mayoralty, with crime down compared with the first seven years of his predecessor’s tenure. But in his final year in 2006, things went south—and it was embarrassing to see the bodies piling up in Oakland while he ran for attorney general.

At the end, he was using methods and technologies in Oakland that arguably made him one of the tougher anti-crime mayors in big-city California: Brown bought new sensor equipment to instantaneously detect the sound of gunshots in bad areas, and pushed for and got GPS tracking devices to place on released convicts who had been judged to be potential high-propensity repeat offenders.

Despite Brown’s obvious move to the right on crime, he hasn’t exactly made inroads with conservatives. “I still think he’s a socialist kook,” says Jon Fleischman, publisher of the conservative Republican

Now Brown looks to the future. His high-powered wife/special counsel says she’ll avoid potential conflicts of interest by working as a volunteer, and “won’t take outside clients or work in the private sector.”

The new attorney general began by issuing his hardline ruling on the Jessica’s Law initiative, approved overwhelmingly by California voters in all but one sector of the Bay Area last November. In keeping with his no-nonsense attitude toward criminals, Brown set off debate by ordering that convicted sexual predators, even those whose status predates the new law, will not be allowed to live within 2,000 feet of places where children congregate.

It’s the sort of ruling one might expect from a tough prosecutor type who wins the AG’s office, but still surprising from a guy who called his 1990s radio show We the People and pursued projects like bio-intensive food production.

As for the rest, “It will emerge,” he says, echoing one of his oldest lines, connoting a chaotic creativity. But this time the creativity will be overlain with the nonpartisan problem-solving he laid out in his inauguration address.

“My father always said this was his favorite job,” says the former governor. “I hope he’s right.”

Jerry Brown, before and after

On society’s ills:
Before: “The politics of America today is about supporting the continuation of nuclear weaponry and testing, and genetic manipulation … and the continuing isolation of living, feeling human beings in inhuman structures."—Salon, 1996

After: “They have 8th-grade reading levels, no skills, their attitudes are bad, many are addicted to drugs, and they are coming back to disrupt the community. That’s why I’m putting GPS bracelets on them in Oakland."—Wall Street Journal, 2006

On business:
Before: “The world is … all about mergers, the Dow. But there’s a movement coming. And capitalism is definitely shaky now. It’s shaky because it’s based on insatiable desires in a biologically limited world."—Seasonal Chef, 1996

After: “[Oakland] is just one of 100 possible markets where private developers can put their money. If we make it even a little harder to come here, they won’t come. We need to be more attractive than those places, which is why some progressives don’t like me.”Time, 2006

On his vision:
Before: “Space exploration is part of the evolutionary destiny of man. Since we’ve already gotten to California and we’ve already gotten to Vietnam, the next stop is the universe."—L.A. Times, 1979

After: “Mayors deal with the concrete and the specific. … Not much comfort from partisan rhetoric. Just hands-on reality with names and faces. Management at the human scale vs. pontification from on high."—his Jerry Brown blog (, 2005