The Return of Jerry Brown
Former California governor casts White House bid, vows return to democratic roots. US PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS
SAN FRANCISCO — JERRY BROWN, one of California's most colorful, contrarian, and controversial politicians, enters the 1992 presidential campaign today with a promise to battle both the Republicans and the Democrats.At a noontime speech in Philadelphia, Mr. Brown, a former California governor, is expected to build on populist themes attacking "entrenched politicians - Democrats and Republicans alike," for corrupting American democracy and destroying the public's confidence in government. A wizard at attracting media attention, Brown, a Democrat, will almost certainly create a stir in New Hampshire, the first presidential primary state. "He could play extremely well here," says a key Democratic insider in New Hampshire. California pollster Mervin Field, who has tracked Brown's career through the years, agrees: "He will dazzle some people," Mr. Field predicts. However, bitter memories of Brown's eight-year term, which earned him the sarcastic nickname "Governor Moonbeam," still linger here in California. And that could hamper his efforts to raise campaign funds and build a national political team. Although years have passed since Brown dominated Sacramento, Californians still speak angrily of his "diffident" style of government and his intellectual arrogance.
The influence of money Brown hopes to overcome his old reputation with an appeal to return America to the roots of its democracy. In a recent speech, he noted: "What an irony that the spirit of Democracy is bursting out all over the world, while in America democratic choice narrows and is rendered almost illusory. In place of debate and serious public discourse, we are bombarded with 30-second TV ads and short sound bites that obscure and distort the truth." Brown blasts an election system that requires US Senate candidates in California to raise $18 million for a race, or "about $10,000 for each working day during a six-year term." To counteract the influence of money, Brown has limited contributions to his campaign to $100 per person, or only one-tenth of the legal limit. Analysts say Brown's success in the 1992 campaign could depend largely on whether there really is a "new" Jerry Brown. After a seven-year hiatus from American politics, during which he studied Zen Buddhism in Japan and worked with Mother Teresa in India, Brown returned to the United States with hopes for a fresh start. But his critics say nothing seems to have changed. They claim that Brown still exhibits the same scornful attitude which originally got him into trouble with California voters in the early 1980s. "Jerry Brown is not a new Jerry Brown," says Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. Dr. Popkin, who knows Brown well, adds: "Jerry Brown is the same man who has nothing but despise for American institutions that he had when he was governor." John Bunzel, who once served as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic national convention, says that Brown's Moonbeam nickname still seems appropriate. Dr. Bunzel, now a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, jokes: "Some people think that Senator [John] Glenn was the first man into outer space. But in California, we're not so sure. In fact, we're not even certain that Brown has solved the reentry problem." However, Larry Berg, a political scientist at the University of Southern California, still considers Brown to be a serious candidate in the Democratic race. Dr. Berg concedes that Brown can be "demagogic," but he suggests that Brown may have put his finger on a couple of issues, such as campaign spending, that will resonate well with voters. Berg expects Brown to do best with disaffected middle-class voters as well as Hispanics and other minorities, and with voters concerned about women's issues. But Berg has concerns. He notes that Brown has a way of flipflopping on issues in what seems like sheer political expediency. "He was one of the strongest opponents of term limits when he was state party chairman [until early this year]," Berg observes. Now Brown favors limits. "So he's vulnerable to a charge of demagoging." Pollster Field confirms that viewpoint, noting that as governor, Brown was "very mercurial and [like a] chameleon." But Berg thinks Brown could be a powerful campaigner. "He's going to bang government around," Berg says.
The political outlook Perhaps fortunately for Brown, the early 1992 campaigning all takes place far from California, where he is best known. Analysts say that the former governor may do well with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who are unfamiliar with him. But in California, Brown has one of the highest negative ratings recorded among major politicians. Field says that today, Brown's only political constituency in California consists of "young people who do not know him and some older people who have forgotten." "Brown did not wear well as governor," says Bunzel. He "lectured the people of California. [He] didn't have the kind of wit and humor that a Jack Kennedy ... had." The complaints went beyond style, however. Popkin points to Brown's appointment of Rose Bird as chief justice of the California Supreme Court as the type of action that severely damaged the governor. Ms. Bird, an adamant foe of the death penalty, became a lightning rod for voters up-in-arms over California's surging crime rate. Popkin says, "Jerry didn't appoint people like Rose Bird because he wanted to give better representation. He wanted Rose Bird because he despised the courts.... There were at least 50 women he knew who were more qualified. And that's the thing that stuck with people.... He self-destructed." Nor is Popkin impressed with Brown's meditative exile in the Far East. The professor says: "Someone said Brown is a new person since he went to live with Mother Teresa. I said, No, that's the old person. If he were a new person, he'd have gone to live in Fresno to learn how the middle class lives. Real Americans don't have time to go live with Mother Teresa. They have to pay their bills."