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Jerry Brown, California's Prince of Self-Transformation

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Sunday, June 13, 2010

As part of a union-backed "independent" expenditure campaign in support of Attorney General Jerry Brown's gubernatorial effort, the California Nurses Association has formed a retinue that trails GOP gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman with a cartoonish figure named "Queen Meg." Have these true believers never noticed that the attorney general is the real thing when it comes to political royalty?

In fact, Brown is the prince of a California political dynasty, founded by his father, the former Democratic Gov. Pat Brown.

Brown's early political career reads like a red-carpet roll out.  First a minor fiefdom -- a community college board. Then secretary of state.  Then, still in his 30s, California governor in 1975.

Since Brown lost a U.S. Senate race to Pete Wilson in 1982, he has assumed the role of wandering prince -- continually reinventing himself, trading on his political connections and then, when convenient, shamelessly distancing himself from them. He can always return. So he went from being state Democratic Party chairman, the ultimate insider, to an independent whose "general thinking doesn't fit the mold of a party" to a Democratic candidate again.

Even as a candidate for Oakland mayor, Brown underwent a complete transformation. At first, he promoted a plan for "Oakland Ecopolis, a Plan for a Green Plan." The mayor's Oakland would mirror a new-age Italian hillside village, disdainful of "mere economic development." His Oaktown: "A baby smiles and a flower grows." And: "Oakland Ecopolis is both far away and very near."

Brown's true talent, however, has been to sense what voters want to hear. By the time he was elected mayor in 1998, he was a pro-development politician with the goal of drawing 10,000 new residents downtown. Better yet, the majority of new downtown housing was privately financed.

Brown also shed the anti-law enforcement tone he used as a talk-radio show host. (Read: "Some people might say that this increase in the prison population is a conspiracy, because it seems to be working almost perfectly for those with extra capacity for sale.") This mayor wanted more cops on the beat.

I voted to re-elect Brown, as he was the best mayor Oaktown had seen in years. Granted, the bar was low. 

 Still, not all was sunshine in Groovy Oakland. Brown used eminent domain powers to evict good taxpaying businesses like Revelli Tires and Autohouse -- not to accommodate public works, but so that a private developer could build apartments on their land. I credit Brown for his zealous defense of redevelopment, even if I consider the policy outrageously heavy-handed.

His biggest mistake was ousting the highly capable and well-respected Robert Bobb as city manager. Brown then doubled down on dumb by naming Deborah Edgerly as Bobb's replacement.

Now-Mayor Ron Dellums had to fire Edgerly in 2008 amid the allegation that she had tipped her nephew, who worked for the city as a parking-meter repairman, before an impending police raid on a gang. A city audit cited Edgerly's penchant for "inappropriately hiring close relatives in lieu of well-qualified individuals."

The issue isn't simply that Brown dumped a great administrator in favor of a big-trouble replacement. It is the suspicion that Brown loves to campaign, but not to govern. That once he wins office, he loses interest in it.

Note his camera-happy tenure as attorney general. Want to talk about Anna Nicole Smith or Michael Jackson? Brown will go on your TV show.

Yet when it comes to taking a stand on the three-days-a-month furloughs enacted by the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- whom he seeks to replace -- suddenly Brown is tongue-tied. He filed a brief against furloughs for constitutional offices (like his), but in April, a press secretary told me he had no opinion as to the legality of furloughs in state agencies controlled by the governor.

Last month, Brown told the Sacramento Bee in an e-mail that he would try to settle the anti-furlough lawsuits filed by labor unions representing state workers. That's a cheap hedge -- it tells voters nothing. Ditto his stock phrase about how those with the biggest belts will have to tighten them.

I've seen Brown wow rooms with such quirky talk, and marveled at his pose as a disinterested politician who is prepared to gore all oxen.

The lore continues that, even though the SEIU has endorsed Brown and even though Big Labor is bankrolling the independent expenditure campaigns designed to elect him, Brown is so unpredictable that he just might benefit from their money, use their support and then with a fey shrug not return their favors.

Some even talk of Brown as so selfless that he might choose to become a one-term governor just so that he clean up Sacramento as his last hurrah in political life.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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