Attorney General Moonbeam?
California's protean politician opens a new chapter.

Saturday, October 14, 2006 12:01 a.m.

LONG BEACH, Calif.--The most enduring and intriguing California politician of our generation is sitting in a sidewalk café, enjoying a balmy offshore breeze in this city's upscale Belmont Shore district. Yet not a single passerby knows it's him.

Laid-back shoppers stream past in linen sundresses and camouflage shorts. This decidedly un-hip man is slightly out of place in his conservative gray suit, fussy dress shirt and white Carroll O'Connor eyebrows. He's not Arnold, instant traffic-stopper. Yet if anyone peered closely, they'd probably recognize the burning eyes of Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, the darkly handsome upstart governor of the 1970s, now a gray and balding 68-year-old.

He's just emerged from a nearly invisible summer to launch a blatantly negative TV ad against his rival for attorney general of California, and he's finally granting interviews--including one to me. Barring a brilliant turnaround by his lesser-known but respected competitor, Republican state Sen. Charles Poochigian of Fresno, Mr. Brown will be the next California attorney general.

Some might find it unthinkable that the new sheriff in town could be "Governor Moonbeam"--the dreamy lefty, former boyfriend of Linda Ronstadt and student of Zen Buddhism. As governor, Mr. Brown fought the popular and successful tax revolution/reduction known as Proposition 13; vetoed a law to restore the death penalty; and sparked one of the state's bitterest political controversies by appointing Rose Bird to chief justice of the California Supreme Court--a lightning-rod figure who voted to overturn every death penalty case she considered.

Yet today most voters like him, and he's gotten mostly glowing press for his nearly eight-year stint as Oakland's mayor; in 1999 he was even praised by the conservative City Journal for his crime-fighting in the troubled city. These days, just about the only newspaper regularly whacking him is the leftist Berkeley Daily Planet.

Such contradictions abound in Mr. Brown's quest to become California's top lawyer. There's his hardened attitude toward criminals, his criticism of anti-development "progressives," his warmth for conservatives. Yet even if you appreciate his bigger tent, it's worth remembering that Mr. Brown, who once told Salon that "politics is based on illusions," has had 37 years to wrap himself in them.

"How are you being paid for this article?" he fires as I settle in my chair at trendy Bono's, founded by the late Sonny Bono's eldest daughter, Christy. When I say I'm freelancing, he chuckles: "Then you're making money off me." Clearly out to turn the tables for our little chat, Mr. Brown then promptly slams the Daily Planet, saying the paper repeatedly and wrongly reported that he tried "to remove the black leadership of Oakland, and they have always quoted or used that description against me, that my efforts were a racist move! In order to try to get me! . . . My efforts in Oakland had nothing to do with racism! The people who needed to go just happened to be African-Americans. I was the insurgent moving in to--as I've said for 30 years--'throw the ins out'!"

When I chide him, noting that journalists have in fact been very easy on him lately, aside from the Daily Planet, he barks: "Because it's a nothing little paper! Joyce Roy who writes for them? I know her brother-in-law! He doesn't like me! The other guy who writes about me is nothing! He's nobody! These people!" I defend the small paper, saying it publishes in-depth coverage of him and recently described him as "libertarian." The mayor leans toward me and chortles: "Oh God no! That should endear me to you!"

In 1992, during a third run for president, Mr. Brown began espousing surprising views, such as support for a flat tax. Then he launched his radio show, "We the People," which he hosted while living in a warehouse in Oakland's Jack London Square. The "old Jerry," as critics say, was still around in 1997, yakking on the radio with perpetually angry actor Mike Farrell that "banning capital punishment takes us to a higher state of consciousness." Still, a metamorphosis of sorts was underway. That became apparent after Mr. Brown began his first term as mayor in 1999, taking on the ossified and race-baiting Black Oakland establishment, leftist unions and Nimbys. In 2003, he publicly criticized Gov. Gray Davis while other big Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, fought hard to save the doomed governor from recall.

Explaining his relations with his own party (for a time in 1998 he was a "decline to state" independent, yet from 1989 to '91 he chaired the California Democratic Party), he says he's "surprised at how people who call themselves progressives have a very, very regressive approach to maintaining old garages or saving old warehouses, stifling innovation in what's either a blighted or totally undeveloped area. I've learned that the partisan prism is not the most accurate instrument for coping with urban reality."

Yet he is, to some critics, the most leftist, disastrous governor California ever had. Despite his 15-percentage point lead in the Field Poll, a hefty 36% of Californians disapprove of him. His rival, Mr. Poochigian, insists that Mr. Brown's evolving attitudes are cynical spin, and that he's achieved only cosmetic fixes in stunningly violent Oakland.

Mr. Brown's spin can indeed be dizzying. When I ask him about the debate over his crime reduction claims, he exclaims: "There's not a debate! There have been far fewer crimes since I have been mayor than in the previous seven years. And that is a fact!" In fact, the previous seven years include a 1991-92 crime surge, making his subsequent seven years look better. Moreover, Mr. Brown lumps homicides with lesser crimes, yet homicides have skyrocketed in 2006 in Oakland. They will surpass 120 this month, and will far exceed last year's 94 killings.

But Mr. Brown is hardly just talk. He took on an apoplectic teacher's union and enraged East Bay leftists by opening Oakland Military School, a public charter in partnership with the California National Guard that accepts extremely low-achieving inner-city students. He still opposes the death penalty, but in his fight to clean up Oakland he has placed a curfew on hardcore parolees, funded high-tech "license recognition" scanners to spot stolen cars, and just purchased a city "shot spotter" to locate gunshot noise.

As attorney general, Mr. Brown wants to target prisoner recidivism in California, where roughly 120,000 convicts are released annually, and 80,000 returned to prison annually. "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," he says. "That's why I'm putting GPS bracelets on them in Oakland. Whether they are active enough that we can root them out of certain neighborhoods at curfew and enforce it--well, I am at least attempting to compensate for the failed parole system."

In 2005, he joined top Republicans and district attorneys to successfully fight a ballot measure that would have softened California's "three strikes, you're out" law. I ask him how he justified his views to progressive Bay Area buddies, given that 50 to 100 people are reportedly doing life in prison for committing tiny "third strike" offenses like shoplifting. "I doubt there's even that many, among our 7,500 people in on third strike," he says. "But if Al Capone were picked up on income tax, do you want to say we shouldn't put him in jail? They didn't just steal pizzas. These people often terrorized their neighborhoods."

His tough talk frustrates his consistently tough-on-crime opponent, Mr. Poochigian, who aired attack ads claiming that as governor Mr. Brown pardoned seven murderers and signed a prisoners' bill of rights that let child molesters have sex magazines. Running late for a reception with a gathering of coin collectors ("Coin collectors are backing me," the mayor says without irony), he promises to respond to Mr. Poochigian's charges.

A few days later he does so. On the phone from his campaign headquarters, he tells me, "Well, [Gov.] Ronald Reagan pardoned 40 murderers and I pardoned seven. I have all the pardons right here--I went and got them." All seven had been out of prison many years. One was pardoned upon recommendation of the victim's family, another after years of volunteerism.

When I suggest that his rival is probably more concerned about his lifelong opposition to the death penalty, because the AG sits on a three-person panel that confirms top gubernatorial judicial nominations, he erupts: "This is completely disingenuous! I am not going to interrogate the people like this is a test. This doesn't have a shred of integrity! For them to bootstrap the argument about my views on capital punishment to my role on the judicial committee is just so!--so!--so!--"

Suddenly, a gracious female voice invades our phone discussion. My first illogical thought is "cell phone interference." But then Mr. Brown says hello to the voice, and the voice states, "This is his wife. I am terribly sorry to interrupt, but things are backing up and he really has to go."

It's Anne Gust--Mrs. Jerry Brown--a former top executive at the Gap who quit to become his campaign manager. How long has she been listening on that back line? Did she hear me describing her as "a big fancy businesswoman" after her husband told me she regularly cooks his dinner, and I, light-heartedly, voiced doubts? "I didn't hear that," she chuckles, "I just this second picked up. Can I get your schedule and number, to give to him?" The longtime duo is very close, and they've sold their big Jack London Square warehouse to share a 1,700-square-foot loft in what was once, according to Mr. Brown, "the hardware department" in an old Sears Roebuck.

As promised, the mayor calls back, seemingly in mid-sentence, still slamming anyone who says he might try to circumvent the death penalty: "My job is to defend the death penalty!"

Is there any way to turn down the intensity that is Jerry Brown? Should anybody even want to? Over several days' time, he's treated me to an onslaught of unbending, no-nonsense comments. I give him one final chance to admit to the softy side he has so carefully cemented over for this campaign.

"If you want to hear me be progressive, I can say this," he says. "I think people should get an education in prison. . . . We want people to succeed and reduce the return rate." He describes a city parolee program he admires, but ends with this: "I saw a body on the sidewalk right outside my building. The first time I heard it [gunfire], I thought it was firecrackers. But my wife said 'No, that's gunfire.' Now I know what it sounds like."

Ms. Stewart is a syndicated columnist.

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