Attacks nothing new to Calif. AG

Legal News Line Sep. 12, 2008, 12:00pm

Jerry Brown (D)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) - The game plan remains consistent, but the accusations of political gamesmanship are just beginning if indeed Attorney General Jerry Brown formally announces his intentions to run for a return to the California governor's office he once occupied thirty years ago.

Brown has not been coy about his interest to succeed Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010, much like he followed another actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan, when Brown was first elected California's governor in 1974. He has aggressively raised money, courted powerful backers and made several public comments suggesting he's ready to run.

"It does seem he is positioning himself for a run for governor," Jessica Levinson, director of political reform for the non-partisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, told Legal Newsline.

"Stay tuned," Brown told Legal Newsline in August.

The one thing Brown insists he is not doing is using his current post to curry political favor and campaign funding from powerful backers -- a familiar charge that has echoed a touch louder in recent days.

"You can say that about any day of the week I've been here with everything I do," Brown told Legal Newsline on Wednesday.

Clearly, Brown is not just keeping his office warm while he looks ahead to his next political battle. His aggressive agenda as California's top lawyer includes using the power of his office to bring lasting energy and environmental change.

He is engaged in several high-profile lawsuits against the likes of Bank of America and the Environmental Protection Agency. Brown's fingerprints could be found, much to the consternation of his critics, on politically-charged topics like medical marijuana and the anti-gay marriage ballot measure.

In the news

Even by his usual frenetic standards, the 70-year-old attorney general has been involved in a flurry of recent activity.

The attorney general's office recently spoke out against the California Gambling Control Commission's plans, months in the making, to further regulate Indian casinos in the state. Commission members said they were caught off-guard by Brown's opposition.

Brown followed that with two lawsuits on behalf of blue collar workers. He settled a lawsuit last week that brought $1.4 million in lost wages to construction employees. The next day he announced a crackdown on trucking companies working at Southern California ports abusing their workers. The Teamsters Union hailed the move.

"The Teamsters Union applauds California Attorney General Jerry Brown," a press release stated, "for filing of lawsuits against trucking companies that engage in the misclassification of port truck drivers to circumvent state employment taxes and deny the workers their basic rights and protections as employees, including disability and worker's compensation."

Next, environmental groups had reason to cheer as a General Plan for the city of Stockton, revised under pressure from a lawsuit by the Sierra Club that Brown threatened to support, passed City Council.

Over the cheers from loyal supporters, critics of Brown greeted the victories with charges of political opportunism.

Chris Reed, an editorial writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, is a frequent and caustic critic of the attorney general. Brown and Reed clashed in July following Reed's accusations that Brown's work as attorney general "has been geared toward making him the most attractive candidate possible in the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary, which most observers assume is the real election that year since no GOP candidate will have Arnold's unique appeal."

Brown responded with a letter to Reed writing "your vitriol goes too far."

Last week, Reed used the line to fire back at Brown's support of the Indian casinos.

"Oh, Jerry, Jerry, Jerry," Reed wrote. "I'm sure that it's just more baseless vitriol to even speculate briefly that the fact the tribes are the single biggest source of megamillions in campaign cash had anything to do with it. I'm sure the tribes' history of generously rewarding their governmental benefactors was completely irrelevant. ... Not."

The drum beat of political opportunism sounded by Reed has become something of a drum line this month.

Mario Mainero, chief of staff for Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, pulled no punches in making the accusation after Brown thwarted Moorlach's plan to save the county millions by altering deputy sheriffs' pension plan.

"It's pretty clear here that," Mainero told the Los Angles Times, "Attorney General Brown, who apparently wants to be governor again, is going to try to gain the support of people who can raise a lot of money for him."

Brown announced that he raised nearly $300,000 in campaign cash in June. Many of those largest donors were labor organizations and workers' groups.

Who can tell?

While political opponents fired away at Brown's stature, political analysts said the charges are not likely to stick, not this far from the election and not with someone who has been around as long as Brown.

"I don't think this will make or break him either way in the Democratic Primary," Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, told Legal Newsline. "If there's any guy in the party that this is not going to change how they see him it's Jerry Brown. He has such a lengthy political track record, people know who he is."

Levinson, at the Center for Governmental Studies, said she hasn't seen anything that is outside of the norm of politics. A veteran politician like Brown will naturally build his political credentials from one job to the next, she said.

"He has a powerful position and is going to run for a more powerful position," she said. "Of course, one will build on the other. It's human nature."

But, Tony Quinn, an author and commentator on California politics, believes the accusations are important, at least in one very high-profile incidence.

Quinn said he believes Brown has used his power to write biased titles and summaries of controversial propositions in the voters' guide, most recently with Proposition 8, which seeks to ban gay marriage in the state.

"It was clearly intended," Quinn said Tuesday, "to elicit a 'no' vote, something Brown would want to do to curry favor with the gay and lesbian vote in the (Democratic) Party. He didn't have to make a single change, but he came up with a title that was very one-sided."

Twice Brown's language, including the title on Proposition 8, has been challenged in court. Both times Brown prevailed. Still Quinn, a Republican, who was involved in the legal challenge of Proposition 8, says he believes Brown is pandering to his liberal base on a hot-button issue in the state.

"For a long time this has been handled in a non-political and straight legal matter," Quinn said. "I think he has corrupted the process. That's one of the most important things an attorney general does because that is what the voter sees."

But Kousser cautions on dissecting motives.

"It's a hard judgment call," he said. "Are these consistent positions Brown has taken over the years, or are contributions and political favor playing a part? I don't think it's easy to tell."

As would be expected, Reed, who makes his living having strong opinions, differs stridently. Reed wrote that he once believed Brown would change the political methods of former Attorney General Bill Lockyer.

"One of his key themes - one he repeated to me in two phone conversations with me later that fall - was that he would end what many critics saw as then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer's partisan manipulation of his official powers and Lockyer's use of lawsuits to score political points," Reed wrote.

In July, Reed wrote that he believed Brown "sold me a bill of goods in the fall of 2006. (He) ridiculed Lockyer's global warming suit and his overall approach. Now (Brown has) adopted his lawsuit and are emulating his overall approach.

"My disillusionment has real roots."

Doing the job

Brown says accusations leveled at his work as the attorney general discredit the work of a large legal staff that works under his direction.

"No reasonable person would impute," Brown wrote to Reed, "such base motives for the actions I have taken... I can tell you that the civil servants who participated thoroughly evaluated each decision and the conclusions we all come to were arrived in good faith."

Indeed, unlike many top political posts, which are staffed largely by political professionals, the attorney general's office is a vast network of specialized lawyers and staff trained and under oath to enforce the law. But as many aggressive attorneys general throughout the country have shown, within the law is a vast field of legal opportunity that can produce highly favorable political results.

For Brown those opportunities include making California a model state for its energy efficiency, for combating global warming and protecting the environment. To that end, Brown applauded this week's victory in Stockton, a large agricultural city experiencing rapid growth as a bedroom community to both Sacramento and San Francisco.

On Tuesday, Stockton City Council narrowly approved a revised General Plan that included new provisions that would funnel growth downtown, curb urban sprawl and promote green building practices with an emphasis on reducing emissions. Stockton had approved its initial plan that lacked these concessions in December, causing Brown to threaten legal action. The settlement over the new General Plan is the direction Brown wants other cities to follow.

"The Stockton process is a good example for change. This was worked through on the local level with the local government with some give and take, which made for a strong agreement," Brown said on Wednesday.

Stockton business leaders and developers protested loudly to the City Council. Building Industry Association of the Delta sought an injunction in court to block a vote on the new General Plan, a move that failed.

On Tuesday night, critics of the plan, and of Brown's involvement, showed up with buttons that read "Jobs, yes. Settlement, no."

Brown deemed their actions "silly."

"The local BIA is acting hysterical," Brown said. "These are the same people who held up the budget for 55 days last year. They are so entrenched you can't work with them. I put up an olive branch on this but they are just acting like cavemen."

But, Executive Director John Beckman said Brown's office excluded his organization from the negotiations, despite numerous requests to be involved.

"We were told on May 21," Beckman told Legal Newsline, "that negotiations were taking place, and then on August 21 were told the negotiations were done and everything would be approved in less than week. Where in that process was the 'olive branch?'"

Beckman believes the attorney general is misleading the public by touting the Stockton agreement as something the city voluntarily maintains control over, while claiming in the press release issued after the council's vote that the agreement requires compliance by the city.

"Brown has taken extreme and unheard of measures as an attorney general," Beckman said.

Brown dismissed the notion saying business leaders and developers simply need to get with the times.

On Wednesday, Brown also defended his surprising support for the Indian casinos, explaining that a better deal could be reached.

"If every single tribe in California is against the commission," Brown said, "there's something wrong there. We have to work in some spirit of collaboration here. We need to make sure the casino's games are fair and honest, but do it the right way."

Brown said he told the commission a vote at this time would be premature, so they should not have been surprised.

Likewise, he defended his involvement Orange County's dispute because of the potential precedent it could set for many other public employees.

In a prepared statement issued last week, Brown said that if the county is successful "it will discourage young men and women from choosing a career in law enforcement and will hurt the families who relief on the promises of the Orange County Board of Supervisors."

As for Stockton, Brown hailed the victory as a model for how cities and counties can work together with state officials to meet Gov. Schwarzenegger's 2006 Executive Order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Asked what city can next expect his lawyers to arrive to challenge their General Plan, Brown said simply, "we're taking a look at that" before jumping to another topic of discussion.

What's next?

And so Brown continues to push his agenda of change, with an eye at another run for governor. His campaign Web site, Jerry Brown 2010 seeks supporters and touts his accomplishments without clarifying what Brown will be running for in 2010. What is clear is Brown has no intention of slowing down.

All early polls show Brown as a decided favorite against any other Democrat except U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, another veteran 70-something politician weighing a run in 2010. Feinstein officiated Brown's marriage to Anne Gust in 2005, at a time when probably neither expected to end up the two favorites for governor in the Democratic Party.

Whatever lay ahead the attorney general knows criticism will continue, much as it has since his earliest days in office.

"If I slept in every morning, they'd say I'm not doing my job," Brown told LNL. "Because I get up at 7:30 and go to work, they say it's because I've got other plans."

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