Brown towers over others in headlines

Legal News Line Jan. 13, 2009, 1:30am

Jerry Brown (D)

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) - If elections were won by counting headlines, the race for California governor in 2010 would already be over.

Since early December, California Attorney General Jerry Brown has forced his way into the center of two of the state's most tumultuous political issues, dwarfing all other would-be contenders at a time when many are deciding once and for all if they will indeed toss their hat into the ring.

"There is no question of the name recognition," a legal Web blogger wrote of Brown on Monday. "And that has increased recently with his initiatives to overturn Prop 8 ... as well as his visibility in the Oakland shooting."

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of similar stories have pounded the information super highway pavement in recent weeks following Brown's decision to argue against the voter approved ban on same-sex marriages before the state Supreme Court in December after stating earlier the he would defend the will of the voters.

Brown continued to capture headlines this weekend following a New Year's Day shooting, in which a young black man was shot to death by a transit officer while laying face down with handcuffs on. Brown originally refused to get involved, but less than two weeks after the incident he held a high-profile meeting and press conference with city leaders and the NAACP.

Though Brown has not yet announced his intention to run for governor in 2010, he has raised more than $4 million for his ambiguous "Jerry Brown 2010" campaign account. Brown's not been shy about encouraging speculation for months. Political insiders insist the decision has already been made and the actual announcement is only a formality.

Brown's pair of reversals touched off a storm of debate as everything from sparsely read bloggers to Time magazine weighed in. Some stories called it the most politically courageous act of the year, while others called it an abuse of the power of the attorney general's office.

Charges of flip-flopping may have been a Scarlet A for the likes of U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in previous political dogfights, but Brown has proven to be fairly immune to the charges.

"He's probably one of the few that can get away with changing because of his long history, and his reasons make pretty good sense," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University Sacramento. "This isn't a deal killer for him as it might be for others."

The high-profile moves, political analysts agree, are fairly common with a politician often described as "enigmatic."

"Jerry Brown has always been an activist politician," said Steven Hill, director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation in California. "He has not been one to sit back and let government do its thing"

Hill said on both issues Brown's moves are consistent with his political positions.

"I'm not surprised by his getting involved in Prop 8 and he is the former mayor of Oakland so that situation is more personal," Hill said.

Further, Hill said, the same-sex marriage issue remains political dynamite.

"Considering that same-sex weddings did lose its not like Jerry Brown is getting out in front of a popular movement," Hill said. "You can make the argument that he is appealing to the base, but there are down sides and upsides in that issue to a Democratic nominee."

Mark Petracca, chair of the political science department at the University of California at Irvine, said Brown's decision to jump into the aftermath of the Oakland shooting also includes a degree of political risk.

"But I have a feeling Brown believes his response was, in fact, the right - the proper - response," he told Legal Newsline.

Political analyst Tony Quinn said Brown's moves on Proposition 8 have been politically loaded from the outset. Quinn believes that Brown has used his power to write a biased title and summary for Proposition 8.

"On Prop 8, Brown is just playing gubernatorial politics," Quinn said Monday.

While Republicans will certainly look to make political hay should Brown become the Democratic nominee, the most recent events don't significantly change the playbook against Gov. Moonbeam -- a name mockingly applied to Brown in the 1970s to chide Brown for his more outrageous ideas - Petracca said.

"The GOP will try to have a field day with Brown anyway," he said. "The problem is this is a very, very different state than the last time Brown was governor. Think about the changes in size of the state as well as the shift in demographics. The GOP will try to run against 'Governor Moonbeam', but the problem is they'll have to spend a lot of time explaining to people who 'Moonbeam' was."

O'Connor said today's news -- explosive as it may be -- will have little effect by the time the general election comes more than a year and a half from now.

"There are larger variables out there," she said. "It is going to be about the economy. No one is going to vote for a single issue other than the economy."

Petracca also said the economy will overshadow all other issues "for quite a while. The key strategic point is for an aggressive candidate to get in front of major issues as they happen to keep the pressure on."

Though critics of Brown have tried to amp up the attack over his political reversals and controversial roles in these recent issues, the economy could offer a Republican opponent the best chance for success in 2010.

Two of the three leading names believed to be vying for the Republican nomination are Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former eBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman. Both are self-made billionaires who will offer voters a strong financial background and outsider status that many believe is needed to end the Legislature's budget gridlock.

"Their candidacies need to be taken very seriously." O'Connor said of Poizner and Whitman. "They both have management experience, they both have resources. And in Meg Whitman's case shed be the first woman, which for women still smarting from the Hillary Clinton loss could be a factor. I don't think you can underestimate either candidate."

In an earlier interview, Quinn said the economy has always held a prominent role in California gubernatorial elections.

"If you go back to when Jerry Brown first became a governor in 1974," Quinn said, "the economy was not good the Republicans were in charge. Brown benefited from that.

"The economy is always a powerful factor. It's hurting the Republicans and Schwarzenegger right now. In 2009 with the Democrats in power and if the economy is still bad, it will hurt Jerry Brown and all Democrats. That's just the way it is."

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