Rambling Jerry Brown speech raises fear among Dems

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If Jerry Brown’s keynote speech last night to a gala environmentalist dinner is any indication, the Democratic Party faces an uphill battle to win this year’s governor’s race. The rambling, alternately vague and academic, and often pointless address did little to inspire or excite a large, sympathetic crowd that was loaded with top Democrats. In fact, some party luminaries were openly aghast at the poor performance, with one making this succinct (if off-the-record) assessment: “We’re fucked.”

Brown has never been a dynamic speaker, but the unscripted, half-hour speech – given at the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter’s David Brower Dinner in San Francisco, a $250 per head affair that drew top Bay Area Democrats – illustrates the danger of letting a primary be decided by legend and money rather than political persuasion.

Brown’s fundraising prowess and strong poll numbers chased Gavin Newsom and other potential rivals out of the Democratic Party gubernatorial primary, even though Brown hasn’t really outlined his political vision for California, given many extended speeches since being discussed as a candidate for governor, or even officially declared his candidacy (he and others have until March 12 to do so).

“This thing is really daunting,” Brown said of the governor’s race toward the end of the speech, seemingly unsure that he was ready to run, but saying he would make an announcement sometime in the next couple weeks.

Brown started his speech by telling the crowd that he didn’t know what he was going to talk about, so when he arrived (late) for the speech, he asked San Francisco Democratic Party chair Aaron Peskin what he should say, and Peskin told him to talk about how there were more salmon in the streams and better overall environmental health back when Brown was governor in the ‘70s.

But rather than taking that advice and giving a forceful call to strengthen environmental regulation or conjure up California’s better days, Brown meandered around and mused on that and other topics, feeding fears that the 71-year-old candidate might come off as a nostalgic, slightly senile former-Governor Moonbeam rather than an effective agent of needed change.

“During that period when I was governor, I’m not going to call it the golden age because some people think I’m in the golden age, so I don’t want to get people confused. That’s why I don’t want to talk about way back then, because there are a number of people I can see weren’t even born then, so it gets a little embarrassing and I like to pretend it was just yesterday. But in that period, California created almost twice as many jobs as the nation did. We created jobs at about 24 percent over eight years and the nation grew jobs at 13 percent, so almost twice as much. And then Deukmejian did pretty good, he had about the same, maybe half a percent more,” Brown rambled, ticking off statistics, hedging his point by noting how little governors can really do to create jobs, before working up to a decent line that was flatly delivered: “It was a time when the environment got its biggest boost, as far as public policy.”

Nobody applauded, so he continued. “I was thinking tonight, I was trying to figure out that if I did announce, what the hell would I say? And so I decided to go back and read my first announcement, January 24, 1974. I was 35 then, it was another time, I’m now a little older than that. But I talked about clean air, I talked about the energy crisis and getting new sources of energy. I talked about statewide land use planning” – that last item drawing some applause – “and I talked about jobs. And I was thinking, wow, we still got a jobs problem, we got an energy problem, we have a land use problem that feeds into the energy problem, and while the air is cleaner in many respects, it’s not clean enough, or it isn’t healthy enough.”

On substance, Brown had his moments. But even on the need for better statewide land use planning, he went off on a tangent, saying he didn’t even know what that meant when he filled out a Sierra Club questionnaire back in the ‘70s, and he’s not sure how to accomplish it now. 

“You have to make it easier to live closer to where you work,” Brown said in what of his few lines of the night that drew applause, although he didn’t begin to explain how he might achieve this goal. And on a controversial subject that is easily attacked by the right – big government wants more control over private property – Brown’s lackadaisical discussion of the issue was disconcerting.

He even rankled a few Sierra Club members by vaguely criticizing East Bay growth controls designed to reduce sprawl, which the Attorney General’s Office is seeking to overturn: “Pleasanton wants to create 50,000 jobs, but they have a housing cap – for all I know, Sierra Club probably supported that housing cap, so I want to just rub your nose in the housing cap for just a minute – the trouble with the housing cap is they want to create all these jobs.”

Brown tried to argue that allowing more housing in Pleasanton is a strategy for combating global warming because there are jobs there and it would reduce commutes, but he’s going to need to be more on his game than he is right now to win that argument. Instead, we get his fairly dismissive summary of this important issue: “Land use is a big deal, it’s difficult, lots to do on that.”

Against businesswoman Meg Whitman, the Republican gubernatorial primary frontrunner, there is real potential in Brown’s basic belief that markets need to be regulated and that running the government isn’t just like running a business. And somehow, Brown will need to find a way to better distill and deliver that message to counter the right’s pro-business sound bites. 

“There are people saying business knows best,” Brown said, meandering off about companies and widgets for a minute before continuing his point. “But when you look at what we really have to deal with, it’s not just about economics and the market. It’s also about ecology and morality, and morality is about customs, it’s about traditions, it’s about our deepest patterns of how we all relate to one another and that can’t just be assimilated into market incentives. The market assumes honesty, you meet your promises, and also assumes there’s a framework, because things can just run off the cliff and that’s exactly what’s happening. As you add more people, you have more cars, and when you have more cars, they burn fossil fuel and what’s happening in California is you have cars reproducing faster than people…That’s the real challenge here, that we’re trying to get the idea out that we’re trying to save the future.”

Comments

California's Democratic Party establishment can go for several months of electoral masochism by backing the clearly unsuitable Jerry Brown. Or they can take a radical gamble.

What do I have in mind? Go with a charismatic unknown who is ideally progressive. Lack of name recognition is less important at this than having someone who can create the sense in the public's mind that a) they can lead and b) can apply outside the box thinking to the running of government (e.g. mayor of a city and Somebody Other Than Newsom).

There are a couple of plusses to be brought to the table by such an approach. Schwarzenegger's reign and Whitman's record shows that celebrity or name recognition doesn't necessarily translate to good governance. Equally importantly, given the mass despising of the US Supreme Court's Citizens United, the image of being associated in any shape or form with big political money would be a negative that could be exploited by the potential candidate to burnish their image.

Is going for a long shot gubernatorial candidate an insane idea? It's clear from Brown's performance that if he's the best the Democrats currently have, the odds of retaking the governor's mansion are nowhere near the success column. Public charisma does wonders for drawing attention to a political unknown, as the success of Sarah Palin unfortunately demonstrates. So why don't progressives make use of the phenomenon as well? If the naysayers fear Democrats are doomed to lose the governor's mansion again, I'd rather have the loss came after a fight to the bitter end.

Posted by Peter on Feb. 18, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

Left-wing Democrats must be defeated before they destroy America.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 19, 2010 @ 7:41 am

"Left-wing Democrats must be defeated before they destroy America."
Because that's the job of the Repugs and Wall Street!!! They've already started with Bush and Paulson! They know how to destroy this country with Corporatism that will replace Democracy instead of the nasty, stinky stuff of Democratic principals applied to a free Republic! The environment, the poor, the working citizen, the Bill of Rights, discrimination in all it's forms get in the way of Corporate profit!!! Tell 'em 'Defeat Dems!!! All Conservatives...All REAL Americans HATE Democracy!!! All this "For the people, By the people" stuff is just Islamofacist-socialist-communist-egalitarian-populist-democratic dictator crap...right?
Hey, DD...be careful what you ask for; you just might get it. The sad thing about the neo-con/right-wingers is they don't realize if they bring about the change they think they want their new 'rulers' will get rid of them first.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 19, 2010 @ 9:11 am

Lots of clueless people both say, and report, "We're fucked."

How puerile.

Brown was giving a speech to hardcore environmentalists -- and is about to campaign to lead California. His hands were tied: What, exactly, do you say to a group of activist-purists? Anything he gave them wouldn't be enough. And it would be too much. He was right to sort of kick at the dirt to get through it. Sierra Club people, and love them I do, can be pretty nutty.

Posted by Guest JR on Feb. 19, 2010 @ 7:57 am

"His hands were tied: What, exactly, do you say to a group of activist-purists?"

How about what your ideas and positions are exactly weather they like them or not. That is called character and honesty. To say anything other than what you will do or believe just to get elected makes you a lying sack of shit who's word is worth nothing.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 08, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

I agree with Peter. Move over Jerry. Calif Dems need to
start a governor candidate search crew immediately.
I think Brown is burnt out which is possibly why he has
lagged in announcing his candidacy. Time for someone new.

Posted by Guest LoLife on Feb. 19, 2010 @ 9:05 am

I read the remarks Brown made as qwuoted by the SFBG and they seem right on. Here's a man who recognizes the difficulty of solving problems and who is honest enough to share his governmental experience in trying to do so in the past with the similar if not same more pressing issues confronting us now. We've had enough of "charismatic, " "photogenic," candidates who utter sound bites prepared by political consultants.

Jerry will be charismatic when he figures out the solution to the economy and jobs v. environment dilemma, and I trust he will do that in an ongoing thoughtful way during his campaign.

Posted by Guest Long time reader of SFBG on Feb. 19, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

The Dems have run the state into the ground. Even before the economic downturn we were in serious economic condition. The Dem-backed Public Employees Union is one problem that must be addressed and no pol will touch them. We are f*****.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 19, 2010 @ 10:35 pm

The bill for the modern welfare state has come due in California. As the chronic state budget deficit attests, our experiment with unlimited government has failed. The money is gone. The next governor will have to spend a lot of time saying "no" to the entrenched interests that have brought us to this unhappy end. This is just not what liberals and Democrats do. They much prefer to play Sugar Daddy with other people's money and property. The modern Democratic party has exhausted itself in pursuit of socialist fantasies, not the least of which is radical environmentalism.

Jerry Brown is smart enough to understand this. That's why I don't think he's being coy and I won't be surprised if he decides not to run. Even if he does, he won't run that hard. He knows what awaits him. As the last member of the Brown political dynasty exits stage left, his last role will not be Governor "No."

Posted by Guest Mike Alexander on Feb. 20, 2010 @ 6:35 am

I lived in Chicago when Brown was governor of California, and wished we could get a governor like him. I listened to hours and hours of his radio talk shows, first national ones on small Am stations, then on KPFA. His politics and ideologies were brilliant and were light years ahead of any politician or former politician I'd ever heard. Then he ran for mayor of Oakland, where I was living at the time. I worked on his campaign, excited at the prospect of a truly progressive mayor. But on his first day in office after winning the election, it was crystal clear: Brown had either sold out the values he had espoused for years on the radio and decades before that, or he had undergone a severe change for the worse, akin to "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Either way, this was not the guy I campaigned for. Brown had become just another shill for downtown, big business, and development interests.

Sierra Club has undergone a less radical but still very disturbing move to the right over the past ten or so years, so it's no surprise that SC would support a corporate Democrat like Jerry Brown. But there's no reason to fret over his chances of winning or whether he'll even run. If he gets elected, he'll be just like Gray Davis, so right wing that he'll be indistinguishable from a Republican.

Posted by Jeff Hoffman on Feb. 20, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

Run Jerry run!!! Nothing could more guarantee a victory for Meg this November than your candidacy.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

Jerry Brown has been around the block, he knows he's likeable, his polls show it.

He's personable, he's seasoned, he's for real and refreshing. He brings years and years of dealing with all the issues and he knows from experience what its like at levels of government few have.

The People see this and want him. Today's packaged politician he is not or does he pretend to be. He is yesterday's candidate and I welcome him, because the issues have not changed since his Governor Moonbeam days except there is less civility in politics and the Republicans are horribly partisan. He is right about the the 70s there were the same issues we have today, jobs, environment.

I just wonder how old the author of this article is. I found him to be congenial and real, what is wrong with that?

Posted by commenter on Feb. 21, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

Jerry Brown has been around the block, he knows he's likeable, his polls show it.

He's personable, he's seasoned, he's for real and refreshing. He brings years and years of dealing with all the issues and he knows from experience what its like at levels of government few have.

The People see this and want him. Today's packaged politician he is not or does he pretend to be. He is yesterday's candidate and I welcome him, because the issues have not changed since his Governor Moonbeam days except there is less civility in politics and the Republicans are horribly partisan. He is right about the the 70s there were the same issues we have today, jobs, environment.

I just wonder how old the author of this article is. I found him to be congenial and real, what is wrong with that?

Posted by commenter on Feb. 21, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

Jerry Brown is an icon of Dem political hacks...yes, you people are "f....ed"

Posted by Guest on Feb. 22, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

Let's see if I understand how this twisted story is newsworthy... If the candidate speaks in platitudes and has nice teeth, but says nothing, everybody claps in unison, on queue. It's a good speech.

If the candidate gets philosophical, intellectual, and wide-ranging which leaves some listeners scratching their head lice, then the candidate gave a confused speech. It must be senility.

Are we saying we'd rather have candidates who don't know anything and talk about nothing, more than candidates who know something and talk about everything?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 22, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

The people behind Jerry Brown have the fire in the belly. They want the governorship badly. Unfortunately, the horse they they are riding isn't quite that excited about the prospect. It's a lot of work, he's 70, he's tired. Oakland took a lot out of him. But now the Dem power brokers have nowhere else to go now. They chased everyone else out of the race and they did it in a way that was nasty and left scars. The California Democratic party needs an Obama-style upstart who will take on the Democratic establishment, not cowtow to them. This race for Governor is going to be all about money, not old school politics. The one with the most air time and best internet strategy will win. Period. Right now it looks like Meg Whitman and her $100 million dollar war chest (with more $$ ready if necessary) will simply buy this election. Are there no millionaire democrats who will step up to the plate?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

We would have George Lakoff running for Governor.

Meg might buy the governorship and turn us into a corporation....probably outsource what is left of us to cheap child labor somewhere..

Jerry hath not the charasmatic sound bite that appeals to TV stoned audiences but is not senile...yet.

Posted by Guest GrannyBG on Mar. 02, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

We would have George Lakoff running for Governor.

Meg might buy the governorship and turn us into a corporation....probably outsource what is left of us to cheap child labor somewhere..

Jerry hath not the charasmatic sound bite that appeals to TV stoned audiences but is not senile...yet.

Posted by Guest GrannyBG on Mar. 02, 2010 @ 8:55 pm

Edmund Gerald "Pat" Brown, Sr. (April 21, 1905 – February 16, 1996) would make a more lively candidate.

Posted by Melanerpes on Mar. 30, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

I found it funny to read your headline and premise after reading several Sacramento blogs where veteran political observers called Brown's speech, 'vintage Brown.'

Your reaction to the speech was the same as mine when I heard Brown give a keynote address at a Democratic club's 4 freedoms dinner last year. At first, I thought he was rambling, just as you did. But as he went on I found myself desperately trying to keep up, lost among his 17th century political references and obscure metaphors that probably only Brown knows.

Brown wasn't rambling, he simply needs to re-learn how to dumb it down for those of us who lack his intellect, never studied at a Buddhist Monastary, a Jesuit seminary or Yale Law School. Brown needs to remind himself that California's public school system is now ranked 47th of the 50 states, not the #1 ranking it held while Brown was governor.

What I heard Brown do was to set out the claim that he was reluctant to answer the plea from state Dems to fight one more political battle. He then said he was a nominee but also a Californian fed up with investment bankers and wall street insiders. The Californian reference reminded us he is a native son, Whitman is a Long Island, New York native and immigrant to California. Blaming California's mess on Wall Street insiders and bankers, well that's Whitman and FIorina references, to be certain. Finally, Brown called for rebuilding California's education system as the state's "engine for a strong economy." Brown's record with education is very strong, and he's also backed by the CTA, and federation.

Brown is an acquired taste, to be sure, but no one has ever suggested he isn't Brilliant, analytical, rational, complex or sharp as a tack. That is, until your article.

I doubt by the end of this campaign you will still believe Brown was rambling during his acceptance speech.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2010 @ 11:25 am

If people think former Governor Moonbeam can have a third term as Governor (and, btw, nice way for Jerry to spit in the face of the term limit by saying "I don't have to deal with that, spewd!) will probably line up in early 2012 to raise money for Obama's competition for the Democratic nomination: Jimmy Carter!

I mean, in for a penny in for a pound. And I think the Dems of Callie are going to get quite the pounding this November. I just hope prop 19 passes so the pain can be suppressed. Then again they had to be high to even think Gov Moonbeam had a chance.

Seriously, why didn't you think of Dianne Feinstein? Way more credibility. But it's too late now. BWAHAHAHAHAHA!

Posted by Drewdove on Sep. 17, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

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