Rambling Jerry Brown speech raises fear among Dems


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.”