WHILE THE REST of the nation lurches ahead to Election Day, California remains stuck in a time warp.
Take the governor's race between incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger and State Treasurer Phil Angelides. It started out as the 1984 presidential contest redux, with Arnold reprising the role of Ronald Reagan (hopeless optimist) and Angelides that of Walter Mondale (doomed the moment he called for higher taxes). That was before Angelides set the way-back machine to the 1960s, channeling his inner Tom Hayden and vowing to sue the Bush administration to return California's National Guard troops from Iraq. Unfortunately, for Angelides, time isn't on his side; the polls suggest he's headed for a double-digit drubbing.
Then there's California's other blast from the past: Jerry Brown, who's running for state attorney general. It marks the eighth time that Brown, who succeeded Reagan as governor of California 32 years ago this January, has sought statewide or national office. That includes presidential runs in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, but doesn't begin to cover two terms as Oakland mayor (his current job), a two-year stint as chairman of the state Democratic party (he'd later drop his party affiliation before returning to the fold prior to his Oakland mayoral bid), plus some creative moonlighting as a talk-radio host, a student of Zen Buddhism in Japan, and a buddy of Mother Teresa in Calcutta.
It's a race with dynastic overtones: Jerry Brown's father, Pat, served two terms as California's attorney general and two terms as governor during the '50s and '60s; his sister Kathleen served one term as state treasurer before getting trounced in the 1994 governor's race. Despite the lengthy résumé, no one is suggesting that Jerry Brown is geriatric--at 68, he's five years younger than California's senior senator, Dianne Feinstein. Still, it seems strange that the Brown torch hasn't already been passed to a new generation. In November 1982, while Brown was wrapping up his final year as governor, Mario Cuomo was winning a first term as governor of New York. Twenty-four years later, it's Cuomo's son, Andrew, who's running to be New York's next attorney general--the same job Brown covets in California.
Brown has attempted to portray his mayoral record as that of a Giuliani-type city boss who's tough on crime. But homicides in Oakland are up nearly 100 percent since Brown first took office. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, says Brown's opponent, state senator Charles Poochigian, whose campaign eagerly counts the ways in which Governor Brown was soft on crime: pardoning seven first-degree murderers; supporting a prisoners' bill of rights while opposing a crime victims' bill of rights; vetoing a bill reinstating the death penalty (a veto the state legislature overrode); and opposing lethal injection as California's method of capital punishment.
Brown has responded that the pardoned murderers were elderly, and that as attorney general, he would carry out laws allowing executions. If so, he might want to explain the company he keeps. Brown's radio ads are voiced over by Peter Coyote, the actor and Bay Area fixture who's a regular at San Quentin death-penalty protests.
And yet Brown will not be easily defeated. He has a 15-point lead in the polls, better name recognition than Poochigian, and a larger campaign war chest. Poochigian hails from Fresno, which isn't much of a political stronghold (his family settled there to take up farming after fleeing the Armenian genocide, and his mother still lives on their original 20-acre plot). But he does have at least two factors working for him: A Schwarz enegger landslide over Ange lides could sweep fellow Republican candidates into office; and Brown's support has not grown beyond 45 percent, suggesting a skeptical electorate.
It wasn't skepticism but downright fatigue and frustration that led to Brown's defeat the last time he ran for statewide office, in the 1982 U.S. Senate race won by Republican Pete Wilson (who also defeated Brown's sister in the 1994 governor's race). Brown had been governor for the previous eight years, and had traded in the governor's mansion for a floor mattress in more Spartan digs, tooled around town in a Plymouth instead of a state limo, escorted Linda Ronstadt to Africa, elevated Rose Bird to the state's high court, and seemed powerless against infesting Medflies. After Brown proposed the creation of a state space academy, Mike Royko nicknamed him Governor Moonbeam. But will voters in this election--some of whom weren't alive in 1982, much less eligible to vote--remember those greatest hits? Are they aware of Brown's other oddball musings, such as likening capital punishment to "Hitler's Germany" and characterizing corporate America as "an out-of-control Frankenstein"?
It's that last quote that's worth remembering. In California, attorneys general hail from one of two parties, and in office they pursue one of two paths: serving blue-collar, law-and-order justice, or attacking white-collar crime. George Deukmejian, an attorney general during the '70s and early '80s and Brown's successor as governor, made a name for himself as a death-penalty champion.
By contrast, the man Brown hopes to succeed as attorney general, Democrat Bill Lockyer, seems obsessed with corporate malfeasance. Lockyer has used his office to sue Enron, whom he accused of gouging California during the state's energy crisis. More recently, he filed a lawsuit against a half-dozen automakers for allegedly contributing to global warming, and indicted Hewlett-Packard executives for corporate espionage.
Where would an Attorney General Brown take California? The post allows for tremendous political latitude. In California, the attorney general not only represents the state in civil and criminal court proceedings, but also acts as a patron saint for consumers' and victims' rights and environmental groups. The job is made-to-order for any politician with higher aspirations and a fertile imagination. And Brown seems still to have both. Because he served as governor before term limits went into effect, he could seek the top job again in 2010. "I have a bright future, into my late 70s," Brown has told reporters.
At the very least it should be interesting. "I will be an unusual attorney general. I will not be like the other ones," he said back in April. Brown also tells reporters he wants to take a "common sense" approach to the office, which means settling civil lawsuits, protecting the environment, plus addressing city crime and corporate abuses. Poochigian, on the other hand, would likely build on his legislative record, which includes tougher penalties for sexual predators, gun-toting felons, and identity thieves.
As California secretary of state in the early 1970s, Brown showed what kind of attorney general he might turn out to be. During his one term in that position, he brought suits against Standard Oil of California, ITT, Gulf Oil, and Mobil for violating campaign finance laws. For Democrats, three decades later, corporate-bashing is, if anything, more in vogue. In New York, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is about to be elected governor after using his office's crusades against the securities, insurance, entertainment, and computer industries to raise his profile. And for Brown, too, becoming attorney general would be an opportunity to show off his timeless knack for self-aggrandizement.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.