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Adapt or Die: The Political Evolution of Jerry Brown

Mar8

Jerry Brown roared back into California politics last week, putting on a clinic on how to win free media exposure, with a webcast announcement, CBS Evening News and Larry King Live appearances, sit-downs with more than three dozen newspaper, TV and radio outlets in every major market and an all-important interview with Calbuzz.

Virtually every news story used Brown’s money line -– “insider’s knowledge but with an outsider’s mind” -– the kind of yin-yang, unity of opposites, interspacial mind-meld Brown has always personified. Yet almost every story also took a different angle, reflecting his facility for reacting and responding to whatever is thrown at him, without notes, aides  or cue cards.

The key to Brown’s media blitz? He was what his Republican opponents are not: accessible and intriguing. Where Meg Whitman is not accessible and Steve Poizner is hardly intriguing, Brown offers the unexpected, that rarest of commodities in political candidates.

A master of political ecdysis – molting, shedding and discarding whatever ideas, commitments or alliances from his past no longer fit with his latest gestalt – Brown succinctly stated why he has a genuine shot at becoming California’s only once and future governor:

“Adaptation is the essence of evolution,” he told us. “And those who don’t adapt go extinct.” That is the essence of Jerry Brown.

The stances, behaviors and attitudes for which he was once labeled “Governor Moonbeam” some three decades ago are no longer operative, he said, words it’s hard to imagine his GOP foes ever uttering:  “Most of my specifics are no longer in the evolutionary struggle, if I could make a biological metaphor,” he said.

“Most of these monikers derive from many [different] circumstances, so my answer is, ‘This is who I am. This is what I’m doing.’ I have a hell of a record as Attorney General on a whole range of issues the people care deeply about,” he said.

Brown noted that he lives* previously lived in downtown Oakland, in a high-crime area without body guards or chauffeurs. “To the extent that people have questions about persistence, focus, connectivity, I would say I’m a lot closer to the average Californian than these mega-millionaire and billionaire Republicans who have just a whole different resource base and life experience,” he said.

Just walking down Telegraph Avenue, by himself, he rubs elbows with some unsavory characters, he noted.

“Hell, if I can get along with criminals,” he said, “I can get along with politicians.”

With no primary opponent, Brown is freed of the strategic need to veer to the left in order to win the Democratic nomination. So the candidate he is now is the candidate we’ll see in the general election -– an anti-tax-increase, tough-on-crime moderate. Having founded both an arts school and a military academy -– public charter schools in Oakland -– Brown’s views on education and discipline have clearly evolved.

For one thing, he’s had his Department of Justice deputies work up a legal defense of assigning push-ups against a charge of “corporal punishment.”  More important, after years of listening to politicians insist on test scores, fundamentals and back-to-basics, Brown appears ready to alter the debate about what is the central mission of California public schools.

“Test scores are an important measure but it isn’t just data,” Brown said. “It’s not just all this Wall Street business metric. Schools are there to form, to inculcate good habits, ethics and good citizenship.

“We can’t neglect the moral dimension of education because at the end of the day, whether you know the quadratic equation is not as important as whether you are a conscientious citizen of California,” Brown said. “That is really important. And that’s what public schools have traditionally been.”

Fundamentally as important as test scores, he said, are good habits “and that’s something that I’m going to be pushing in the appointments I make to the State Board (of Education) and to the state college system, the state university and college systems. Good citizenship is fundamental to the very nature of a public school.”

“Thomas Jefferson,” Brown added, “talked about an educated citizenry and he did that not so that they’d be better farmers, which 85% of them were, but so that they could be citizens and they could judge their elected representatives in a free society which, at that time, was unheard of.”

Of course, how Brown would ensure funding for schools to pay for expanded civics education -– without sacrificing reading, writing, math and science -– is not something he is remotely prepared to discuss. In fact, Brown avoided specifics about the state budget, other than to say he would “wrestle it to the ground” and develop a work-out plan to get the state out of debt.

How he’ll handle Poizner or Whitman on the issue of the budget remains uncertain. For now, he’s concentrating on how he’ll try to engage all 120 members of the Legislature in budget negotiations. Which is only marginally more sane than eMeg’s pledge to veto virtually every bill by every legislator unless it fits with her plan for the budget. Good luck with those plans guys.

Meanwhile, calling further attention to what Brown calls adaptability and what his critics call flip-flops, Poizner’s press operation sent out this helpful clip from 2006 in which Brown, then a candidate for attorney general, said, “I’ll be the first candidate for Attorney General to seek that job without my eye for the Governor’s office. I am not running for Governor. That is clear. I’ve been there. I’ve done it. ”

Change or die, baby.

*Brown lived in a loft in downtown Oakland until 2007, when he and his wife moved to a place in the Oakland Hills. Shortly before the move, Brown talked about it to the Sacto Bee Capitol Bureau, which reported the conversation this way:  “Meanwhile, Brown said, he’s moving. He and his wife are in escrow on a house in the Oakland hills, he said, above the flats near downtown where they live in a one-room loft. Helping prompt the move: Ten homicides within five blocks of his residence since he’s lived there.” The downtown loft is now being was used by his campaign until October, according to spokesman Sterling Clifford.


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