Every time we see a suggestion that millionaire former Controller Steve Westly might jump into the 2010 governor’s race (which – Yo Willie! – isn’t happening*), we’re reminded of the last time he and Jerry Brown sought the same office. The year was 1988, and Brown big footed his way into the race for California Democratic Party Chairman, which had been looking like a sure thing for Westly.
The former governor parachuting into the contest was a huge disappointment for party Vice Chairman Westly, who, back then in his pre-eBay days, was an earnest grass-roots activist.
Before grabbing the party chairmanship in the winter of 1989, however, Brown ran into a bit of trouble with liberal party regulars on a key Democratic issue: abortion. The matter is unlikely to come up specifically in the 2010 governor’s race primary because, as a public official, Brown has been an unwavering supporter of pro-choice policies.
But back then, Brown professed that he was personally opposed to abortion and acknowledged he had recently urged clemency for one of the nation’s most visible and fanatical anti-abortion activists.
A few weeks before the election for state party chairman, the San Jose Mercury News revealed that Brown had written to Florida state officials earlier in the year on behalf of Joan Andrews, a pro-life crusader from Delaware. She had been sentenced to five years on burglary charges for her part in the 1986 storming of a Pensacola abortion clinic in which equipment was damaged and two workers were slightly injured.
”People are shocked and very dismayed,” the lefty field director of the 24,000-member California Abortion Rights Action League said at the time. Her name was Susan Kennedy, and she’s since evolved into Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hard-nosed, cigar-smoking chief of staff.
“Jerry Brown stated that his private position on abortion would not affect his ability to lead the party,” Kennedy said at the time. “But the very fact that he wrote this letter on behalf of Joan Andrews clearly steps across the line of having personal beliefs into the public and political realm of crusading for those beliefs.”
At the time, Brown said that ”My position is just what it was before.”
“I am against abortion and I feel more strongly than ever about that,” he said. “But I also deeply respect the autonomy and integrity of each person and that means to me that you trust women to make these judgments on their own and not to call upon the coercive power of the state.”
That, however, was a far cry from the statements attributed to Brown earlier that year by Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the National Catholic News Service, who had written that Brown said he sees “the killing of the unborn as crazy.”
Even more upsetting for some Democrats was Brown’s intercession on behalf of Andrews, then a 40-year-old Roman Catholic activist who had been arrested more than 130 times. Arch-conservative former Republican Congressman Robert Dornan of Garden Grove, had praised her as “a new martyr on the world stage of human rights causes.”
”To me, this is a clear civil rights issue,” Brown said back then, explaining his support for Andrews.
He said Mother Teresa first told him about Andrews’ case when he was working at her House of the Pure Heart in Calcutta. “I told her I did not believe that there was any woman incarcerated for five years for a non-violent, trespass offense. And I said I’d look into it for her.”
Sentenced to five years for the Pensacola case after refusing to pledge not to break into the clinic in the future, Andrews caused a furor when she arrived at the Broward Correctional Institution. She resisted a mandatory strip- search, jumping off an examining table, banging her head on the floor and throwing her glass eye across the room, according to news reports from Florida.
Prison officials said Andrews was an uncooperative prisoner and kept her segregated from other prisoners.
‘The issue was,” said Brown, “should a person convicted of non-violent crimes, who’s not cooperating with the prison authorities, be in solitary confinement for five years?”
Andrews, who was married years later and became Joan Andrews Bell, has been arrested and jailed scores of times in the intervening years, including most recently in May 2009 at Notre Dame, as part of an anti-Obama anti-abortion demonstration.
In April of 2006, LA City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo tried to use the issue against Brown in his campaign for attorney general, arguing: “He says he is pro-choice, but he wrote a letter on behalf of an abortion terrorist for clemency, to get out of jail early, which she did, and then went on to attack more abortion clinics across the United States.”
“It’s absurd,” Brown told the LA Times. “When Mother Teresa asks you to do something that is fairly reasonable, most people would do it. [Andrews Bell] spent 2 1/2 years in solitary confinement. The sentence was longer than a lot of robbers were getting at the time. I said it was wrong, what she did, but the question was, was 2 1/2 years in solitary confinement enough?”
Brown scooped up endorsements from abortion rights leaders, including Nancy Casady of the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, among others, and the issue did not surface again.
As a political matter in the 2010 governor’s race, the episode is unlikely to pose trouble for Brown on the policy issue of abortion — but it could be used to illustrate and underscore his reputation as a political chameleon who has re-invented himself countless times.
“It wasn’t a problem for the Democrats. It wasn’t a problem in the Attorney General’s race. What’s the point? It’s old news,” Brown told Calbuzz with a hint of irritation.
Brown’s stance in favor of choice is second nature to him, he said – like being in favor of the minimum wage, collective bargaining or the right of people to get married. He said he put funding for abortion into MediCal back when the Legislature was opposed to it and he still supports funding in MediCal and for family-planning clinics. “It’s a level of obviousness that you cannot convert it into an issue,” he told us.
Perhaps. But Brown’s clemency letter for Andrews just might qualify as one of what Garry South, rival Gavin Newsom’s consultant, refers to as the “huge number of contradictions, conflicted positions and controversies that Democrats are going to have to consider” about Brown.
“When you get the full grasp of Jerry Brown’s record over 40 years, it’s an embarrassment of riches,” said the Duke of Darkness. “He’s not going to be able to cherry-pick what he wants people to know about his record,” South said, pointing, for example to Brown’s support for the flat tax during his 1992 campaign for president. Said South:
“This guy’s had more incarnations than Zelig and he’s taken more positions than there are in the Kama Sutra.”
* With Willie Brown and others peddling stories about Steve Westly running for governor, Calbuzz figured, hey, since we’ve done all this “actual reporting” anyway, why not just call the guy and ask him if there’s any chance he’d get into the 2010 governor’s race.
“I’m completely focused on being the best father I can be and building one of the best clean-tech venture capital funds ever created,” Westly said. Of course, he added, he’s hoping to run statewide some time in the future. But now’s not the time.