“He was all-consumed, and those in his immediate orbit had to be as well if they were going to do their job,” remembers Cari Beauchamp, now a noted film historian, who was Brown’s press secretary in the late 70s. “One New Year’s Eve at 10 p.m., he turned to me to ask, ‘Oh, did you have something planned?’ and I responded with a laugh, ‘I wouldn’t dream of it.’”
Pat Brown, who is credited with overseeing the massive state investment that transformed California in the 1950s and 60s, died in 1996 and, Jeffe says, the son has grown “more self-confident, more mellow, more broad-minded since the passing of his dad—that’s pop political psychiatry at its worst, but I can’t help thinking it.” Then there is Brown’s 2005 marriage to Anne Gust, a former senior executive at the Gap whom he’d dated for years and who became his most trusted speechwriter and strategist, first in his four-year stint as state attorney general and, since 2011, in the governorship. And along the way, he acquired a pair of dogs that friends say help keep him grounded.
Brown returned to the “Horseshoe”—the U-shaped suite of the governor’s offices in the Capitol—after a period of turmoil in California politics. Gray Davis, the Democrat incumbent who once served as Brown’s chief of staff, had been ousted in a recall election in 2003 by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was reelected to a full term in 2006. Four years later, battered by the 2008 recession and other troubles, Schwarzenegger’s once-high approval ratings were roughly equal to Davis’s at the time of the recall, and the electorate was primed for Brown’s brand of practical, tell-it-like-it-is politics and his hard-won experience. The Republican candidate, Meg Whitman, the former head of eBay, outspent him by more than three to one with her own money, but Brown won easily.*
“You go through cycles when unorthodox politicians appeal to people, and he hit two of them,” says Bruce E. Cain, a professor of political science at Stanford University. “In his first tour, he had a period when he and governors like Mike Dukakis in Massachusetts were rejecting New Deal, big government solutions, and were for big ideas with smaller government, a kind of ascetic Democratic approach that was very much in vogue. Then we went through a period where that kind of outsider, outside-the-box stuff faded.” And then, Cain says, Brown caught another wave, distaste for “highly managed, highly groomed, highly coached, incredibly cautious politicians” (think Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton), and won his third term in 2010. “He had the unusual fate to catch the wave twice,” Cain adds.
Brown resumed the governorship just as voters passed a ballot measure eliminating the requirement for a two-thirds vote of the legislature to pass the state budget, and in 2012, he structured the budget so as to depend on passage of a ballot measure of his own, temporarily raising the sales tax by a quarter cent and imposing an income-tax surcharge on Californians making $250,000 a year. The measure passed comfortably and has since been extended, and has been key to putting the state back in the black. But the state’s finances remain too dependent on volatile personal income-tax revenues, which swell in boom times and contract when the bubble bursts. Brown also failed to crack the problem of underfunded pensions for state workers.