See Jerry Not Run

If he'd just revert to type, Jerry Brown could help California avoid a Davis vs. Simon truck wreck

There was once a man who suffered a debilitating psychological ailment that combined the symptoms of Tourette's syndrome, what is known as anti-social disorder, and epilepsy. When stressed, he would savagely beat bystanders and scream, "Goddamned shitass motherfucker. Fucker! Fucker!"(1) Eventually the man sought help, took medication, performed meditative exercises, and was rid of his complex problem.

One morning on an airplane to Los Angeles, our hero saw hijackers leap from their seats, waving box knives. His old ailments might have saved the day, but he'd been cured. He remained calm, healthy, and unaggressively sane -- right up to the moment of impact.

This imaginary scenario has a depressing parallel, just across the bay from San Francisco. Jerry Brown, who once suffered an uncontrollable impulse to conduct absurd-seeming campaigns for higher office, appears to have found inner peace -- just as California might be saved by one of his untamed political outbursts. Brown seems to have found a cure for his old impulses in his role as a no-nonsense, big-city manager. Unfortunately, he's done so just as California appears headed for gubernatorial disaster: A sleazy right-wing loony named Bill Simon is running against an equally sleazy, visionless fund-raising savant named Gray Davis.

When the young Jerry Brown watched California struggle under Ronald Reagan, the former seminarian yielded to his baser impulses and ran. When he saw America threatened in 1976 by the prospect of a peanut-farm presidency, he launched a mad-dash campaign for president. When he saw Bill Clinton's unopposed primary campaign lacking in entertainment value, Jerry Brown's psychosis yanked him into the presidential fray again.

But for some reason, things are different now. Perhaps it was that Zen-meditation retreat in Kamakura, Japan, a decade or so ago; or maybe Brown's J-Lo Square warehouse is infested with a healing type of fungus; or perchance Jacques Barzaghi is really Brown's sub rosa psychiatrist. Whatever sort of cure he's found, the former man from Moonbeam seems at peace with his role as the fussy mayor of Oakland.

He's so at peace, in fact, that a day after I asked his press aide for an interview to accompany the "Draft Jerry Brown for Governor" campaign I'm launching with this column, she left a message saying, "I don't think there's really much he wanted to add."

It's difficult to overemphasize the darkness of the voices emanating from this fall's gubernatorial campaign. In incumbent Gray Davis, we have the man a McKenna College political science professor called "the Christopher Columbus of campaign finance." Our current governor has so eagerly sought so much money from so many special interests that a significant portion of the policy he makes faces legitimate charges of conflict of interest.

The state prison guards' union gives Davis $251,000, and Davis does its bidding; a $25,000 check from Oracle rapidly follows a $95 million state contract; Davis delays a decision to allow homes to have plastic pipe, the plumbers' union promptly gives the governor $260,000. Gray Davis' aides explain all this away with a template answer: "There is no connection between contributions and policy.'' Meanwhile, the concerns of ordinary citizens drift ever further from the thoughts and plans of the Statehouse.

The most important ramification of Davis' fund-raising expertise is his policy agenda: He has none, apparently by design. To remain a tabula rasa for the wishes of campaign contributors, our governor has created an apparent miracle: He's a politician with no discernible forward vision whatsoever. In place of attempting to realize such a vision, Gray Davis spends his energies seeking the perfect balance between benefiting campaign contributors and pandering to voters.

Campaign finance is the unified quantum theory explaining everything that's wrong with California politics -- and when you plug "Gray Davis" into the theory, you get very predictable answers.

Cash-flush nursing home lobbyists successfully stymie laws to protect the elderly. The well-heeled prison guards' union gets to keep a reprehensible policy prohibiting journalists from interviewing prisoners (and, just perhaps, learning of the horrors prison guards have perpetrated). Gray Davis takes $550,000 in donations from Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric. Those companies' interests get vigorously protected during the state's energy meltdown.

As horrid as Gray Davis might be, the incredible lightness of being gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon cannot be exaggerated. If we Californians are willing to elect a tax cheat whose dodges earned him a front-page spot in the Wall Street Journal, we're fools. If we support a wealthy scion who runs his family foundation as a revenue-producing tax-evasion scheme, we're ingénues. If we elect a man who has boasted on the radio about his eagerness to curtail government services for Hispanic immigrants, then lamely rescinded the boasts during the gubernatorial campaign -- may God save our mortal collective soul.

"Who could ask for a better opponent?" notes Leroy Chatfield, a former staff aide to Gov. Jerry Brown. "In terms of what's happening on the national scene, who's going to vote for a CEO [like Simon]? It's not in the cards. That's pretty cut and dried."

Which leaves us with Chatfield's former boss.

I first became a fan of Jerry Brown only three years ago, having held a grudge against him for 21 previous years, because of his role in the Jarvis/Gann tax revolt. Brown built up a large tax surplus during his first four years as governor, lending credence to proponents of property-tax-cutting Proposition 13, who said the government had more money than it needed. Once Prop. 13 passed, Brown became a post-factum advocate of the awful measure, a sin I hadn't forgiven him for -- until I was tipped back into the Brown column at a dinner party where I overheard a pair of Oakland-dwelling lawyers griping about the mayor's plan to bring 10,000 new residents to the city's downtown.

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