Attorney General Jerry Brown, left, walks in the Capitol in September. The Democrat, who was California’s governor from early 1975 until early 1983, has not officially entered the governor’s race next year, although polls show he has significant support.
As the undeclared Democratic front-runner in the governor’s race, Jerry Brown keeps a low profile and stays mum on divisive issues, saying he’ll talk more if and when he actually runs.
As California’s attorney general, however, the 71-year-old former governor is winning headlines nationwide for protecting taxpayers from unscrupulous banks and green-lighting deep salary cuts for legislators.
That dual role has fueled criticism that Brown is using his day job for partisan gain, a charge he has vehemently denied.
What’s clear is Brown’s official position has let him take the high road on a wide range of issues while he avoids the rhetorical skirmishes of the governor’s race.
Just this past week, Brown appeared before news reporters to celebrate a $1.4 billion settlement with Wells Fargo & Co., which Brown had sued for misleading investors.
He’s also protected children from toys containing dangerous amounts of lead and African American churches from suspected scammers.
On Thursday, Brown tapped into the anti-Sacramento mood of the moment by issuing an opinion letting the state’s salary-setting commission cut legislator pay in the middle of their terms.
Brown’s opinion on the pay cuts acknowledged that three other legal opinions had come to an opposite conclusion, but Brown wrote that the most recent word on the issue, voter-approved Proposition 112, allowed such cuts and should take precedence.
Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College, said he wasn’t surprised Brown took the more voter-friendly legal route.
“I’m no attorney, but I’m not surprised that if it were legally possible to do something popular, Jerry Brown would do it,” Pitney said.
Andrew Acosta, a Democratic strategist, said Brown was just doing what many attorney generals with ambitions to higher office had done while in office. Some of Brown’s predecessors, including Republicans Dan Lungren and George Deukmejian, also launched gubernatorial campaigns while serving as the state’s top lawyer.
“The attorney general is a very good office from which to run for statewide office in California because you get involved in issues that matter to most Californians,” Acosta said. “That’s what the job is.”
California Republican Party Chief Operating Officer Brent Lowder, however, accused Brown of taking that practice to new partisan heights.
Lowder said Brown’s positioning showed itself in his argument against voter-passed Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, and his lawsuit against San Bernardino County for not adequately addressing climate change in its general plan. Those stands, Lowder said, reflected Brown’s liberal politics rather than the will of Californians.
“Every elected official running for office uses his office for the campaign,” Lowder said. “But Brown seems to raise this paradigm to an abuse level.”
Brown confronted similar questioning last month when he appeared on the financial network CNBC to discuss his lawsuit against Boston-based State Street Bank for allegedly defrauding state pension funds.
After Brown explained the substance of the suit, anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera asked him, “What do you say to people who look at this and say this is a perfect example of the demagoguery that attorney generals use when they want to run for governor?”
Brown responded furiously, calling the question “symptomatic of the insensitivity and arrogance of this Eastern financial elite.”
Brown senior adviser Steven Glazer said in an e-mail to The Bee that running for office while already in office could help or hurt, depending on the issue.
“You don’t get to pick all the issues that come before you and you can be unfairly labeled as part of the so-called problem even if it is unrelated to your public service,” Glazer wrote.
Brown’s day job has, in fact, sparked what’s been his incubating candidacy’s biggest controversy so far – communications director Scott Gerber’s secret and possibly illegal recordings of conversations with news reporters.
An internal inquiry by Brown’s office found Gerber had disobeyed orders not to record conversations without consent. But it also found that Gerber had not violated state laws prohibiting such activity because the recorded conversations were on-the-record chats with reporters.
Gerber resigned after news broke about the recordings. The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office now is conducting its own inquiry into the matter at the request of the attorney general.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner has also learned that being both a gubernatorial candidate and a statewide officeholder at the same time can cut both ways.
Poizner, the state insurance commissioner, often bills himself as a consumer advocate battling insurance companies. Yet he has also drawn scrutiny for the way he runs his office, including a report in The Bee that his deputy commissioners have attended conferences paid for by the insurance companies they regulate.
Poizner spokesman Jarrod Agen said Poizner’s public service has been a positive and set him apart from rival Meg Whitman, who has never held held elected office before.
“He’s not a Sacramento insider,” Agen said of Poizner, “but he is not coming in directly from the cold where he’ll have to learn how the state Capitol works from day one.”
Dealing with a wider scope of issues, the attorney general’s office lends itself to more potential glory than Poizner’s, and Brown has hit several home runs this past week after spending much of this month playing defense about Gerber.
The attorney general was able to take hard stands against two of the public’s biggest villains of the moment – banks and state legislators.
As the race heats up, more announcements from the attorney general’s office are surely on the way.
“He can point to things that he has done that arguably benefit Californians and he can portray himself as a fighter for ordinary people,” Pitney said. “Jerry Brown has never been averse to claiming credit.”
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