When Brown left office after his first two terms in 1983, having declined to seek reelection and having been defeated in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat, nearly 60 percent of voters disapproved of his job performance. His reputation had been damaged by quixotic 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns, and his awkward ambivalence about Proposition 13, the state-ballot measure that capped property taxes at 1 percent of assessed valuation and permanently altered the state’s finances. But he was thinking outside the box in ways that seem striking now; in the 1980 campaign, challenging President Jimmy Carter, he opposed both Carter’s call for an employer mandate to provide catastrophic health-insurance coverage and Kennedy’s call for universal national coverage. Instead, he proposed tax credits for nonsmokers.
Back in private life, he studied Buddhism in Japan and spent time with Mother Teresa in India, returning to California to claim the brass-tacks job of chair of the state Democratic Party, helping to expand its donor base and grassroots-organizing efforts. Under the guidance of his longtime strategist, an eccentric, beret-wearing Frenchman named Jacques Barzaghi, he mounted one last presidential campaign in 1992 but lost the nomination to Bill Clinton after a bitter race. Then came the late-life practical apprenticeship that most analysts agree paved the way for the success of his second tour in Sacramento: eight years as mayor of Oakland, from 1999 to 2007.
“He finally was far [enough] outside the bubble of state politics and the governorship to look at what he was doing,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a retired professor of public-policy communication at the University of Southern California who has watched Brown’s entire career. “He himself said at one point when he was mayor of Oakland that he was finally understanding that the regulations that he had implemented as governor were hamstringing localities. He had to deal with them as a practical reality.”
In his first tour as governor, Brown was famously aloof, shunning the veteran pols who had adored his father, an ebullient, backslapping glad-hander of the old school. He also eschewed the normal routines and conventions of politics, and expected the young, talented staff he’d recruited to keep pace.
“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.