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Brown Out

As Jerry Brown prepares to exit the political stage, new book details a family dynasty poised to end

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He was what is today an extinct American political species: the can-do liberal who dreamed big, then delivered. Pat Brown also took on perhaps the state's most intractable problem with one of its most ambitious solutions. Though the population of California was mostly in the south, the state's water was mostly in the north. Early on, Brown declared a satisfactory solution to the water problem as "a key to my entire administration." The result was the California State Water Project, featuring a giant aqueduct in the Central Valley now named for Pat Brown.

Brown was defeated for a third term by Ronald Reagan. After eight years of his governorship, California turned again to a Brown.

In contrast to his father, Jerry Brown—at least in his first stint as governor, from 1975 to 1983—was more a reflection of the Vietnam-Watergate generation: arrogant, intellectually voracious, almost puritanical in his disdain for mainstream politics, the brooding iconoclast who simultaneously hated displays of wealth and loved hanging out with rock stars.

Jerry Brown's mission was to attack the status quo, and he often did so in the most theatrical ways imaginable. He canceled the inaugural ball, flew commercial, rented a small apartment instead of living in the Governor's Mansion, and drove a blue Plymouth to work.

Jerry's style resonated in a post-Watergate era of limits, but it bewildered many of his constituents—including his dad. In interviewing many of Jerry Brown's friends, Pawel says that many of them told her that "Pat never quite got Jerry. He was off dating Linda Ronstadt and sleeping on a bed on the floor and canceling the inaugural and all that. A lot of people thought it was for show. At the time, it happened to be good politics, but it also was a reflection of who he was. But I think his father was hurt by not being relied on, or let in more as an adviser."

The last third of her book retraces Jerry Brown's time in the political wilderness—the doomed 1992 presidential campaign, the role as head of the state Democratic Party, the gig as a talk-radio host. Pat Brown died in 1996; the next year, Jerry said he was running for mayor of Oakland. In '99, he took office in the city and experienced a political reawakening. Ironically, he found himself fighting laws that he had created as governor.

He vowed to bring 10,000 people to downtown Oakland. He got involved in potholes and karaoke permits. He was a common sight on the streets with his dog, Dharma. The move from philosopher king of Sacramento to pragmatic mayor of Oakland invigorated him. The other X-factor that transformed Brown was Anne Gust, the retail executive who became his wife in 2005. Oakland and Anne rounded off Brown's rougher edges, according to Pawel, and made him more of a practical and effective politician.

Jerry got a second bite at the governor's apple in 2010. He came into office ready to wrestle with the state's chaotic finances and take on its dysfunctional penal system. He proved to be more moderate than many of his liberal supporters had hoped, but turned around a huge state deficit—thanks in large part to Democratic supermajorities and revenue-friendly ballot measures. Pat Brown didn't survive to see his son's second ascent—the older Brown would have found the second Jerry Brown administration much more comprehensible than the first. But time has run out for Jerry Brown and the family dynasty. He has mastered the art of politics, just when it's time to leave the stage.

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