Brown Eases Into the Race

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Attorney General Jerry Brown has quietly moved into the governor’s race, but don’t expect him to be opening any storefront campaign offices or hanging up the “Jerry for Governor” banners anytime soon.

While Brown hasn’t made any official announcement yet, the secretary of state’s office now lists him as a candidate for governor, which means he can start collecting money in governor’s-race-sized chunks.

The move comes on the heels of a new poll showing Brown with solid leads over all three Republican candidates for governor, former San Jose Rep. Tom Campbell, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. The same Rasmussen Poll, taken last week, showed San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, so far the lone announced Democratic candidate, trailing all three Republicans in head-to-head match-ups.

For more than a year, the only question about Brown’s plans has been when he’d announce for governor, not if he was going to. At the state Democratic convention in March 2008, Brown already was dropping broad hints that he was planning to run for governor, the same office he held from 1975 to 1983 as the boy wonder of the political world.

For the past year, Brown has been raising the type of money he would need for a top-of-the-ballot race, far more than he would ever use for his virtually guaranteed re-election as attorney general.

In recent weeks, it’s become hard for even Brown to keep a straight face when telling reporters that he still hadn’t decided whether he was going to run. Finally, last week, he told Rick Orlov of the Los Angeles Daily News that he was planning to put together a formal committee to raise money for a run for governor.

In typical Brown fashion, however, he brushed off the Democratic primary battle with Newsom. Instead, he said he would need bundles of cash to challenge a wealthy Republican in the general election.

Brown’s already got a pretty good start on that war chest. As of June 30, he had about $7.3 million in the bank, compared to $1.2 million for Newsom. Since then, he’s taken in more than $740,000 in reported contributions of $5,000 or more, compared to about $510,000 for Newsom.

Brown’s financial fortunes will soar when his gubernatorial committee gets rolling. Until now, Brown has been limited to the $6,500 individual maximum for the attorney general’s contest. But as an official candidate for governor, that contribution limit rises to $25,900 for the June primary and another $25,900 for the fall campaign. Expect many of the labor unions, businesses and deep-pocketed Friends-of-Jerry to bump the contributions they’ve already made up to the new maximum.

But just because you raise the money, doesn’t mean you’ve got to spend it. When Brown has mused about his campaign plans, he’s suggested that he may even wait until next year to actually get his campaign going.

“The deadline for filing papers isn’t until March – so tune in,’’ Brown told the Sacramento Bee earlier this month.

It all depends on politics, of course. As long as Brown believes he has anything like the 20-plus percentage point lead over Newsom some polls have found, expect the attorney general to virtually ignore the governor’s race, dodging questions about his plans if elected and generally doing nothing but letting the money pile up.

But Newsom isn’t conceding anything. He recently received the endorsement of former President Bill Clinton – no friend of Brown – and is hoping that will boost his poll numbers. Clinton, still a political superstar to California Democrats, is slated to join Newsom next week at a public event in heavily Latino East Los Angeles and then at a Los Angeles fund-raiser. He’s also guaranteed to be featured in Newsom’s TV ads and mail pieces.

Brown would love to float above the primary campaign, ignoring the inevitable attacks from Newsom and his sharp-tongued consultant, Garry South, and treating it as little more than a warm-up for the main event in November.

But if those poll numbers start to sink, all bets are off. Brown has been in the political spotlight for 40 years and doesn’t want to exit the stage a loser. He’s running for governor because he badly wants to be governor and that fire means he will do whatever’s needed to win that third term.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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