Jerry Brown’s Graying Brownies

They called themselves “Brownies” – the starry-eyed young activists who in the 1970s made possible Jerry Brown’s quixotic first two terms as governor.

Many had worked hard getting him elected. Others worked even harder during his eight years in office. They all saw in Brown the California political dream and an inspiration that renewed youthful idealism dampened by Vietnam and Watergate.

Jerry Brown campaigns in San Francisco’s Union Square in 1976.

“We were young. We were idealistic. And I think that in Jerry, we saw a chance to claim California for ourselves,” says Irene Tovar, a Mission Hills political activist who served in the Brown administration as president of the State Personnel and the Public Employment Relations boards.

“In Jerry, we saw hope – hope to make California right, the country right and the world right.”
Brown, now 72, will be sworn in to a third term as governor on Jan. 3, having served his first two from 1975 to 1983. In the intervening years, he remained in the public eye with a variety of political posts and activities, from presidential candidate to mayor of Oakland and, currently, state attorney general.

Those who followed his career over the decades said Brown now has a chance to revisit some of the issues and goals he first tackled – perhaps ahead of his time – in the 1970s.

“The young Jerry talked about a vision for this country and this state that was so advanced – the environment, the greening, solar and wind energy and satellite communications – that are just happening today,” says former state Assemblyman Richard Alatorre, a political contemporary and longtime Brown watcher.

“The supporters who followed him faithfully were just enamored by his intellect, and I wouldn’t say his disdain but close to disdain for all institutions and all people in them. They saw in him a chance to change and revolutionize this state, and maybe this is a second chance for that to happen.”

More than three decades later, Brown’s second go-round as governor finds many of those Brownies — like Jerry himself — older and less politically intoxicated than in the 1970s. But, unlike Brown, many are now in retirement — or no longer alive — and others retain only vague memories of that time.

“For those of us who are still around, it’s a little like Jerry has said – we might have a little more common sense but we might not be as interesting,” says onetime anti-war activist and early Brown supporter Jeanne Londe of Reseda, who will turn 90 in April.

“But we’re still right there with him in spirit.”

Perhaps even more poignantly, other Brownies say the experience of their movement and Brown’s first go-round as governor may offer a teaching moment for those whose political infatuation with Barack Obama helped elect him president.

Brown biographer Roger Rapoport, who co-authored “California Dreaming: The Political Odyssey of Pat and Jerry Brown,” believes that Brown in the 1970s, like Obama in 2008, was able to tap into the young and others who felt estranged from the mainstream.

“Brown was talking to a lot of progressives who didn’t really have a voice in politics except through him — the Daniel Berrigans of the world, if you will, and he captured a lot of that movement,” says Rapoport, alluding to the activist Jesuit priest involved in anti-war protests during the Vietnam War.

“Some of it was very offbeat, but a lot of it, albeit controversial, represented a great opportunity for the disenfranchised. And Obama did that, too, especially in the minority communities.”

Attorney Herman Sillas, who worked on Brown’s 1974 transition team and later was appointed director of the Department of Motor Vehicles, said the new governor specifically set out to bring in new blood into government.

“The first thing he said to me when I joined his transition team was, `This doesn’t mean you’ll be part of the administration,”‘ he said. “He told us to go out and find people who might not have experience that would have precluded them from being appointed in the past but who had the intellect to do it.

“I see the same pattern today. He’s seeking people and ideas regardless of prior commitments or affiliations. I see that parallel today to 1974, and I find it gratifying.”

Ray Bishop, a Tarzana retiree who in the 1970s was involved in progressive politics and the labor movement, said many have forgotten the energizing impact Brown had on the young, especially on the so-called Brownies in that first gubernatorial campaign in 1974.

“My boss went out campaigning with Jerry at a college, and I remember that all the kids wanted to do was touch him like he was some kind of rock star in those days. He was like a guru, and there was a spiritual way about him.”

Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at California State University, Sacramento, said she had just come out working in George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign and sensed Brown had picked up its mantle.

“The Brownies found Jerry messianic – they were true believers,” said O’Connor, who was appointed by Brown to serve as chairwoman of the California Public Broadcasting Commission. “He had a galvanizing, `We can fix this’ mantra. He viewed problems in a different way, and he was young and telegenic and smart as a whip.

“But (Brown) had such an ambitious agenda (that) he didn’t deliver on all he wanted to. He was way ahead of his time. Anybody who had any futuristic inclination, he was very appealing to.

“And so I think the analogy to Obama is very true. There’s having to deal with limi
ted resources, the drag of the infrastructure, partisanship, people who don’t want to change as quickly as you do.”

More importantly, according to old Brownies, is that these were the same traits and characteristics that they saw in themselves.

“He was like the rest of us, a grass-roots activist,” recalled Wayne Fisher of Sunland, formerly head of the Valley’s Democratic Party. “He was down-to-earth fiscally responsible, much like he said he was when he campaigned this year.

“He didn’t live in the governor’s mansion. He lived a very austere lifestyle, and he had a hands-on approach. If he wanted something, he went to see someone directly.”

Fisher, 72, recalled the time in the mid-1970s when he was manning one of the Democratic Party’s Valley offices in Reseda and the then-governor walked in unannounced.

“We all were very surprised,” said Fisher. “I think he wanted to shore up support for a bill and came in and started talking to us. He was a populist, just like Obama, and he wanted to make sure that we were on board with what he wanted and that it was what we wanted.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News, Dec. 14 , 2010.