Brown the outsider looks for electability

March 16, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

FLINT, Mich. -- Former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., casual in a bright blue United Auto Workers jacket, had just been introduced -- but not quite endorsed -- by Michigan Democratic Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. as a man of innovative ideas. The former governor turned to the crowd of students sitting before him on the Flint campus of the University of Michigan and offered with a grin that "perhaps the establishment is joining us now."

The line got a lot of laughs, because the students were well aware by now that the heart of what Mr. Brown calls his "insurgent campaign" for the Democratic presidential nomination is a direct and aggressive assault on the Washington establishment of which Senator Riegle is a part.

But now that the field of Democratic candidates has been reduced to three, with Mr. Brown still trailing Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts in victories and in the polls, the former California governor is expanding his campaign beyond mere protest.

Here in Michigan and in neighboring Illinois, which hold important primaries tomorrow, Mr. Brown is making a pointed effort to bestow respectability on himself as an electable alternative to the others.

Now that he has won one primary, Colorado; one caucus state, Nevada; and has had a near-miss in Maine, Mr. Brown has recognized he must make a case for himself, especially because he has often been dismissed as "Governor Moonbeam," the politician of far-out notions.

How successful he is in that effort may determine whether he can pull off another surprise, as he did in Colorado, by dint of intensive campaigning and by focusing on aspects of his gubernatorial record in Sacramento that have salience in this state.

In Colorado, his reputation as an effective environmentalist and as a foe of nuclear power made the difference. Here, in a state in which organized labor has been a dominant force in Democratic politics, he is reciting his pro-labor record, while offering an explanation for the "Governor Moonbeam" label that has long haunted him.

It all started in the 1970s, he said, when he proposed that state government use satellite communications to transport images of officials on business from one end of the state to the other rather than waste huge amounts of fuel moving them bodily. It didn't sound so crazy the way he explained it.

Mr. Brown went on to tick off his accomplishments as governor for eight years: sharply cutting California's debt left by his Republican predecessor, Ronald Reagan; closing tax loopholes for insurance companies; providing the first collective bargaining agreement in the country for migrant farm workers; creating a California Conservation Corps that put 50,000 young men and women to work fighting fires, building rural trails and other conservation tasks.

"The motto," he said, "was, 'Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions,' " but the participants loved it and at the same time performed valuable community work. Noting that Mr. Clinton is now proposing a National Service Corps in which U.S. youths could pay for their college education with similar service, Mr. Brown asked: "Why didn't he create an Arkansas Service Corps" in his 11 years as governor?

Mr. Brown recited his record of appointing a woman as chief justice of the state Supreme Court (later removed by voter referendum), and women and minorities in a number of key Cabinet posts, including the state Department of Highways and director of the men's prison system.

He talked of pioneer efforts in developing alternate energy sources that met the needs of 4 million Californians, and of how after he left office he traveled worldwide, including brief service with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, where "I saw lives transformed."

Then he told of how he returned to politics as his party's state chairman with a notion of developing true grass-roots politics, only to find that the job consisted mainly of raising millions of dollars from special interests. That experience, he said, opened his eyes and set him off on his current course of exposing the corruptive effect of money in the political process.

What Mr. Brown did not say was that he lost a race for the U.S. Senate after leaving the governorship, that he got into royal rows with other Democratic leaders over his state party leadership and that he explored another run for the Senate last year before deciding to make his third try for the presidency. Nor did he mention the widespread view in California that while he might win the senatorial nomination in a multicandidate field, he would be snowed under in the general election by Californians who have had enough of Mr. Brown in elective office.

Still, against the competition of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Tsongas, Mr. Brown's record as governor, at least as recited by him, made his continued candidacy seem less incredible to many of the students present, who applauded him loud and long at the conclusion of his presentation.

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