Tough but smart

January 27, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Sacramento, Calif. -- KATHLEEN BROWN wants to be the third California governor in the Brown family. But she comes across as very different from her father Pat, an old-fashioned liberal, and her brother Jerry, a cold futurist.

She is the essence of the New Democrat, pro-business, tough on crime and other problems: "Tough but smart," she says repeatedly as we talk in her state treasurer's office.

"Contrary to some in my party," she says, "I support 'three strikes and you're out.' " That is a proposal, likely to go to the voters in California next fall, to put anyone convicted of three violent felonies in prison for life without parole.

"What distinguishes me from Pete Wilson (the Republican governor) is that he plays on fears. I have affirmative plans: a 33-point plan on crime.

"We've had 12 years of tough talk on crime, 12 long years. And we've had a rising tide of random violence that is different from anything I can remember. I want to break the cycle of violence.

"I would not allow conjugal visits for prisoners, another position that is upsetting to some of my friends. I have a pragmatic, tough outlook that reflects my origins: Catholic, German, immigrant.

"We also have to do some smart things. For example, stop 'tagging' by gangs -- marking out their turf by spray-painted graffiti. It's a little like (Mayor) Giuliani going after the squeegee guys: You get control of the small things.

"Your first offense, I say you do time. I want boot camps for first offenders, 90 days, so they learn there are consequences. We've got to move back to order and accountability.

"I think this governor is going to be vulnerable. My question is: Do you feel safer today than you did four years ago?"

Ms. Brown is not as stern in manner as her words may sound. There are lots of jokes in her conversation. She is 48 and the grandmother of twins, a young-looking grandmother.

I asked her about immigration, the hot issue in California after crime. Mr. Wilson has proposed a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to American-born children of illegal immigrants and keep them out of public schools.

"It's penny-wise and pound-foolish," she said: "Throw children out on the street, deny emergency medical care. I have a tough position on immigration, too, but you don't visit on children the sins of the parents.

"If we're serious about stopping illegal immigration, let's get serious on employer sanctions. I want tamper-proof Social Security cards: for all of us, not just immigrants, so we can enforce the law."

California used to have the sense of limitless possibilities. Even before the earthquake, one felt a sourness, a pessimism about the low economy and social problems.

"I believe there is something special about California," she says. "It attracts risk-takers."

In an economic speech this week she will propose a tax moratorium for new businesses.

"As a signal that we want you here," she explained, "you'll pay no income or corporate franchise tax in the first year, 50 percent the second, 75 percent the third."

Ms. Brown beat an incumbent to become treasurer four years ago. The latest poll shows her well ahead of her prospective opponent in the Democratic primary, insurance commissioner John Garamendi. She leads Mr. Wilson 46 percent to 38 percent, down a few points from October.

Mr. Wilson is famous for skillful and mean campaigns. Could she stand personal attacks? I asked.

"You don't grow up in the Brown family without developing a thick skin fast," she said.

"Will I like it? Will it be fun?" Leaning forward, with a grin, she said: "At times, yes. I love a good fight. I prefer fair fights, but I take them as they come and I like to win.

"It will be very close. I never expected otherwise."

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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