A Different Shade Of Brown

CALIFORNIA GOVERNORS NAMED Brown have long personified West Coast liberalism. From 1959 to 1967, Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, espousing "responsible liberalism," spent lavishly, building freeways, water projects and superb public universities. From 1975 to 1983, Pat's son, Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., that proto New Age cultural liberal, argued that personal freedom-and new ideas-would foster growth. "Governor Moonbeam" lived alone in a sparse flat, dated a rock star and drove a battered Plymouth.

Now a third Democrat named Brown is running for governor: state Treasurer Kathleen, 48, daughter of Pat and sister of Jerry. But rising violence and a lingering recession have left Californians obsessed with crime, joblessness and illegal immigration, and her family's liberal optimism seems quaintly outmoded. So the woman who became treasurer proclaiming herself "a different shade of Brown" is running as a proponent not of government spending, but of personal responsibility and "common sense" problem-solving. She seeks to chart a nonideological route out of California's problems, claiming that "you really have an opportunity to turn things in a new direction." Democratic and Republican positions are no longer what they once were. "Things are getting turned upside down."

Loosed from the old moorings, Brown has tried to be a "common sense" centrist while edging as far to the right as possible on issues that Californians care about. Her economic plan offers pro-business tax incentives and job training. She has called for repatriating 14,000 illegal immigrants now in California prisons, as well as for more border cops, a tamperproof social-security card and stiffer fines for employers. She wants more money for drug rehab and boot camps, but also favors Republican-style "get tough" sentencing proposals (automatic sentences for first-time drug offenders, for example) and even the abolition of conjugal visits.

At first her strategy seemed to be working. A few months ago Brown appeared certain to beat incumbent Republican Pete Wilson. The state economy was in ruins and the governor appeared contentious and ineffectual. But late last year the economy began to show signs of life. At the same time, Wilson assumed aggressive postures on immigration and crime, and played a shrewd and showy crisis manager after January's earthquake.

Meanwhile, Brown has discovered the difficulties of competing with Wilson by moving right. He is a ruthless and effective campaigner, and when she matched his support for "three strikes and you're out" legislation, he proposed "one strike and you're in" mandatory life sentences for first-time rape convicts. Knowing that few anticrime measures strike voters as too drastic. Brown tries to neutralize Wilson's advantage by calling him a hypocrite. When convicted serial rapist Melvin Carter was paroled recently, Brown blamed Wilson for talking tough and failing to act. Wilson retorted by blaming it all on her family: Pat Brown nominated the judge who sentenced Carter, and Jerry signed into law the lenient parole rules.

With crime dominating the debate. the death-penalty issue may be the most vivid example of the burdens of being a Brown. The family has opposed it passionately ever since the young Jerry persuaded his father to temporarily stay the execution of famous death-row inmate Caryl Chessman. As the campaign began, Kathleen Brown disclosed her own position: she was personally opposed, but would enforce the law. Her views were "irrelevant," she said-a straddle promptly derided by Wilson and her chief Democratic opponent, John Garamendi.

Brown's greatest liability is her failure to present a coherent political persona to the public. "There's one central question in this election," says California political analyst Bill Bradley. "Who will define Kathleen Brown first?" She seems more at pains to point out the kind of politician she is not than to articulate and defend who she is. Even supporters complain her attacks on Wilson have been too sporadic to be effective. In her announcement swing, she issued a sharp critique of Wilson's record and told voters, "Enough is enough." Then, inexplicably, the slogan disappeared. And by engaging Wilson on the crime issue, she has allowed him to deflect attention from the economy, still his weak spot. Brown recently hired a new strategist, and Democratic allies hope to see a more pointed message soon.

In person, Brown displays the controlled but approachable charm of her dad, who put others at ease simply by listening. She exploits her status as a Brown and yet distances herself from the legacy a strategy that tends to foster confusion. It boosted her into the treasurer's job, where she has been praised as hardworking and innovative, but the low-profile post teaches voters little about her. Her family name has brought her a vast network of friends in top national circles of the media, the Democratic Party and the women's movement, and helped her raise $8 million.

Brown says she would like to test out a different philosophy of governance. In her father's time, she told NEWSWEEK, "when you saw some problems, you built. The old ways of my father just won't work because of limited resources." As for her brother's way, "He focused on the power of ideas. Ideas could change things," she said. "That isn't what's going to do it now." Brown says her own way is simpler: "Figure out what works and get it done." But unless she better articulates what that means, Californians may not give her the chance.