My Day in Jerry Brown’s Entourage

October 18th, 2010

This profile on Jerry Brown brought back memories of the day that I spent with the former Governor in the mid 90′s.

I met Governor Brown through his longtime friend and advisor Jacques Barzaghi, a friend of my uncle’s. It was the summer of 1995, I had just graduated from college and was visiting my aunt and uncle in New York. They were invited to Barzaghi’s wedding (I believe that this was number 5 out of 7) and they invited me to tag along to the party. At the time, there was talk that Brown was going to run for office again and I spoke to Jacques that night and told him that I would be interested in meeting Jerry Brown and seeing if I could help them in any way.

A few months later, I was back in the Bay Area and setup a time to meet with Barzaghi and Brown. Brown had purchased a large building in the Jack London Square neighborhood, a formerly vibrant area of town which had fallen on hard times. In the new building, they had built a communal living space and started a non-profit organization called We the People, whose mission is listed as bringing “together philosophers, artists and activists to discuss and plan ways to work change.”

I dressed nicely and had a copy of my resume in my hand when I walked in the door. Jacques introduced me to the Governor, who was busy with some other things at the time and Jacques and I stepped out onto the patio to talk. I told him that I was interested in politics, had some experience with it, and wanted to help them out if they were considering a run. Barzaghi was dismissive of the idea. You don’t make change by winning elections, he said. He was talking about the market that they had plans to build and said, in his thick French accent, that change is made by having a market “where people can go and not experience racism,” and that this social change of individuals would create real political change. By this time, Brown had joined us on the patio and he chimed in: “it’s a Buddhist idea.”

We talked for a little while longer and then they put me to work stuffing envelopes. They mentioned that Brown needed to go to Berkely to broadcast his We the People radio show on KPFA and I asked if I could come along. They indicated that that would be fine, but about an hour later I heard them getting ready to leave and reminded them that I had planned to go along with them.

“Oh sure,” said the Governor, “let’s go.”

I walked outside, expecting to be with an entourage but it was just Jerry and me. We headed to his car. I’m not good on cars, but this was an old American beater. Like a Lincoln Continental or a Pontiac.

Just as I was about to get into the passenger’s seat, Brown asked: “Do you drive?

“Yes,” I answered.

“Good. You drive, I’ll read,” said the Governor and threw me the keys to his car.

Brown was scheduled to interview bell hooks, an English professor and teacher at USC’s Ethnic Studies Department who has written over 30 books (mostly focused on race and gender), and he was clearly behind on his research. He buried his head in her most recent book and gave me directions from the passenger seat while he highlighted passages. I had no idea where I was going, and every once in a while the Governor would look up: “Turn Right… Get in the left lane… Get on the freeway to the left.” I was wired as I drove the 880 to the 80. This was not what I had expected to be doing when I woke up this morning, but it sure as hell was fun.

We were running late, so the Governor had me drop him off at the radio station and said to park the car in the supermarket parking lot. When I got there, the security guard at the market gave me a hard time about parking in the lot.

“Um, I’m with Jerry Brown” I told him, but he was not impressed.

“I don’t care who you’re with, you can’t park here” he said.

“I’ll be right back,” I yelled at him as I walked across the street to KPFA.

Jerry asked if I parked the car and I told him about the security guard.

“Did you tell him who you’re with?” he asked.

I headed back to the parking lot and found some street parking for the Governors car before I headed back to KPFA. In the station, the Governor was already on the air, so I was waiting in the foyer of the radio station and this excitable young guy started up a conversation with me. He was going on about Jerry Brown and asked if I knew about him.

“Sure,” I said. “I came here with him.”

“You’re in Jerry Brown’s Entourage?” he said incredulously.

Yeah, I laughed to myself. Today I am Jerry Brown’s entourage.

That was fifteen years ago. By the time Brown was running for Mayor of Oakland in 1998 I had a corporate job in the City and missed out on the campaign. After the election, he served as mayor for 8 years. In 2004, Jacques was fired by Jerry Brown after police responded to a call about a domestic dispute at his home in Oakland. This episode followed a suspension for sexual harassment in 2001 and seems to have been the last straw for Brown.  Brown went on to become California’s Attorney General,  a post he’s held for the past four years.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jerry Brown may be the the most complicated politician in the world. He combines a philosopher’s mind with a lifetime of experience getting things done in politics. Throgout his life he has defied easy characterization. While he has been attacked as a left wing liberal on social issues, he had a very fiscally conservative record as governor. He is famous for saying that California had entered an “era of limits” when he was governor and was called “more of a fiscal conservative than Ronald Reagan” by a prominent conservative commentator. In 1978 when he ran for re-election he even carried Republican Orange County. As mayor of Oakland, he presided over a very sucessful urban revitalization program that pitted him against many entrenched political interests and brought new investment into the city of Oakland. As California Attorney General he claims to have defended the death penalty “over 100 times” even though he is personally opposed to it.

It’s difficult to say exactly where Jerry Brown would take the state if he were elected for his third term as Governor. Part of the problem with a record as varied as Brown’s is that it makes him difficult to pin down, and campaigns full of political posturing don’t necessarily help to clarify these issues. But it’s clear that California’s political process is fatally flawed and desperately needs new ideas. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking, but Jerry Brown just might bring to the table the perfect mix of new ideas and the political experience to actually enact those ideas for California.

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