Back Home, Familiarity With Brown May Breed Contempt

He was the youngest person ever elected governor of his state. Bright and ambitious, he proposed radical reforms. But his administration was marked by policy flip-flops, arrogance, and mismanagement. One top aide went to jail after being convicted of money laundering.

Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton? No, that's California's Jerry Brown, the anti-Establishment crusader who has been hurling stones at Clinton for many of the same sins. Brown's assaults have ensured that even if Clinton wins the Apr. 7 New York primary, the Arkansan will leave the state bleeding from a thousand cuts, his chances of beating George Bush much diminished.

Brown hopes to damage Clinton enough to deny him the nomination, delivering the coup de grace in California's June 2 primary. But New York controls Brown's future as a spoiler. If Clinton wins decisively, he may have the nomination locked up before California. But if Brown ties or beats Clinton in the Empire State, he'll be a factor to the end. Ironically, though, Brown's newfound success could do him in: The more seriously he's taken, the more he'll come in for the torture that Clinton has suffered in the tabloid-littered streets of New York.

"Jerry sounds very convincing--if you don't know him," says Bud Lembke, editor of Political Pulse, a respected California newsletter. Trouble is, Californians know Jerry Brown excruciatingly well. As chief executive for eight wild and woolly years, from 1975 to 1983, he got both the highest and lowest approval ratings of any modern governor.

On the plus side, Brown was out in front on opening top government jobs to women, minorities, and the disabled. His "green revolution" set the national pace for fuel efficiency, auto-emission controls, and environmental cleanup.

But Brown made some colossal mistakes. Take his appointments. Brown named his enetime driver and Agriculture Secretary, Rose E. Bird, as chief justice of the state Supreme Court. The liberal Bird infuriated Californians by blocking every execution she could. Voters booted her out in 1986, the first time a California high court justice lost reelection. And while Brown has made much of Clinton's dealings with an Arkansas businessman who was convicted on drug charges, he never mentions Richard T. Silberman, his onetime chief of staff. The founder of the Jack-in-the-Box fast-food chain is serving a four-year term for a 1989 money-laundering conviction.

DOPE-SMOKING HIPPIES. Then there's Brownian economics. As governor, he ran up such huge budget surpluses that he ultimately sparked a tax revolt. Then he embraced tax-cutting with a vengeance, leaving the state with a $1.5 billion deficit. Now, Brown rails against Clinton for raising gasoline taxes in Arkansas, never noting that he did the same in California.

Californians may detect some other inconsistencies. The governor who once called for a North American common market now savages the idea as a scheme to "export high-paying U.S. jobs." Brown belittles Clinton's call for a national youth service, citing his own California Conservation Corps as the model for such proposals. But while the CCC is well regarded today, former Brown Chief of Staff B.T. Collins, now a Republican assemblyman, describes it then as a mess "populated by hippies who wanted to smoke dope and stare at the moon."

Back East, where Brown, in the words of California pollster Mervin J. Field, "has stretched the definition of political chameleon to its very limits," these pesky details have been overlooked. But once Brown heads home, he's due for a rendezvous with reality. It's called his record.

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