The rumor has persisted for almost two years, since state Attorney General Kamala Harris announced she was running for the U.S. Senate seat long held by retiring Democrat Barbara Boxer.
That rumor – until after next month’s election, it can be no more than that – suggests Gov. Jerry Brown might appoint his wife of 11 years, lawyer Ann Gust Brown, to serve the last two years of Harris’s term, which expires in 2018, when Brown also will be termed out of the office where he’s spent a total of 16 years.
Gust Brown’s name began coming up in political circles when Darrell Steinberg, the former president of the state Senate, chose to run for mayor of Sacramento in June, a race he won 59 percent -26 percent. He takes office in December.
By then, if the polls are correct in showing her with a big lead over fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez, Harris will be elected and possibly even seated, if Boxer steps aside early to let Harris have a few weeks more Senate seniority.
Before he ran for mayor, Steinberg was considered Gov. Brown’s likely choice to take over for Harris as the state’s top lawyer, then possibly run for the office on his own in 2018 against current Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, the early frontrunner in that year’s race for attorney general.
Considering how Jones has performed in his current office and how well he’s done in two statewide elections, Jones might now be a logical choice for whatever office he wants next.
But things are not always so simple. Gust Brown, formerly the top in-house lawyer for The Gap clothing stores, has shown an appetite and interest in public affairs. Jerry Brown often calls her his leading adviser. She is 58, fully 20 years younger than her husband and unlikely to want to retire just because he’s termed out.
Jerry Brown displays little interest in disappearing, either. So is it possible that after a year or so as attorney general, Gust Brown could declare herself a candidate for governor, with her husband swapping roles to become her leading adviser?
It’s happened before, most notably in Alabama, where segregationist Gov. George Wallace was termed out in 1966 and his wife Lurleen became governor in name for two years while Wallace remained the de facto power.
It’s also true that California attorneys general commonly go on to become governor: Jerry Brown is one; so was his father, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown. Republicans George Deukmejian and Earl Warren also followed that route.
What about the ethics of such nepotism? “If she’s qualified, it’s less of a problem than if she’s not,” said Robert Stern, former president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. “Everything I hear about her says she’s a good lawyer. It would be up to the voters to decide whether to elect her on her own later on.”
Meanwhile, other Democrats don’t think the Gust Brown scenario is entirely unlikely. “I wouldn’t put it past him,” longtime campaign manager Garry South said last summer. South managed the campaign of current Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who for a few months contested Brown for the 2010 Democratic nomination for governor before settling for his current job.
There’s no doubt giving a very visible job to his wife (both houses of the Legislature would also need to confirm her) would provide her with a leg up in running against the likes of Newsom, state Treasurer John Chiang, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and billionaire investor Tom Steyer, all either declared or potential 2018 candidates for governor.
This field could change dramatically if Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein chooses to retire after her current term ends the same year. Some would-be governors might quickly become senatorial hopefuls. Feinstein’s decision might be greatly influenced by whether or not Democrats regain control of the Senate this fall, allowing her to once again chair the Intelligence Committee.
All this explains why the Gust Brown rumors don’t die – and likely won’t unless Harris should lose this fall or Jerry Brown names someone else to her current job.
Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column.