06/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

California Story: Brown, Boxer, and (Un)convention(al) Politics

Big developments in the past few days make it clear why California has the biggest races in the country this year, with President Barack Obama helping Barbara Boxer defend her Senate seat and Jerry Brown, trying for a record third term as governor, taking on the biggest spending statewide campaign in American history.

At its weekend convention in Los Angeles, the California Democratic Party endorsed Attorney General Jerry Brown as its candidate for an unprecedented third term as governor, in the process embracing him as the party's "patriarch," as one newspaper put it, albeit of the decidedly maverick variety. Brown, the two-time Democratic presidential runner-up who I shadowed on and off, reset the governor's race against billionaire Meg Whitman or super-rich State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner with a debate challenge and a focus on the excesses of Wall Street.

Senator Barbara Boxer finishes her speech to delegates at the California Democratic Party Convention in Los Angeles.

Senator Barbara Boxer, whose situation is both more straightforward and more problematic than Brown's, rallied the party at the LA Convention Center, then appeared with President Barack Obama on Monday night for three fundraisers. He'll be back next month to help Boxer with fundraisers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Boxer and Brown are alike in that both are strong fighters who have won many statewide races. But they are not alike in other respects.

Boxer, who I've known since before she was elected to Congress in 1982, is charming, tough, dynamic, a mostly down the line liberal who is somewhat to the left of mostly blue state California. She's never been especially popular, yet she's won election to the Senate three times in a row, generally by out-fighting Republicans who are too conservative and/or too bland.

Her popularity plummeted after the first of the year, along with that of Congress. Yet all elections are comparative enterprises. She'll face either ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, a dynamic figure in her own right who's to the right of the California mainstream and has some problems with her corporate background, or ex-Silicon Valley Congressman Tom Campbell, a bland character who's lost two Senate races, is a tad too moderate for the GOP base, and has big problems in his backing for the legalization of heroin and past alliance with a jihadist professor convicted of terrorist activity, about which supposed straight shooter Campbell has repeatedly changed his story.

Boxer's situation, though somewhat dire given her favorable ratings, is also straightforward. She needs to rally the party base (which she did with her usual stemwinder at the state party convention), castigate her opponents, and raise a lot of money (cue the president). Since federal races have much smaller contribution limits than state races, she can't wait to have Obama campaign for her, she needs to aggregate the money now.

So here he was.

Saying that he has an "insider's knowledge" and an "outsider's mind," Jerry Brown formally announced his candidacy for Governor of California last month.

I still expect Boxer to win, despite the fact that her unfavorable rating is much higher than her favorable rating. I expect Brown to win, too. He's more popular than Boxer and less controversial. Yet his situation is much more complex.

As is he.

I shadowed Brown, who I've known for decades, on and off during the convention to see how he squared his circle.

He had to do several things: Rouse the activists. Reassure that, at age 72, he has the energy and mental acuity for the task. Be interesting without being pinned down on proposals problematic for the broader electorate. Create actual news that resonates beyond the bounds of the convention.

Brown accomplished all those things. In the process, a few lesser questions were raised. Namely; does he need to focus more and dumb it down?

As someone who's been to dozens and dozens of these things, it occurs to me that a political convention is its own self-enclosed little world, an echo chamber that can have only the most tenuous connection to broader political realities. Where else does one see people festooned with buttons? Where else does one see people fighting ferociously over endorsements and resolutions that are hard even to describe to a regular person? What other supposedly important part of politics inspires a few media types to give out "awards" as though they are back on their high school yearbooks?

Yet conventions are important stages for politicians and the activist base of a political party, and milestones in a media narrative of a campaign.

Brown and Boxer both know this very well. Boxer undertook her simpler mission and carried it off with aplomb. Activists love her. After all, she used to be one of them, working against the Vietnam War and for the environment before landing a position with then Congressman John Burton, the irascibly colorful character who now chairs the California Democratic Party.

Billionaire Meg Whitman, introduced by her mentor, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, laid out a program of big business conservatism at last month's California Republican Party convention banquet in Santa Clara.

Brown had to work a little harder.

After arriving at the convention on Friday afternoon, he launched into a series of appearances before party caucuses (subdivisions of the party based on affinity, ethnicity, gender) and private meetings, moving through the halls of the host hotel saying hello to people. His frugal campaign didn't have a party Friday night. The big party was, as usual, that of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Brown's erstwhile challenger in the governor's race, now running for lieutenant governor.

Saturday morning was Brown's big speech.

Boxer went first, and came through with a strong and typical performance for her. She affirmed liberal values, defended the president, and had a few well-honed shots for her Republican opponents. It was a good performance, of the sort I've seen many times before. It was a fine convention/conventional speech, pleasing to the delegates and the press, yet nothing that resonated far outside the little echo chamber.

Brown came later. He doesn't use a teleprompter. In fact, he resists prepared texts of any kind. He did have notes, and delivered a stemwinder about the meaning of Obama's election, the crises of California, the nation, and the world, the challenge of the biggest spending Republican campaign in history, and how Wall Street nearly tanked the economy and must be reined in. He also called for a big new emphasis on green growth, which he pioneered in his first governorship, and 20,000 new megawatts of renewable power by 2020.

It sounded nothing like billionaire Meg Whitman, now leading in the Republican primary, with her relentlessly repeated three-part litany of jobs, schools, and government cuts (none of which, incidentally, add up in the least when examined beyond the soundbite). Brown's was a speech that you had to listen to in order to get.

On April 9th, Jerry Brown appeared at the first of the 2010 Google forums in conversation with Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

In other words, to the conventional mind, it may not actually have worked as a speech, no matter that it was very well delivered and pleasing to the crowd of delegates.

However, the speech had a punchline. And that punched it through the convention echo chamber into the outer world.

Brown shocked the previously opining experts who'd predicted he would not challenge his GOP rivals. He reset the governor's race by challenging both his Republican rivals, billionaire Meg Whitman and super-rich state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, to a series of pre-primary debates on the state's very pressing problems.

Whitman, however, at first said she was interested. Then she said no.

In one of her gauzy ads blanketing the California air waves, endorsers from billionaire Meg Whitman's past and present payrolls describe her as a great corporate executive.

Which allows Brown to pivot on every charge she and her allies make with a simple challenge. Come out from behind the curtain -- and the avalanche of paid advertising -- and discuss the reality, or unreality, of your ideas.

The delegates, some of whom feared that Brown would shy away from confrontation, loved it.

After his usual press conference following the speech, at which he alternately charmed and bantered and challenged questions he thought were subpar, Brown was off and running through a series of meetings and appearances.

I would catch up with him again after lunch, for the convention luncheon speaker was one Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post. Arianna spoke before a packed crowd in one of the convention center's very stark ballrooms. She pushed the theme of Wall Street malfeasance and excess having nearly tanked the global economy, something which Huffington Post readers know has been a constant for her for many months of columns and other media appearances.

The White House at first was not very receptive, but it certainly is now, as is the entire party. The crowd loved her speech, with delegates crowding to ask questions and, later, to take photos with her.

In November 2007, Attorney General Jerry Brown and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger joined forces to sue the Bush/Cheney Administration for blocking California's moves to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Oddly, it received very little press coverage. But it wasn't really odd at all, as there was a very logical explanation. The party set up its press room not in the convention center but in the convention hotel, the J.W. Marriott, which was a lengthy walk away on a muggy LA day. And that's where the free lunch was. (California press folks complain about the Republicans not providing any food or drink at their conventions; the Democrats go in the opposite direction. But this time it backfired in terms of the coverage.)

One other thing to say about this convention. Some noted that the intensity factor was only in the mid-range. I was at the other party's convention, too, explaining it here, and the intensity was even less, with a ballyhooed Tea Party event proving to be a bust. Setting has a lot to do with intensity, and the LA Convention Center was chosen to take the place of a spaceport in Starship Troopers for what director Paul Verhoeven called its cold, stark, fascistic look.

In the afternoon, I shadowed Brown through his caucus appearances and up to the verge of private meetings (one of which was with national AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka, who was honored that night at the convention banquet).

Brown was, in some respects, sharper in his talks before the caucus meetings than he was before the entire convention. Because of the press of time, they go faster, which forces focus. Not surprisingly, he was well received at each, sizing up each crowd and honing his message in turn.

Brown moves very fast between these things, keeping to a schedule. So fast that this one-time triple jumper, who was also filming, had some difficulty keeping up with him while avoiding knocking anyone down in the process.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appeared on his birthday with California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in this discussion of the wonders of corporate America and the evils of labor unions.

I also took the time to talk with labor leaders, who, not surprisingly, had the largest of any caucus. California AFL-CIO chief Art Pulaski told me that they will put on a big effort to mobilize union members and provide ground forces for the overall Democratic campaign on behalf of Brown and other candidates. And that their negative focus is on Whitman, despite what I had reported the day before about Poizner closing some of the gap in the Republican primary.

In fact, they've already prepared materials for communication to their members, with three flyers. One is pro-Brown, citing the attorney general for "A Lifetime of Fighting for Working Families." Two are anti-Whitman, with one calling her "Miss Fortune," with the now notorious magazine cover photo of the billionaire in riding gear with the rented horse. The other, called "Wall Street Whitman," goes through her strongly pro-corporate positions and her unhappy tenure on the board of Goldman Sachs.

And this week, union members begin showing up at Whitman events, starting with her string of fundraisers with Mitt Romney, her longtime mentor who came up with the idea for her to run for governor of California.

On Thursday at 5:30 PM, Whitman and the Republican presidential frontrunner have a fundraiser at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills.

On Friday, Romney and Whitman are at the Sutter Club in Sacramento at 11:30 AM, along with former Secretary of State George Schultz. He became chairman of Campbell's Senate campaign after Whitman forces helped persuade Campbell to drop out of the governor's race and make a third try for the Senate.

Also on Friday, at 5:30 PM, Romney and Whitman are at Hotel Sofitel in Redwood City for a fundraiser.

Along with Romney, Whitman is bringing in John McCain and ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush -- former client of her chief strategist, Mike Murphy -- to boost her in her primary fight with Poizner.

Whitman's old eBay associate, incidentally, former state Controller Steve Westly, now a leading greentech venture capitalist, was also on hand at the convention. To extol Brown as the best choice for high tech and the environment. He'll soon hold his second Brown fundraiser.

With a concert by East LA faves Los Lobos on tap, the party banquet came early in Saturday's Democratic convention evening. (There are usually only a few journalists at this event. This year, I was alone.) And Brown was still in high gear. He worked the dinner crowd, bantering and posing for photos. Brown didn't speak, but was repeatedly referred to by those who did.

After an introduction by California Nurses Association head RoseAnn DeMoro, who predicted that Brown and Boxer would run against "the two wicked witches of the West" -- Whitman and ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina -- national AFL-CIO president Trumka, a burly and very affable fellow, launched into his speech, one of the better ones of the convention.

This latest effort from zany ad man Fred Davis, creator of the notorious "Demon Sheep," helped ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina score big at the California Republican Convention by blasting Senator Barbara Boxer.

He repeatedly praised Brown for championing working people and consumers and repeatedly assailed "Wall Street Whitman." He also repeatedly praised Arianna, who was not there, for her luncheon speech and for pushing Obama and the Democrats to focus on Wall Street excess and the need for reform.

After that, Brown had some downtime on his schedule before his evening reception with the Yong Democrats. But he wasn't into resting, so he asked me what was going on.

The options were rather limited. He could go to the concert, go backstage and get introduced to the crowd. He could go to a traditional press dinner called "Hacks and Flacks" ("hacks" being all accredited reporters and "flacks" being politicos) which has seen sharply declining numbers of late. He could hold forth in the lobby. He could walk around and mingle.

After asking what "hacks and flacks" are, Brown decided to mingle as we made our way to the "Hacks and Flacks" dinner at a posh eatery next to the very scenic Los Angeles Public Library.

Mindful that quite a few reporters weren't likely to be at the dinner, Brown chatted with star LA Times reporter Mike Rothfeld as Brown, his bodyguard, and I very slowly made our way to the car.

Our arrival caught everyone by surprise, no one more so than consultant/lobbyist Garry South, holding forth as we walked in. South, who ironically ran the winning gubernatorial campaigns of Brown's former chief of staff, Gray Davis, spent 2009 desperately trying to savage Brown in his role as chief strategist for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who tried to run for governor against Brown. To very little effect, I might add.

As the suddenly erstwhile star attraction of the event, South looked as though he'd come down with a sudden case of stomach flu as he caught sight of Brown, who of course walked directly over to his table. Where, very amusingly, South was wearing a "Jerry and Janice" button, one of the convention's big sideshows being a fight for the party endorsement for lieutenant governor between South's former client Newsom and his new client, LA City Councilwoman Janice Hahn. The buttons were not authorized by Brown, and, after all the shouting, nobody got the endorsement, though the heavily favored Newsom did best.

What proceeded after that was "Jerry Unplugged," with Brown holding forth on all topics, from the problems of the state, the problems of the nation and Western Civilization, to Brown's own biggest mistakes and why he made them, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and inside dish on the campaign. And all of it off the record. (South, incidentally, was quite laid back for him, only disagreeing annoyingly with Brown a few times and speaking less than most others.)

This is the sort of thing that clearly energizes Brown, taking any and all questions, the restless intellectual in him occasionally baffling to some and, on occasion, all.

This is also, incidentally, the sort of thing I recommended to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who I knew before he became governor. He was very interested in it. But the people running his operation when he became governor didn't like it. What are they doing now? Running the Meg Whitman campaign, naturally.

It was a stimulating hour or so -- especially with one of those only in LA moments, a decidedly multiracial wedding taking place in a courtyard below, which I didn't mention so as not to break the flow -- and naturally caused the San Francisco Chronicle and the CalBuzz blog whose owners organized the event to dub it the party of the convention. So the spur of the moment decision for Brown to attend paid big dividends.

But, unfortunately for Brown, there were only a few journalists actually in attendance. While his appearance generated plenty of buzz, he was only able to talk this time in this totally unfettered way to a few actual reporters.

From there, it was off to the nearby Hotel Figueroa for his reception with the Young Democrats. After intense intellectual and political exchange, Brown went for humor with this crowd, challenging them to all go to his web site before they went to sleep, whenever that was, and donate $25 at least. And anyone who gave $100 would get a call from him. They ate it up. Then, with a full day and some behind him, he was off to his sister's home.

On Earth Day 2009, President Barack Obama praised California for its energy policies, pioneered by Jerry Brown, which have led the way in making the state far more energy efficient than the rest of the country.

On Sunday, Brown toured African American churches in LA, touching base with a core constituency of the party, beginning at First African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he started in his first campaign for governor.

On Monday, Brown was on the Wall Street excess theme again. He discussed new court action in Los Angeles against Moody's Investors Service requiring the company to explain how it happened to give its highest credit ratings to securities backed by risky subprime mortgages and other toxic assets.

To former Governor Gray Davis, it all looked pretty good. He liked the coverage he saw and he liked the direction Brown is going in.

I talked with Davis for an hour on Tuesday. He won five straight statewide elections in California -- twice as state controller, once as lieutenant governor, twice as governor -- before the dysfunctionality of state government, the electric power deregulation scheme of predecessor Pete Wilson (now Whitman's campaign chairman), a few notable mistakes, and a global icon named Arnold Schwarzenegger caught up with him in the famed 2003 recall election. (He and Schwarzenegger are friendly now, with the action superstar realizing very well that the office really isn't very easy, at all.) Before all that, Davis was Brown's chief of staff for seven years.

He was at Boxer's fundraiser with the president on Monday night, and thinks she has the opportunity to survive what right now looks like a big undertow from Congress by contrasting with her opponent. (Which is all that accounts for her big polling downdraft, as her rivals only recently started any advertising.)

As for Brown's chances, Davis has a good feeling about them. He thinks the race will be fairly close till the final weeks, when he expects Brown to pull well ahead of Whitman, who he still thinks will emerge from the Republican primary.

Davis thinks Brown is too interesting and experienced for Whitman, whose corporate background is very problematic and whose spending he expects to backfire.

In fact, there are some signs it is backfiring already.

Jerry Brown has regained the lead over billionaire Whitman in the brand new Republican-owned Rasmussen Poll. They had been tied, 40% to 40%. Now it's Brown, 44% to 38%. The poll also shows that California voters favor Brown's proposal for a three-way debate between Jerry Brown and Republicans Whitman and Steve Poizner, 71% to 23%. A smart national TV show should extend the invitation to all three and see what Whitman, who said through a flack that she was interested before her high-priced advisors got to her, does then.