12/02/2011 02:58 pm ET

Jerry Brown And The Occupy Movement: Where Does The Governor Really Stand?

In mid-November, a group of demonstrators aligned with the Occupy movement held a rally outside a Sacramento loft building in an attempt to capture the attention of one of its residents: Jerry Brown. They were angry about the harsh tactics that police had been using against demonstrators throughout the state, and they wanted the governor to hear them out. But they weren't there to excoriate him or to demand his resignation, as their counterparts in other cities and states have done with other elected officials from Oakland's Mayor Jean Quan to New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“Gov. Brown, we challenge you to take up the fight with Occupy,” declared demonstrator Kevin Carter. “We occupy for the First Amendment, free speech, peaceful assembly and the redress of grievances against the government. As the governor, you should lead this fight.”

They were asking, it appeared, for the governor to join them.

Previously, Occupy demonstrators strenuously resisted attempts by politicians to use the movement as a platform, even to the point of turning away Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the revered Civil Rights activist, when he tried to speak out of turn at a general assembly in Atlanta.

Still, it wasn't hard to see why they might make an exception for Brown. He was "Governor Moonbeam," the eccentric idealist who, in his first stint in the statehouse in the late '70s and early '80s, vetoed the death penalty, appointed the country's first openly gay judge, slept on a futon and drove a Plymouth Satellite sedan to the office.

He'd appointed J. Baldwin, an editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue, to a government job. He'd made pilgrimages to India and Japan, where he worked with Mother Theresa and studied zen, and at one point he'd even lived in a commune.

If anyone in government would get what the demonstrators were saying, surely Brown would.

Except he didn't even hear them. Earlier that week, when reporters had tried to contact him about the pepper-spray incident at UC Davis, they received a simple message from his office: "The governor has left the state." In the following days, he offered no comment on that incident, or any on of the others that have raised so many questions about the use of force by police throughout California, including the clashes between police and protesters in Oakland, where he served as mayor from 1999 to 2007.

"What is going through Jerry's mind?" Tim Redmond, the editor in chief of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, asked in a recent post on the paper's website. "Is he so far out in space that he doesn't realize how bad it looks for him to stay silent?"

Finally, two days ago, he broke the silence with a letter to Paul Cappitelli, the executive director of California's Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, requesting that commission review its crowd-management guidelines and make "whatever changes are necessary to ensure compliance with First and Fourth Amendment protections against excessive force."

"The recent 'occupation' protests in cities throughout California and on campuses of the University of California underscore the urgency of articulating guidelines that are crystal clear and comport with constitutional requirements," he wrote.

Still, many demonstrators were left unsatisfied. The pepper spray incident "was so clearly wrong that it should have met with swift condemnation by everyone," said Sean C. Laney, a member of the public affairs team at Occupy Sacramento.

He considered Brown's decision to not publicly denounce the incident "a failure of leadership."

Brown didn't respond to an request by HuffPost to speak about these issues directly, but several people who have worked with him or closely followed his career -- some of whom would only speak off the record -- were quick to explain his silence, and to defend it. They pointed out that the "Governor Moonbeam" image is far from complete, and suggested that he has little to gain and plenty to lose -- for both himself and his electorate -- by speaking out in support of the Occupy demonstrators.

They noted that the challenges he's up against include a projected $3 billion budget shortfall over the next 18 months. To close the gap, he'll have to convince Californians to accept sweeping cuts and higher taxes.

Slamming civil servants in the press isn't likely to make that easier, sources pointed out. If he's progressive, he's also practical, and that side of him is just as central to his personality as governor as the visionary side that people more readily remember.

Jodie Evans, the founder of female anti-war activist organization CODEPINK, ran Brown's campaign for president in 1992 and remains close to the governor. She said she gets a lot of calls from liberal friends asking her to relay messages to Brown. "They say, 'Tell him tell to call out the mayor,'" she said. "But Jerry is much more interested in process than calling people out like that. He's been in politics long enough to know how the process works -- where you can be useful and where it's just grandstanding."

Brown was never the liberal caricature that many made him out to be. Indeed, his first stretch as governor was marked by a streak of fiscal conservatism. Yet his years as the mayor of Oakland may have made him more practical than before by forcing him to focus on the unglamorous details of running the municipal machinery or, as Evans put it, "getting down to potholes."

Robert Cruickshank, a progressive blogger who writes about Sacramento politics for, described Brown as a political tinkerer, someone with an unusual appetite for the sorts of policy details that would put plenty of other politicians to sleep. He recalled seeing Brown standing poolside at a political event not long ago, fielding a question about whether he'd sign a single-payer health care bill: "He said, 'Well how are we going to fund it? I haven't seen a funding packet. What the actual details like?' And of course John Burton" -- the chairman of the California Democratic Party -- "comes up to Jerry and says, 'Jerry, just sign the damn bill.'"

State Sen. Ted Lieu (D), who has been a leader in the party's efforts to legislate financial reforms, said he "firmly believes [Brown's] goal is to fix problems, not speak about lofty themes."

"I personally had a bill that proposed a ban on tanning salons for anyone under 18, because medical evidence shows that tanning beds cause skin cancer," he said. "In addition to speaking with his own staff, Gov. Brown chose to call his doctor and ask them what he thought. Keep in mind, he’s dealing with hundreds and hundreds of bills, so just the fact that he would take the time to call his doctor and ask about the particular bill shows that he’s very interested in the policy matters behind each of these bills."

Lieu drew a contrast between Brown and his predecessor. "Gov. Schwarzenegger would do a series of high-profile press conferences, launching really big ideas, and then he would have no follow-through and nothing would ever happen. It was just a series of failures," he said.

Brown, he said, "is actually interested in the mechanics of governing."

In his first year in office this time around, Brown has hardly been afraid to take a stand on particular issues. In April, he signed a bill requiring the state to obtain a third of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, a measure that many Republicans opposed. And this week it was revealed that he plans to introduce a ballot initiative that will allow voters to raise taxes on the wealthy.

At the same time, he hasn't been bound by the confines of conventional liberal ideology. In June, Brown vetoed a bill that would have made it easier for farm workers to unionize, infuriating and perplexing many of his supporters. While he signed a compromise bill in September, it led many to wonder whether this was really the same Jerry Brown who, 36 years before, signed a bill that gave farm workers the right to organize in the first place.

If his views on Wall Street and financial reform remain somewhat hazy, that's partly because he hasn't had a chance to act on them in a practical way, his supporters say. As Lieu explained, a lot of the proposed legislation related to banks died in the state legislature this year. "The bank industry is still a very powerful industry," he said.

It's possible that Brown will take on the banks in January, when he introduces new bills to the legislature. But even then, it seems unlikely that he will be ripping into police chiefs in the press or appearing at Occupy protests' general assemblies.

"I think Brown is in a place where he's going to be reluctant to weigh in unless he absolutely has to," said Cruishank. "That's Brown's core contradiction. He can be this radical visionary when he's out of power, and when he's in power his more cautious, moderate side usually comes up."

Such cautiousness may allow Brown to build the political alliances he needs to govern, yet that isn't likely to appease critics like Laney, the Sacramento protester, who see those alliances as part of the problem to begin with. "I can tell you one of the reasons why the governor is more than likely silent," he said. "He is beholden to members of this huge security complex we've created in California and that's a huge drain on our economy."

Whatever the reason, Cruishank said, it seems doubtful that Brown will deliver the sort of leadership that the protesters want from him. He explained, "He's not someone who's going to lead the revolution from inside the governor's office."