Leading Lady

From Anne Gust Brown’s days as a trailblazing executive at Gap to her work in Sacramento helping craft some of the biggest political milestones of the past decade, get to know the woman whose fierce intellect, pragmatism, candor and energy has quietly redefined what it means to be California’s first lady.

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The first lady of California in her office at the State Capitol in December 2014. (Portrait by Cody Pickens)

 

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As political power centers go, Room 1007 in the State Capitol isn’t much to gawk at. It’s a small space tucked away in the Horseshoe, as Capitol denizens refer to the recesses of the governor’s first-floor headquarters. Maybe three or four people at a time can convene here comfortably. A built-in bookcase climbs up one wall, stuffed with binders and accessorized with a plant, photographs and artwork featuring a mostly expressionless corgi. (A bag of Snausages dog treats leans against one such piece, a painting that features the corgi, Sutter, in Capitol Park; a book called Dogs at Work shares the shelves with titles like The Shriver Report, Power Concedes Nothing and Our Bodies, Ourselves.) More art—photos, watercolors, political cartoons—rests on windowsills that partly frame a view into the Capitol’s interior courtyard. A computer monitor and a printer occupy one-third of a modest reddish-hued desktop that wouldn’t be out of place in a tax accountant’s office. There’s a phone, a stapler, a tape dispenser, a pen cup with towering blue-handled scissors, a business card holder and a nameplate: ANNE BROWN.

The business cards don’t boast a job title, only the name and its affiliation: “Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.” This austerity befits the woman who sits behind the desk, an unpretentious lawyer who tends to avoid spotlights and eschew formalities. Technically, she is the governor’s unpaid “special counsel,” just as she was eight years ago when she first accompanied him to Sacramento in his role as the state’s attorney general. She is also his wife, but the term “first lady” represents its own kind of nonsense to her.

“I don’t dislike it—it’s just hard for me to get my head around what it means, exactly,” she says, tightly folding her hands as if trying to squeeze an alternate designation out of thin Capitol air. “I know it’s just a title given to the wife of the governor. But it’s hard to understand what it means beyond that, so I don’t use it that often. Of course, I’m not that big on titles, period. I’d just as soon someone call me Anne.”

Such is the plainspoken pragmatism that Anne Gust Brown lends to the administration of Jerry Brown, who commenced his fourth and final term as California governor in January and for whom neither plain speaking nor pragmatism might leap out as inherent traits to most observers. Jerry has always been more of an enigma—the political scion whose famous asceticism led him from the Jesuit seminary to a stripped-down bachelor pad during his first stint as governor in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Yet at 76, he remains a dreamer, a leader whose advocacy for everything from flat taxes to space travel to bullet trains to environmental stewardship and other utopian visions has colored a half-century of state and national politics. His penchant for grand thinking, while not necessarily unrealistic (after all, this is a man who has been elected governor an unprecedented four times), can get away from him.

Which is where Anne comes in.

“It’s a pleasure to have a person and a mind on your side such as she possesses,” Jerry says. “I think the important point is the exhilaration and even fun in the pleasure of working together. That’s something I never had experienced before. And it’s not the specific problem, but it’s just the being together, attacking these things—and most of the time successfully.”

The erstwhile litigator and corporate attorney began her relationship with the once and future governor in 1990, around the time Anne defended him in a lawsuit brought against the California Democratic Party, of which Jerry was chairman. Anne liked Jerry enough personally to consider playing matchmaker to him and one of her friends. He instead took an interest in the whip-smart 32-year-old lawyer herself, who resided near Jerry in San Francisco and who eventually found herself caught in the whirlwind around his third and final run for president in 1992. At the time, Anne Gust was well into what would become a powerful and influential career as executive vice president, chief administrative officer and chief compliance officer at Gap Inc.

“He’s very much the same person—he’s just a warmer human being,” says Tom Quinn, who managed Jerry Brown’s original campaign for governor in 1974. “That’s Anne who’s brought that out in him. He would have been a better governor last time around if he’d been married to her then.”

These days (she turns 57 on March 15), Anne Brown’s husband of nearly 10 years defers the last word in his election night victory speech to her, and she holds her grandfather’s Bible (the same one used in their wedding in 2005) for Jerry’s sixth swearing into service in a statewide office. Jerry is a perfect three-for-three in campaigns where Anne has participated as his adviser (Anne officially joined the Brown political regime during his successful 2006 run for California attorney general), and Jerry’s closest friends and confidantes openly acknowledge her sanding down of his aloof rougher edges.

“I think he’s very much the same person—he’s just a warmer human being,” says Tom Quinn, who managed Jerry’s original campaign for governor in 1974 and worked alongside the couple as part of Brown’s transition team in 2010 and 2011. “He’s much more considerate of people. He’s more thoughtful than he was. And that’s Anne who’s brought that out in him. It’s been a great relationship for him. It’s wonderful. He would have been a better governor last time around if he’d been married to her then.”

Whatever changed for Jerry between 1982 (when, according to The Field Poll, he had an approval rating of just 43 percent as he wound down his second term) and 2014, the contemporary electorate has attested to its faith in his incumbency: Jerry barely needed to campaign last year to claim a 20-percentage-point victory over Republican opponent Neel Kashkari in November. Still, while the present day is challenging enough, it’s tempting to imagine how a force like Anne—who has joked publicly about her work to “corral” Jerry’s contemplative grazings in the policy-wonk weeds—might have guided the philosopher prince to the Pennsylvania Avenue promised land he envisioned for himself more than two decades ago. 

“I try to move things along,” Anne explains. “I think that Jerry is a very creative thinker and I’m a more linear, X-Y-Z, get-it-done [thinker]. We try to balance that. And I think that in meetings, people can appreciate that I—being his wife, and being as close as I am to him—can sometimes say, ‘OK, Jerry, enough. Enough.’ ”

She half-chuckles and half-winces, making an exhausted sound that she attempts to disguise as a laugh. “Not that that’s a lot of the time,” she continues, “but I do think I can say [certain] things to him and that we balance each other well. And that in doing that, people can appreciate what I bring to the table.”

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The question of what specifically Anne Brown brings to the table in Sacramento—whether it’s the long, literal picnic table in Governor Brown’s office at the Capitol, or his preferred first booth on the right at the rear of Frank Fat’s, or the protean playing surface of California politics—is generally a question that Anne hesitates to entertain. As a shrewd veteran lawyer, Anne shies away from examples of how she advises the governor. Her associates, past and present, aren’t much more illuminating. She engenders a deep loyalty that predates her time in Sacramento; it is only enhanced by her sensitivity to her unique status among the governor’s team. “I would like people to think of me as just a coworker,” Anne says, stating her reluctance to manage her husband’s staff despite a résumé dense with high-level, private sector administration. She cites situations, such as the way she might leave the meetings on environmental policy to experts like her husband and other senior advisers, or how she’ll pick up the slack on subjects where the team might struggle for clarity or a plan—“something I can add value on,” she says. “I may actually run out and dig deeper on that.”

Jerry is slightly more forthright about her work, particularly during his time as attorney general—a complicated conflict-of-interest case that he asked her to evaluate, for starters, as well as a closer look into predatory lending by Countrywide Financial, which resulted in a 2008 suit and an eventual multistate settlement netting $3.5 billion for borrowers in California. In reporting news of the settlement against the lender—then the nation’s largest loan servicer—The New York Times pronounced it “the most comprehensive, mandatory loan workout program since the mortgage crisis began [in 2007].”

“I can’t remember if she did it on her own, or if I asked her to,” the governor says, adding that the state brought its action just before Countrywide was acquired by Bank of America, which pushed the disgraced lender into federal jurisdiction. “That case was dragging on and not going anywhere. She got in, got some new people involved and really—though others did a lot of the work—she spearheaded it. She brought it to a new level of focus, which enabled the case to actually be filed. It wouldn’t have been filed without her.”

There is more Anne folklore, such as that time in summer 2010 when Jerry’s gubernatorial campaign sustained a succession of withering blows from billionaire Republican foe Meg Whitman, and Anne and campaign manager Steve Glazer prevailed on Jerry to conserve his limited funds for an attack closer to Election Day. (Jerry won the election in a landslide.) Or that time in 2011, with California teetering perilously over a budget hole exceeding $25 billion, when Anne helped devise the governor’s proposal for nearly $13 billion in budget cuts and $12 billion in revenue increases to yank California back from the edge of the fiscal abyss.

“Anne was every bit a part of that because it was logical, it was straightforward, it required everybody to sacrifice, and it just plain made sense,” says Darrell Steinberg, the former Senate pro tem who worked closely with Anne and Jerry between 2011 and 2014. Steinberg goes on to draw a stark contrast between the Browns and the couple that preceded them in the Horseshoe, alluding to the way Maria Shriver initiated political happenings like her marquee Women’s Conference while distancing herself from the toil of governing that subsumed Arnold Schwarzenegger. “With Anne Gust Brown, it’s different,” Steinberg continues. “She’s a full political partner.”

Proposition 30, the 2012 initiative that approved up to $6 billion in new taxes annually through 2019 to fund public education, is another Anne legend. To the extent it emerged from a series of dead-end budget negotiations between Jerry and GOP leaders in the Legislature, the measure rocketed to victory thanks in large part to its careful crafting by the Brown legal team and a relentless home-stretch campaign push led by Anne.

“Anything Jerry would do directly, I can sometimes do without him—sit down and make a phone call myself, or a follow-up,” she says of the Browns’ fundraising apparatus, which ultimately rallied almost $70 million in support for the measure (much of it from labor unions) ahead of Election Day. “A lot of times, though,” she hastens to add, “we’re usually doing it together.”