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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(Clockwise from top left) Anne, at age 5, with her mother Anne Baldwin Gust, after whom the future first lady was named; Anne poses with her father, Rockwell “Rocky” Gust Jr., on the day she graduated from University of Michigan Law School in 1983; a campaign flyer from 1962, when  Rocky ran for lieutenant governor of Michigan

With or without him, Anne has gotten to know and engage Jerry’s allies in his campaigns for governor and pet ballot initiatives like Prop 30 or last year’s Propositions 1 and 2 (which, respectively, authorized $7.1 billion in new bonds for water infrastructure and dedicated a portion of the annual state budget to a “rainy day” savings fund). “Here we are,” she will tell them. “This is really important. Can you step up yet again? This is why.”

Other roles are more defined, such as when Anne—who oversaw human resources as a top executive at Gap—took on staffing duties in the governor’s office during the transition from Schwarzenegger to Brown at the end of 2010. (The Brown administration cut $6.4 million of spending from the governor’s office alone, by eliminating the state’s secretary of education post, various other positions and field offices throughout California.) Anne personally recruited Nancy McFadden, a former lawyer for President Clinton and deputy chief of staff in the offices of both Vice President Al Gore and Gov. Gray Davis, to sign on as the governor’s executive secretary (a title that both Anne and McFadden equate to chief of staff).

“[Anne’s] got a great way about her, just in terms of personal interaction,” says McFadden, who calls Jerry Brown’s office both the leanest and highest-functioning political operation she’s worked in. “She’s funny, she’s interested in people. She’s somebody that you would want in your boardroom or at your kitchen table. And I don’t think that’s a strategy—I think that’s who she is. And that has its own value because the more I got to know Anne, that had its attraction [for me] in joining this administration.”

When Anne’s not traveling with Jerry around the state, they bounce between the Browns’ residence in the Oakland hills and their rented Sacramento loft on the top floor of the Elliott Building downtown, across the street from the Memorial Auditorium. She says Jerry mused on restoring the long-vacant Governor’s Mansion where his father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, resided from 1959 to 1967, but that the magnitude and cost of the restoration during a budget crisis would have given the wrong impression to Californians. (Anne dryly cites the home’s limited plumbing facilities above the basement level as “impediments, in my mind, to actually living in the place.”) The mansion was one of the first things Jerry showed Anne after he reclaimed the governor’s office in 2010, and while the structure closed in January for a $2.5 million preservation effort that launches this year, she says she does hope the building can someday make a full return to its past glories. “California is a big state; it’s a beautiful building,” she says. “We should have a Governor’s Mansion, and the governor’s family should be able to live there.”

“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.’ ”

Elsewhere around town, Jerry introduced Anne to favorite old haunts like Torch Club and The Virgin Sturgeon. Recently they settled in at Pieology, the new pizza place down the block from their loft, where Anne attempted to persuade Jerry to leave the jalapeños off their order. He ordered them anyway, then later admitted her instincts were right.

When the Legislature is in session, they typically spend Monday through Friday at the Capitol. They’ll stay through the weekend when bill signings are imminent. At the governor’s office, Anne’s petite runner’s frame glides through the cloisters and courtyard flanking the unassuming sanctum of Room 1007. She routinely cracks jokes; she says her natural temperament, inherited from her father, is to defuse tension with humor. When Sutter barks in the middle of her talking to a reporter, Anne practically exults in the distraction from a question about her proudest moment in eight years in Sacramento. “I’m the most proud of Sutter,” she says with a grin. “I’ve mentored him.”

Yet even at her breeziest, her brown eyes blink intently, as if guarding the inner workings of the institution and state around her, and she bristles at those who credit her with undue sway over her husband’s ruminations or direction as governor.

“Jerry is totally in control,” she says. “Let me really be clear: He’s got his own ideas, and in the end, he decides. If he disagrees with me, there just isn’t even any question. First of all, I wouldn’t try to overcome [his decisions]. I’ve always felt that this is his governorship, not mine. And so if he’s really firm on something, I don’t even try.”

Anne’s presence alone signifies a unique break from first lady orthodoxy. Shunning causes or issues beyond whatever is on the governor’s agenda, she maintains the lowest profile possible to accomplish the decidedly, if deceptively, unglamorous work of governing the Golden State. Whereas Shriver maintained but infrequently visited her own office at the Capitol over seven years, Anne occasionally shares her desk with another legal adviser in the Brown administration. (She opted out of continuing Shriver’s annual Women’s Conference, and she demurs when asked about pursuing policy objectives of her own during Brown’s final term.) Whereas Sharon Davis waged a tireless public war against the forces that would unseat her husband Gray Davis in 2003’s historic recall election, Anne prefers candid conversations with Jerry and their confederates behind the scenes. Whereas Jerry’s mother, Bernice Brown, who was first lady to Gov. Pat Brown, once was credited with the tongue-in-cheek admission that “she never would have chosen a political career for her husband if the choice had been hers to make,” Anne quietly shepherds the governor’s ambitions toward concrete political reality.

“I don’t want to sound like a doormat or something,” she says, again invoking her primary role as unpaid special counsel to the governor. “He and I discuss [policies], and whatever he decides will be a worthy goal, in my opinion, because he’s a pretty smart guy. I just want to help as best I can on that. I don’t find [distractions] particularly helpful because these goals and things we’re trying to accomplish are labor-intensive and involve a lot. I think the best use of my time is helping him with this, not coming up with my own separate goals.”

This arrangement isn’t quite a historical anomaly in either national or state politics. It echoes Franklin and Eleanor, or Bill and Hillary: A public, purpose-minded partnership rooted in ideas and pragmatism. Jerry and Anne’s marriage is not merely nominal or convenient, a campaign-friendly PR ruse or a stratagem for tag-teaming tough issues or opponents. It’s practically a 24/7/365 intellectual summit about the future of California.

“Jerry is constantly thinking and analyzing, and much of this is done out loud at work and at home,” says Steve Glazer, the longtime Brown associate. “Given that Anne is around him so much, she has to absorb copious amounts of information, understand the people involved, and political circumstances. It is such a difficult role, but she has the capacity to make sense of it, support him and thrive.”

But part of the Browns’ purpose-mindedness, according to those close to them, is love. They plan date nights together; they often exercise together. (They used to jog together before Jerry’s back flared up a year-and-a-half ago; now they lift weights three or four times per week.) They occasionally hike and camp on his family’s 2,700-acre property outside Williams in Colusa County. When they can—when the dizzying logistics of their CHP escort don’t deter them—they walk to work at the Capitol together. By all accounts, Anne and Jerry are genuinely, hopelessly smitten with each other.

“I cannot name another couple who I really, truly believe are soul mates,” says Lauri Shanahan, Anne’s successor at Gap and the current vice president of the California State Personnel Board, to which Brown appointed Shanahan in 2012. “I don’t usually believe in that kind of thing, but they are. They are just completely meant to be together.”

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Some of Anne’s earliest memories in life are also her earliest memories in politics. They are based in 1962, when she was a 4-year-old whose father, Rockwell “Rocky” Gust Jr., was campaigning for lieutenant governor of Michigan. (Anne herself is named after her mother Anne Baldwin Gust; she once even added a “Jr.” to her own name after mailings from credit card companies confused the two.) Anne recalls spending considerable time on the campaign trail with her parents (“Maybe my mother couldn’t find a babysitter or something,” she quips today), and at one stop, her family found young Anne joyously stomping around in a flower bed amid either roses or daffodils. She can’t be sure which, nor can she confirm the version of this story that places Anne’s rampage at the residence of George Romney, the Republican candidate for governor. She only knows her father pledged to keep a closer eye on her.

Not long afterward, though, young Anne went missing at another campaign event. Her parents undertook a feverish search of the venue when a voice surged over the crowd. It was the event’s bandleader announcing that a little girl had come to the stage to request the folk tune “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

“That was one of my dad’s favorite songs,” Anne fondly recalls. “I had found my way up there and was asking them to do that, and my dad just thought that was adorable.”

Rocky Gust lost that race, but Anne recognizes the nature of her political life that grew out of his legacy as an idea man—a probing and good-humored father who convened his wife and Anne and her four siblings (and, later, Anne’s two young cousins who moved in after their own parents died) every night without fail around their dinner table in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. “My dad was always talking about what was on his mind, or politics and that sort of thing,” Anne says. “I think that does sort of impact you, because you grow up discussing those things.”