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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Anne Gust (far right), pictured with friends from Stanford in a fashion shoot for "Women's Sports" magazine in 1980

Anne shared valedictorian honors at her high school in 1976—the year of Jerry Brown’s first try at the presidency—before traveling west to study political science at Stanford University. There, her fiercely smart, upbeat sensibilities made her a star among her peers.

“I think people would be surprised that she was getting A’s—like all A’s—because she was always the first one ready to go and have a fun time, too,” says Anne’s college roommate and close friend Carol Bounds. She recalls phoning Anne in the middle of the night in Michigan during summer break in 1977, inviting her on a trip around South America that Carol had just won on Hollywood Squares. Anne accepted without hesitation. The girls took a quarter off for their travels, caught up on classes, and graduated on schedule in 1980. That same year—more than a decade before Anne joined Gap—the roommates modeled the clothing retailer’s colorful sweatsuits in an impromptu photo shoot for the magazine Women’s Sports. Anne later served as maid of honor in Carol’s wedding, and Carol was one of more than 500 guests who attended Anne’s wedding to Jerry in Oakland in 2005. (Anne didn’t gather a traditional bridal party of her own.)

“I totally see Anne as a powerful person and a powerful leader,” Bounds says, recalling a favorite newspaper image of Anne sharing a hearty laugh with President Obama. “She’s just so darn smart and knows what’s she’s talking about, [and] she can hold her own with just about anybody. I think when I was in my teens and early 20s, I just knew she’d be successful.”

Originally a registered Republican (she later became a Democrat), Anne volunteered on the 1980 White House campaign of John Anderson, a GOP congressman-turned-independent presidential candidate from Illinois. It was low-level work at most (Anne recalls having predominantly “stuffed envelopes”), but she found the engagement with the campaign both exciting and compelling. Nevertheless, Anne withdrew from politics for the rest of the decade, returning to her home state for law school at the University of Michigan, then moving back to Northern California to serve as a litigator at a San Francisco law firm.

She recounts her and Jerry’s gradual courtship in the early 1990s in San Francisco, where they lived just blocks from each other—Anne in a Pacific Heights flat she shared with another female lawyer, Jerry in his converted firehouse on Washington Street. Anne recalls attempting to set him up with a girlfriend; “That didn’t quite take,” she deadpans. Jerry, who had known about Anne as well through mutual friends, says he remembers seeing Anne exercising in their neighborhood. “Well, she was jogging, so she was quite…” The governor trails off suggestively. “What shall we say? She had just come back from jogging.” Finally he called her, and they went out to dinner.

“I think people would be surprised that she was getting A’s—like all A’s—because she was always the first one ready to go and have a fun time, too,” says Carol Bounds, Anne’s roommate at Stanford. “She’s just so darn smart and knows what’s she’s talking about, [and] she can hold her own with just about anybody.”

Their dating kindled after Anne’s work on the lawsuit against Jerry and the California Democratic Party. (She represented the notoriously thrifty politician pro bono.) Anne met and immediately liked his friends, including grizzled political hands like Tom Quinn, whom Jerry left unexpectedly on his own at his firehouse residence one night after Anne made them dinner at her apartment. “He left and went back to Anne’s!” Quinn remembers, laughing. “He said he’d return in the morning.”

While Brown flirted with and eventually commenced another run for president in 1992, Anne shot into the upper corporate echelons at Gap. Within a year of signing on as assistant general counsel in 1991, she earned the role of general counsel. By the end of the ’90s, Anne had embedded herself thoroughly in the company’s DNA as an executive handling matters from human resources to real estate to corporate compliance. It was in this latter role that Anne confronted revelations of sweatshop conditions at factories that produced clothing for Gap and its sister brands Old Navy and Banana Republic.

“That was a political sort of event at the Gap,” she recalls, noting the labor union attacks, protests and backlash that accompanied the revelations. From her office in San Francisco, Anne and her team established the company’s firm new labor standards for 3,000 factories around the world. What came next foreshadowed her later high-stakes campaign gambles with Jerry Brown: In May 2004, Gap released a 42-page “social responsibility report” that documented factory offenses, including health violations, psychological coercion and, in rare cases, child labor. Anne officially singles out the resolution detailed in the report—a coordinated compliance effort from China to India to Central America and beyond—as the hallmark of her Gap tenure.

“We didn’t own any factories anywhere,” she says. “We just contracted out, and in many instances, we were just a small part of any individual factory, so it was very hard to get them to go along with what they saw as a burdensome program.” (The retailer discontinued working with 136 factories and declined bids from dozens more in the year leading up to the report.)

To the extent the report was a crucial overhaul of corporate policy, it was also a defiant retaking and reshaping of Gap’s sweatshop story from the wilting, warping media glare. The transparency of the report was without precedent, sending shock waves through boardrooms everywhere.

“I remember getting a call from another general counsel from a very well-known, huge retailer,” says Lauri Shanahan, Anne’s close friend and deputy in their years at Gap. “He said, ‘I can’t believe you let them do this—that you let them put in all of this [and showed] them everything [you] had done wrong.’ I didn’t let them. I told them that they had to. And that was really Anne: If you’re going to talk about it, you’ve got to be open and honest and comprehensive. It completely deflated our adversaries, because we put it all out there.”

By then, the same Anne Gust who early on had eluded the spotlight with Jerry Brown was cohabitating with him in their loft in downtown Oakland, where Jerry was well into his second term as mayor. He proposed to her on her birthday in 2005; they were married a few months later in a ceremony officiated by Brown’s close friend, Sen. Dianne Feinstein. A month before the wedding, Anne left Gap to help plot her soon-to-be husband’s return to Sacramento as the state’s attorney general. He hadn’t even been elected in 2006 when Anne had to confront a different kind of speculation from observers of the campaign.

“People said, ‘Oh, he doesn’t care about being attorney general—he’s just using this as a stepping stone to run for governor,’ ” she recalls. “I thought that was the craziest thing I’d ever heard.” Even in the middle of Jerry’s term as attorney general, witnessing his frustration as little more than a lawyer under Arnold Schwarzenegger (particularly with California’s fiscal condition deteriorating around them), Anne insists she didn’t foresee him running for the top office in 2010.

“It took me a while to come around to it and understand that he really wanted to do it,” she says, admitting to a little reluctance at the idea of facing down Meg Whitman and her nine-figure war chest of campaign funds in 2010. (Anne, the fundraising linchpin, has said the Brown campaign topped out that year around $40 million.) Did the idea of being first lady—and navigating every added layer of visibility and tradition that the role confers—worry her?

“No, I didn’t think about that at all,” she says. “I probably should have, because it’s definitely a lot different.”

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Anne’s office door interrupts a wall lined with printed portraits of California governors. (Brown’s own portrait, painted by Don Bachardy, remains the Capitol’s famous, lone diversion into gubernatorial modern art.) Across the corridor, 23 portraits of governors’ wives hang beneath a gold-lettered dedication that reads, “California’s Remarkable First Ladies… They Served Too.” There are gaps in this record. This is partly due to the unavailability of portraits of early first ladies like Harriet Burnett (the wife of first California governor Peter Burnett). In two cases, though, the gaps are attributable to bachelor governors: Newton Booth, who led the state from 1871 to 1875, and Jerry Brown, who won the job—for the first time, anyway—a century later.

In lieu of a portrait wedged between the matronly headshots of Nancy Reagan and Gloria Deukmejian, Jerry’s original run as governor is embroidered with rich, bright threads of mythology about his romances (most notably with superstar singer Linda Ronstadt). He acknowledges but doesn’t dwell on the focus that someone like Anne would have given to his restless leadership of the 1970s and ’80s. “She’s just an extraordinary mind and would’ve brought a different perspective that would have been very helpful,” the governor says. “Of course, it’s hard to read back from a later period—it’s kind of counterfactual. But if you want to imagine that, I would have no hesitation saying yes, I probably would have made some better decisions.”

Indeed, Jerry can seem unsettled in relation to Anne, who contrasts her husband’s style to her own painstaking, almost propulsive sense of order and organization.

“Jerry’s more free-flowing,” she says, betraying curiosity and the occasional surprise about the success of the Brown partnership in 2015. “I worried before we embarked on this endeavor [about] how it would work, and it really just works very well. Sometimes we’ll disagree. But most of the time, we’ll tend to agree on things, and we’ll tend to have very heated conversations. But we get along really well, even when we disagree.”

Shaquille O’Neal gives Anne a lift at Zocalo in September 2013 at a dinner in Sacramento that the first lady and the governor shared with members of the Kings organization. (Photo courtesy of Anne Gust Brown)

These days around the office, with the election behind them, Anne and Jerry Brown will impose that dynamic on new business that looks a lot like their old business. According to both, the administration’s biggest challenges in the years to come are issues that she says most people find “boring”—keeping the budget on track, for example, particularly with the advancing age of infrastructure across the state and, according to data from the state controller’s office, at least $198 billion in unfunded pension liability to state workers in the years to come.

“We just get out of it, and then we go right back into the soup,” she says. “There are certain investments for the future that we do have to make—in our infrastructure, and otherwise. How do you balance that and manage through that process so we can sustain a healthy budget and not this boom and bust that we’ve faced?”

Listening to Anne speak—her relaxed but disciplined messaging, her humor, her warmth, her optimism, not just a little circumspection—it’s easy to hear the candidate in her voice. Perhaps it’s the rhetorical hangover of the recent election; perhaps it’s a quarter-century of being around Jerry Brown. But after a while, you can envision Anne running for office herself, her influence and interests maneuvering her inexorably toward center stage in 2018 or another post-Brown election year. For her part, Anne says that while people have talked to her about running, she’s not interested (especially in “dysfunctional” Washington, where Feinstein will be 85 when her Senate seat comes up for reelection in 2018). “If Jerry gets done here and he doesn’t run for something else—which I don’t think he would, but who knows?—I want to spend time with him,” Anne says. (For his part, Governor Brown replies with bemusement when asked about the prospect of an Anne Brown candidacy. “It would surprise me if she wanted to run,” he says. “If she wanted to, I’d certainly help her.”)

Meanwhile, Anne has her desk in Room 1007, with the nameplate and the business card holder. Her portrait will one day hang among the wall of Remarkable First Ladies… They Served Too, despite her ambivalence about that distinction. She has Jerry, from the Capitol to Oakland and back again for four more years. She has Sutter, their famous corgi, to help her reinforce the strange and cherished anonymity that somehow encircles Anne Brown on the streets of Sacramento, even as arguably the most powerful woman in California.

“People will come up [and ask], ‘Is that Sutter? Oh my goodness!’ ” Anne says, smiling as she describes an encounter with admirers who recently stopped her to ask for a picture with the First Dog. “Not once did they even ask who I was, let alone, ‘Could I get a picture with you?’ ”

Anne shrugs. Her smile widens. “People kind of chuckle about it,” she says, “but I’m quite happy with that.” S