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Jerry Brown hits state Democratic convention hall

April 16, 2010 |  9:50 pm

Jerry Brown made his grand entrance at the California Democratic state convention Friday. The state attorney general, his party's presumed standard bearer as its candidate for governor, strode the hallways as a celebrity of sorts among Democratic activists – ebullient and funny at points, curmudgeonly at others – seeming, as he is, someone who has done all this before and doesn't feel the need to be nervous about it. Or to measure his words and behavior too carefully, for that matter.

Brown, 72, who served two terms as governor ending in 1983, made his way through a series of party caucuses at the new JW Marriott in downtown Los Angeles, giving short speeches to supporters of the environment, for gays and lesbians, for women and for teachers. With Meg Whitman, the leading Republican, spending nearly $50 million so far and Brown spending so little that his top staff are bunking up at the convention hall, he has been under some pressure from party activists to step it up.

"His campaign so far hasn't been very inspiring," Janet Cox, a delegate from Berkeley said Friday. "I hope he will connect in a way he should know how to do."

With this type of talk in the air, Brown didn't seem to be in a great mood as he entered his first caucus, on the environment. He brushed past someone asking if he planned to support "15," referring to Proposition 15, a ballot measure on campaign finance on the June 8 ballot.

"15? What's 15?" Brown grumbled as he kept on walking.

One of Brown's lesser-known opponents, Richard Aguirre, a blond, pony-tailed San Diego Democrat in an aqua blue velour Izod shirt, had spoken just before him and shouted demands for a debate as he left the room. Outside, Brown dealt with a fan's request for a photo by seizing the camera, holding it out in front of them and taking the picture himself.

Then he walked with reporters, trying to answer why Democrats shouldn't be nervous that Whitman is spending so much more than him when he stopped at the bottom of an escalator and grew irritated with a Sacramento Bee photographer's lens, which was close to his face. Brown put his hand over it, and then turned his ear to the lens so the photographer could get a shot of that too.

"You're right in my face," Brown said. "We're filming? You didn't say you were filming. I didn't know that. You have to get permission."

When the walking tour resumed, some Democrats approaching yelled, "Jerry Brown's going to win!" Aguirre, still trailing behind, got right in front of Brown, yelling, "Demand a debate from him! Let's have a debate, baby!"

"You're getting a little action now, right?" Brown said to the photographer. Next he passed a white-haired woman who called out that she needed to give Brown a pin she'd made for his father, also an ex-governor, for a previous convention -- in 1958.

After a break, Brown took a moment to get his bearings at the gay and lesbian caucus. He said he was happy the room had a microphone, but then dropped his cellphone and fumbled to find it.

"You have a sound system, but you have a crappy podium," he said to laughter. "I have to get my two cellphones and my press release out of the bottom. OK, I've got it. I hope I didn't lose any checks in there."

He decided to step to the side and perched gingerly on a folding table.

"Is this stable?" he asked, bouncing on it.

After pledging to work for marriage equality, he noted that he had been in politics a long time.

"I started this a long time ago," he said. "Tell you the truth, I couldn't conceive it [same-sex marriage] 30 years ago."

Speaking at the women's caucus, Brown noted that Republicans cast him as responsible for the state's problems, such as freeway gridlock, from his earlier term as governor.

Calling such a notion "a perverse compliment," he said that meant "what I did 35 years ago was so powerful that all the Republicans who came after me couldn't change it."

By the time Brown reached the California Teachers Assn. caucus, he had picked up some steam, quoting the philosopher Martin Buber, talking about teaching "the whole person." Brown noted that he taught catechism to seventh-graders in San Jose.

""I never got control from the day I walked in," he said. "It was the worst experience of my whole life."

On improving education, he said the important thing was to get back to basics rather than embracing new fads, and eventually he started to almost sound like a preacher, drawing in the enthusiasm of his excited audience.

"We're always looking for new ideas. In fact I'd say there's never been a candidate who's looked for more new ideas. In fact, I'm an expert at new ideas. That's why I'm suspicious about new ideas. Now I've done a lot of reforms. And I've done reforms so long ago that we can see that some of those reforms don't always work. In fact, I had to go to court when I was mayor to invalidate a law that I wrote as secretary of state.... I'm the only one who's ever made a law and unmade it!

"I've also seen, since I've been studying this a long time, about the fashions in education. Every time we get a new superintendent, we get a new reform. At the end of the day, you have to have a good school environment, you need inspirations, you need nurturing, you need discipline, you need enough money to make the whole system work, you need teachers in charge, and you don't need a national curriculum dictated for every classroom in America."

--Michael Rothfeld and Seema Mehta in Los Angeles