Riggs Report: Covering Jerry Brown Difficult, but Always Memorable

It was Labor Day 2010.

Attorney General Jerry Brown, riding high poll numbers in his quest to return to the governor’s corner office after a 28-year absence, was making a campaign appearance at a friendly venue — the annual California Labor Federation picnic at William Land Park in Sacramento.

I was jammed with a small cluster of reporters in a corner, interviewing Brown for KCRA-TV. Unfortunately, I was on the blind side of a photographer for another local station. She couldn’t see me, and when she pivoted the camera left, it smacked me hard in the cheekbone.

Brown paused, squinted and said, “That’s gotta hurt!” which of course, got a big laugh from all of us.

That encounter encapsulates what it was like to cover Brown: unpredictable, memorable and occasionally painful.

Brown was always interesting, but never easy to cover. He drastically scaled back access to Capitol media, especially in his final term. That was an especially big contrast to his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose show-business mentality translated into frequent media events.

Brown explained his thinking earlier this week during a farewell appearance at the Sacramento Press Club, saying he wanted to guard against being “overexposed.” Most politicians would never say that, and would push their staff to secure more coverage, not less.

But Brown’s reticence wasn’t rooted in humility, but a calculus that he wouldn’t be seeking higher office again. In other words, he didn’t really need media coverage any more. He didn’t need the media to negotiate with or put pressure on a far less experienced legislature. And it was easier to scale back, given the significant shrinkage of the Capitol press corps following the 2008 recession.

That’s too bad, not only from an accountability standpoint, but also because, frankly, Brown could be fun to cover. That coverage gave voters a more complete picture of who Brown was and how he had evolved since his first two terms as governor from 1974 to 1982.

When I covered the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, there were some interesting moments. How had he changed? During a debate at UC Davis, Brown noted that, unlike his earlier terms, he was married and didn’t “close down the bars of Sacramento anymore.”

During an interview earlier that year, I asked Brown whether voters would be willing to return to office a politician who had a quirky reputation; someone with a wandering attention span who had run for president three times and who dated rock stars.

He pushed back.

“Do you think dating Linda Ronstadt was quirky?” he asked.

Immediately after returning to office in 2011, Brown was still accessible. As reporters, we knew that if we staked out his downtown condo, it was possible to catch him as he walked his dog, Sutter. He had a busy speaking schedule at downtown venues and could be counted on to stop and offer remarks.

It was also a time of crisis, with California facing an enormous budget deficit inherited from the Schwarzenegger administration. Brown engaged in a sales job with lawmakers, traveling the Capitol hallways on his way to closed-door huddles to pitch the idea of raising taxes as a budget fix.

Brown paid a memorable visit to a legislative budget committee, where he made reference to his Jesuit seminary days and his vows of poverty and abstinence. Just as the pope had given him special dispensation to give up those vows, he told Republicans he would give them dispensation to consider a tax solution.

Brown would later give up on a legislative solution, and convinced voters to pass a 2012 ballot measure that raised sales and income taxes.

Brown could be temperamental and cranky if he didn’t like the questions reporters asked. He liked to sprinkle Latin into his speeches. He used his dog, Sutter, as a master marketing tool, passing out Sutter playing cards with a call for budget discipline.

He was unlike any other governor I covered over a 30-year span. And he had a remarkable knack for remembering you.

When I left my reporting job, he showed up at a farewell reception organized by the Sacramento Press Club.

“Why are you leaving?” he asked.

“Governor, you were governor when I got out of college,” I replied. “And now that it’s come full circle and you’re governor again, what’s left?”

There was a lot left, of course. But whether you agreed with his policy and politics or not, Brown’s political longevity will never be equaled in California. And reporting on that over the span of three decades was a professional privilege.