Anne Gust Brown is the most powerful first lady in the country because she didn’t want to be one.
On January 5, the morning of Edmund “Jerry” Brown’s final inauguration as the governor of California, the members of the state legislature stood in their chambers in the Capitol building for an ovation that lasted an unusually — even an uncomfortably — long time. Two months earlier, Brown had easily won re-election, and his approval rating was near 60 percent. But the person the legislators were applauding was not the governor but his wife, Anne Gust Brown, who was there to introduce him. A lawyer by training, Gust Brown is the governor’s unpaid special counsel — an unusual, more-or-less-invented title that, if anything, understates her position as his closest adviser. Her role is so all-encompassing that she is almost certainly the most powerful gubernatorial first lady in the country. The night before the inauguration, she had helped her husband write his inaugural address, in which Brown would announce far-reaching goals to decrease California’s greenhouse-gas emissions. The speech had required so much of her attention, she admitted to me later, that her own introduction had been an afterthought. In the morning, she had scribbled some notes while getting her hair done.
Four years earlier, when Gust Brown had introduced her husband at his last inauguration, she was still a political neophyte, and it had shown. Brown’s election, in 2010, when he ran against the former CEO of eBay Meg Whitman, had culminated a resurrection several years in the making. After having served as governor for eight years from the mid-1970s to the early ’80s — during which he had also run for president twice, gaining a national reputation as flighty and eccentric — Brown had spent more than a decade out of the public eye. Then, in 1998, he was elected mayor of Oakland and, in 2006, as California’s attorney general. Still, no one knew how he would fare as governor this time around, especially with the state facing a huge budget deficit. A lot of people felt that, in the first go-round, he hadn’t done particularly well.
Gust Brown has a bantam build and bobbed hair that, from afar, can make her look almost child-like. At the 2011 inauguration, she had seemed especially small. Standing onstage in a cavernous convention hall, she mentioned more than once that she couldn’t see much and recited some rote shout-outs to dignitaries. In one of several conversations this spring, she recalled, “The biggest shock for me, really, was just getting through that election against Meg Whitman, which was, my God, very time-consuming and involved, and thinking, Thank God, phew, let’s go to Hawaii, let’s have a break!, and then realizing, no, people were showing up the next day and there was this $27 billion budget deficit and this notion that completely had slipped my mind that Arnold” — Schwarzenegger, Brown’s predecessor — “was literally going to, of course, take all of his people away, and we had to fill a whole office.”
Since then, Gust Brown has been at the center of nearly every major political feat for which her husband can claim credit: closing the budget deficit; persuading voters to pass ballot measures to raise taxes, sell bonds to update the state’s aging water infrastructure, and create a rainy-day fund to protect against future budget crises; shrinking the staff of the governor’s office; recruiting some of Brown’s top advisers, including executive secretary Nancy McFadden; nudging a stalled high-speed-rail project back into motion; and, last year, getting her husband re-elected. When I asked the governor to highlight some of his wife’s biggest individual achievements, he dismissed the notion that her work is limited to particular projects. “Everything that I’ve done,” he said, “has been influenced or helped by her presence and our working together and our being together.”
Gust Brown still shies, however, from public appearances, and even some Capitol veterans have spent little time with her. On the rare occasions that she gives speeches or interviews, she can come across as guarded. She often tells people that when she walks her and the governor’s Welsh corgi, Sutter, people recognize the first dog and not her. One suspects that this lore reveals more about Gust Brown’s desire to cultivate a low profile, and about Sacramentans’ willingness to indulge that desire, than it does about her status. Sutter is adorable, but he can’t get your bill signed.
Given Gust Brown’s public reticence, it can be surprising, at first, to hear her friends describe her as warm, sharp-witted, and playful. This isn’t often captured in public, although once, a couple of years ago, she tweeted a photo of former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal hoisting her over his head. Jim Humes, a judge and a former top aide to Brown who knows the couple well, speculates that the gap between Gust Brown’s private and public identities might have to do with her legal background: “I think she doesn’t show that publicly so much” — her lighter side — “because those things can only come back and bite you in the ass.”
Introducing her husband at this year’s inauguration, though, Gust Brown seemed less cautious, more like the private Anne than the public one. Her language was almost Jerry-esque in its unscriptedness. Describing her husband, she said, “Oh my God, this mind that runs at a hundred miles per hour. It is restless. It’s seeking. It’s probing. It’s creative. And frankly, for all of us who work with him, it’s exhausting.” She paused, smiling, as her audience laughed. “But it is so stimulating,” she added, “that mind of his.”
To be married to Jerry Brown is to be enveloped in the mythos of the state’s reigning family. His father, Edmund “Pat” Brown, was governor from 1959 to 1967 and built what we now think of as modern California — the freeways, the water tunnels, the university system. His younger sister, Kathleen, served as the state’s treasurer in the 1990s. When the time came for Brown to take his oath of office, Gust Brown said, “Most of this stuff is about Brown these days, but we do a little Gust stuff every so often.” Then she pulled out a Bible that had been passed down not through his family but through her own and read from an inscription her grandfather had written inside. The inauguration marked the beginning of Brown’s last term as governor — term limits prohibit another extension — and some in the audience wondered if Gust Brown meant to signal that the spotlight might next turn to her. “People were joking, ‘Here’s the next senator,’” Jim Wunderman, the president of a business group, the Bay Area Council, told me.
ANNE GUST’S FOREBEARS, in the middle of the 20th century, were nearly as eminent in Michigan as the Browns were in California. Anne’s maternal grandfather, Howard Baldwin, was a close friend and adviser to Sebastian S. Kresge, who had founded the retail chain that later became Kmart. Her paternal grandfather, Rockwell T. Gust, was a partner at Butzel, Eaman, Long, Gust & Kennedy, a law firm that represented the world’s biggest auto companies.
Anne’s father was also named Rockwell, but people called him Rocky. He was a lawyer, too, working for a time at his father’s firm. But while Rockwell was an intimidating, much-admired lawyer, Rocky was best known as a bon vivant with vague political aspirations. Gust Brown often mentions her father’s political career — in particular, a run for lieutenant governor in 1962, the year that George Romney, Mitt’s father, was elected governor. But Rocky lost badly in the primaries, and friends say no one had expected him to win in the first place. Nor did his legal career take off. “He was very personable, a great conversationalist, a good sense of humor. He was the kind of guy who everybody liked,” says William Saxton, a former CEO of the firm, which is now known as Butzel Long. “But he wasn’t much of a lawyer. He liked to drink and liked to party.”
Born in 1958, Anne was raised in Bloomfield Hills, an upscale Detroit suburb, in a home she has described as being filled with “a big, boisterous” crowd. She was the fourth of five siblings; when she was 12, two cousins moved in after their parents died. According to Anne, her mother didn’t coddle. In a 2013 interview, she recalled, “When I was really young — 4 or something — I go up and go, ‘Mom, Bob punched me,’ and she goes, ‘Oh, stop being a whiner.’” Anne’s parents divorced when she was entering high school. They didn’t encourage her to study hard, she says. Her father was focused on the boys, and her mother didn’t much care about academics. Still, Anne graduated as one of three valedictorians. Her mother had taken her to visit some colleges in the Northeast, but she decided to head west instead.
In the fall of 1976, when Anne Gust arrived at Stanford, Jerry Brown had been governor for less than two years but already had an outsize reputation as an eccentric ex-seminarian who refused to ride in state limos. Earlier that year he had made a bid for president, during which the newspaper columnist Mike Royko had written that Brown was attracting the hippie-dippy “moonbeam vote.” That evolved into the nickname “Governor Moonbeam,” which stuck. Within California, many felt his presidential aspirations were distracting him from state business. During his two terms, he notched some significant achievements, including a landmark law that gave collective-bargaining rights to farm workers, but he also made some high-profile errors. He amassed a big budget surplus that made it easier for anti-tax activists to secure the passage of Proposition 13, a ballot measure that significantly limited property taxes and had long-lasting ramifications for the state’s finances, and voters recalled three of his nominees to the state Supreme Court. “I think when he was in Sacramento and focusing on his job as governor,” says Gray Davis, his chief of staff at the time, “he got a lot done. It’s just that competing for his attention in Sacramento was four campaigns” — two bids for president and one for Senate, along with one for governor.
Gust Brown told me that she didn’t pay much attention to any of that while at Stanford. “I don’t have a lot of memories at all of Jerry from that time,” she said. “Much to his chagrin.” Although she majored in political science and volunteered on Republican-turned-Independent John B. Anderson’s 1980 presidential campaign, she wasn’t active in Stanford’s civic scene. Her friends thought of her as fun, confident, and quietly brilliant. “We called her a closet red-hot,” says Carol Bounds, her roommate throughout college. “No one knew how smart she was till grades came out. Then the really nerdy guys would be like, ‘What? Anne?’”
In 1980, Brown was a year into his second term when Gust moved back to Michigan to attend the University of Michigan Law School. Her colleagues there remember her as her Stanford friends do — as both fun-loving and smart. Much of Gust’s family remained in Michigan, but she was, by then, sold on California. In 1983, after graduating magna cum laude, she returned — to San Francisco, where she quickly established herself in influential legal circles, working as a litigator at one major firm and then another. She grew tired of litigation, though, and in 1991 took a position as an in-house counsel at the Gap.
At the time, Gust was living near Brown in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood. Mutual friends had introduced them. Brown was chair of the California Democratic Party and needed representation in a lawsuit that had been brought against the party; Gust defended him for free, and they started dating. From the outside, they were not an obvious romantic pairing. Gust was in her early 30s and at the beginning of her career, and Brown was in his early 50s with much of his career behind him; Gust was genial, while Brown could be inscrutable; Gust was a pragmatist and Brown a dreamer; Gust had been in a couple of relationships but had been largely focused on work, while Brown had a reputation as a serial dater. Also, Gust had been raised Republican.
Kathleen Brown, Jerry’s sister, recalls meeting Gust for the first time in the early 1990s, after a fundraiser in San Francisco. “After the dinner, Jerry and I were going to go get a drink or something, and I said, ‘Should we get a cab or what?’ and he said, ‘Oh, no, no, I’ve got somebody. She’ll come and get me.’” That somebody was Gust. “She was this very buttoned-down, sort of Burberry London trench-coat-wearing attorney, and she was so different from most of the women that Jerry had dated.” Yet they got along well because both felt they had met their intellectual match — Brown told me that he found Gust “lively and direct and engaging” — and their relationship deepened.
In 1992, Brown made another bid for president — his third — against a crowded field of Democrats, including Bill Clinton. Gust registered as a Democrat so that she could vote for him in the California primary, but she was also occupied with her legal career, and, for several years, their relationship remained casual. “Anne never was one of these women who was like, ‘I’ve got to get married,’” Lauri Shanahan, a close friend and a former colleague at the Gap, says. “She adored him, but the world did not revolve around him at all.”
Gust loved working at the Gap. She was soon promoted to general counsel and, within less than a decade, became chief administrative officer, a senior position reporting directly to the CEO. Her rise coincided with the Gap’s expansion from a niche retailer to a global brand, but the growth came with difficulties. By the late 1990s, the company had begun to face a backlash over poor conditions in the overseas factories that produced its clothing. The situation seemed intractable: Enforcing higher standards could hurt the Gap’s bottom line, but ignoring the problem could mean a public-relations disaster, not to mention an ethical one. The company’s legal and compliance departments reported to Gust; she was responsible for finding a solution. “In those early years, there wasn’t a week that went by that we didn’t have activists protesting at some Gap store somewhere,” says Alan Marks, who was the vice president of corporate communications at the Gap during this period. “All of that ultimately fell at Anne’s doorstep.”
Gust set out to tighten the Gap’s standards and enforcement mechanisms. She also argued to the CEO and board that disclosing what the Gap had found at its suppliers’ factories might, counterintuitively, be good for the company. In 2004, the Gap published a 40-page report acknowledging that workers had faced verbal abuse, safety problems, and other issues at a number of its suppliers’ factories. As Gust had hoped, the report earned the company praise for its transparency. What’s more, the Gap had stopped working with suppliers that had repeatedly fallen short of its standards. Rival retailers, which faced similar criticism, were forced to follow suit. The supply-chain overhaul was the most significant accomplishment of Gust’s career at the Gap.
By then, Gust and Brown were living together in Oakland, where he was mayor. Over the years, their relationship had become much more serious. Shanahan says, “I remember wondering to myself, early on, Does he appreciate her enough? Then, at some point, I just remember this epiphany of, Oh my God, he adores her.” Kathleen Brown recalls when her brother began bringing Anne on family vacations. “I thought, Whoa! This is new. And my mother and father — my mother in particular — loved her. Anne has such a down-to-earth personality and is genuinely interested in people, and not in a political-campaign sort of way. She’s just accessible and easy to be with.” Bernice, Jerry’s mother, often prodded her son and his girlfriend to get married. “She would always whisper to Anne, ‘Come over here, I want to tell you something,’” Kathleen says. Bernice died in 2002. Three years later, on Gust’s 47th birthday, March 15, 2005, Brown cooked her dinner and proposed, after 15 years together, that they get married.
In June, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a close friend, officiated the wedding, which marked not only a personal turning point for Gust Brown but also a professional one. Around the same time, Brown asked her to help him run for attorney general. At first, the suggestion startled her. She had no expertise in politics, and friends expressed reservations about her working so closely with her husband. She later recalled, “Every person who advised us on this said, ‘This is just crazy. … The only person you can blame every day is the campaign manager, and then she’s going to be sleeping next to you, and this is not a good idea.’”
But Brown insisted. She was, he argued, smarter than most of the people who passed for experts in Sacramento. Also, he needed a campaign manager whom he could trust. “I obviously only cared about Jerry,” she said. “It wasn’t about me or a future career I was going to have in consulting.” In 2005, Gust Brown left the Gap and a salary of $600,000 to run her husband’s campaign for no pay. “I don’t think I spent a whole lot of time thinking about it,” Gust Brown recently told me. “I think I said, ‘Yeah! Sure! That sounds fun!’ It worked out even better than I’d thought.”
I met with Gust Brown in her office, which is in the part of the Capitol building known as the Horseshoe. The room, with its nondescript art and industrial carpeting, wouldn’t be out of place at the DMV. It was less than half the size of the waiting room in which one of the governor’s press secretaries had greeted me; the only visible nameplate bore the name of Michael Rossi, the governor’s adviser on jobs and business. For a moment I questioned whether we were even in Gust Brown’s own office. She explained that she had been sharing the room with a couple of colleagues. Someone else, she said, must have brought in the portrait of George Washington that hung on a wall, along with most of the books on the shelves, though she recognized some of the materials as her own — binders full of budget papers and a copy of the Shriver Report, put out by her predecessor, Maria Shriver.
It is common for a first lady to cultivate a public image that reflects that of her husband. Arnold Schwarzenegger traveled with an entourage and set up a cigar-smoking tent in a courtyard outside the Horseshoe, while Shriver occupied a four-room suite with a mural of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. When the Browns arrived in 2011, they wanted to send the message that they were cutting costs, so they turned Shriver’s suite into the press office. Gust Brown moved into this room. She gestured toward a utilitarian bureau, bare save for a computer monitor, a printer, a phone, and her purse. “I just sort of sit here,” she said, “and figure out how to log in under myself versus someone else.”
In person, Gust Brown comes across as both affable and reserved, a combination that may stem from her Midwestern upbringing; she still speaks with rounded northern vowels. She had just returned from a trip to Florida, where she visited her mother, and to New York, where she had celebrated her 57th birthday. She and Brown had gone to see the hip-hop-inspired musical Hamilton. “There are so many good lines,” she told me, “but I sometimes missed them because, you know, they’re making things rhyme, and I don’t listen to rap usually, so every so often, I would really laugh at something, and Jerry would go, ‘What?’ and I’d have to explain, and vice versa.”
When discussing herself, Gust Brown has little patience for the Californian self-preoccupation in which her husband is known to indulge. When I asked how she would hope to be remembered, she answered, “Oh, golly, I don’t know, I haven’t thought about that. Have you ever thought about that for yourself?” I said I had. “You have?” she said. “No, it’s funny, I don’t think that way. You know, I certainly would want people to think I was helpful — that I helped Jerry be a good governor — but I don’t actually sit and think, I want to be known for this. Maybe I’m deficient that way.” This could be “a Midwest sort of thing,” she said. “You know, we’re not real navel gazers.”
This wasn’t the first time Gust Brown had described herself as simply wanting to aid her husband. “I’m just gonna help,” she told a Sacramento publication in 2010, shortly after Brown’s election. “And we’ll figure it out.” Against the counsel of some of the governor’s advisers, she declined, around that time, to take ownership of the Women’s Conference, which had been established in the 1980s by Governor George Deukmejian and his wife, Gloria, and which Shriver had expanded. Echoing her husband, Gust Brown maintains that she has no policy imperatives of her own.
She seems unaware — or maybe just unconcerned — that her goal of helpfulness can appear old-fashioned. The modern image of a powerful first lady is of someone who pursues policy objectives that complement, but are often separate from, her husband’s projects. Gust Brown suggested that she approaches her position differently because of her deep involvement in the governor’s office rather than despite it. “Jerry and I are partners all the time in almost any issue that’s going on in California where I think I can be of help,” she told me. “I don’t feel the need to say” — she took on an officious-sounding tone — ‘These are the Anne Gust Brown goals.’”
After Brown became attorney general in 2007, Gust Brown tried out the special-counsel role for the first time. Jim Humes, who was an aide in the office, worked closely with her to put together an early document that outlined when issues should be brought to the governor’s attention and when someone else should handle them. “It was,” he says, “instantly apparent to me that she would be a very positive resource.” Brown has described his wife as having “single-handedly” taken charge of a high-profile lawsuit that California brought, in 2008, against Countrywide Financial Corp. over allegedly predatory loan practices; the suit resulted in a multistate settlement worth billions of dollars.
By the time Brown announced he would run for governor in 2010, Gust Brown had become a familiar presence in Sacramento. His opponent, Meg Whitman, raised a record $178 million, most of it from her own fortune, to Brown’s $41 million. Gust Brown early on recommended conserving her husband’s funds so that they could be used as the election neared. It proved to be one of the most important decisions of the campaign.
At one point, Brown left a voice message for a police union in Los Angeles; afterward, thinking the call had concluded, someone from Brown’s circle called Whitman a “whore,” a comment the union caught on tape and released. A number of people thought the voice sounded like that of the candidate’s wife, which the Brown campaign deflected. A couple of years later, Gust Brown acknowledged that it “probably” had been her after all. (Several people who know her told me they recognized her voice.)
It wasn’t long before Gust Brown would be accused of pugnaciousness again. After Brown was elected, he tried and failed to negotiate with Republicans in the state Senate to extend existing tax increases to help patch the budget hole. Later, the Senate minority leader at the time, Bob Dutton, complained to reporters, “I was yelled at more than I was talked to, and mostly by Mrs. Brown, not even Governor Brown.” (When I reached Dutton recently, he suggested that his comment had been blown out of proportion. “She’s a very smart lady,” he said, “and I have a lot of respect for her. She was just expressing her opinions and concerns.”)
When asked what these incidents suggest about Gust Brown, Humes says, “She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and she knows how to make her point and express it directly, and that could be off-putting to some people, but I think that’s because of either gender issues” — that is, a bias against outspoken women — “or insecurity. She doesn’t blow her top. But if people expect tea with the queen of England when they meet with Anne, they’re going to be disappointed.”
After the breakdown in negotiations, Brown and his advisers held an intense weekend session to brainstorm possible ballot measures to hike taxes. When the attendees, including the governor, got carried away discussing politically far-fetched ideas, Gust Brown urged them to concentrate on a version likeliest to succeed, according to someone who attended. This helped steer the conversation toward the temporary sales- and income-tax hikes that Brown eventually sought through Proposition 30.
Being an unpaid adviser means Gust Brown is the only aide who is allowed to serve simultaneously on Brown’s government projects and in his political campaigns. She worked the phones and the party circuit to raise millions of dollars in support of the measure.
After Proposition 30 passed in 2012, the governor and Gust Brown turned to two longer-term projects they had been eyeing: a campaign to sell bonds to finance an overhaul of the state’s aging water system and the creation of a rainy-day fund that in good times could be filled with surplus revenues that would then be used in bad times. Those projects were to take the form of a pair of measures known as Propositions 1 and 2. This was politically complicated: The measures would appear on the same 2014 ballot on which voters would decide whether to re-elect Brown.
Dan Newman, a strategist who worked on all of these campaigns, remembers when Brown’s opponent, Republican Neel Kashkari, performed stunts meant to ridicule the governor — he once stood outside a gas station and used a mallet to smash a toy train meant to symbolize the high-speed-rail project. While Brown’s advisers debated how to respond, Gust Brown wondered aloud if her husband shouldn’t just ignore Kashkari. Her instincts turned out to be right. Brown put much more effort into campaigning for the two propositions than into his own re-election and still won by a 20-point margin. The ballot measures also passed. “It comes from having a high level of confidence combined with low ego,” Newman says of Gust Brown’s ability to give sound advice. “She’ll hear people out and not interrupt them and then make a sensible, rational decision.”
Gust Brown told me she gets a thrill out of the puzzle-solving aspects of her role. She relishes being faced with a difficult and high-stakes problem, learning all about it, and arriving at a solution that everyone can live with. “Anne, at least in my interactions with her, is less about the ideology,” says Darrell Steinberg, the former Democratic leader of the state Senate who negotiated with the governor and his wife on budget cuts during the fiscal crisis. She is, he says, skilled at “the art of the deal.”
The position of first lady can be guaranteed to offend. On the one hand, if she is perceived as uninvolved in her spouse’s affairs, people may become suspicious; in New York, Republicans drafted a state bill that would require Governor Andrew Cuomo to disclose the finances of his live-in girlfriend, the celebrity chef Sandra Lee, though she has eschewed a traditional first-lady role. On the other hand, if she gets too involved, she risks becoming a political liability, as happened in Oregon, where the financial conflicts of interest of Governor John Kitzhaber’s fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, recently cost him his job.
One can see, in this context, a strategic reason for Gust Brown to downplay her own influence. To the extent that she and her friends and colleagues acknowledge her sway on Brown, they describe, conveniently, how she helps compensate for her husband’s well-known liabilities. From the 1970s to the early 2000s, Brown spent much of his time with a beret-wearing eccentric named Jacques Barzaghi, who sometimes lived with Brown and, according to longtime friends, nurtured both the governor’s unconventional nature and his progressive leanings. During Brown’s presidential run in 1992, Barzaghi famously said, “We are not disorganized. Our campaign transcends understanding.”
It’s hard to imagine words like these coming from Gust Brown’s lips. She seems likelier to be the one standing in the background rolling her eyes. When I asked people to tell me about Gust Brown’s professional style, they most often cast her as being as focused as her husband is freewheeling and having the ability to nudge him back on track when other advisers wouldn’t dare. Scott Wetch, a lobbyist and friend, says, “She’s exceptional at keeping meetings moving along and not spiraling down some rabbit hole because somebody raised something the governor finds interesting.”
These characterizations are accurate but limited. Gust Brown does much more than prod her husband to pay attention. As a prominent lobbyist told me, “I’m worried when she’s not in our meetings because I know she’s an influencer.” Some think she is better than the governor at measuring his political capital — and, perhaps more crucially, that of other people. “She does remember,” Kathleen Brown says, in reference to Gust Brown’s mental spreadsheet of her husband’s allies and opponents. “Anne just sits closest to the center and has the radar to look out for danger or risk.” Nancy McFadden, Brown’s executive secretary, describes her as being unusually intelligent — “her mind ticks faster than the average mind,” she says — with the confidence and ability to ask smart questions about a given topic even if she isn’t an expert. McFadden spent eight years in the Clinton administration working with both Bill and Hillary, and, when we spoke, she came close to comparing the Browns’ partnership to the Clintons’: “This is two totally different people — I’m not making an analogy whatsoever — but the power of them together was very appealing.”
While Gust Brown has identified as a Democrat for more than two decades, she can sometimes sound more like a Republican, at least by Californian standards. She has said she believes government serves people best when politicians concentrate on core areas “like public safety, like roads, like making sure the food supply is safe, making sure the environment is protected,” and that it serves people worst when it “veers off into places where we’re restricting and regulating beyond what really is necessary.” She told an interviewer in 2013 that her business background has informed her views of government and that she sees some truth — though some myth, too — in the oft-repeated notion that California’s policies are anti-business. “I do think there are some regulations and things that have gone too far,” she said at the time, citing the California Environmental Quality Act, an influential environmental law, as an example.
“She’s definitely not a liberal Democrat by any means,” says Jim Humes. “She’s a very moderate one, especially on fiscal issues, and I do think her perspective helps reinforce the governor’s perspective.”
Gust Brown told me that many of her views aren’t easily categorized. “I just think for social issues,” she said, “the government should be out of all that stuff. I’m very pro-choice, I’m very pro–gay marriage, and on those social issues, I just think the Republicans are so off-point on that and off-track. Fiscally, I just think that we should live within our means, and I’m a conservative that way. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be investing in certain things, but I don’t think we can just keep spending off a cliff.”
With respect to investment, Gust Brown has been deeply involved in what is probably her husband’s most controversial project: building the multibillion-dollar high-speed-rail system to connect Northern and Southern California. In 2008, voters approved selling bonds to finance the system, but in the ensuing years, the projected costs ballooned — approaching $100 billion — and public opinion cooled.
After Brown became governor, he deputized his wife to research the high-speed-rail project and help him decide whether to support it. One of the people whose expertise she sought was Dan Richard, a former Brown aide who had also served on the board of the Bay Area’s BART transportation system. He was living in Washington, D.C., and recalls several phone calls with Gust Brown over many months — about the High Speed Rail Authority’s much-criticized plan to start construction in the sparsely populated Central Valley rather than in a big northern or southern city, and the projected cost and ridership of the trains. “It was very clear that she was the one getting into the policy issues,” Richard says.
In August 2011, Richard was bicycling while on vacation in Maine, and the phone rang. It was Gust Brown. “She said, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you saw, but my husband was in Fresno this week, and he announced that he’s supporting high-speed rail,’” Richard recalls. She noted that the governor had said he would appoint a new member to the High Speed Rail Authority soon. “That,” she told him, “would be you.” In February 2012, Richard became the chair of the authority and its public face. “I mean, I was working for Jerry Brown, but, basically, I was working for Anne and Nancy McFadden” — and mostly for Anne, he says. Gust Brown told Richard that she now supported starting construction in the Central Valley and that, while the High Speed Rail Authority’s CEO had developed a reputation as politically inexperienced, she thought it made sense that he stay on for stability. After doing some research of his own, Richard came to the same conclusion.
On the day after Brown’s recent inauguration, he and Gust Brown visited Fresno to celebrate the beginning of construction. “When I first was elected governor, I had some doubts about this project,” he told his audience. “But my wife, Anne, who used to be a Republican, when she said, ‘No, you got to take this money, and you got to build,’ the fact that she was a Republican gave me a lot of confidence.”
The governor and his wife appear to share the same perspective on government spending: Politicians should be cautious in using the budget, which is vulnerable to dips in taxpayers’ fortunes, to increase funding for ongoing programs, but it’s OK, even desirable, to sell bonds to finance long-term infrastructure projects — incidentally, the sort that, in the 1960s, made Pat Brown and his California famous. This perspective has served the Browns well while memories of the fiscal crisis remained fresh in many Californians’ minds. But recently, revenues have risen an enormous amount, and the state now has a surplus. This is partly because of the Proposition 30 tax hikes and partly because the state relies a great deal on capital-gains taxes, which have soared along with the stock market.
Some advocates of the poor point out that, while California’s fiscal crisis is over, its economic revival has been uneven and that government policies should be used to better spread the gains. California Common Sense, a nonpartisan think tank, found that from 2009 to 2011, as the state’s economy began to recover, the income of the top 1 percent of earners rose 25 percent but that of the bottom 99 percent of earners fell by 1 percent. California’s unemployment rate remains one of the highest in the nation. Chris Hoene, the executive director of the California Budget and Policy Center, a research group, argues that the governor should address the gap by reinvesting in at least some programs that were cut during the recession, such as child-care subsidies for low-income working parents. “The lack of response,” he says, “is becoming a glaring problem for what has otherwise been a fairly successful record.”
Brown, for his part, has pointed out that he recently signed a bill raising the minimum wage, that the tax increase approved by voters at his behest put a disproportionate burden on the rich, and that he put considerable state funds into Obamacare and education. Still, some observers wonder if the fact that the governor and first lady both come from privileged backgrounds makes it difficult for them to empathize with poor Californians. In Sacramento, Brown and his wife live in a modest one-room loft, but in Oakland they own a 4,000-square-foot home that they bought in 2007 for more than $2 million. “I can see the Golden Gate Bridge from my shower,” Brown told a group of realtors, according to a Bay Area news site. “My wife wants to live there, and I want to live with her.” He and Gust Brown also spend time on a remote 2,500-acre ranch in Colusa County that has been in the Brown family for generations. The governor’s and first lady’s most recent financial filings report assets between $1.5 million and $7.3 million. Because the filings exclude certain items, their total assets are likely greater.
When I asked Gust Brown how she responds to charges that she and the governor have been insensitive to the poor, she criticized the state’s long-standing practice of boosting funding for social programs in flush times, only to cut them when the state’s revenues fall. “No one here in Sacramento is saying, ‘Let’s spend money to kill puppies,’” Gust Brown told me. “They’re doing good things, but they all add up to more than what we can do.” She went on, “It’s much harder for people to get stuff and then have to cut the bejesus out of them,” she said. “I think that’s unfair. We know the stock market is at its historic high. It isn’t going to stay. God, I wish it would just double or triple and keep going that way, but we know that isn’t going to happen. So it’s just not — it’s foolhardy to do that.”
This month, the governor and first lady will celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary. (“I don’t have plans yet,” she told me. “It’s funny that you mentioned that because I put it on my little list — ‘figure out plans.’”) In the company of close friends, Gust Brown is openly affectionate toward the governor. Shanahan told me she has seen the first lady “tickle him till he cries.” In public, Gust Brown’s displays of fondness often come in the form of gentle teasing. When I visited her in her Sacramento office, she showed me various Sutter-related items in her office and told me about them: a portrait of the corgi in front of the Capitol, painted by a lobbyist; photographs of the first dog as a puppy; and what appeared to be a pile of dog poo on a paper plate but was, on closer inspection, made of plastic. “I once put that in a room where Jerry was having a meeting and then said to him, ‘Oh, you didn’t watch Sutter!’” she told me, laughing. “And Jerry’s like, ‘How did he’ — and, you know, anyway, he fell for it.”
The two of them had been spending time at the Colusa County ranch. They are musing about moving up there after his term ends and seeing if they can use it as a project in sustainable farming and ranching — “not just retiring there but thinking about how you sort of go back to the land,” she told me.
Brown had recently appeared on Meet the Press, where he had declared that Ted Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas, was so ignorant about climate change as to be “unfit to be running for office.” Following the appearance, op-eds began to appear, encouraging Brown to make a bid for president himself — for the fourth time — as a foil to Hillary Clinton. Gust Brown said her husband isn’t interested. “I don’t think he sees the need, nor do I, to keep Hillary honest or something by having an opponent — so, yeah, he’s not going to do that,” she told me.
In California, another notion had been gaining traction. An influential columnist, Dan Walters, had written about the suggestion — until then, whispered around Sacramento — that if Kamala Harris, the attorney general, were to win her senatorial bid in 2016, Brown could appoint his wife to complete Harris’s term, setting up Gust Brown for a gubernatorial run. When I asked Gust Brown about this, she said she had no plans to go into politics herself. “Jerry and I have been a really close team, and I’ve gotten my fill of being in politics through him,” she said. “Not that I’m sick of it — that’s not what I’m saying. But if and when he decides to be out of it, if I had to guess right now, we’re really excited about this ranch.” She said she might — but probably wouldn’t — go back into business. “But I have no intention of being appointed to be the attorney general or running for governor or something like that. I’ve always felt that if I wanted to do that, I should get out and go do that on my own. I shouldn’t be waiting for my husband to appoint me to something.”
She paused for a moment to clarify her thoughts. “There’s some sense of, Gee, could I do attorney general? Yes. And could he appoint me as a placeholder? But there are lots of people who could be placeholders, and there’s no need for me to do it — and I’m really busy, and I just think there are so many negatives about that for people, and I think understandably so, like, Why would he appoint — ” She interrupted herself, as if impatient with her own navel-gazing. “It’s just not in the cards, and it’s not really a desire of mine, to be honest with you. I don’t know my future, but it isn’t going to be something like that.”