Sacramento is about to get not one but two female powerhouses. Meet Anne Gust, wife of Jerry Brown and the new first lady of California, and Michelle Rhee, Mayor Kevin Johnson’s fiancée and Sacramento’s future first lady.
MARRYING THE MAYOR
By the time you read this, Michelle Rhee may be the first lady of Sacramento. Then again, she may not.
On Sept. 4, Rhee was set to marry Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson at Sacramento’s St. John’s Lutheran Church, with a reception for 200 at the home of local developer Angelo Tsakopoulos. Less than two weeks before the big day, they abruptly called off the wedding, saying they wanted a smaller, more private affair.
It was just the latest in a long list of surprising moves from one of the most dynamic political couples ever to hit Sacramento: Rhee, the controversial Washington, D.C., schools chief who recently quit her job after a stormy three-year tenure, and Johnson, the NBA star turned politician. “It’s one of the most fascinating couplings we’ve had in a while,” says Amy Argetsinger, who co-writes The Reliable Source column for The Washington Post. “They’re a power couple with a twist: bicoastal and biracial.”
Young and attractive, Rhee is described as bubbly, charming, energetic and gregarious by those who know her. (Except the teachers unions, which hate her.) She answers her own e-mails, using her ever-present BlackBerry. Johnson’s colleague, city councilmember Steve Cohn, has met her a few times and calls her “very gracious, intelligent and driven.”
Born Christmas Day 1969 to South Korean immigrants, Rhee was raised near Toledo, Ohio. After graduating from Cornell University, she got a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She then taught in an inner-city Baltimore school before founding The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that helps needy school districts recruit and train new teachers.
In 2007, Rhee was named D.C. schools chancellor. Determined to turn around the failing system, she closed dozens of schools and fired hundreds of employees, including the principal at her daughters’ school. (Divorced, she has two kids.) As the national face of education reform, she has appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek. Blunt and outspoken, she frequently criticized the “crappy education” D.C. kids were getting. She tried to break the tenure system in D.C., offering to pay teachers up to $140,000 if they’d give up tenure. Last year, after Rhee appeared in the documentary film Waiting for “Superman,” Oprah Winfrey hailed her as a “warrior woman for our time.”
Rhee and Johnson reportedly bonded over educational issues. She served on the board of Johnson’s charter school, St. HOPE, and on his transition team when he became mayor. While dating, they kept a low profile. A Washington reporter outed the couple after spotting them holding hands at Barack Obama’s inaugural festivities in 2008.
In October, Rhee quit her job when her political patron, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost a primary bid for re-election. There was a lot of speculation about her next move. In early December, she launched a high-profile national advocacy group called StudentsFirst, to transform public education in this country. She set an ambitious goal: to get 1 million members and raise $1 billion.
And what about the wedding? At press time, Rhee and Johnson still hadn’t married. Says The Post’s Argetsinger: “My guess is they’re going to do one of those celebrity weddings, where you don’t tell anybody until after the fact.”
Photography by James Brantley
TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE?
When Jerry Brown is sworn in as governor on Jan. 3, he’ll have his most trusted adviser at his side: Anne Gust, his wife of five years.
Who is she? And what kind of first lady is she likely to be?
She’s already being called the most powerful woman in California. An attorney and a former top executive with Gap Inc., Gust ran Brown’s successful campaign for governor and served as his de facto chief of staff when he was state attorney general. She’s expected to play the same role in his new administration.
At 52, she’s 20 years younger than her husband. Warm and accessible, she’s got an excellent sense of humor. People who know Gust describe her in remarkably similar terms: Smart. Savvy. Focused. Pragmatic. Straightforward. “She’s a straight shooter,” says Karen Skelton, a local political and media consultant who met Gust seven years ago while wooing her to attend Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference.
Raised in a suburb of Detroit, Gust went to Stanford University, then got a law degree from University of Michigan. Like her husband, she comes from a political family. (Her father ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of Michigan in 1962.) After law school, Gust worked at a couple of San Francisco law firms before ending up at Gap, where she held a succession of jobs: general counsel, executive vice president, chief administrative officer and chief compliance officer.
Gust and Brown have a marriage made in political heaven. The pair met at a San Francisco fundraiser in 1990. Brown, then head of the California Democratic Party, was being sued by a delegate. Gust offered to represent him—for free. Famously frugal, he accepted. They dated for 15 years before finally tying the knot in 2005—the first marriage for both. That same year, Gust left her job at Gap to work as an unpaid adviser to her husband.
People who know the pair say Gust changed Brown. “He’s much more at ease with himself,” says former Sacramento State professor Barbara O’Connor, a longtime political observer. Skelton agrees: “She softens his edges.” Says Fred Hiestand, a Sacramento attorney who has known Brown for decades, “You can see the love in his eyes. She brought out a softer side of Jerry.”
Friends say Gust keeps Brown grounded. She’s his closest confidante and gives him common-sense politi-cal advice. According to Hiestand, she “reminds him of the social niceties,” making him realize that “people sometimes need a pat on the back or a kind word.” She also runs his personal life, everything from ordering him to buy new suits to choosing their home (a $1.8 million house in the Oakland hills). The couple, who have no kids, like to travel and work out together.
Are we likely to see Gust here in Sacramento? The couple plans to continue living in Oakland, but they’re sure to spend significant time in the capital. Gust’s Sacramento circle reportedly includes Kings honcho Matina Kolokotronis and Tina Thomas, a prominent attorney. But, insists O’Connor, “she has real friends—not convenient ones.”
Brown has said Gust will act as his official hostess, entertaining Republicans and Democrats in a bid for bipartisan amity. But it’s safe to say she won’t be an old-fashioned tea-and-cookies kind of first lady. She’s more likely to be from the Hillary Clinton, two-for-the-price-of-one school of political wives. In other words, expect her to have a seat at the table where decisions are made.
Skelton believes Gust will break the mold when it comes to the role of California’s first lady. “Anne is soft around the edges, but she’s also a very pragmatic, decision-oriented executive,” she says. “She will be first among equals in this administration.”
Photography by Catherine Bigelow