To The Moonbeam And Back

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Linda Ronstadt is missing. She was supposed to be hanging from two nails pounded into the wall of Jerry Brown’s old apartment at 14th and N streets. She was there a few days ago, personified by a $75 portrait placed in homage by the apartment’s current tenant.

Now Linda’s portrait is gone, vaporized like the ghosts of 1975, when a bright boy with boundless imagination and audacious political courage could find himself revered and ridiculed—sometimes in the same minute—for dreaming of satellite telephones and electric lights sparked by windmills.

Jerry Brown was the boy. Linda was his girl. Viewed from afar, let’s say from London, Tokyo or Los Angeles, they were theatrically golden as California’s First Couple, a brainy young governor matched with a buttery voiced, brown-eyed pop singer from Tucson. Home in Sacramento, they were so much more.

What a difference 36 years makes. Jerry is back in the governor’s office, but the free-range imagination and glorious pop singer are gone. Today, the bright boy wanders through the muck of a shattered economy and a political environment reduced to trench warfare. If only he could turn back the clock to 1975, when the Capitol’s golden dome glittered with possibility.
In 1975, Jerry and Linda were Sacramento’s First Celebrity Couple, one that brought a modern sophistication and glamour to a town where governors and just plain folk occupied dull and separate worlds. Ronald and Nancy Reagan preceded Jerry and Linda. And though the Reagans themselves had been movie stars, people noticed the difference.

For one thing, Ron and Nancy had a marriage license. Every evening, the Reagan limousine would roll east from the Capitol a minute or two after 5 o’clock, bound for the governor’s rented home on 45th Street. When Gov. Reagan socialized, it was over cocktails in the basement of his house, surrounded by model trains and handpicked state senators and assemblymen, ecumenically divided between Democrats and Republicans. Conversations focused on old Hollywood gossip and pragmatic political solutions.

Not so with Jerry and Linda. They had zero interest in 45th Street cocktail parties, model trains, banker’s hours, movie gossip and Capitol deal making. They tolerated politics, but disliked the greasy mechanics, the public hearings and compromise meetings, leaving the horse trades to legislators who actually enjoyed making sausage from gristle and sawdust.
Jerry and Linda were about big ideas. They sat in The Arbor or the 524 restaurants and whispered to each other and picked at plates of pasta or tamales until the kitchens closed. They moved to David’s Brass Rail and drank wine until David Chow muttered in Cantonese, flicked the lights and swore at everyone to get out. That would have been around 3 a.m.

The route from David’s was an easy trip for the governor’s Highway Patrol driver. Make a U-turn on 12th Street, slip under Capitol Park through the garage and into the apartment driveway off 14th. Jerry and Linda would walk through the back entrance, along the breezeway and into the elevator, an ancient Otis model, with a hinged wooden door and metal accordion gate. They would ride up six floors, and, then, well, they would do whatever smart, handsome, famous young couples did at 3 a.m. in the 1970s.

Sacramento had never seen anything like it, which is why you still remember some details. Like the governor’s car, a baby blue Plymouth that weighed less than the bumpers on Reagan’s limo. And the restaurant sightings and public wine sessions. And surely you recall the most famous piece of furniture in the young governor’s apartment: that mattress on the floor.

Today, I’m standing in the bedroom on the sixth floor of the Dean Apartments—that’s the official name, then and now—trying to imagine the mattress, trying to reconcile Gov. Brown of 1975 with the 2011 edition. Rusty Areias, who has rented Jerry’s old apartment for years and remains a close friend of the governor, is standing in the doorway. “We took 11 coats of paint off the wooden beams in the ceiling,” he says. “When Jerry lived here, the place was monastic.”
Outside the window, beyond the palm trees in Capitol Park, Sacramento has changed, California has changed. The question is: Has Jerry changed? Areias has a vague answer: “There is nobody alive who knows more about being governor of California than Jerry Brown,” he says.

The governor’s friends are careful about answering questions. Jerry himself is so careful he would not be interviewed for this story. But scratch deeper—hang around and listen to people who have spent a lifetime sharing big ideas with Brown—and the truth becomes clear: No, Jerry hasn’t changed. The world is a vastly different place from the mid-1970s, but Jerry has endured, not evolved.

Certain concessions to time are obvious. The governor’s hair is gone. He turned 73 in April but never got fat. He finally got married, not to a pop singer but to Anne Gust, a lawyer whom he dated for 15 years after leaving Sacramento. By all accounts Anne and Jerry are devoted to each other, the sort of couple that completes each other’s sentences. They have a dog named Sutter, a Welsh corgi. They jog for fitness. In Sacramento, Jerry and Anne reside in a rented loft five blocks from the old Dean Apartments. The new place is sleek and retro-concrete cool. There are no wooden beams with 11 coats of paint.
The First Couple still goes out, but not like before. Jerry and Anne eat salads at Esquire Grill and Ella. They poke their heads into the Torch Club, a Depression-era bar that has moved twice since 1975 and is more honky-tonk than political hangout today. They don’t visit The Arbor, because it no longer exists. Today, The Arbor is a restaurant called Ink, with motif inspired by tattoos. They don’t go to David’s, which was pulled down to make room for the Hyatt Regency hotel. They can dine at 524, but that would insult the exercise regimen. 524, a Mexican restaurant on 12th Street, proudly serves full-bodied food, a delicious thought at midnight in 1975, but not so alluring to a man in his eighth decade, as Jerry likes to put it.

“We would see him four nights a week at The Arbor,” says Randy Paragary, the Sacramento restaurateur who owned The Arbor. “He would table hop and eat bread from other tables. He would stay until we closed, then go out for a nightcap.”
Arbor alumni still laugh about a classic Jerry story: The governor sent his security detail home early and arranged for a ride to the Dean Apartments with a member of The Arbor wait staff. (Suffice it to say, the security detail would not budge today.) Jerry piled into a Volkswagen bug, which proceeded west on P Street until it ran out of gas near 19th. The governor of the state of California walked to a pay phone at the Zebra Club bar, called his security team and asked them not to pick him up, but to bring a gallon of gas, which they did.

Jerry was the perfect California governor for the mid-1970s. The post-war heavy lifting—the freeway system, state university network and state aqueducts—had been financed, engineered and largely finished by politicians such as Gov. Earl Warren and Jerry’s father, Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown. California was ready for a new type of governor, one who favored ideas over rebar and concrete, who could build the perfect egalitarian society atop the physical structures welded together by the Greatest Generation.

Jerry embraced reforms to cure excesses that were spoiling the environment and wrecking the backs of laborers. He promoted windmills as radical alternative energy sources. Another idea—making government employees more efficient by conducting satellite conference calls—helped solidify Jerry as a punch line. Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko, bowled over by the governor’s intellectual reach, conjured the nickname “Governor Moonbeam.” Brown still wears the tag, though nobody remembers the context—or the fact that time has proven Jerry more right than wrong.

There was another benefit to being a visionary governor in the mid-1970s: Money was easy. California was booming. Taxes poured in. Every year, the governor and Legislature could count on, oh, around $4 billion in reserve. “Let’s face it, that made life a little easier,” says Areias, who served 12 years in the Assembly. The treasure chest began to close in 1978, as Brown’s first term ended. California voters, frustrated by surpluses built on ever-increasing property taxes, approved Proposition 13. Suddenly, property taxes were capped. When Jerry left the governor’s office in 1983, the surplus was gone. California’s era of deficits was under way.

There is no need to recite where California is today. The situation can be explained in three sentences. The Legislature is polarized, with special interest groups and extremists dominating the Democrat and Republican parties. The governor can’t count on pragmatic pros to make sausage. The state is broke, barely able to sustain much less expand the transportation systems, classrooms and aqueducts created 60 years ago by Earl Warren, Pat Brown and other post-war political giants. If Gov. Moonbeam dreamed up a 21st century program to rival his California satellite, he would face more than ridicule—he would trigger a recall effort.

“Today, it’s so much different,” says Dan Morain, senior political editor of The Sacramento Bee. “It’s government by initiative. There are term limits and campaign finance rules that give all power to the caucuses and special interests. The Legislature was so much more independent when he was here the first time. These are things he never had to deal with.”

Of course, Jerry understood he was entering a barren world when he decided to run for governor in 2010. But friends say he underestimated the deterioration of the legislative process. “He’s still interested in big ideas like saving the Delta, prison reform, high speed rail, reforming environmental laws,” says one friend. “He still loves details and can’t stay focused on one topic for 20 minutes, but can talk for three hours on a subject he enjoys.”

Three-hour discussions could become funded programs in the 1970s. Not today. Brown spent the first six months of his new administration sweating out a budget. Final agreement was based on assumptions that mocked his campaign promise to “face the brutal facts.” Says another longtime adviser: “The budget sucked the life out of him. This is a creative guy who in the old days had political pros like Willie Brown and Ken Maddy running the Legislature, guys who were deal makers. Jerry’s never been a deal maker, but he could convene them. Today, he’s trying to make deals and is incredibly frustrated by Sacramento.”
Frustrated, yes. Resigned to fail, no. Marty Morgenstern, the governor’s secretary of labor and workforce development, says Brown still devotes countless hours to transformative goals, such as creating jobs. “He learns from every experience,” Morgenstern says. “But there is a prejudice today in the Capitol against reaching agreements.”

The budget experience made the 2010 campaign seem nostalgic for Jerry Brown. He held three fundraiser events at the Dean Apartments, riding the Otis elevator to the sixth floor, eating hors d’oeuvres warmed in the pink-tiled kitchen, raising more than $300,000 for a third election to the second most important chief executive job in America. Yet victory last November brought impossible challenges for a man who lives by his creative muscles and has no chance to exercise them.

Rusty Areias is talking about the beam ceiling and 11 coats of paint when his wife, Julie, notices the Linda Ronstadt painting has gone missing. “Who could have taken it?” she asks. The picture, purchased by Julie at an antiques shop, celebrates Linda at her peak. In the painting, the singer stares straight ahead and wears a slinky red dress with a spaghetti strap tumbling off her shoulder.

Rusty tries to remember who has recently been in the apartment. I join the search. In the bathroom, a 5-foot mirror leans against a wall. I look behind the mirror. Something is back there: the hidden canvas. Somebody buried Linda behind the mirror.
Julie is delighted. She restores Linda to her place on the wall. Theories fly about perpetrator and motive. Yes, the governor has been around the apartment. Was he upset by the painting? Could he have hidden it? The consensus is no. But let’s be honest: Of course Jerry could have stashed the painting. A big, sweet dreamer jolted awake by miserable reality is capable of much worse.