Brown, Edmund Gerald (”Pat”)
Brown, Edmund Gerald (”Pat”)
(b. 21 April 1905 in San Francisco, California; d. 16 February 1996 in Beverly Hills, California), lawyer, attorney general, and governor of California who led the Democratic party’s revival in California in the 1950s and 1960s, and whose accomplishments in two terms as governor included creation of a statewide water-pumping system, reform of the state’s higher education system, and massive freeway construction.
Brown was the eldest of four children born to Ida Schuckman and Edmund Joseph Brown, a small business owner and sometime bookmaker. Raised in the Catholic Church of his father, he attended public schools in San Francisco, graduating from Lowell High School, where he held several elective offices, played basketball, and was head of the debating society. His nickname, “Pat,” derived from a competition-winning speech on war bonds that he delivered as a seventh-grader, which he concluded with Patrick Henry’s ringing phrase “Give me liberty or give me death.” As a schoolboy, he worked in his father’s cigar store, laundry, and penny arcades.
Following graduation from high school, Brown took night courses at the San Francisco College of Law, while working days for Milton Schmitt, an attorney and former member of the state assembly. In 1927 Brown received his LL.B. degree and passed the California bar. When Schmitt died the following year, Brown inherited his practice and, inviting his brother Harold and two other partners to join him, established a firm that became one of the most prosperous in San Francisco. In 1928 he first tried for public office, running unsuccessfully as the Republican candidate for a seat in the state assembly. Two years later he eloped to Reno, Nevada, with his high school sweetheart, Bernice Layne, the daughter of a San Francisco police captain. Married on 30 October 1930, they had three daughters and one son, Edmund G. (”Jerry”) Brown, who eventually also served as governor of California.
In 1934 Brown joined the Democratic party and was promptly elected to the San Francisco Democratic party’s central committee. Inspired by the successes of Earl Warren, the young, crime-busting district attorney in neighboring Oakland, Brown set his sights on becoming his city’s district attorney. After losing badly to five-time incumbent Matthew Brady in 1939, he came back to defeat Brady in 1943. As district attorney, Brown crafted a strong “law and order” record by cracking down on gambling, prostitution, and juvenile delinquency, while at the same time establishing solid liberal credentials that would serve him well later. A staunch defender of civil liberties and civil rights, he opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1942 decision to intern Japanese Americans during World War II and championed the cause of improved housing for the many African Americans who had moved west during the war to work in the shipyards. He also appointed the city’s first black and Asian assistant district attorneys. Although unsuccessful in his candidacy for the position of state attorney general in 1946, he was easily reelected to a second four-year term as district attorney in 1947.
Brown’s string of statewide political victories began in 1950, when he was the lone Democrat to survive a Republican sweep led by Governor Earl Warren, winning the attorney general’s post by nearly a quarter-million votes over Republican Ed Shattuck. The popular Warren, who had won the gubernatorial nomination of both parties in the state’s open primaries, played a pivotal role in Brown’s electoral success by permitting him to link their names in the latter’s political advertisements. Brown was reelected attorney general in 1954, the last candidate to win the nomination of both parties by cross-filing in California’s open primaries before that possibility was ended by a change in state law. As attorney general he continued to attack organized crime, investigated scandals in the State Liquor Commission, exposed mistreatment of patients in the state’s mental hospitals, and conducted raids on illegal gambling houses and bordellos. His staff also fought hard to protect the state’s share of royalties from offshore oil drilling. As the only Democrat holding statewide office, Brown was the titular leader of the California Democratic Council (CDC), a progressive organization that was created in the mid-1950s to advance the liberal agenda within the party. He was also the favorite-son candidate of the California delegation at the 1952 and 1956 Democratic conventions. His successes and visibility as attorney general made him the logical choice of his party for the 1958 gubernatorial nomination. In the general election, campaigning on a platform he labeled “responsible liberalism,” Brown became only the second Democrat in the twentieth century to win the California governorship, trouncing Senator William F. Knowland by more than a million votes. His victory was aided considerably by organized labor, due to Knowland’s endorsement of the antiunion “right to work” ballot initiative known as Proposition 18.
Brown’s chief legacies as governor were products of his first two years in office. His record of legislative success in that brief period rivaled that of the progressive governor Hiram Johnson in the early twentieth century. His victories included gaining approval of a master plan for higher education in California that expanded and integrated the state’s community colleges, state college, and the University of California, substantially increased funding for public schools, and the end of cross-filing by candidates in the state’s party primaries. Expansion of state services was paid for by a set of significant tax increases. Perhaps most important, Brown’s tireless campaigning on behalf of a bond referendum to fund a $1.75 billion plan for diversion of water from the northern part of the state to the south was approved by California voters in November 1960, even while the Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, carried the state. The resulting California Water Plan symbolized Brown’s commitment to unify his large and diverse state. On the negative side, his vacillation before finally allowing the execution of longtime death-row inmate Caryl Chessman in May 1959 earned him the derisive nickname “Tower of Jello.” On the whole, however, “responsible liberalism” was popular with the voters, and in 1962 Brown was reelected by nearly 300,000 votes, this time defeating former vice president Nixon after a campaign that drew national attention.
Brown’s second term as governor was less productive than his first. A 1963 fair housing act was virtually the last liberal measure to be approved by the legislature during his tenure, and that law was repealed by the state’s voters via Proposition 14 in 1964 (though the Supreme Court later overturned the referendum). Brown’s stock fell sharply as the mood of California’s voters shifted to the right in the face of the “free speech” protests at the University of California, Berkeley, and growing racial tensions in the cities, capped by the deadly rioting in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in August 1965. The governor’s conduct in the face of these unhappy events did not help his cause. Accepting inaccurate reports that the Berkeley student protesters had turned violent, Brown in December 1964 sent in state police who turned aggressively on the students. When the Watts riots broke out, his ability to manage the state was further questioned. As Brown’s popularity and effectiveness declined, he became uncharacteristically testy. In 1966, running for reelection against the rising conservative Republican star Ronald Reagan, he descended to bitter criticisms during the campaign and lost his “good guy” image. He also lost the election by nearly a million votes.
Following his defeat, Brown returned to the practice of law, joining the prestigious Los Angeles law firm of Ball, Hunt, Hart, Brown, and Baerwitz. Having left the governor’s mansion with meager savings, he became a millionaire through his practice and shrewd investments in Indonesian oil. Once returned to private life, he helped to raise money to advance his son Jerry’s successful election campaigns for governor of California in 1974 and 1978. Later in his life, another of his children, Kathleen, came close to following the example of her father and brother; she lost the 1994 gubernatorial election to the incumbent Republican Pete Wilson. Brown remained vigorous until the last few years of his life—a popular stump speaker and the recognized “father figure” of the California Democratic party. He died at his home in Beverly Hills of a heart attack and was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in San Francisco.
Though somewhat owlish behind his spectacles, Brown was a personable, funny, and jaunty fellow—in many ways the stereotype of the old-time Irish “pol.” Sometimes seemingly bumbling, he was honest and direct. Much of his political success derived from his accessible, “nice guy” persona. He loved swimming, golf, and spending time with his family. Almost alone among leading California politicians of his generation, he never sought national office, and no one ever questioned his commitment to his beloved home state. An opponent of the death penalty who permitted more than forty executions during his tenure as governor, Brown was a pragmatist who accepted the limits imposed by public opinion and statutory authority. He reflected the politics of the possible in the 1950s and 1960s, bobbing and weaving through the ideological waves to bring the Democratic party to respectability in California, and he led his state to the forefront of national attention.
Brown’s voluminous personal and political papers are housed in the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley. In addition, a number of oral history transcripts in the Regional Oral History Office of the Bancroft Library relate to Brown’s gubernatorial years. The best treatment of his life and political contributions is Roger O. Rapoport, California Dreaming: The Political Odyssey of Pat and ferry Brown (1982). Detailed discussions of his gubernatorial achievements also appear in Ansel Adams et al., California: The Dynamic State (1966); Royce D. Delmatier et al., The Rumble of California Politics, 1848–1970 (1970); and Jackson K. Putnam, Modem California Politics, 3d ed. (1990). Useful articles include: Totton Anderson, “The 1958 California Election,” Western Political Quarterly 12 (1959): 276-300; Roger O. Rapoport, “The Political Odyssey of Pat Brown,” California History 64 (winter 1985): 2–9; Kurt Schuparra, “Freedom vs. Tyranny: The 1958 California Election and the Origins of the State’s Conservative Movement,” Pacific Historical Review 63 (Nov. 1994): 537–560; and Gerard J. DeGroat, “Ronald Reagan and Student Unrest in California, 1966–1970,” Pacific Historical Review 65 (Feb. 1996): 107-129. An obituary is in the New York Times (18 Feb. 1996).
Gary W. Reichard