California's First Lady comfortable with role, not title

11:12 PM, May 17, 2013   |    comments
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For all of her modesty and unassuming ways, Anne Gust Brown is unapologetic and candid about what she sees as her job: to help her husband sort through whatever comes his way.

"I dig in on whatever issue Jerry needs help on," she says during a conversation inside a private outdoor courtyard at the state Capitol.

And so far, that has been just about everything. Now more than two years into his return to Sacramento, Gov. Jerry Brown relies greatly on the woman who prefers the state government job he gave her, 'special counsel,' to the one she was given by virtue of a marriage license: first lady.

Gust Brown, 55, serves as an unpaid staffer in her husband's administration but an investor in something much larger: his expansive political and policy agenda.

To do that successfully, she admits, means to keep her famously undisciplined but intellectually rigorous spouse on track.

"I do try to bring a little more focus sometimes, if I know there's an issue that needs to be decided quickly, to push him to that," she says. "But I don't -- he doesn't listen to anyone mindlessly, including me."

The fact that the first lady, too, could be described that way may help explain some of the chemistry in a relationship that was 15 years strong before their 2005 wedding.

For starters, Gust Brown is unapologetic about her preference for a generally non-partisan viewpoint.

"I'm really more independent than anything," says the registered Democrat. "I don't necessarily follow any of the party lines."

The Michigan native grew up in a devoutly Republican household. Her father, the late Rockwell "Rocky" Gust, was also a lover of politics -- so much so, the attorney found himself as the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor in 1962.

He lost; his running mate, and friend, George Romney, was elected governor.

The first lady says she never really knew the Romney children, including 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

(And here's where politics is a decidedly small world: Mitt Romney's protégé was Meg Whitman, who Brown defeated in 2010. Whitman, now CEO of Hewlett Packard, was also on the board of directors of the Gap at the same time Gust Brown was one of the company's corporate executives.)

The first lady first registered as a Republican, then as an independent during her undergraduate years at Stanford, where she volunteered for the 1980 campaign of independent presidential candidate John Anderson. She earned her law degree from the University of Michigan, and spent her career in the business world until leaving in 2006 to help run Brown's campaign for attorney general.

The governor makes no secret of his wife's role in his administration.

"She packs a lot of punch in the California government process," he told a Chinese government official during an introduction of the first lady during a formal event in Beijing last month.

Brown's description of his wife came just hours after they arrived at a kickoff dinner for his trade mission, with Gust Brown joking with reporters that they only brought carry-on luggage and that "the first lady carried almost all of it."

Many believe her presence at every meeting and every decision makes her the most powerful first lady in California history. She seems uncomfortable with the description.

"I certainly wouldn't say I'm the most powerful," she says. "I think Jerry and I have a very strong marriage, and a very strong relationship and partnership. We talk all the time, and he does seek my advice."

But, she adds quickly: "I will say he makes up his own mind."

Gust Brown also has been there for all of the ups and downs of her husband's third go round as governor. Most challenging, she says, was the 2011 saga of trying to convince legislative Republicans to vote for placing a tax increase on the statewide ballot.

None would, though the Browns wooed many of them with dinner, wine, and conversation.

"We couldn't move any of them," she says. "But I think it was still a good exercise. We got to know a lot of them, and I think we then forged a better solution in Prop 30."

Gust Brown's behind the scenes role likely explain her relative anonymity when not out and about with her household name husband.

"I sort of enjoy it," she says. "I walk around Sacramento, and unless I have Sutter, in which case he's very famous and people will recognize me, usually people don't."

Sutter, for those living under a rock the past two years, is the Brown's nine year old Welsh corgi, who's become the unofficial ambassador to just about everything the first couple does -- personally or politically.

The dog also is her deflection of a question about an alleged dustup in 2011, when the GOP leader of the state Senate, Bob Dutton, said Mrs. Brown had "yelled" at him during a private budget negotiation with the governor.

"I don't think I yelled at him," she says. "Maybe Sutter barked at him."

MORE: Watch extra clips with Anne Brown below



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