The role of first lady is one of the most unusual in American politics and government. No one is elected to the job, or even appointed. But first ladies (and these days, first spouses) are expected to provide everything from social support to political advice for their mates, who are in executive positions running cities, states or the entire country. Anne Gust Brown had a very successful career as a business executive and lawyer before she married Jerry Brown in 2005 and soon found herself as the first lady of California. With Brown’s fourth term as governor coming to an end, Gust Brown sat down for a conversation with Alta Publisher and Editor Will Hearst to reflect on her role as California’s first lady and to talk about the plans she and Brown have for the future.
WILL HEARST: What’s been the experience of being the first lady of California? You have insight into everything that goes on. You’re not an elected official, but by all accounts, you’re a thinker and an adviser and a person who cares about certain issues. You guys have operated like a team.
ANNE GUST BROWN: We have. In some ways, it may be different than other first ladies. I don’t actually think of myself so much as first lady, whatever that means, because it’s always been a title I find difficult. Somehow, I don’t carry that title so well, or I don’t gravitate toward it. When we got married, I helped him run his attorney general campaign, and from then on we’ve been joined at the hip, always working on things together. He’s wanted me to be very involved in whatever issues he’s dealing with. Through most of this governorship, I was literally at the office all the time, helping on all of the topics, wherever I could be helpful. But I would say in the last year or so, I’ve backed away from the office a bit.
HEARST: I have to ask you the inevitable question. How did you and Jerry meet?
GUST BROWN: We were both living in San Francisco. It turned out we lived about two blocks from each other in Pacific Heights. We met because I was trying to set him up with a girlfriend of mine who had always wanted to meet him. They met, but that didn’t take. It didn’t jell. It’s funny, because at the same time, somebody was trying to set me up with a guy, and that’s who she ended up marrying, and I ended up with Jerry. We had the two right guys, but we had the wrong pairing.
HEARST: You lived in Oakland for a while. too. You don’t talk about that very much, but weren’t you the first lady of Oakland?
GUST BROWN: When we got married in 2005 — and he was mayor at the time — I moved in with him at the place he had at Jack London Square. Then we moved and lived together at another apartment in downtown Oakland in the old Sears building. I used to joke, but it was true, that we actually lived in the old hardware department of the Sears store. That was our little one-room apartment. After we were married and living there a while, I said, “I really think we could get a house.” I really had to look around. Jerry was not into any house I could find. But then I found one up in the hills he really liked that was a Japanese style. We bought that. It was very Zen. A beautiful view. We had that for about seven years or so.
HEARST: So he really is not a very materialistic person?
GUST BROWN: No. God, no.
HEARST: It doesn’t really ring his bell to have lots of stuff?
GUST BROWN: To the contrary. He gets mad at me if I buy him a new sweater. He’s like, “Ah, oh, I already have a sweater.” The same with suits. It’s like, “I have a suit.” I’m like, “I know, honey, but you wear the same one literally every day.” He hates things. He’s not into possessions at all. He really just does not like to get things, either. He can live on almost nothing. He’s had the same pair of running shoes for 25 years — and I’m not kidding. I try to get him something new and it’s, “No.” He’s very not materialistic.
HEARST: Well, Steve Jobs was like that and it didn’t seem to impede his accomplishments.
GUST BROWN: Correct. I think this comes from the seminary, where they had a couple of cassocks, I guess, and they had their bed, and they had one pair of shoes. I think that was it. I think that was very comforting.
HEARST: Your background was in business — you were a top executive of the Gap, and before that you were a lawyer. So you’ve had several careers. Do you bring business insight into the governor’s thinking, into the state’s thinking?
GUST BROWN: Yes. I think I would also say that, with Jerry, I helped a lot, especially in the beginning of the governor’s stint and also at the attorney general’s, because I was a manager of people. So I know how to manage and recruit talent. I do take some personal credit for helping him to develop the right team in the governor’s office — to think of it as a team and getting the right people in. Jerry’s approach is a little more haphazard.
HEARST: Somebody said of you, “She’ll hear people out and not interrupt them, and then make a sensible, rational decision.” Is that you?
GUST BROWN: I would say that’s probably true, yeah. I’m never one to think, “I’ve got to be right, or it’s about this, or it’s about me.” Many times in the governor’s office, I’ve gone in and argued on behalf of one position, and then someone else on Jerry’s team will argue differently. Jerry will hear both of us, and Jerry will go with the other person. I’m like, “Ah, I don’t necessarily agree, because this is why I think this.” But I’m not the governor. He is. I’m perfectly fine, because I don’t feel, “Oh, gosh. I lost that argument.” I never take it that way. To me, we should lay out all of the arguments for Jerry, so I don’t think I have personal ego in that.
HEARST: I read something about you talking about the difference between campaigning and governing: Campaigning is like a business plan that lasts one day, and then the company folds the next day. Whereas governing is meant to have a much longer-term horizon. Has that turned out to be the way you see it still?
GUST BROWN: Oh, yeah. Definitely. You see it now so much — what people campaign on and the promises they make and the enthusiasm they’re trying to generate. Governing is so different. I think it’s too bad how much campaigning has become about slogans and red meat for the base, that sort of stuff, because that’s not how you can govern. But that has now become more entrenched in governing, as we see in Washington, where it’s like they keep campaigning. They don’t compromise anymore. They don’t actually solve things. It used to be we knew, “OK, that was a campaign, and now we’re all going to get together.” But it seems now like the campaign never ends.
HEARST: Somehow, this administration has not thrown red meat to either its base or to its opponents. You’ve managed to steer clear of this amplification of division.
GUST BROWN: We have. I think that’s in large part due to Jerry as a person. People know him and have trusted him, and he doesn’t govern that way. He’s not someone who throws red meat. He really tries to maintain relationships with Republicans and Democrats. He really tries to solve the problem. He spent a lot of time in his first year or two in office courting and talking to and engaging the Republicans. A lot of people said, “That’s a waste of time.” And on the particular issue where we were trying to get their votes, it was a waste of time, in a sense. They did not come along. But in the long run, it has worked out, because we have gotten Republicans to vote on some things. Even if they can’t vote for you, if they aren’t vociferous against you, if they’re just sort of like, “OK, I can’t vote with you, but you know, I’m going to just let that be,” that’s also important. I think Jerry’s been able to do that.
HEARST: What about some of the problems that are becoming California problems, like inequality? You’ve got the wealth in Silicon Valley, but you’ve got a lot of people in the state of California who are poor or are here with questions about their legality. You’ve got a wide range. What’s the Brown family view? What can be done about inequality?
GUST BROWN: I think Jerry’s tried to do a number of things. If you can integrate the state more so that people can live in one place, if you can shrink those distances by high-speed rail, that does make a difference. Because there is poverty and lack of jobs in the Central Valley. We need to integrate that better. The earned income tax credit that Jerry put forth, I think was really something that’s important. I think it’s a benefit. I think his school funding formulas, where he puts a lot more money into the poorer communities, I think he has focused on that as much as possible. I don’t think you can do away with it. A lot of the inequality in California has to do with our housing prices. It’s very difficult. I don’t know the answer to it. What do you do? Like Jerry said, there’s pros and cons to high housing costs. If you could wave a wand and reduce everyone’s house price by 50 percent, most people who own homes wouldn’t be happy with that, right? It’s a very hard issue. It’s very hard to just wave a wand.
HEARST: Do you think either of you will be active in politics after Jerry leaves office?
GUST BROWN: No, I don’t. People have asked that of me a lot. “Why don’t you run for this?” or “How about you?” No. I don’t see me being active at all. I don’t see Jerry being active in elective politics, but he’s so interested in climate change, and a number of other issues — nuclear disarmament and other things that he’s cared a lot about — I can see him continuing to be active in those areas, but I wouldn’t say elective politics. Maybe more through other ways.
HEARST: Will he write a book?
GUST BROWN: Jerry could do a book. I don’t know that he will. He certainly hasn’t decided to, but he certainly has a lot to write about.
HEARST: Is your plan still to move to your ranch in Colusa?
GUST BROWN: Yes. We’re in the final processes of finishing the house. We’re probably two months away from it being completed. And today, they put in a big cistern. I just texted the picture to Jerry. We collect water off the roof. It’s a 15,000-gallon cistern. Our contractor thinks that if we even get just four inches of rain a year, we can meet all of our needs for water off of that.
HEARST: It sounds like your house is going to be very green.
GUST BROWN: Very green. It’s completely off the grid. It’s all solar-powered, 100 percent. We may get some wind power in there as well, and the water we’re collecting off the roof. I think it is very green.
HEARST: The ranch is such a beautiful place, I can imagine you both having a nice time up there and having family and friends and leaving it when you want to and coming back to something like a home. It paints the picture of Jerry as Cincinnatus. He’s the retired general becoming the farmer until the next crisis.
GUST BROWN: Exactly. I think there is something to that. We both really like it out there at the ranch, and there’s something very real about it. We’re out in the middle of nowhere, but we’re on a road and people all stop. All the people coming by say, “Hi.” Even the UPS man, Lamar, I know him. “Hi, Lamar.” And he stops and he chats and he tells you stuff going on in the neighborhood. Neighbors come by and they all stop. They’re connected. We didn’t know our neighbors when we lived in Oakland. There, we know everyone.
And when they stop, you’re talking about real things. It’s like, “Gee, we don’t have enough water for the plants.” We’re asking questions like, “We’ve got a mouse and this cat. How do you get the mice out?” You realize you’re doing a lot more real things in some ways. We love it. We grew a bunch of olive trees out there. We got them planted last year. We’ve got some olive oil.
This interview has been edited and condensed.