The Browning of California

updated 06/06/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT IS EARLY EVENING, AND THE CROWD at Orso, one of Hollywood's industry hangouts, is just starling on its first bottles of mineral water. Celebrities are hardly a rarity here, but it is the middle-aged woman with the vaguely familiar face who draws more than her share of curious glances. She is neither movie star nor mogul, merely a Democratic candidate for governor of California. Addressing the crowd, Kathleen Brown acknowledges that the question she gets asked most often is why she would want to preside over a state plagued by fires, floods, droughts and earthquakes, not to mention crushing financial problems. "I always reply," she says with a dry laugh, " 'Genetic defect.' "

If biology is destiny, then Brown, 47, should be a shoo-in. Her father, Edmund (Pat) Brown, was governor of the state from 1959 to 1966, defeating a Republican challenger named Richard Nixon in 1962. Brother Jerry held the same office from 1975 to 1982. Now Kathleen, currently California's state treasurer, is the favorite to defeat two rivals in the Democratic primary this June and take on Republican incumbent governor Pete Wilson in November. Yet considering that she is a card-carrying member of a political family dynasty, her rise to prominence has been fairly unorthodox.

She is not getting much direct help from her kin in this race. Her father is now 89 and in failing health. Her mother, Bernice, 85, recently underwent hip surgery. Jerry, 56, meanwhile, is a radio talk show host in Oakland. He appeared at her campaign kickoff, but so far has done no stumping for her, which may be an advantage. Derided as Governor Moonbeam, he is in many ways the political antithesis of his sister. While he comes across as cool, aloof and at times self-righteous, she radiates her father's warmth and down-to-earth pragmatism. Asked about the conspicuous differences between herself and her brother, with whom she maintains a loving if prickly relationship, Kathleen may become uncharacteristically terse. "Do you have a brother?" she asks crisply. "Are you like him? Well, there you have it."

As a child, Kathleen received an invaluable, if not always welcome, apprenticeship in the art of politics. The youngest of four children, she was 13 and the only one still living at home when her father was elected to the first of his two terms as governor. She vividly recalls being dragged from one political appearance to another. "My father was rather shameless about his family," she says. "At the time I thought this was the worst thing he could ever do to me." Still, there were virtues to such an upbringing. "What went on at our dinner table every single night," she says, "was an exhortation to get involved."

In her case, though, the call to politics went unanswered at first. When she was 19 and a sophomore at Stanford University, she stunned her family by eloping with a Stanford junior named George Arthur Rice Ill. After the initial shock, says Kathleen, her parents were "very supportive." The next year, 1966, she dropped out of school, became a mother and followed her new husband to Cambridge, Mass., where he enrolled in Harvard Law School.

By 1970 they had moved back to Los Angeles and had three children (Hillary Armstrong, now 28, a home-maker: Sascha, 24, who lives in Santa Fe; and Zeb, 22, a senior at Bowdoin College in Maine). "I thought the train had left the station and I was not on it," she says. "I thought I would never have a career." But then she completed her history degree at Stanford, and in 1974 she campaigned for Jerry in his first, successful bid for governor. She caught the political bug and the next year was elected to the Los Angeles Board of Education.

In 1978, George suddenly told Kathleen he was leaving her for another woman, whom he eventually married. Devastated, she hardly ate or slept following the separation, losing 20 pounds and nearly all of her native optimism. Even today she is reluctant to discuss the episode, except to recall the lessons she learned. "It was a wake-up call. I became a single parent even though George is an incredibly supportive parent," she says. "I wanted to ensure that I was never without the skills, the credentials that would give me the opportunity to lake care of myself and my family."

She plunged into her school board work with fresh enthusiasm, though she became best-known for her controversial flip-flop on the issue of busing, first opposing any busing at all, then supporting a court-ordered plan. Within months of her divorce, Brown caught the eye of Van Gordon Sauter, then manager of the CBS station in L.A. Through mutual friends, Sauter arranged a date. Over dinner at that first meeting, Sauter informed her that he was going to marry her. Says Brown: "I thought that was a bit eccentric."

Especially given the differences between the two. Though Brown is decidedly liberal, Sauter, 58, is conservative. In her leisure time, Brown is devoted to power walking, biking, hiking and tennis. Sauter cheerfully admits that he is probably "one of the people most uniquely qualified in America to be in the luge competition, since lying on my back comes very naturally." Love blossomed anyway, and in 1980, the year Sauter was named head of CBS Sports, they were married. In 1982 he became president of CBS News. He and Brown spent seven years in New York City, where she earned a law degree from Fordham University and began work as a corporate attorney. It was not until 1987, after Sauter had been fired from CBS and the couple returned to L.A., that Brown got a chance to test her political skills again. Though a heavy underdog, she defeated Republican Tom Hayes in an election for state treasurer. Since then, she has been credited with successfully managing the state's $24 billion investment portfolio.

Brown has been criticized for failing to take forceful stands on issues including immigration, crime and the state's economic recovery. "Even people who really wanted her are saying, 'My God, maybe she isn't that smart, maybe she doesn't know why she's running,' " says Susan Rasky, a political writer who teaches at Berkeley. "She's allowed that seed of doubt to grow."

Nonetheless, despite some slippage in the polls, Brown's popularity remains high. She has amassed a formidable campaign war chest of more than $5 million, and in the minds of many voters she just seems destined for higher office, so much so that some pundits have already tabbed her as a potential national candidate. That sort of talk clearly dismays her. "Oh, please," Brown moans. "Let's take one step at a time."

BILL HEWITT
NANCY MATSUMOTO in Los Angeles

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