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Dynasty? Kathleen Brown's Dazzling Edge


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DYNASTY? KATHLEEN BROWN'S DAZZLING EDGE

Gushing with affection, Warren Beatty warmed up a crowd of Kathleen Brown fans at a $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser in San Francisco last December by revealing that he once took her on a date--to a similar event when her big brother, Jerry, was running for governor. But before Beatty could finish, Brown brought down the house by playfully scolding him for not mentioning what really happened: He never even got a goodnight kiss. Brown fended off the notorious womanizer by politely asking Beatty to give the babysitter a lift home.

A lot of California Democrats are lining up to kiss Kathleen Brown these days. A party heartthrob since winning election in 1990 to the traditionally humdrum state treasurer job, the 47-year-old Brown has all but been anointed by the party power structure as their 1994 gubernatorial nominee. And why not? Charismatic, telegenic, and the latest in a political dynasty that boasts her father and brother as former governors, Brown has raised a staggering $3 million for the race, even though she won't officially declare until the end of the year. And wounded Republican incumbent Pete Wilson looks to be an easy target.

Still, the race is 18 months off, and California has a way of going against the odds. It's no sure thing that Brown will follow her father, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, or her brother to the statehouse.

"ALL OUT." For starters, few front-runners ever started off so unknown. Sure, California's 15 million voters know the Brown name. But they don't know what Kathleen Brown stands for. The state treasurer job keeps her largely glued to her office or chatting up Wall Streeters. Indeed, according to a recent poll done for the San Francisco Examiner, Brown would narrowly beat Wilson in a one-on-one contest--but only because the beleaguered governor's numbers are so pathetic. And the poll shows Brown running head-to-head with Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi for the Democratic nomination.

Garamendi may lack Brown's early party backing, but he's a bona fide opponent. On his first day on the job in 1991, Garamendi started a war with the unpopular insurance industry by announcing he would freeze auto- and property-insurance rates. The move made the front page of every major paper in the state. Garamendi has stoked other headlines by taking on the savings and loan industry, sponsoring earthquake-insurance legislation, and promoting a statewide health-care reform system that he boasts will become the model for the nation. All three initiatives have yet to yield results, and Garamendi has suffered court setbacks in his auto-insurance rollback plan. But California's insurance czar can make life miserable for Brown. "Garamendi is going to go all out," predicts veteran Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters.

Brown deflects all questions on what she actually would do as governor. Instead, she mouths lines from her rousing stump speeches, which are pumped with optimistic visions of California's high-tech future. Evoking the glory days of the state when her father put legions to work building its highways, aqueducts, and universities, Brown sees California reinventing itself with such new industries as high-speed trains and environmental-cleanup technology. "The California Dream isn't dead," insists Brown. "Anything is possible in this state."

"SISTER MOONBEAM." For now, all she can point to is her solid, but unspectacular, record as treasurer. By all accounts, Brown has done competent work borrowing the funds California needs to operate its vast government. And as a trustee of the state's giant and powerful pension funds, Brown has vocally criticized corporations whose policies she is at odds with. "She's sailed through remarkably well," says Lazard Fr res & Co. senior partner Felix G. Rohatyn.

But what makes Wall Street happy isn't necessarily what gets votes in the San Joaquin Valley. To prop up the state's faltering credit rating and help narrow the $9 billion budget gap, Brown took the unpopular tack of proposing to extend a soon-to-expire state sales tax that Wilson rejected. And she has scaled back by more than half the $6 billion she had planned to raise this year to help build new roads and schools.

Brown's sometimes wacky big brother could be another problem. She will have to fight the flaky "Sister Moonbeam" image Republicans are already trying to pin on her. "Kathleen Brown has no experience," says Republican Party Chairman Tirso del Junco. "She hasn't taken a strong position on anything."

She'll have to do so soon if Brown is going to combat Garamendi's likely candidacy and the far-fetched but possible bid by flamboyant House Speaker Willie L. Brown Jr. She's already tapping the budding California women's network, linking arms with newly elected U.S Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. That's smart--two polls by Mervin Field show that California Democrats prefer women candidates over "equally qualified" men by wide margins.

DOUGH-TO-GO. Brown is also calling on friends in Washington. Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pe a recently showed up in Los Angeles to hand over a $1.4 billion check to the county for mass-transit construction. While in town, Pe a agreed to chat up Brown's Treasurer's Forum, a quasi-political issues group that helps Brown cozy up to potential contributors.

Collecting money for her upcoming campaign is definitely something Brown excels at. In a flurry of $1,000-a-plate fund-raising events last December, Hollywood moguls and Silicon Valley executives wrote checks for $2.1 million. Recently, Brown has stepped up her pre-campaign positioning, meeting with young entertainment-industry types at a trendy Melrose Avenue restaurant and schmoozing at an NAACP awards ceremony. And she travels to New York frequently to get campaign contributions from Wall Street bankers.

Democratic Party insiders think Brown will raise at least $5 million this year, possibly enough to scare Garamendi out of the race. Already, she has the backing of such Hollywood heavyweights as Walt Disney Co. chief Michael D. Eisner and Sherry Lansing, head of feature films for Paramount Pictures. A well-orchestrated, and no doubt pricey, media campaign is only a few bucks away.

But then Brown must still beat incumbent Wilson. A doggedly determined former Marine, Wilson has never lost a re-election battle and is no stranger to kick-and-tell politics. After Feinstein attacked Wilson for lobbying on behalf of the savings and loan industry in 1990, Wilson quickly turned the tables when his troops found records tying Feinstein's husband, Richard C. Blum, to a failed bank. You can be sure he's looking for dirt on Brown. "It's as if he has this little bag of marbles," says Darry Sragow, who worked on Feinstein's hard-fought gubernatorial campaign against Wilson and now is Garamendi's chief political adviser. "He keeps dropping them in front of you, and eventually you slip and fall."

Brown knows she has a long road ahead of her. "Two years is a lifetime," she says. But Brown also insists she isn't worried: "There's no doubt in my mind that I will be plenty tough enough to win." She had better be. Few political dynasties last forever. And although Kathleen's dad, now 88, loves to say that she's the fairest and brightest Brown of all--and the best politician in the family--she has plenty of hurdles to pass before she can turn her political potential into electoral reality.BROWN'S BIO

Education

Stanford University, 1969, B.A. history; Fordham University Law School, 1985

Career

Bond lawyer, O'Melveny & Myers, New York and Los Angeles, 1985-87; Commissioner

of Los Angeles Board of Public Works, 1987-89; Los Angeles Board of Education,

1975-80; California Treasurer, 1991-present

Personal

Married to Van Gordon Sauter, head of Fox News and former CBS News chief; three

grown children from previous marriage

Hobbies

Reading, movies, hiking in Idaho, and road trips with Sauter in their Ford

Bronco.

DATA: BUSINESS WEEK

Eric Schine in Los Angeles, with Leah Nathans Spiro in New York


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