Linda Ronstadt's greatest hits played on a stereo in the upstairs Thayer apartment. A powder-blue Plymouth Satellite was parked on the street below. Capitol denizens past and present filed in to the N Street building, having paid $2,500 to $10,000 to eat sushi and other Asian food, drink wine and get reacquainted with the featured attraction.
Where, exactly, was that attraction?
Jerry Brown, rarely one to show up on time, appeared 31 minutes past the 5 p.m. start of the fundraiser thrown for him at the apartment he rented for $275 a month, back when he tooled around in the 1974 Plymouth and dated one of the hottest acts of the time.
"This is about the future, not the past," the once and perhaps future governor said.
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For better or worse, Brown is the lone Democrat in the race for governor. Other Democrats pulled out, knowing they could not beat a politician who has held office for four decades and is the son of a governor who held office decades earlier.
Billionaire Republican Meg Whitman, unknown to most voters a few months ago, has been using her wealth to carry out the threat made by one of her aides to run her GOP rival through a "wood chipper." With a $27 million ad blitz, Whitman has opened a 50-point lead over Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.
Voter attitudes could change by June. But as it stands, the race will come down to Brown and Whitman. Some pundits lament the choice. Some seem bored by it. But there is one attraction about this prospective contest -- it offers voters a clear choice.
Insider vs. outsider. Lifelong politician against an ex-chief executive who until recently didn't much care about voting. One has vetoed bills and had lawmakers override a veto. The other last week naively talked about how she would task "legislative teams" to implement her vision, as if the Legislature is something other than a co-equal branch of government.
The differences were on display in recent days. Campaign finance reports showed Whitman is doing her part to end the recession, spending $47 million so far, with plans to spend three times that or more between now and November.
Brown has spent $144,000, and has enough money in the bank for maybe three weeks' worth of television commercials. Brown travels on Southwest Airlines, paying reduced fares accorded to a man of his age, 71. Whitman flies aboard charter jets.
Brown's campaign manager, Steve Glazer, volunteered for five months and now receives $15,000 a month. Whitman pays her campaign manager, Jillian Hasner, $30,000 a month. She pays a consultant $100,000 a month, a second $90,000 a month, and a third $36,000 a month.
Money aside, the two have very different styles, as was apparent in separate appearances last week before police chiefs and sheriffs.
Whitman showed up on time and delivered a speech that shareholders and Toastmasters would appreciate. She employed topic sentences, made concise points and offered conclusions, all in 11 minutes, 30 seconds. No applause.
Brown wandered in late, without script, bounced from topic to topic, occasionally lost his thread, and got fiery when talking about Wall Street greed and politicians who make scapegoats out of poor people.
Despite that rambling spiel, the crowd applauded when he concluded, 20 minutes later.
Whitman had urged the cops to pick up a copy of her glossy policy paper. The campaign counts it at 48 pages. Take away the pictures of Whitman, charts and fluff and the brochure is, charitably, 20 pages.
Brown is a walking policy brief. He reminded the chiefs that as governor, he signed legislation that dramatically altered the old indeterminate prison-sentencing system in which felons could spend little time in prison, or a lifetime, depending on parole boards' subjective assessments of whether they were dangerous.
Attorney General Brown lamented the unintended consequences of the determinate-sentencing system he helped create, in which inmates are released at the end of set terms, no matter the threat they pose. There must be changes, he said.
Whitman sees no need for a "sentencing commission" to review prison terms currently in place, and made a point of saying she supports the death penalty. Brown didn't raise the topic but is a lifelong capital punishment opponent.
Former Oakland Mayor Brown told the law enforcement officials about overseeing a police department in a city where there are "real cops" and "real criminals," and how there have been nine murders in a five-block radius around his Oakland loft.
Whitman did not talk about her digs, which are in Atherton, the leafy peninsula town where many Silicon Valley multimillionaires have their fenced mansions. Whitman cites her business experience, telling police her time as chief executive officer at eBay taught her much about law enforcement and cybercrime.
Long Island native Whitman offers a long list of states she seems to think are managing better than California -- Utah, Texas, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, where she has a second home.
Brown acknowledges California has problems but offers a view that is rather optimistic, albeit awkwardly phrased: "From the finding of gold, to agriculture, to movie industry, to oil, the Silicon Valley, to computer games, medical breakthroughs, this is an incredible state, to green jobs."
In an age when voters complain that all politicians are the same, the pending Whitman-Brown race exposes the folly of that wisdom. If Whitman prevails over Poizner in the primary, voters will be presented with sharp contrasts and very divergent visions on how California can right itself.
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THE SACRAMENTO BEE