LOS ANGELES -- State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, speaking to the California Lawyers for Human Rights the other night, said of her campaign for governor: "You will hear things about me that will burn your ears. You know what they're saying: I'm the sister of Jerry Brown! I am -- and I'm proud of it."
The liberal audience of the gay men and lesbian organization applauded with an enthusiasm that matched their laughter. They did so again as she also owned up to being the daughter of former Gov. Pat Brown.
She went on to recall the California she knew when Pat and Jerry were running things in Sacramento -- building and maintaining a great university system and opening government to minorities and women amid a public mood of "hope and optimism" about the future.
"I am so mad at the dismantling of the California dream," she said. "We're going to recapture the dream, then get the economy moving again, investing in schools and jobs, and breaking the cycle of violence."
If Kathleen Brown is to become the third member of her family to occupy the governor's chair, however, she will have to sell the argument that the immediate past and present under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson have contributed mightily to the decline of the California dream.
Earlier, that task seemed an easy one, what with the state still bogged down in a serious recession resulting in large part but not exclusively from defense cutbacks. As a result, Wilson was generally regarded here as a near-certain one-term governor.
But then came the Los Angeles fires and earthquake, and Wilson garnered a windfall of television coverage as he raced from one disaster scene to another. And just the other day, a study by UCLA economists who had been bearish on the economy reported that the state at last is on the verge of a recovery.
In the wake of these developments, Brown last week saw a 15 percent lead over Wilson in the Los Angeles Times Poll slip to 10 percent, with a more precipitous drop in her own polls. Even before these poll results, she felt compelled to shake up her campaign staff, bringing in Clint Reilly, a veteran San Francisco political consultant with a reputation for putting a hard edge on his clients' campaigns.
Veteran Democrats express concern that she has not sold herself yet as gubernatorial material in spite of her family history and service as the state treasurer, and has not effectively brought the fight to Wilson.
Brown is now calling the Republican incumbent a "Rip Van Wilson" who slept for his first three years and now has awakened to be "an election-year governor" who has latched onto the statewide fear of rising violent crime as "a smoke screen" for his failure to meet the state's needs.
Borrowing the old Ronald Reagan line, she asked her audience the other night: "Do you feel safer than you were four years ago?" She said she was happy that Wilson wants "this election to be about crime." But her position on the death penalty -- she says she opposes it but as governor would enforce the law providing it -- has been called a dodge by Wilson and her chief Democratic primary foe, state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.
In that June 7 primary, Brown's family name should be a strength, particularly among liberal Democrats who liked the two previous Brown governors. She is running comfortably ahead of Garamendi and long-shot state Sen. Tom Hayden and has a huge advantage in campaign money raised.
Garamendi is counting on the political device of "work days" in each of the state's 58 counties to ignite voter support. Last week, for example, he joined repairmen on the Golden Gate Bridge. "I'm not going to just sit here and dial for dollars," he says. He insists at the same time that he will have enough money to bring his "work days" strategy to the voters in television ads in the closing weeks, and upset Brown.
Democratic critics here say that unless Brown can get voters to focus on Wilson's record rather than his tough rhetoric on crime, the lead she still holds in the polls won't mean anything. She clearly is focusing now on that task, even though she still has a primary to get through.