Jerry Brown's Insurgent Campaign to Take Back America

in a September 3, 1991 letter to supporters, former California Governor Jerry Brown called off a possible Senate bid and announced formation of a presidential exploratory committee.  Thus marked the start of Brown's third presidential campaign.
He formally declared his candidacy on October 21 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, stating that, "Our democratic system has been the object of a hostile takeover."[1]  Arguing that money has corrupted the political system, Brown limited contributions to his campaign to $100 or less.  He appeared well poised to take advantage of the alienation and discontent felt by many Americans, but his candidacy was somewhat discounted by the establishment press.  For example, analysis by the Washington study group Center for Media and Public Affairs of the three major networks' evening newscasts for the month January found that Brown, in his role as a candidate, was the subject of fewer stories any other major Democrat in the race.

The Brown campaign introduced the 800-# to the American political landscape.  The number made its broadcast debut before Brown officially announced, on a banner at a fundraising speech Brown gave in September that was televised on C-SPAN.  Also early in the campaign, a Brown press conference in Washington aired on C-SPAN; a sign behind Brown with the campaign's phone number produced $21,000 in unsolicited pledges.[2]  From then on Brown actively sought to give out the phone number in his appearances.  It brought in a lot when Brown appeared on Larry King Live during the Clarence Thomas hearings.  In the December 15 debate on NBC, Brown clashed with Tom Brokaw but managed to give out the number twice.  This brought in some $150,000 in pledges.  The 800-number was ridiculed at first, but was eventually adopted by others and appeared in many different contexts during the course of the campaign.

Criticized for being shrill, Brown took to wearing white turtlenecks to convey a looser image.  He also appeared frequently with a red ribbon on his lapel to show sympathy with AIDS victims.  In Michigan and New York he wore union jackets as part of his appeal for union votes. 

Brown introduced one of the bolder ideas of the campaign, the flat tax proposal.  He called for a 13% income tax rate regardless of income and a 13% value-added tax on goods and services.  With the tax code seen as riddled with loopholes, the idea had obvious appeal, but critics said it would produce a less progressive tax system.
Brown finished fifth in the February 18 New Hampshire Democratic primary with 8.15% of the vote.  His win a few days later in the February 23 Maine caucuses went largely unreported.  The Brown campaign received a major boost when he won the March 3 Colorado primary.  However, he won none of the eleven March 10 Super Tuesday contests. 

After Paul Tsongas withdrew on March 20, the race became a contest between Bill Clinton and Brown.  Brown's campaign peaked with his upset win in the March 24 Connecticut primary.  He won the Alaska caucuses at the beginning of April, but no other contests, despite making strong pushes in states such as New York and Pennsylvania.  In New York, he finished third behind Clinton and Tsongas, who was no longer an active candidate.  A lot of media attention in that race focused on controversy in the New York Jewish community over Brown's February statement on CNN that he would like Rev. Jesse Jackson as his running mate. 

After the April 28 Pennsylvania primary, the campaign put more of a focus on saving up its money for the upcoming Democratic National Convention.  In his home state of California, Brown finished second in the June 2 primary, obtaining 40.2% to Clinton's 47.5%.  All told Brown won six contests: the Colorado and Connecticut primaries and caucuses in Maine, Nevada, Vermont and Alaska.  Of 20.2 million votes tallied in Democratic primary contests, Brown obtained a bit under 4.1 million votes, trailing Bill Clinton at 10.5 million votes.

The Brown campaign won close to 600 delegates—the roll call tally was 596—to the Convention in New York City, or just under 14-percent of the total.  Brown forces were angered by the undemocratic workings of the rules, credentials and platform committees and were unable to gain any roll call votes.  At one point convention chair Ann Richards phoned Jodie Evans, Brown's campaign manager, to complain that Brown was "cluttering up our schedule."[3]  The campaign had a robust presence, distributing thousands of copies of a 34-page "Platform in Progress."  The size and enthusiasm of the Brown delegation was evident on the third night, when he delivered his message of "speaking truth to power" in a 20-minute speech to the Convention.

Brown's campaign was very much a grassroots effort, largely forswearing advertising, making extensive use of cable and doing satellite feeds, "tons" of radio talk shows and even a few online forums.[4]  Two hallmarks of the Brown campaign were the $100-contribution limit and the 800-#.

1. Two articles provide more details on the genesis of the announcement speech:
David Von Drehle.  "Brown Follows an Old Script."  Washington Post, March 30, 1992, page A1.  
Robert Reinhold.  "Veteran Strategist and Outsiders' Champion Shows Up in Brown Campaign."  New York Times, November 27, 1991, page A13. 
Drehle writes that many of the ideas expressed in Brown's speech appeared in a February 1988 book proposal written by Pat Caddell in which a fictional Senator Smith wins the 1988 Iowa caucuses by running as an outsider.  Reinhold finds that parts of Brown's speech closely followed passages of a 145-page treatise "From the Concord Bridge: A Declaration" by Richard N. Goodwin, a former presidential speech writer.

2. Marc Cooper.  "Jerry, Jerry Quite Contrary."  Los Angeles Reader, January 10, 1992, page 10 (originally appeared in Village Voice).

3. Jodie Evans was interviewed for this section.

4. Two online forum transcripts.

Other Articles:
Dan Balz.  "Ex-Gov. Brown Forms Panel to Explore Presidential Race."  Washington Post, September 4, 1991.

Lou Cannon.  "Brown Relishes Outsider's Role."  Washington Post, February 6, 1992, page 1+.

--.  "Brown sees Jackson as running mate."  United Press International, Feb. 24, 1992.

Sidney Blumenthal.  "Brownian Motion."  New Republic, March 2, 1992, pages 18+.

Jerry Brown Interview with the Editors.  "Jerry Brown's Grassroots Call to Arms."  Rolling Stone, March 5, 1992.

Patt Morrison.  "Brown an Enigmatic Insurgent."  Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1992, page 1+.

More Resources:
C-SPAN: Jerry Brown Jr, Sept. 1991-July 1992 chronological  |  C-SPAN: all Jerry Brown Jr.

Marina Zenovich.  "Jerry Brown: The Disrupter."  PBS, aired Sept. 15, 2023.