When state Attorney General Jerry Brown last week described the job of California governor as “a career terminator,” he knew of what he spoke.
Brown entered the office of governor in 1975 as a rock star in American politics—and exited eight years later forever tagged with the ignominious title of “Governor Moonbeam.” Once considered a viable contender for the White House (he ran unsuccessfully for president in 1976, 1980 and 1992), his gubernatorial experience left him contentious and anything but viable.
So, why, after acknowledging that the governor's chair is so often a trap door to oblivion for ambitious politicians, does the perennially ambitious Brown want another chance to sit in it? His comments at a Lincoln Club of San Diego County luncheon last week were, after all, part of an image-rehabilitation tour in advance of an expected 2010 gubernatorial run.
Indeed, why anyone would want the job is a mystery. Of the 38 men to take the governor's oath since California became a state, 28 would never be elected to public office again. Twenty-nine would serve only one term. Thirteen would be denied reelection nominations by their own parties.
Evidence of the so-called Governor's Curse (OK, “so-called” by CityBeat, but it's apt) exists in spades. Gov. James Rolph (1931-34) enjoyed the nickname “Sunny Jim” until he publicly praised a 1933 lynching and earned himself the new moniker of “Governor Lynch.” Not that having a nickname worse than “Moonbeam” mattered: Rolph died of a heart attack three years into his term.
Earl Warren (1943-53) resigned during his third term when President Eisenhower tapped him for chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, but only after Warren's 1952 presidential run went nowhere.
Goodwin Knight (1953-59) served the remainder of Warren's term, was elected outright in 1954 and then ran for the U.S. Senate in 1958 when it became clear the Republican Party wasn't going to re-nominate him for governor. Knight lost his Senate bid to Democrat Clair Engle, essentially making him the only California governor to be defeated by two separate political parties in two separate elections on the same day.
San Diego's own Pete Wilson (1991-99) served until being termed out. It's possible he dodged the Governor's Curse by getting it out of the way early: His 1996 presidential run was an utter disaster.
Gray Davis (1999-2003) was a rising star in politics before a gubernatorial recall banished him into social obscurity. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Davis' replacement, was so popular before becoming governor that talk abounded of rewriting the Constitution to allow him a presidential run. No one talks that way anymore.
So, again, we have to ask: Why would anyone want this job? Bob Mulholland, a longtime spokesperson for the California Democratic Party, says he can answer that question.
“Because they can,” he says. “Every spring, hundreds try to climb to the top of Mount Everest. And what do they do when they get to the top? Immediately turn around and start going down. Just to be able to say, ‘I did it.'”
The big exception, of course, is Ronald Reagan (1967-75), who went on to become America's 40th president. His experience may be another reason why so many otherwise intelligent politicians think running for governor of California is a smart move: Everyone remembers Reagan. Nobody remembers James Rolph.