SACRAMENTO — If past is prologue, Jerry Brown would be a far different governor than he was in his first go-round.
Beyond the question of what age and experience have done for his growth as a politician, Brown — a master at the art of reinvention — remarkably could be seen as an unknown quantity as he prepares to enter California's gubernatorial race. As one of the most enigmatic political figures in modern American history, political observers said, he will by definition be a changed man.
"The question is what is his persona at this point?" said Bill Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institute and former speechwriter for ex-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. "He went from forward-looking governor to flame-throwing populist, and then to tough-as-nails mayor. I challenge you to find a politician who's had more evolutions over the last 40 years."
After fending off the urge to declare his all-but assured candidacy throughout the fall and most of the winter, Brown, 71, is expected to make it official soon. He's got his campaign headquarters up and running in Oakland's Jack London Square, he's putting together his campaign team, and he recently got the reassurance he needed that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Democrat, had no plans to enter the race.
If he recaptures the governorship in November, he'd be twice as old as he was when he first entered office in 1975 at age 36. It would be full circle — possibly an unprecedented political journey in American history, in which a former governor returns to the same office 27 years after he'd left it.
"If you think about all the changes in California and the world, in politics, the economy and technology over the last 35 years, they've been extraordinary," said Ethan Rarick, director of the Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service at UC Berkeley, and author of "California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown." "And most people change between the ages of 35 and 70, so I'd expect a very different Governor Brown than the first time around."
Brown won't have the kind of personal wealth with which to lather his campaign that the two Republican candidates — Meg Whitman, the billionaire ex-eBay CEO, or Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a multimillionaire — will leverage to create their own on-air brands. Whitman, far ahead of Poizner in the polls, has promised to spend $150 million to capture the governor's office.
But Brown, in the political arena for 40 years — on top of the 24 years his father, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, served in politics — won't need that kind of money to create a brand. He has one of the most recognizable names in California politics.
With travels to Japan to study Zen for six months at a Buddhist monastery, India to tend to the poor with Mother Teresa, and Oakland to revive a city — and even once joining the Black Hole crew at a Raiders game — Brown can claim to have one of the most fascinating biographies in the annals of American politics.
Knowing the man behind the name as he is now, however, is a complicated endeavor. A man of constant reanimation, Brown is not easily pinned down by ideology, or even by political preference, having once left and then returned to the Democratic Party. He scorns consistency as if it stifles creativity. He switches gears and rides with the tide to the point of befuddlement.
It's that inconsistency, along with an archive of inscrutable comments and policy bungles — remember Medfly, Proposition 13 and Rose Bird? — that opponents will feast on, said Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College.
"Jerry Brown is a target-rich environment," Pitney said. "The sheer volume of his record has the potential to be pretty damaging. They will try to label him as 'that '70s guy' and tie him not to specifics like Rose Bird, but to the whole idea that the '70s was a time of stagnation and that his philosophy of limits to growth led to California's decline."
Whitman's campaign has already taken to calling Brown a career politician, to which Brown has responded that he is an outsider. The truth is he is both.
Suffused in politics
Dating back to his childhood, from the day his father became district attorney of San Francisco in 1943, Brown's entire life has been suffused in politics. But a 16-year stint — from 1983 to 1999 — out of public office gave him an outsider's perspective. And even while in office, he's been described as a solitary figure, maverick, political oddball, loner, quixotic, reformer.
After his two terms as governor from 1975-1983 — during which he also ran for president twice and earned the appellation of Governor Moonbeam — his political career appeared over after losing in 1982 to Republican Pete Wilson in the race for the U.S. Senate. He vanished from the political scene, spending the next six years abroad.
He returned to California in 1988, however, to take over as chairman of the Democratic Party, only to fall under heavy criticism after Democrats lost a spate of statewide races in 1990 — including Dianne Feinstein's failed gubernatorial bid against Wilson. And in a series of 90-degree turns, Brown resigned as party chairman in 1991, announced a bid for the U.S. Senate, then pivoted to his third failed run for the presidency.
That's where the new reformist Brown emerged. He railed against the political system, calling for congressional term limits, campaign finance reform and a national flat tax, while taking maximum contributions of $100 and pushing his ahead-of-its-time 1-800 phone number for grass-roots support. He vowed to "take back America from the confederacy of corruption, careerism, and campaign consulting in Washington."
His presidential ambitions finally snuffed out when Bill Clinton won the 1992 Democratic nomination, Brown turned to the local community. He moved to Oakland, bought a warehouse loft, became host of his own radio show, "We The People," on listener-supported KPFA, and eventually ran for mayor of Oakland in 1998. After serving two terms, he set his sights back on the capital, winning the attorney general's race in 2006.
Former Gov. Gray Davis, who served as Brown's chief of staff from 1975-1981, believes Brown is the right man for the times, someone who will tell hard truths and demand lean fiscal solutions.
"He's at a point in his life where he's willing to call a spade a spade and if a special interest is not acting in a way he thinks is in the public interest, he'll say so," Davis said. "By nature, he's not a big spender. Personally, he's not and he doesn't like to spend taxpayers' money unless he's convinced it's a very important cause.
"For a very challenging time, it takes a more sober, thoughtful, circumspect approach to the budget and I think he fits all those descriptions."
And many more.
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.