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Jerry Brown: The Once and Future Governor of California?

California Attorney General Jerry Brown; David McNew/Getty Images

Jerry Brown finally said out loud what everybody else in California had been saying for months: he is officially a candidate — in fact the only candidate – for the Democratic nomination for governor.

At 71, Brown starts from a position that GOP candidates have been trying to attain: high name recognition in a state with nearly 37 million people. He was governor for two terms — from 1975 to 1983 — back before term limits. So he can legally run again, 36 years after he first did. Californians older than 35 certainly know who is he. Many people younger than that don’t, even though he was recently mayor of Oakland and is currently state attorney general.

I first met Jerry Brown when he was California’s secretary of state after he had been a member of the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees. The main thing I remember from then is that he had a paperback copy of an Albert Camus novel in his back pocket. (I forget which one.) He seemed too intellectual, too cerebral to be a politician. That image grew when he was governor: driving an old Pontiac and living in a sparse rented apartment in Sacramento when other politicians took advantage of the trappings of office. In a way, that image – of not spending too much of the people’s money – could help him in these times of government spending being a big political target for the GOP.

Recently, I asked to interview Attorney General Brown about prison conditions. Normally, a gubernatorial candidate or the attorney general would have a phalanx of security and public relations people hovering about. But Brown’s PR person said to show up at his “loft” in Oakland. My colleague and I got there, rang the bell and Brown buzzed us in. There he was in a smallish space, all alone with a half dozen computers. We sat in his kitchen — with wine bottles and a coffee maker in the background — and did our interview, and then chatted about his father, former Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown, whose picture was prominently displayed in his loft. I couldn’t imagine a similar scene with governors Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronald Reagan, or – for that matter – Meg Whitman, his chief Republican rival for governor.

In his political career, Brown didn’t win all of his races. He couldn’t beat Pete Wilson for a seat in the U.S. Senate, and he made three unsuccessful attempts to get the Democratic nomination for president. His style may have been a little too far out for the rest of the country, and even for some Californians. But as pollster Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll told me, old governors are often thought of fondly by those who remember them. For the younger set, he must introduce himself the same way the lesser-known candidates do.

Those other candidates so far are Republicans Whitman, the former eBay CEO, and Steve Poizner, another wealthy Silicon Valley businessman and currently the state’s insurance commissioner. Whitman is far ahead in the Republican polls, and a race between her and Jerry Brown would be heated. Whitman has been running many long, biographical commercials, vowing to cut taxes and reform Sacramento.

Being on the air so much is unusual this early in the campaign. It’s her way of getting Californians to know who she is, and that she thinks she can solve the budget mess in which California has been mired. If she wins the June primary, DiCamillo expects a lot of negative ads in the general election; there already have been some attacking Poizner. And Whitman, whose campaign is flush with cash, much of it from her own fortune, can be expected to spend freely; she has already spent $39 million of her own money. As for Brown’s experience in state government, it could help him in these troubled times, or it could hurt.

The governor’s race isn’t the only California contest attracting national attention. Three Republicans are vying for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Barbara Boxer. I’m working on a NewsHour story about that race as part of Republican attempt to increase their numbers and their influence in Congress. Stay tuned.

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