SACRAMENTO — Jerry Brown is now the longest-serving governor in California history. That doesn't put him up there with the greats. But it's starting to look like he could get close.
Brown also could stumble over some bullet-train tracks or be flushed down a monstrous water tunnel in pursuit of two hugely controversial and costly projects that he believes will carry him to glory.
Or his legacy could be mugged by criminals he's forced by federal judges to release because of prison crowding. And he could really tick off his Democratic base by more acts like last week's veto of major gun-control legislation.
So there are a lot of uncertainties.
But thus far in his second stint as governor, Brown is earning kudos for the essential task of restoring budget sanity to Sacramento. Meanwhile, he's charting a cautious, centrist course on many issues, paddling alternately left and right.
He'll always be guaranteed one place in history, assuming that term limits are an unfortunate permanent fixture. On Oct. 5, Brown surpassed Earl Warren's nearly 11 years in office.
There apparently was little celebrating by the new record-holder. His staff presented him a cake with fruit inside and an inscription: "3,927 Days and Counting."
"That's a lot of days," the 75-year-old Brown commented without offering any deep thoughts.
Warren and Brown are the only California governors who have won three terms. Brown's father, Pat, was trounced in his bid for a third by Ronald Reagan. Jerry, however, seems a cinch to win a fourth next year — meaning he has a good chance of occupying the office for a total 16 years.
Brown's first two terms from 1975 to 1983 don't count against the two-term limit because it wasn't imposed by voters until 1990.
Longevity doesn't equal greatness, however.
California has had three greats: Hiram Johnson, Warren and Pat Brown.
Johnson, a Republican-Progressive (1911-1917), was a political reformer who crushed the railroad monopoly and gave us direct democracy: the initiative, referendum and recall.
Republican Warren (1943-1953) was larger than life, so immensely popular he once won both the GOP and Democratic nominations. He was an upbeat visionary who shaped California for generations, resigning when President Eisenhower chose him as U.S. Supreme Court chief justice.
Democrat Pat Brown (1959-1967) was a courageous leader and builder. He vastly expanded the highway and university systems and created an enormous state water project, which his son is trying to complete by digging two massive tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
That's not just my list of gubernatorial greats. It's California historian Kevin Starr's.
"They're neck and neck," says Starr, author of several books on the state. "It's hard to rank them."
Where does Jerry Brown fit? "If he continues on his present course," Starr predicts, "Jerry will wind up in close vicinity of that triumvirate. He'll be hanging out with his father."
Regardless, Starr adds, "his place in history will be among our most important governors because of his gift of expressive politics" that encompass "contradictory impulses that he manages to hold in dynamic tension."
That sounds a little like Jerry himself.