It was 1974 when Jerry Brown ran for governor as a dashing 36-year-old reformer, the embodiment of change in Watergate’s aftermath.
“I was the new spirit,” Brown recalled. “That was my slogan.”
No one would mistake Brown for a new spirit today. At 70, he occupies a prime spot among the elders of California politics. His career has spanned four decades, with three failed tries for the White House along his way up, down and back up the elective ranks.
Now, after two years as state attorney general, this Democrat who first ran for office in the era of Janis Joplin and the Beatles is remaking himself yet again. This time, Brown’s quest is to recapture the job he won 35 years ago: governor of California.
But Brown is already facing a quandary that could bedevil him in this, his 12th campaign: How does a man so closely identified with California’s past show that he is best fit to lead the troubled state into the future?
That question will loom large in the June 2010 primary that will probably pit Brown against at least one younger big-city mayor, Gavin Newsom, 41, of San Francisco, and possibly another, Antonio Villaraigosa, 56, of Los Angeles.
It is an odd role reversal for Brown, who prided himself in the 1970s on forward-looking ideas about solar and wind energy, space exploration and Silicon Valley’s high-tech future. He still casts himself as a visionary, but now a more practical one.
“I have a very strong record in every office I’ve held of new ideas and bold moves,” Brown said in an interview. Ideas now tempered, he added, by wisdom born from experience -- which in his case includes an improbable 1990s comeback as Oakland mayor, the springboard to his election as attorney general.
But experience failed to propel Hillary Rodham Clinton to victory in last year’s Democratic presidential race, and some strategists say it poses risks for Brown too.
“Voters associated her with the past, and she got beat by the candidate who stood for change,” said Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster uncommitted in the gubernatorial contest.
For now, the Democratic field is in flux. Brown and Newsom are planning to run, but neither has formally announced.
Villaraigosa, wary of appearing to take his likely March reelection for granted, has remained coy about his aspirations beyond L.A.
The lone declared candidate, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, 64, is making his fourth try for governor, once again an underdog to big-name rivals. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 75, the most popular of the bunch, has not ruled out a run, but few expect her to surrender her clout in the Senate.
In early maneuvering, Newsom has emerged as Brown’s nemesis. Brown has closely tracked Newsom’s fundraising and scoped out his political weak spots.
Advisors to Newsom, who was a second-grader at a San Francisco Catholic school when Brown succeeded Ronald Reagan as governor, foresee a primary defined by a generational split. They hope that younger Californians, those least familiar with Brown’s history, will gravitate toward Newsom.
“The question that I think Californians will have to come to grips with is, does California need the same governor in 2011 that it had in 1975?” said Newsom strategist Garry South.
Try as Brown might to draw attention to his high marks in Oakland -- new charter schools and a downtown revival, most notably -- or his record as attorney general, the inevitable yardstick will be his two terms as governor.
At a recent district attorneys conference in Rancho Mirage, Brown reminded a roomful of prosecutors that he tightened sentencing laws in 1977. He also boasted of recruiting lawyers who had been suing the state over bad prison conditions to work for his administration, a move that discouraged new litigation.
In the interview afterward, Brown reached further back as he pondered the campaign ahead, invoking Govs. Earl Warren (1943-1953), his father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown (1959-1967), and Reagan (1967-1975).
“Earl Warren used to say you start when the first snow hits the Sierras in the fall,” Brown said, explaining his timing for the campaign. “My father told me that.”
Brown recalled his father dealing with the uproar over “tearing down orange trees” in the San Fernando Valley. He talked about tax increases under both his father and Reagan, while declining to say whether California needs any now. Brown also cited a job surge on his watch, along with “the largest surplus in the history of America” -- without mentioning that it vanished before he left office.
“You’ve got to find ways of doing more with less; I was the original guy on that,” Brown said. “Mr. Less-is-More, that was me.”
Brown’s record will appeal to many primary voters. He put California in the nation’s forefront on clean-air laws, opened the upper echelons of state government to women, blacks and Latinos, and championed Cesar Chavez and his farm labor movement.
Brown also enraged leaders of the state’s agriculture industry by resisting pesticide spraying to stop a disastrous fruit-fly infestation. And his brusque manner put off many legislators.
David Roberti, the state Senate’s top Democrat during Brown’s second term, described Brown as “a touch self-centered. You just don’t hit people over the head with a two-by-four and expect them to like you.”
Also challenging for Brown, especially if he advances to the general election, is the eccentric image he has tried unsuccessfully to shake. As governor, he frequently visited the San Francisco Zen Center. He extolled the benefits of wheat germ and holistic medicine. He slept on a mattress on the floor of a Sacramento apartment. His romances with singer Linda Ronstadt and other celebrities supplied grist for gossip columns.
Today, Brown lives in a sprawling house in the Oakland hills with lawyer Anne Gust, whom he married in 2005. His hawkish eyebrows have turned white; his shock of dark hair has disappeared entirely.
He calls himself a “reformed reformer.” As recently as 1992, when he ran for president, Brown refused campaign donations above $100. Now, he accepts the biggest checks allowed by law from developers, casino operators, lawyers, investment bankers and unions, as well as the energy, logging and alcoholic-beverage industries. He has raised $4.1 million, far more than any rival.
Brown remains adept at tailoring positions to his political needs. After pledging to uphold Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban that voters approved in November, Brown reversed course weeks later and launched a court fight to strike it down.
The turnaround will no doubt prove important in a race against Newsom, whose 2004 order allowing same-sex weddings in San Francisco won him broad support among the liberals who dominate the Democratic Party.
But more than any recent moves, Brown’s campaign will be about the past -- above all, his eight years as governor.
“It’s a very challenging job,” Brown said. “Obviously, I think knowing a great deal about it is a real asset.”