Back on the trail, Jerry Brown visits South L.A. pulpits

Jerry Brown is back in the game, with all the intellectual sass and occasional goofiness that entails. On Sunday morning, his campaign for governor took him to the pulpits of several African American churches in South Los Angeles, where he tried mightily to hew to the pastors’ pleas to keep it short.

“Good morning, and it’s a real good morning right here at First AME,” he says at the city’s oldest African Methodist Episcopal church, sounding like an over-caffeinated radio weatherman. “Thanks. That’s all I’m going to say, but we’re all rising together, right? So we’ve got our challenges ahead of us, but together we can put people first.”

Then he was gone. A different Brown showed up minutes later at nearby Ward AME -- brief and jocular before, he is expansive and empathetic at Ward.

“The government’s in trouble in Washington, in trouble in Los Angeles, state of California, so we’ve got our challenges ahead,” he says. “But we’ve seen it before. California’s been in a recession seven times before, and seven times we came back.

“Maybe it’s like ‘the just man’ who falls seven times and steps up again,” he says. He was quoting from Proverbs, and his audience knew it. They had greeted him with polite applause but now were murmuring along with him, rapt. “I don’t know how just the government has been, but anyway, seven times down, seven times back.”

Now he was on a roll -- inveighing against those who insist the president wasn’t born in this country, against a talk show host who said churches advocating social justice were promoting communism. In short order, Brown, who once studied to be a priest, was quoting the Gospel of Luke from memory and impugning the morals of the business world.

“And now the people in the markets say, ‘Hey, if we can pay you less, we make more profit and that’s good,’ ” he says. “Well, that’s not the kind of profit we have to be following. We have to follow the prophet.”

As he has been for all of his decades in public life, Jerry Brown remains singular in this, his latest turn onstage. He is a man whose pronouncements require Latin-to-English subtitles and a Jesuit education -- spiritus mundi and supererogation were dropped into his remarks this weekend, along with “the papal principle of subsidiarity.” He is a candidate who still brushes past the niceties of campaigning, such as actually asking people for their votes.

His quests for governor and president have become so intertwined over the years that, as he makes his newest pitch, he sometimes sounds as though he was still mounting his last big campaign, when he ran for president in 1992. Then he blasted the political system as corrupt; now he reserves his umbrage for Wall Street.

At 72, the attorney general is twice the age he was when he sought the office the first time; a convention video featuring news clips of a dashing, dark-haired Brown contrasted starkly with the balding older man who followed it to the podium. Ahead of him as the putative Democratic nominee is a battle against a wealthy Republican -- he clearly believes it will be billionaire Meg Whitman, judging from the gibes he sent her way in recent days.

But he is also running against himself, and is six months from finding out whether, once again, he is what people want.

At Saturday’s party convention, Brown marched into a meeting of union members, his words a verbal pinball machine, pinging here and there so swiftly that his audience lost track of where he was going. He riffed for maybe a minute about a 20-year-old trade agreement, segued elliptically into comments about education, then said he was clamming up because he had to save his voice.

After a brief detour back on message -- Whitman is like a bait-and-switch car dealer, he said -- he ran to a gathering of young Democrats. There he interrupted his own Whitman attack with a comic soliloquy about political ads, then, whipsaw fast, was back to schools.

“Enough is enough,” he says about steep hikes in college and university fees. “We’ve got to stop it and roll it back.”

If there was no equivocation in front of the young Democrats, there was plenty Sunday morning after church when he was asked how exactly he would cut fees in a state with a $20-billion deficit.

“First, we’ve got to put a lid on them and work toward that goal in time,” he said. “We are in a financial crisis; it’s not going to be solved overnight. . . . But we have to take that as our goal.”

There was little in the way of specifics from Brown, although he bridled when that was pointed out. Over the weekend, a question about what exactly he would do as governor generated another denunciation of banks for refusing to lend to businesses, which Brown said called for intervention by the Federal Reserve and regulators.

“It’s a federal issue, with all due respect,” his questioner interjected, trying to nudge Brown back to his original question

“And I’m a citizen of the republic and the governor of California is a leader in this,” Brown replied.

Through the weekend, the outlines of Brown’s campaign nonetheless emerged. He insisted that over time, voters who are now steamed at Washington would aim their anger more toward Wall Street. That would, he suggested, lessen the difficulties for Democrats and increase the troubles for those tied to big business, especially Republicans. He took every chance he could to portray Whitman as a corporate creature.

“It’s not a job like CEO, where you issue edicts in some autocratic manner,” he said of the governorship, alluding to Whitman’s work at EBay and elsewhere. “It’s working with people.”

There will need to be more than that, as he knows. In 1974, Brown won the governorship as the fresh breeze in the foul era of Watergate. This time around, he is positioning himself as the voice of reason -- not stodgy, but a little bit weathered. His explanation comes out of another barrage at Wall Street.

“That wealth that has been destroyed, it’s not available to go to the school system or to support police and firefighters. So we have our work cut out for us,” he said after his visit to First AME. “It’s going to take some sacrifice. We’re all in it together, and that’s going to be my message.”

It is, he said, “a great big job. I did it before, and I think I can do it again.”