It’s not the age, it’s the ideas

The last time I walked into the Pasadena Senior Center, a few years ago, I felt people eyeballing me as if I might have stumbled into the wrong building. When I returned Friday morning, they asked what class I was looking for.

Have I aged that quickly? If so, it means I may not have much time left to run for governor.

As my colleague George Skelton reported last week from Sacramento, a new Field Poll found that the candidates for governor each have a major problem.

Fifty-four percent of those polled said they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate who hasn’t voted in years, and Meg Whitman is said to have sat out 28 years’ worth of elections. But the piece I found more surprising was that 37% said they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate over 70, and Jerry Brown is on the other side of that hill at 72.

To be honest, 70 doesn’t seem all that old to me. But in fact, the oldest previous governor of California was Frank Merriam, who took office at age 69 in 1934. So I was curious to find out what the regulars at the senior center had to say about the wisdom of experience, as well as the challenges presented by aging.

I do have to admit that in a lounge area, I saw a guy who was probably in his 70s slumped back in an easy chair, head back, mouth open, looking like he’d sleep through a train derailment. It made me wonder if Jerry Brown goes down for a morning nap too, which would explain why it’s taking so long for him to get his slumbering campaign revved up.

Toward the back of the center, I peeked in at the chair aerobics class, where you don’t even have to get up off the chair to limber up. Left arm over your head, right arm over your head, reach for the sky and it’s almost time for bingo.

“Come on in and take a seat,” one student said, as if I were captain of the shuffleboard team.

Is it time for me to go back to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s hairdresser in Beverly Hills, Giuseppe Franco, and have him rake a few lowlights into the snow?

Ralph Hurtado, a retiree who said he’d just taken a “bucket list” trip around the world to visit some of the places he wanted to see before he died — not that he’s anywhere near death’s door — told me age is not an issue. He’d just been to Ireland, Prague, Jordan, Hong Kong and Hanoi, hungry for new discoveries.

Chris Sloman, a retired high school counselor, said her age and experience made her work with young students rewarding because “you’ve got something to share.” She sees Brown’s different life experiences — governor, mayor, attorney general — as a strength, no matter his age.

Unfortunately, I said — and Sloman agreed — Brown hasn’t applied that experience to any coherent or practical plan. And that would turn out to be the theme of the day, even when I later walked across the street to the Armory Center for the Arts to see what younger voters had to say about the Field Poll. (Janine Christiano, 29, and Robbin Owens, 41, who run the front office at the arts center, told me they care about ideas and capacity for growth, not age).

Sure, some of the senior center’s regulars said, age can be a factor if you begin to lose your edge. But it’s not nearly as big a deal as a candidate’s record and game plan.

In the room next to chair aerobics, six card sharps were playing Texas Hold ‘Em. A poker-faced chap by the name of Ross, with a bank of chips in front of him, choked when I asked if age was a liability for Brown, who was governor from 1975 to 1983.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Ross. “His biggest liability is the job he did the first time.”

Before long, I was summoned into the fitness gym as word spread that I was asking about the vitality of seniors. I met Virginia Rose, who was working out with her friend Ruth Judkins, 75, and they weren’t sitting on chairs. Rose told me she’d left 70 “a long time ago” and added, “We’re not age-conscious here.”

Another pal of hers, in her 70s, was high-stepping on the Stairmaster. “She’s my tai chi partner,” said Rose, who was pumping a 12-pound dumbbell over her head like it was a cream puff.

Seventy years old? That’s nothing, said Brajendra Singh, the fitness room monitor who’s almost there himself. On the wall near his desk was a news headline: “Facing Old Age? Don’t Get Mad, Get Even.” Singh said a 98-year-old guy strolls in regularly, hits the treadmill, does the cardio machine, pushes some weights and walks out with a good sweat.

“Hi, I’m Joel, the new volunteer,” a strapping 70-year-old said, introducing himself to Singh.

Biceps bulging, Joel told me:

“There’s nothing wrong with 70. I’ll give you 30 push-ups right now.”

All right, I told Joel. Give me 30.

“I just worked out at Bally,” he said. “I’ll give you 20.”

And so he did, no sweat, with Ruth Judkins saying Joel looked like he should be on a football field.

I was beginning to think there might be a sharper, more energetic candidate for governor at the senior center than the two we’ve got.