“So you’re back at it,” I say to Jerry Brown after picking up the phone. “When wasn’t I at it?” he responds.
True enough. Brown has been running for office -- or so it seems -- as long as I’ve known him, going back to when he was a candidate for the Los Angeles community college board 42 years ago and I bought the tightwad breakfast in a Mid-Wilshire coffee shop.
That was fine, but it did become annoying years later when the bachelor governor persistently grabbed French fries off my plate -- and anyone else’s within reach -- at a hole-in-the-wall bar across the street from the state Capitol.
At David’s Brass Rail, you could sip a beer, order a snack, chat with Capitol insiders and expect the governor to often show up in the evening. Brown even took rock singer Linda Ronstadt there after locking up the governor’s office for the final time at midnight on Jan. 2, 1983.
Now he’s trying to get back. But he won’t make it to David’s. It was demolished to make room for a hotel where the current governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, hangs while in Sacramento, which is less and less.
But I’m getting off track.
Look, I say to Brown to start the interview, you’re almost 72, you’ve got a big job as attorney general and could easily win reelection, you’ve already been governor for two terms, you’re facing a tough race against Republican candidates with immense personal fortunes and you could well lose. It’s risky. Why are you running?
“Because I have something to offer,” he replies. “I’ve got the knowledge, I’ve got the know-how, I’ve spent many, many years studying and working within both government and politics. I know it A to Z. This state is in big trouble. Unprecedented.
“And I really feel that I can both knock heads together and get people to cooperate.”
That may all be true. But Brown gave me a shorter, perhaps more candid answer to a similar question six years ago when he was Oakland’s mayor and starting to run for attorney general.
“I’ve been in office and I’ve been out of office,” he said, “and if I were to choose, I’d rather be in office.”
It’s in his DNA -- he’s the son of one of California’s great governors, Pat Brown. Capitol talk “was the dinner table experience,” Jerry Brown recalled in another interview, in 2006.
“My father would often bring his briefcase home and when he’d go to bed, I’d read through it, all the different bills and memos. And it’s just something I’m drawn to. I know about this as much as a human being could know.”
But in that same interview, Brown flatly denied he was running for attorney general to position himself to reoccupy the governor’s office. “No, I don’t want to be governor,” he insisted. “I’ve been there. That’s a tough job for a Democrat.”
Soon after he was elected AG, however, Brown began jockeying into the 2010 gubernatorial race, letting Democratic insiders know unequivocally -- while playing coy with the public -- that he was running. Consequently, he preempted the Democratic field for himself and has no major opponent for the party’s nomination.
If elected, a wiser Gov. Brown would try to be more like his father in one respect. Pat Brown was renowned as “the builder” -- the erector of freeways, universities and the state water project.
When Jerry Brown became governor, he rebelled against his dad’s political generation and its establishment ways. Preaching an “era of limits” and environmental enlightenment, Brown Jr. pulled back on public works.
He now acknowledges it was a mistake not to build more.
“I surely didn’t expect California to grow like it did,” he says. “We had tremendous growth. And when you have growth you’ve got to build: energy, water, roads, transit, schools, jails.”
But “we need a design change,” he continues. “We can’t just keep paving over. We’ve paved over the San Fernando Valley. We’ve got to use the land better. We’ve got to use our energy better -- the natural resources, the wind, the sun, geothermal.”
Brown hasn’t changed on that. He was promoting renewable energy 35 years ago, when relatively few people knew what it meant.
The son did follow his father by pushing a major water project through the Legislature -- a so-called peripheral canal to carry fresh Sacramento River flows around the brackish Delta. But voters repealed it.
Last year, Schwarzenegger and the Legislature agreed on a Delta fix that probably will lead to another version of a peripheral canal. But its full implementation hinges on an $11.1-billion water bond on the November ballot. And Brown isn’t convinced.
“I want to look at that,” he says, noting the fears of Delta farmers and fishing interests. “We didn’t have the [endangered] smelt back in 1982. . . . We had a lot more salmon.”
I’m intrigued by Brown’s conviction that he can “knock heads” and coax legislators into cooperating. He wasn’t overly successful at it the last time.
“Well, this time it’s very different,” he says. “They had all been there a lot longer. . . . Now, you’d have to say I’m the senior statesman.”
Back then, he was the smart-aleck kid.
Brown intends to entertain lawmakers in grand style with his wife, former Gap clothing executive Anne Gust, as his parents did in the old governor’s mansion -- now a tourist site -- when the Capitol was functional.
I don’t know, I say, a 72-year-old guy running for governor!
“Yeah, what about it?” Brown replies sharply.
It amazes me.
“What amazes me is I’m so enthusiastic about it. I don’t know why. It’s very exciting.”
But Brown concedes “it’s going to be brutal.” Republicans will be “running a demolition derby.”
And there’ll be barrels of fuel from decades of public actions and utterances. “At least it will cost them a lot of money to research me,” he says.
Brown has learned much over the years -- probably even how to buy his own fries.