The last time California Attorney General Jerry Brown's name was associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger's current position, it was when he was known as "Governor Moonbeam" for his early visions of satellite technology back in the '70s and early '80s. The Brown family name had long been respected in California politics (his father, Edmund Brown, had been governor, too), but the younger Brown was especially famous for his personal life—dating singer Linda Ronstadt and forgoing the luxuries of the governor's mansion to sleep on a mattress on the floor of a rented apartment.
Today Brown, 72, is no longer the hot young Democrat he used to be—he sleeps in a Zen-inspired home in the posh Oakland Hills—but his past may be his most important asset. After all, Brown governed during what seems like a golden era compared to now. Even before his formal bid for governor kicked off March 2 of this year, Brown's coffers were already overflowing. Over the past year, without even being officially in the race, Brown managed to outraise opponents so dramatically that they dropped out of the race. He's now poised to run unopposed for his party's nomination and is considered by pollsters to be the favorite in the general election in November.
Before he made his intentions to run for governor official, Brown met with NEWSWEEK at a small Oakland coffeehouse he likes to frequent. One look around outside offers a picture of the California Brown might soon be trying to fix: next door to the Z café is an abandoned car dealership, a vacant expanse of marble, dusty windows, and FOR LEASE signs.
Elections are usually won by visionaries, those who promise better days ahead, even if they can't follow through. Just ask Barack Obama. But in a state facing 12.5 percent unemployment, a deficit of $20 billion, and legislative bickering so profound that the government has had to virtually shut down multiple times, Brown knows he cannot completely stop the bloodletting. "There is a great possibility that success will elude the next governor," he says, but alleviating the "poisonous relationship" and "learned behaviors of fighting" between parties is vital. When the campaign starts in earnest, he says, promising that things will get better would be his "minimum claim."
In his view, the economic and political woes of California do have at least one upside: "The breakdown paves the way for breakthrough" he says. If he can explain complicated issues to the populace, he thinks he'll have the best shot at providing California with the leadership that's been, in his view, so sorely lacking.
During the period when he was merely exploring the prospect of running again, Brown's anonymous detractors painted a picture of the former governor as a has-been, an out-of-touch old man, stopping just short of quoting him yelling at youngsters to get off his lawn. Their evidence was his seemingly half-hearted campaign style, which may simply have been a long-term strategy: he stayed officially out of the race to take advantage of higher fundraising limits, and he also didn't engage with any opponents. Brown was faced with accusations that he was a “lazy” candidate, a comment that continues to irritate him. "What does that mean? That I lie around, reading novels?" he asks. "I'll tell you, raising $12.5 million is quite strenuous. It really is."
Still, one has to wonder why anyone would want to inherit the headache that is the current top political job in the state. Even Schwarzenegger has admitted that the California governorship is not all it's cracked up to be (of course, Gray Davis, whom Schwarzenegger replaced in a special recall election, could have told him that). But that might be Brown's greatest advantage: his portrait already hangs in the hall of governors, and he's already sat behind the executive's desk and held the veto pen.
"Why do it? I've been doing this most of my life," he says. "I think some of these people who have not been governor, who've not really been at the heart of California politics, have no idea what's in store for them." If Brown wanted a clean legacy, he could simply retire and let the next governor's struggles make his era look even better. But he insists that California needs him on the pothole-filled road ahead, and he may well be the only candidate who can credibly claim he's not in it for the glory.
"If I were younger, I might not even consider this job," says Brown, with a frankness rare in a politician discussing his motives. "The chances of [this job] ending one's career are very great."