California governor's race: Jerry Brown steps back in at a time of crisis

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; A03

OAKLAND, CALIF. -- Thirty-seven states will hold elections for governor in November, but none will have a more intriguing story line than California. Voters here will decide whether to make the youngest California governor of the 20th century the oldest ever elected in the state's history.

Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. is back -- or almost. He has not formally announced his candidacy for governor, but he is plotting the campaign from a warehouse office in downtown Oakland that is stocked with books, yellowed reports and decades-old documents outlining the problems of California from when he first was governor.

"I know how state government works, how it should work, and I think I can fix it," Brown said in a recent interview.

Brown is seeking a return to the governor's office at one of the most critical times in the modern history of California. The recession has battered the state's economy, forcing new taxes and painful spending cuts that have affected nearly every corner of the public sector.

The political process appears broken, brought down by partisan polarization and by restrictions approved over the years through ballot initiatives that hamper lawmakers' efforts to forge consensus. Voters have lost confidence in both Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic-controlled legislature.

Whether Brown is the person to repair the damage will be the central question of his campaign. After four decades in government and politics, Brown said, he understands like few others "the complexities and subtleties of how the state is wired together," adding: "I've spent the better part of my life in one form or another dealing with or thinking about issues of government."

To some people, that is Brown's problem. Meg Whitman, the former eBay chief executive who is seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination, said a Brown-Whitman campaign would offer voters a clear choice.

"I think Jerry is a very formidable competitor," she said in an interview. "He is very well known in the state, and this is a Democratic state. That said, I think the contrast between Jerry and me will be in stark relief: a career politician versus a career businessperson who has created jobs, who has managed a business. It will be outsider versus insider."

Brown disagrees. Although he has served two terms as governor, currently serves as attorney general, was mayor of Oakland, and was California secretary of state and chairman of the state Democratic Party, he refuses to be cast as the insider.

"I'm an outsider by my own sense of things," he said. Challenged, he responded, "I have an outsider's mind with an insider's perspective."

Brown would have no primary opponent. Whitman has to get through a primary against state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who was successful in the technology business before turning to politics. Last week, Mike Murphy, one of Whitman's advisers, made a ham-handed attempt to push Poizner out of the race. He warned that Poizner would be put through the "wood chipper" if he stayed in but could become the consensus choice to run for Senate in 2012 if he got out.

Instead, Poizner called for an investigation by the FBI and the attorney general's office into Murphy's actions. From political theater, the episode quickly turned to farce. Murphy questioned Poizner's mental condition, and Poizner ended up coming under sharp criticism in California newspapers.

Poizner, in an interview, defended himself, saying the Whitman campaign's actions crossed "a very important bright line between hardball politics and threats and intimidation." Whitman defended Murphy's attempts to force Poizner out. "It was the normal course of business," she said.

Brown will turn 72 this spring. If elected in November, he would be twice the age he was when he first won the governorship, in 1974. He shrugged off the issue of age: "If you're the person who knows the job intimately, you can't be the ingenue."

But an inexperienced opponent will carry baggage, as well, he added. "If you have a person who says: 'I've never done it before; why don't you try me? I've got fresh ideas' -- okay, that's the strength. The flip side is, you don't know what the heck you're doing."

Personally, he said, he has learned from his earlier experiences. His 1980 presidential campaign, he said, was probably a mistake. "I was a young guy, but I was in kind of a hurry," he said, leaving the impression that he was "not doing my work" in California.

He had his head turned as a young governor by the attention paid to him by East Coast columnists and others. "There's an excitement and a superficiality that I think time changes -- for me anyway," he said. "I can see the work of the governor as more grounded in patient listening."

Brown said that, if elected, the biggest challenge will be resolving the state's budget gap, and he promised to engage the legislature "in a way they've never been engaged to date and by communicating to the people . . . what's possible and what isn't. Hard-headed realism is what's needed. There's a lot of smoke and mirrors going on here."

Some Democrats in the state worry that Brown is moving too slowly to ramp up his campaign or that he is ill-prepared for the intensity of a race fought in the age of 24-7 communications.

Brown said he will resist becoming a consultant-driven candidate or loading up his payroll with expensive strategists, as Whitman has done. But he recognized the kind of campaign he's likely to face. "I haven't had millions of dollars attacking my character and reputation. That's true," he said.

If she wins the GOP nomination, Whitman will have a sizable financial advantage over Brown. She has already put $39 million of her money into the race and could spend $150 million or more by the election in November. Brown can't compete with that kind of money, but he said of Whitman, "Her money is not kryptonite."

Asked how he will prepare for that, he offered a lesson from St. Ignatius. He would summon all the "Ignatian indifference" that he could. That is, he added, the idea of eschewing attachments to wealth or glory and preparing "to do the will of God, however it manifests."

"Here we have the will of the people," Brown said, "and how it turns out will be fine for me."

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