At 72, California gubernatorial candidate is the same old Jerry Brown

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010

SACRAMENTO -- Hate to break this to you: Time's whizzing by. You're getting older.

Need proof? Brace yourself.

Jerry Brown is 72 years old.

Yes, that Jerry Brown. The endless-summer wonder boy who dated Linda Ronstadt many moons over blue bayous ago. The bliss-following political son who was sooo California cool -- back when California really was the empire of the laid-back, and fiscally solvent at that.

These days California is feeling its age. Sure, the state's still got Google and the movies, but unemployment is over 12 percent -- 3 percentage points higher than the national average. Troubled cities are shortening the school year because of a stubborn budget crisis. The state ranks fourth in foreclosure rates. When Californians talk about being underwater, they're referring to their mortgages, not afternoon dips off Malibu. Things are so bad they've even found asbestos in the official state rock.

Enter Jerry Brown, the Sequel. Episode Number . . . well, we've lost count. The man who was the youngest California governor in the 20th century is trying to become the oldest governor in the state's history now that we've fast-forwarded into the 21st century. In this age of anti-incumbency rage and the demonizing of career politicians, Brown -- ever counterintuitive -- is emphasizing his four decades of public service, stretching through two terms as governor, eight years as mayor of Oakland and to his current perch as the state attorney general. Oh, and the three presidential bids.

A man with "insider's knowledge and an outsider's mind" is how he describes himself. "Someone at my stage in life wants to apply all the skill I have to solving a problem," he says. "It's almost a natural evolution to come back and try to fix things at this time of serious crisis."

He saunters up -- sans entourage -- for coffee one sunny afternoon at a little place called Chocolate Fish a couple of blocks from the state capitol building where his abstract, slightly dazed official portrait hangs, memorializing two terms as governor more than a quarter-century ago. Brown is balding now, shaving short the gray that's left behind his ears -- no comb-over for him. He's trim and lanky, folding into a low-slung chair with only minimal signs of discomfort.

Staying in shape isn't without hazards. Early last month, while running in the Oakland Hills, Brown chanced upon veteran KCBS Radio reporter Doug Sovern and compared the tactics of his Republican opponent, Meg Whitman, to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. Brown has said he thought they were off the record, though Sovern has undercut that argument by writing that other joggers were listening in. Once Sovern posted the remark on his blog on June 9, the former governor and his staff had to sprint into damage control mode and issue apologies to offended Jewish voters.

Always unpredictable

Long before lapsing into Nazi metaphor, Brown scared off all the serious Democratic opposition and waltzed through his primary, setting up a November showdown with Whitman, the bazillionaire and former eBay chief executive. Recent polls have shown Whitman with a small lead or none at all. She is burning through millions on attack ads; Brown has spent precisely nothing on advertising.

He's not much into speechifying, either. Rallies? Not interested. At times, his campaign feels like a rumor. "There are a lot of anxious Democrats worrying Jerry's not doing enough," says Bill Carrick, a seen-it-all California Democratic strategist. University of California, Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain says Brown is conducting his campaign "just the way you would expect Jerry Brown to conduct it: inexplicably and unpredictably."

After the waiter at Chocolate Fish comes over with cappuccinos on the house, Brown harrumphs: "I have no idea when my next event is." (Neither does his staff. Five days pass before they confirm that he'll even make a public appearance.)

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