Jerry Brown in the 21st Century

Jerry Brown during his 1976 campaign for president. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Jerry Brown during his 1976 campaign for president. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

It is ironic that while supporters of Hillary Clinton worry that her relatively advanced age will become an issue in the 2016 presidential election, the one Democrat with a legitimate chance of beating her in a primary campaign will most probably not run because he is too old. Imagine if Ms. Clinton’s possible opponents were not either relative unknowns seeking to plant a flag for the future like Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, or minor candidates unable to mount a serious campaign like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, but a governor coming off a landslide reelection victory in 2014, who already enjoys national name recognition and a reputation as a progressive and an innovator, has experience balancing budgets and navigating national disasters, and is chief executive of a state that’s size and diversity outstrips that of most countries. Imagine also that governor had served two terms as mayor of one of the country’s poorest and most crime-ridden cities, where he was viewed as one of the best chief executives in that city’s rocky history, before being elected attorney general and then governor of his state.

Jerry Brown is likely going to eschew a fourth campaign for the presidency because he would be 78 by Election Day 2016. That decision would mean that Mr. Brown is one of the most successful politicians in American history never to have been president. Assuming he is reelected in November – polls show him leading by more than 20 points – Mr. Brown will have won statewide election seven times, including four terms as governor. In October of 2013, he became the longest serving governor in the history of the most populous state in the U.S. Including his two terms as mayor of Oakland, Mr. Brown has run for office in California nine times and won every time but one, losing a senate race to Pete Wilson in 1982.

Mr. Brown’s personal history is even more intriguing and at times has overshadowed his political career. As a young man, he attended a Jesuit seminary before deciding he was more suited to the family business than to the cloth. Mr. Brown’s father, Pat Brown, was a popular governor of California who served two terms from 1959-1966. In the 1950’s, many thought the senior Brown, not John F. Kennedy, would be the first Catholic president of the U.S. The first Governor Brown was the man who beat Richard Nixon in the 1962 governor’s race in the Golden State, leading to the famous post-election press conference in which the future president promised the American people they “won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” Four years later Pat Brown was thrown out of office by the voters in favor of another extraordinarily gifted California politician, Ronald Reagan. Politics runs deep in the Brown family. Jerry’s sister, Kathleen Brown, was the California treasurer in the early 1990’s and the Democratic nominee for governor in 1994.

Mr. Brown, however, was never viewed as an ordinary politician. Outside of California, the younger Governor Brown was seen by many as the hippie governor from the left coast full of unusual ideas. Inside California, Mr. Brown just kept winning elections with a career and reputation that transcended 1970’s politics. He became almost a stand-in for how the eastern establishment viewed California at that time. Mr. Brown was also immortalized by the seminal San Francisco punk rock band the Dead Kennedy’s. In their punk anthem “California Uber Alles,” a song that eerily foreshadows some of the culture wars of the early 21st century, the Dead Kennedy’s warned of a dsytopic hippie California led by “Führer Jerry Brown” whose “aura smiles and never frowns,” the “suede denim secret police,” and “zen fascists” who would “come for your uncool niece,” and make sure that “your kids will meditate in school.”

The central dialectic of Mr. Brown’s life has been that his spiritual quests, openness to new ideas and intellectual curiosity have coexisted with extraordinary political skills and instincts. Chuck McFadden, author of Trailblazer, a 2013 biography of Mr. Brown, sums up this duality well: “Jerry Brown is a guy who can go to a Zen retreat in Big Sur and in the car on the way home, plot the brutal political downfall of a rival. He is at the same time an idealist and an immensely pragmatic and knowledgeable politician. He has an uncanny ability,” Mr. McFadden continues, “to understand the psyche of voters. He is really attuned more than any other politician I’ve ever met. He has an above and beyond ability to unlock voters’ minds.” Charles Fracchia, a well known San Francisco historian and author, who first met Brown when they were attending different Bay Area Catholic High Schools in 1951, and later studied at Jesuit seminary with Brown beginning in 1956, describes the same phenomenon. “Jerry is kind of detached and removed. Plato’s idea of the philosopher king fits closely to Jerry…He also know where the bodies are buried and what to do and what not to do.”

A related paradox of Mr. Brown is that while his reputation outside of California is informed heavily by his exploration of Zen Buddhism and dalliance with new age philosophies, those who know Mr. Brown best understand his deepest intellectual and spiritual roots are in Jesuit teachings. Mr. Fracchia, who still remembers the day he picked up Mr. Brown at seminary when the latter decided to leave the Jesuits, stresses the “tremendous imprint the Jesuits gave us,” and described a recent phone call from the governor who wanted to discuss books he was reading on the third century Christian saints Felicity and Perpetua and asks “How many governors, or even academics, read about early Christian subjects like that?”

Mr. Brown, who is now 76 years old, has had such an extraordinary career, that if you divided his career in half, from 1966-1992 and from 1998-2014, you would have two very formidable politicians. The early Jerry Brown was California’s Secretary of State for one term before serving two terms as governor, winning election in 1974 and getting reelected in 1978. During this time he also launched unsuccessful presidential campaigns in 1976, 1980 and 1992. Over the course of his three bids for the Democratic nomination, Mr. Brown ran against almost every major Democratic candidate after Lyndon Johnson and before Barack Obama. His primary opponents included George Wallace, Jimmy Carter, Hubert Humphrey and Bill Clinton. Mr. Brown never won the Democratic nomination, but did well in the late primaries in 1976 and came somewhat close to upsetting the heavily favored Mr. Clinton in an often bitter 1992 campaign, finishing second in overall proportion of the primary vote both years. After the 1992 primary, most assumed Mr. Brown would continue to follow his own unique path but never be a relevant political figure again. The story did not turn out quite that way.

As California’s governor in the 70’s, Mr. Brown, a native of San Francisco, then considered a bastion of radicalism, was known for crazy ideas like treating gay people decently and conserving natural resources. He cultivated this image by doing wacky things like eschewing formality, refusing to live in the governor’s mansion, being driven around in an ordinary Plymouth sedan, dating Linda Rondstadt, a popular singer of the era, discussing things like energy conservation, and legalizing alternative medicine. Mr. Brown earned the nickname “Governor Moonbeam” during those years. The name was first given to him by the Chicago columnist Mike Royko largely because Mr. Brown had the bizarre idea that people should use satellite technology to communicate with each other. To his credit, Mr. Royko later apologized for ridiculing Mr. Brown, noting that, ultimately, Governor Moonbeam proved to be right.

Although Governor  Brown became a national figure during this period, his first eight years in the office were not entirely successful. A powerful legislature often blocked his more ambitious proposals, making many of his best ideas difficult to translate into policy. Even then, however, Governor Brown was a social progressive, who appointed diverse supporters including Latinos, Asians and LGBT Californians to influential positions while also remaining a fiscal conservative. Ted Lempert, a lecturer in California politics at UC Berkeley and a member of the California assembly between Governor Brown’s terms, described his first term as, “Back then the positive view was ahead of his time. More realistic view (was) not organized, bad relationships with the legislature.” Overall, voters were sufficiently unimpressed with those eight years that they did not elect Governor Brown to the Senate in 1982, a year that nationally was otherwise a good one for the Democratic Party.

After losing that Senate race, Mr. Brown’s political life seemed to be if not over, than at least in crisis. Rather than immediately get back into politics, Mr.Brown spent several years of spiritual exploration including time in Japan studying Zen Buddhism and a stint in Calcutta helping Mother Teresa serve the poor. Those years only confirmed the views of many, particularly outside of Mr. Brown’s northern California base, that the man was slightly nutty. His return to politics in time to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 dissuaded few of this notion.

Mr. Brown’s second career is perhaps even more extraordinary than his first one was. It began in 1998 when Oakland voters elected Mr. Brown, who ran as an independent, mayor. He had moved to Oakland from San Francisco following his defeat in the 1992 presidential primaries, but had not previously been identified with that city. Mr. Brown was next elected attorney general of California in 2006 as his second term as Oakland’s mayor was concluding. He then ran for his old job in 2010, winning easily and is almost certain to be handily reelected governor next week. Mr. Brown is now the oldest governor in the state’s history only 40 years after becoming one of its youngest.

Shortly before that 2010 election even Jello Biafra, the leader of the Dead Kennedy’s, who a generation ago had sung about Mr. Brown becoming Führer, seemed to be changing his position on Mr. Brown saying, “I realized I was off-base with Jerry Brown when the Reaganoids stormed in in 1980…Now my ‘California Über Alles’ is about Schwarzenegger….I’d rather have Governor or President Moonbeam than Governor or President Star Wars, especially if it’s a Star Wars person who also believes in apocalyptic Biblical theories and End Times.”

Mr. Brown is no longer viewed as weird or even quirky, not least because so many of the things he did and said in the 70’s are now seen as normal. Energy conservation, appointing women and minorities to powerful positions, and non-western medicine, for example, are no longer controversial. Politicians are now allowed to be divorced, single or childless and, not least, most Americans are almost entirely reliant on satellites for everything from communication to navigation to entertainment.

Reviews of Mr. Brown’s second act as governor have been generally positive with many crediting the governor with improving California’s fiscal health and beginning to address longstanding problems in everything from prisons to education. Mr. Lempert sums up Mr. Brown’s time as governor since winning election in 2010 by pointing out that California “Went from a budget fiasco to a budget balance with surplus. He’s building reserves. He’s actually put forward some pretty bold reforms, whether you agree with them or not, in terms of shifting resources locally…an historic education equity law. Big picture: he’s gotten the government back on track.”

The 21st century Mr. Brown is also much less controversial than the 20th century version. Mr. Lempert notes that Mr. Brown has “done a brilliant job not polarizing California.” This Governor Brown is no longer a young politician excited about the future, but an experienced and competent one reflecting on a long career. As Brown biographer McFadden describes the contrast between Mr. Brown’s first and second times as governor, “he was a fresh new face and [had] a slightly hippie new age aura about him when he was in his early 30s and serving his first term as governor. He is a completely different person and politician today than he was then. He is much more pragmatic and much less interested in tilting at windmills.” Nonetheless, there are moments in Mr. Brown’s second tenure as the state’s chief executive that seem to be pulled directly from his first go around. For example, Californians of a certain age reading headlines like “Brown Declares California Drought Emergency,” could be forgiven for briefly thinking they are back in the 70’s.

Inevitably, talk of Jerry Brown making one last run for the White House in 2016, only 40 years after he first sought that office, has been happening for the last few years. Mr. Brown has made it reasonably clear both that he expects Ms. Clinton to run and to be the Democratic nominee in 2016, stating plainly “she [Hillary Clinton] has this if she wants.” However, if Ms. Clinton does not run, Mr. Brown could quickly leap to the front of a crowded and probably confusing Democratic field. His name recognition, experience, strong progressive credentials that, ironically, might be even stronger outside California, and fundraising ability would make him a much more formidable than any other non-Clinton candidate, even more so than Vice-President Joseph Biden, another septuagenarian politician who has been in politics since the 70’s.

When Mr. Brown last ran for president in 1992, his campaign had the feel of an angry, and occasionally unfocused, crusade. He talked almost incessantly about campaign finance reform demonstrating his striking ability to focus on issues a decade or two before most of the other political class–repeating his 1-800 number (campaign technology that at that time was considered new and exciting) at least once in every speech, and attacked eventual Democratic nominee Bill Clinton for being too conservative, beholden to political elite and ethically challenged. In one notable debate moment Mr. Brown accused the future president of “funneling money to his wife`s law firm for state business. . . . It`s the kind of conflict of interest that`s incompatible with the kind of public servant we expect.” The wife to which Mr. Brown was referring was, of course, Hillary Clinton.

The 2014 vintage Mr. Brown has mellowed. Nor does he present himself as an outsider just back from almost a decade of spiritual exploration as he did in 1992. He is also no longer the young man whose first inauguration speech began by saying this father did not think he would “make it”, and urging listeners that “first, I think we ought to put this whole thing into perspective,” but because of his background he will never be attacked as simply being the establishment candidate, a particularly acute vulnerability for Ms. Clinton.

It is also possible, probably even likely, that no Democrat can stop Ms. Clinton in 2016. Her fundraising ability, name recognition and deep ties throughout the party mean that she will have an extensive organization and almost unlimited resources. Nonetheless, Mr. Brown is the only candidate who could win votes from Ms. Clinton’s left and right flank while also being able to raise enormous amounts of money. As governor of California, for example, Mr. Brown would be able to raise money from Silicon Valley businesses who know that even if he lost, they would still have him as governor for another two, and possibly six, years.

Mr. Brown could use his new image as a pragmatist willing to make tough choices to win votes from fiscal conservatives within the Democratic Party, while leveraging almost a half-century of ties to progressive causes to win votes from Ms. Clinton’s left. In 2008, for example, Latinos were a big part of Ms. Clinton’s primary coalition. They might stick with Ms. Clinton in 2016, but it is also possible that Latinos in the southwest and California would be loyal to the man who was the first governor in the country to promote Chicanos to major offices and who passed legislation giving Mexican-American farmworkers the right to organize into unions. Similarly, LGBT voters might be drawn to a candidate who was appointing lesbian and gay judges in the 1970’s and who took a strong stance against anti-gay discrimination long before that was a safe political position even for Democrats. Mr. Brown would have to overcome a lot of negatives among older voters outside of California, but much of this could be ameliorated by taking the attacks head on and arguing that Mr. Brown wasn’t crazy or wrong, just ahead of his time.

Another Brown-Clinton primary race is very unlikely, not least because, according to Mr. Fracchia, his friend from Jesuit times, Mr. Brown is “more at peace with himself than in a very long time.” Mr. Fracchia sees this as part of the reason Mr. Brown will pass up one more chance to be president. “He would have loved to have been president. He would have been a great president and shaken things up, but he’s made his peace with it. …Jerry has a pretty realistic sense of life and his limits.”

For people who love politics, or think that competition benefits the Democratic Party, this is unfortunate. A race between Mr. Brown and Ms. Clinton would be the last great political campaign of the 20th century, despite occurring in the second decade of the 21st. Two giants of the Democratic Party, both in their last campaign, and with a history of bad blood that would quickly come back to the forefront of the race, would battle it out one last time. However, even Mr. Brown, a politician and iconoclast unlike any other, will almost certainly pass on one last chance to pursue the office he first sought in 1976 rather than take on the Clintons and the whole Democratic leadership one more time.

Lincoln Mitchell is the national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.