See Jerry Run. Again.

The first rule of Jerry Brown's campaign for governor is that he doesn't talk about his campaign for governor.

So far, this is working. If the 2010 election for governor of California were held this year, Brown would win. Easy. As of this writing, he leads in all the polls, both in the Democratic primary (against San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose campaign is leaking staff and money) and in possible general-election matchups (against former Rep. Tom Campbell, a Republican who is probably too liberal to be nominated by his party, and former tech executives Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, who lack charisma and deep political experience).

All of which makes Jerry Brown California's governor in waiting. Emphasis on the waiting.

While his opponents have been campaigning for more than six months, the front-runner won't admit he's a candidate. (However, Brown and his aides are happy to brag about his fundraising -- as of this summer, he had eight times more cash in his political account than Newsom.) His public schedule consists almost entirely of press conferences where he limits the discussion to his current job as state attorney general.

For someone of my age -- I was a toddler when Brown was elected governor in 1974 and a fourth-grader when he left office at the end of 1982 -- the Brown that shows up for these press conferences doesn't seem like the rebel politician who once dated a pop star and ran for president and suggested the state have its own satellite. This new Brown looks conventional. Bald except for a ring of whitish hair around the back of his head, the 71-year-old attorney general wears a conservative charcoal suit with white shirt and dark tie, stands in front of a tableau of cartoonish charts, and tries to make a no-brainer policy -- demanding that "mortgage modification" firms prove they help homeowners -- sound sexy enough to make the 6 o'clock news.

Such a routine makes all the sense in the world -- if his goal is to maintain his current political advantage. But a little talk about the big picture is in order. Outside Brown's news conferences, California is coming undone. This summer, unemployment reached 11.9 percent. Tens of billions of dollars have been cut from the budget in the past year. Thousands of teachers have been laid off. State offices are now closed three Fridays a month. University tuition has been hiked. Thousands of elderly and disabled people are losing their state-provided health insurance.

The crisis is so profound that it may present an opportunity for California to fix its badly broken government. Coalitions on the left and in the center (the right is sitting on the sidelines, enjoying the Armageddon) are drafting plans to change the way the state is governed. They hope to get several measures on the 2010 ballot that would reshape the state budget, call a state constitutional convention, and perhaps unwind much of Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that severely limited the government's ability to raise taxes -- a major contributing factor to the budget hole California finds itself in today.

If any candidate should be talking about this, it's Jerry Brown. After all, Prop. 13 passed during his governorship. But Brown has yet to engage the would-be reformers. In the rare moments when he's asked how the state might be fixed, he talks vaguely of the need to forge compromise and invokes older, better times in California, when he and his father, former Gov. Pat Brown, were in power. "We can talk about 'restoring the dream,'" he told a union conference in Palo Alto during an explicitly political appearance this summer. "Well, I was around when the dream was here."

This is a dodge -- not only of the present questions about what he might do as governor but also of lasting concerns about Brown's own role in diminishing the California dream. Pat Brown was a great builder of the highways and waterways and schools that made the state prosperous, but his son Jerry announced "an era of limits." Since that declaration 33 years ago, the state's population has grown from 22 million to more than 38 million. The state government has not kept up. If Brown has specific ideas on what to do about all of this, he is keeping them to himself.

This reticence surprised me at first. I assumed that Brown's decades in politics would free him to confront the big questions of the day. I thought that in times like these no politician would risk being seen as focusing narrowly on his own work and ambitions.

I didn't know much about Jerry Brown.

***

One recent summer afternoon I drove over to Lucy's El Adobe Cafe, a Mexican restaurant across the street from Paramount Pictures, to eat lunch. This place was one of Brown's hangouts in the 1970s when he was dating Linda Ronstadt, and the waitress said he still drops by once in a while. I ordered the Jerry Brown Special -- rice with chicken at the decidedly 2009 price of $15.75.

The restaurant walls were full of photographs from the 1970s. Cesar Chavez before his hair turned gray. Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne looking younger than I'd ever seen them. Dolly Parton, her face so unlined that at first I thought she was Jessica Simpson. Above me was a photo of Brown, upon which the then-governor had written: "Serious business, isn't it?"

To Brown, the question was rhetorical. His governorship, beginning in 1975, was built around the idea that politics was a dubious enterprise. Brown spoke in aphorisms that were part Confucius, part Chauncey Gardiner. He made a virtue of inaction. "You don't have to do things. Maybe by avoiding doing things you accomplish quite a lot," he declared in his early days as governor. His favorite reply to questions about his policy plans? "What we need is a flexible plan for an ever-changing world."

To supporters, Brown was fashioning a new form of low-impact liberalism, emphasizing caution and the wisdom of breaking from the Great Society '60s. He appointed progressives to California's sea of boards and commissions, championed wind and solar power before it was popular, and expanded collective-bargaining rights, most memorably for farm workers. His youth (he was 36 when he took office) and appealing biography (the governor's son who spent time in seminary and practiced Zen meditation and thus learned to think differently) offered some cover for his more conservative economic views. Journalists fell in love. Eight books were published about his governorship, with titles such as The Philosopher Prince, The Man on the White Horse, and In a Plain Brown Wrapper.

Reading these books, I was struck by how fatalistic Brown sounded. The trouble with his do-nothing attitude is that some years bring seismic political change -- even if the man in power is committed to inaction. One of those years was 1978, smack in the middle of Brown's two terms as governor. A surge in property values and the resulting taxes produced a revolt in the form of Prop. 13. That measure, appearing on the June ballot as Brown was running for re-election, limited future property-tax increases and required a two-thirds vote of the legislature to raise taxes.

Progressives, both then and now, argue that Brown's brand of anti-government liberalism fueled the Prop. 13 fire. If government isn't all that important, what does it matter if you cut taxes? Brown had frozen highway construction, criticized funding for adult education and food stamps, and slashed social services. "I am going to starve the schools financially until I get some educational reforms," he said in one encounter with reporters.

What reforms, governor?

"I don't know yet."

His frugality produced a huge surplus -- which also boosted Prop. 13. As the governor was sitting on cash in Sacramento, rising taxes were forcing people out of homes in the San Fernando Valley. Brown recently told me that the surplus was necessary, both to provide tax relief (which the legislature at first rejected) and to cushion the state against bad economic times. By the time Brown and the legislature agreed on an alternative property-tax-cutting ballot measure to head off the extreme Prop. 13, it was too late. Prop. 13 passed with 65 percent of the vote.

Brown, in the midst of running for re-election, called himself a "born-again tax cutter" and immediately reinvented himself as Prop. 13's champion. (He maintains now that he had to support 13 after its victory because of his oath to defend the state constitution.) Brown went so far as to befriend the legislation's co-sponsor, the anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis. "It seemed like he went over to Jarvis' house frequently," says Joel Fox, who would later serve as an aide to Jarvis. "Mrs. Jarvis would tell stories about serving lunch to the governor with Howard in his pajamas. Howard voted for him for re-election because Jerry convinced him he would implement Prop. 13 in the right spirit."

As it happens, the only thing worse than Prop. 13 itself was its implementation. Brown and the legislature bailed out cities and counties that lost revenues under the law -- and thus established the dysfunctional system of budgeting that plagues California to this day. Tax and spending decisions once made by city councils and school boards were centralized in Sacramento. The state Capitol became a giant piggy bank, with interests on the right and left using lobbying muscle -- and the initiative process -- to carve out special protections for their funds, leaving less for broad public investments. At the rare moments when Democrats tried to make such investments, Prop. 13's two-thirds requirement for taxes allowed Republicans, even when they were in the minority, to block them.

Brown was distracted as this new system was constructed. During one stretch in 1979, he was out of California for 79 out of 100 days as he prepared for his 1980 presidential campaign. Brown stayed in touch by phone, but it was hard to get much done with an absentee governor. "Our long suit has always been ideas," his then–Chief of Staff Gray Davis told The Washington Post in 1979. "Our shortcomings have been in staffing and carrying out those ideas."

To his critics, this is the real Brown -- a fellow always busy running for the next office. The pattern began all the way back in 1969, when he ran for a seat on the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees in order to build a Southern California political base for a campaign for the secretary of state's office in 1970. Not long after arriving in that job, he began plotting his 1974 run for governor. In just his second year in office, in 1976, he ran for president. Even his defeat in that and the 1980 election wouldn't change him. He spent his final year in office -- 1982 -- running for the U.S. Senate, a race he lost to Pete Wilson.

After the Senate race, Brown took some time off from politics. During this period, he spent a few weeks with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. But by 1989, he was back, winning the chairmanship of the California Democratic Party and pledging to devote himself to the "nuts and bolts" of politics for a four-year term. Two years later, in February 1991, he quit to run for the U.S. Senate. In September 1991, he dropped the Senate race to make a run for president, calling himself an "insurgent" against the Democratic Party (which he had been running in the largest state only months earlier). He gave Bill Clinton a scare with his 800 number, $100 limit on donations, and claims that all campaign contributions were "organized bribery." After losing that race, he moved to a loft in Oakland and launched a radio show on which he suggested he was through with politics. But by 1998 he was at it again and announced he was running for mayor of Oakland. In 2006, the last year of his second term as mayor, he ran and won the race for state attorney general.

Now, a little more than halfway through his first term, Brown is a candidate for governor, albeit an undeclared one.After a recent press conference -- about a drug prosecution, not the gubernatorial race -- I approached Brown and asked what kind of governor he might be the second time around. He cheerfully replied: "If you figure that out, let me know."

***

These days, Jerry Brown works inside a state office building in Oakland, where he lives. This is one of the smaller outposts of the attorney general's office. He visits headquarters in Sacramento an average of once a week. His aides say he's focused on being attorney general, but he also spends a significant amount of time in "organized bribery" -- fundraising. The campaign cash goes into an account that could be used to run for re-election as attorney general -- or for governor. No one thinks it will be used for the former.

Brown, who has also been registered to vote in San Francisco and Los Angeles during his career, has made Oakland his political home. Once he declares his gubernatorial candidacy, you can expect him to talk about his eight years as mayor. He promoted downtown redevelopment, encouraging some 10,000 people to move in and revitalize Oakland's hollow center. Crime dropped, though the number of homicides nearly doubled, from 84 in 2001 to 148 in 2006. His attempts to take over the schools faltered, the state took them over instead, and Brown focused on starting two charter schools -- one a military academy, the other focused on arts. Both are considered successes.

By his own account, Brown became more grounded in detail in the mayor's office. As an attorney general, he has done something similar by focusing on environmental issues and real-estate fraud while leaving the rest to underlings. Given his inattention to his duties in his governorship, this focus reassures some. Others, including former employees, suggest that the office's work in consumer protection, firearms control, and gambling regulation has suffered from lack of attention. "I have not been impressed by his desire to solve deep problems facing our society," says Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica–based consumer education and advocacy group. "He's put all his resources into global warming and predatory lending, which looks good and popular, but I don't see the office as having a big impact in those areas."

Whatever the merits of his management style, the main political benefit of being attorney general is obvious -- the ability to announce prosecutions that make news. Two mornings a week, Brown discusses law-enforcement topics on news-talk radio shows (Tuesdays on KABC in Los Angeles, Thursdays on KGO in the Bay Area). The KGO hosts routinely try to get him to discuss the governor's race and major policy issues outside law enforcement; his expert dodging of such queries has become a running joke.

Once in a while, Brown drops a few hints about his views of the state's fiscal crisis -- and sounds much like the budget-cutting governor he was 30 years ago. "Stupid use of funds is ... more common," he said on KGO. "That's what we've got to root out if we're going to solve this budget deficit." He has supported the current governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, at three crucial moments. In late 2003, Brown, as mayor of Oakland, showed up at a Capitol news conference to endorse Schwarzenegger's decision to use an accounting maneuver (instead of a tax increase) to cover a cut in the state's vehicle-licensing fees. Brown later backed Schwarzenegger's 2004 borrowing plan to fix the state structural deficit (thus avoiding tax increases again). He also joined with the governor to preserve the state's three-strikes laws, which have led to costly prison overcrowding. Those factors -- the car tax cut, state borrowing, and the huge prisoner population -- are three of the four biggest contributors to the state's persistent budget deficits. (The fourth is health-care costs.)

This year, Brown accepted an invitation to address the Lincoln Club of San Diego, an organization that raises money for Republican candidates. There, he hinted he wanted to cut taxes in California. When I recently asked Brown whether he still supports the "flat tax" proposal that was part of his 1992 presidential campaign (and earned the strong endorsement of his longtime friend, the conservative economist, Arthur Laffer), Brown replied that he wants a "simpler" tax. Even Ted Costa, the Republican anti-tax activist who led the recall of Gov. Gray Davis, speaks warmly of Brown: "Look at his record -- the budget increased less under Brown than Ronald Reagan. And he has on-the-job training. He's the one who talks about learning to live with less."

Most aggravating to progressives is how Brown has kept his distance from those who want to fix the state's tax and budget systems. Having been present at the creation of Prop. 13, Brown is uniquely positioned to offer a mea culpa and campaign for reform. Instead, on the few occasions he addresses the subject, he's been combative. When the author Peter Schrag recently blamed Brown for the passage of Prop. 13 on a progressive blog, Brown attacked Schrag on the same blog as "increasingly bitter."

Worst of all for progressives, Brown, asked about the reform efforts last spring by Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, replied: "I'm not going to advocate messing with 13. That's a big fat loser."

"The problem with Brown is that I'm not convinced he's moved past 1978," says Robert Cruickshank, who works for the progressive 700,000-member network Courage Campaign and is a frequent contributor to the blog Calitics. "The lesson he drew from that is that he has to adapt to a more conservative reality. ... I'm concerned that it's not going to be the kind of governorship where you see significant changes in the way California operates."

The progressive arguments in favor of Brown run along three lines. First, that he's older, wiser, and for the first time in his life, married. He tied the knot in 2005 with Anne Gust, a brilliant lawyer who political operatives say is managing his undeclared campaign.

Second, that it's time for a pro after seven years of an actor-amateur. "After having Arnold, California is fundamentally broken. Jerry Brown is the most sophisticated politician in the state," says Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association.

Third, that Brown is right to distance himself from progressive reformers who want to change Prop. 13 and the California Constitution because such reforms are politically unrealistic. "If I had a magic wand, I'd be for all of that, but that's not going to happen," says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who has known Brown for 30 years. "You need someone who can be an honest broker and work through these issues one at a time. And Jerry is smart about the reality of California politics."

Brown may be right on the politics. But his argument for caution sounds awfully like the kind of surrender to Prop. 13's victory that he engaged in 30 years ago -- and that got California into its current mess. In the meantime, the sexy story of Brown's likely return to the governor's office could soak up some of the energy and public attention that advocates of reforming the state constitution badly need.

Steve Maviglio, a Democratic operative who worked for Gov. Davis and the last two speakers of the Assembly, thinks the party should find another candidate: "California needs new leadership, not recycled leadership." But there don't appear to be politically viable alternatives. Newsom may be in the race to stay, but polls show him trailing even in his hometown of San Francisco. Several Democrats have asked the state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a longtime legislator who was Brown's predecessor as attorney general, to make a run. Lockyer says he won't. One reason: Being governor shortens your life, and Lockyer, 68, has a 6-year-old son. "The other reason is very practical," Lockyer says. "I don't see how anyone, including me, gets by Jerry Brown in a primary."

So an entire state is left to wait and see what kind of governor Brown might be.

Who knows if he'll ever tell us? Flipping through old articles, I came across a copy of Newsweek from May 1976. Explaining his lack of a clear agenda in that year's presidential campaign, Brown said, "A little vagueness goes a long way in this business."

A very long way.

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