California’s Colorful Ex-Governor Jerry Brown Emerges As New Frontrunner For 2010

A strange thing seems to be happening in California. State Attorney General Jerry Brown, the former governor from 1975-1983, recent mayor of Oakland from 1999-2007, and three-time presidential candidate, appears to actually be the favorite to be the next governor — making for a whole new act for one of the most colorful political personalities that state has had in the last 50 years.

As a new profile in the American Prospect explains, Brown has been known for his eccentric mix of progressive cultural values and fiscally conservative governance. When he was governor, he was strongly supportive of civil rights, the environment and labor unions, but was also very tight with money. He once famously declared: “I am going to starve the schools financially until I get some educational reforms.” And when he ran for president in 1992, he supported the traditionally right-wing flat tax.

Beyond that, Brown is best known for his colorful personal life when he was governor — he picked up the nickname “Governor Moonbeam” for his practice of Zen meditation, and he dated singer Linda Ronstadt while he was in office. There also the matter of his rather unconventional official state portrait, shown above. This all contributed to a somewhat inaccurate caricature of him as a left-winger. But now, he’s been emerging as the well-known, safe choice for governor, to succeed the term-limited Republican Arnold Schwarzengger — himself a colorful personality for obvious reasons.Brown’s political career followed a very strange path. The son of a two-term Democratic governor, Pat Brown, Jerry was elected California Secretary of State in 1970, then governor in 1974. Then in 1976, he ran for president. He was re-elected governor in 1978, then ran for president again in 1980 on a platform to “protect the Earth, serve the people, and explore the universe.” He then lost an open-seat race for U.S. Senate in 1982, and was seemingly gone from politics. However, in the late 1980’s he re-emerged as a brief California Democratic Party chairman, then ran for president in 1992. Despite his absence from politics, he actually got hundreds of delegates and went all the way to the convention on an anti-Bill Clinton message. In 1998, he was elected mayor of Oakland, and was widely credited with turning the city around in his two terms, before getting elected Attorney General. And here we are now, with him running for governor, in his sixth run for statewide office.

A Rasmussen poll released yesterday showed Brown leading all three Republican candidates for governor — former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, and former Rep. Tom Campbell — and his Democratic primary opponent, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, trailing all three of them. Brown’s favorable-unfavorable rating is 53%-37%, compared to Newsom’s 41%-44%. The pollster’s analysis suggested that if Newsom were to actually win the nomination, his own numbers would likely improve based on the state’s Democratic leanings. For now, it appears to be a mix of name recognition, and Brown possibly being somewhat better-liked than Newsom even after adjusting for that first difference.

Bill Clinton is coming to California next week to raise money for Newsom, which should come as no surprise. After all, Clinton and Brown had a famously nasty primary fight in 1992, with this memorable debate moment when Brown accused Bill of funneling state business to Hillary’s law firm:

“I don’t care what you say about me,” said Bill, “but you oughtta be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife. You’re not worthy of being on the same platform as my wife.”

Brown’s campaign Web site has a fun page, “25 Random Things About Me.” Check out this one: “24. The first time I became Governor, I followed an Actor (Ronald Reagan).” And obviously, he intends to pull off the same trick twice — and just might do it.

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