Jerry Brown, version 2.0: 'California's the healthiest it's been in a decade'

Rory Carroll - 

Once known for his ambition and environmentalism, the governor has stabilised California's economy and embraced pragmatism.

For years, California was a gift for late-night comedians. It was a political circus, a once-golden state on the verge of bankruptcy, reckless and ungovernable. And Jerry Brown, who led the state before the crisis, was remembered, if at all, as "Governor Moonbeam", a kooky, distant predecessor to the baroque Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“California is so broke that Mexico fixed the hole in the fence to keep us from crawling back in again,” Jay Leno joked last year. “California is so broke that I saw a going-out-of-business sign at a meth lab.”

But now the punchlines have dried up, because California, to widespread astonishment, has abandoned dysfunction. The budget is in surplus. Politicians and voters are showing sense and moderation. And it's all happening under Jerry Brown, version 2.0.

“Word of California's demise was greatly exaggerated,” the governor told the Guardian. “The annual budget is stable for the first time in a decade.” And now Brown, 75, is back in the spotlight, like the old days, as he prepares a likely run for re-election next year.

An environmentalist who favours fracking, a fiscal hawk who champions mega-infrastructure projects, a once would-be priest who dated a rock star, he is hard to categorise. But for his political savvy and ability to get stuff done he is widely seen as a wily operator. Vice-president Joe Biden has called him “the smartest guy in American politics”.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian during a recent fundraising trip to Los Angeles, Brown discussed his record, the state's rebound and how it could all still go wrong, as well as what he’s learned and how he’s changed over his career.

“I'd say California is the healthiest it's been in more than a decade. When I took over the deficit was $27bn, and now it's in surplus. So that's very positive,” he said, seated in an amrchair overlooking the Pacific. “But significant challenges remain. And they grow, they don't diminish.”

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