Jerry Brown wants to be governor of California again
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER may be less than halfway through his final term as California's governor, but the slow dance to replace him is already under way. One figure looms above all others. Jerry Brown is not, you understand, running a campaign just yet. But he has begun to raise money and muse publicly on the state's future. He begins a sentence with: “Were I to be governor”. As he himself puts it, he would not be behaving any differently if he were in the race.
Mr. Brown has the best surname in California politics. His father, Pat Brown, was the state's chief post-war architect, overseeing an extraordinary boom in freeways, aqueducts and universities. The son has already served two terms as governor, beginning in 1975 and 1979, and two as mayor of Oakland. He was California's secretary of state and is now its attorney-general. He also found time to study Buddhism and Spanish, work with Mother Teresa and run for president three times.
Like many veteran politicians, Mr. Brown has a complex, contradictory record; unlike most, he sometimes appears to change his mind several times in the course of a conversation. Known for his firm opposition to the death penalty, he has also acquired a reputation as a law-and-order strongman. He espouses pragmatic, limited government and is one of the few successful politicians to run on a platform of lowered expectations. But Mr. Brown enlivens this rather dry philosophy with frequent flights of fancy. In the 1970s he tried to establish a state space programme, earning the nickname “Governor Moonbeam”.
Mr. Brown is a more sober politician these days—the experience of running gritty Oakland brought him down to earth—but he hasn't lost his esoteric streak. Latin quotes and musings on the impermanence of life pepper his speeches. He asks your bewildered correspondent about German environmental policy and 16th-century history. He is a startlingly cultured man in what is sadly an often boorish profession.
He can also see the future, and does not like it much. While the current governor is almost invariably sunny and upbeat, Mr. Brown sees daunting problems ahead for California. He is inclined to run for governor on a platform of holding the state together “with baling wire and scotch tape”. How such glum talk goes down on the coast of dreams remains to be seen, but Mr. Brown's forecast is almost certainly right.
As he well knows, a nasty surprise awaits the next governor. In 2006 California passed an environmental law that committed the state to drastic reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020. It is a bold pledge—indeed, probably an impossible one—that will require painful sacrifices. These will be spelled out by a state board two years after Mr. Schwarzenegger leaves office. A backlash is almost inevitable. Last year, as attorney-general, Mr. Brown sued the city of San Bernardino to force a change to its urban plan, which called for sprawling growth. In response, Republican legislators held the state budget hostage.
California groans with debt—a result of Mr. Schwarzenegger's Pat Brown-like enthusiasm for roads and waterways, together with his distaste for tax increases. And California's slowing economy means there is worse to come. This year's budget features an accounting wheeze that involves borrowing against future lottery revenues. The next governor's bills are already piling up.
Mr. Brown is already 70. He will seem even older if Gavin Newsom, San Francisco's dashing mayor, decides to run for the state's top job. But the old man will be a formidable opponent. After Mr. Schwarzenegger's bluster, a modest, slightly crotchety governor may be just what Californians want.