Just like this fall, there was a desultory quality – some called it murky – to the way Gov. Jerry Brown campaigned two years ago for his pet Proposition 30, which raised sales taxes a smidgen while considerably upping income tax levies on the wealthiest in order to bail out schools and a few other state services to the tune of $6.5 billion a year.
Sure, Brown campaigned. But in the last weeks of his effort, there were no big labor rallies. No speeches to massive crowds in the main squares of the state’s biggest cities. There were few days when the governor made more than one appearance and plenty with none. Most of his appearances came on public college campuses, where his measure was already popular because of the likelihood that it would forestall more tuition increases.
In short, Brown was no dynamo. He looked and in some ways acted like the 74-year-old he was.
He’s been no more active this fall, at 76. If, as expected, he wins a fourth term next month, he’ll be the oldest person ever elected governor of California.
There is little doubt Brown is in top physical shape. He hikes, he bikes, he runs, he lifts weights. When New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie famously called him an “old retread” in a 2013 speech, Brown challenged him to a three-mile road race and nothing further was heard from the obviously overweight, out-of-shape easterner. Brown also has been fortunate, never having had a serious health crisis.
And he’s hinted that he wants to accomplish a lot more in what figures to be his last term in any public office. “My goal over the next few years is to pull people together,” he said in one talk. “We have our antagonisms in California, but we can find a common path…California has a lot of dynamic future ahead.”
In another, he said, “The key to administering this state is having a disciplinarian in the corner office.” He referred, of course, to himself.
The implication was that he’s uniquely equipped to unify the state, even though he’s failed somewhat at that task in the first four years of his second go-‘round.
Whatever the reason, he hasn’t campaigned much against Republican Neel Kashkari, the sacrificial lamb opposing his reelection. But he has relatively quietly overseen major changes in education financing and prison policy.
Brown’s style when campaigning this year has been pretty similar to when he was attorney general, his most recent previous job. His speeches then were mostly low-key affairs, with no rousing emotional appeals and little apparent forethought.
“I haven’t written a speech in awhile,” he said at one appearance. “They’re hard to write and even harder to read, so I just stick to my notes.”
At times, he’s seemed nostaligic for a slower-paced past. “In the world I live in now, there isn’t much past, not much memory,” he said. “It’s all about the news. So we work on all the chaos, hope and fear that drive us all.”
But no one can doubt Brown still has a passion for California. He sees that the state’s problems are mostly new versions of those that confronted his father, Pat Brown, governor from 1959-67: water, transportation, education and crime prevention. As then, he remarked, the question today is “how much (money) do we keep for ourselves and how much we contribute to the commonweal.”
That’s mostly in the category of musing, though. If anything aroused passion in Brown in the last few years, it was the influx of money from unidentified donors to an Arizona committee that kicked more than $10 million into the campaign against Proposition 30. “Who are these guys?” he demanded. “Are they foreigners? That’s illegal. Are they Californians using Arizona to hide from their own state’s sunshine laws? Also illegal.”
That’s about as fiery as Brown gets these days. Will he be even lower-key in his expected new term?
The answers to that kind of question will determine whether Brown can govern effectively as a lame duck over the next four years. His future is entirely up to him.