The Five Faces of Jerry Brown

Will one of them be California's next governor?


Officially, Jerry Brown isn't a candidate in California's budding gubernatorial campaign. Unofficially, he's widely expected to take the Democratic nomination and has a good shot at prevailing in the general election. If he wins, he'll be reclaiming a job he left 28 years before, embarking on yet another chapter in a life that has changed direction more times than a Sarah Palin sentence.

By turns eccentric and ambitious, spacey and shrewd, Brown has shown more faces in the last four decades than any ordinary statesman: a conventional heir to a political dynasty, a hippie-monkish governor with a taste for visionary ideas, a populist insurgent and talk-show host who rubbed shoulders with the radical Left, a nuts-and-bolts mayor of a corroded California city. Whatever his next incarnation might be, it will be rooted somehow in all the other versions that came before it.

The First Face of Jerry Brown

When Jerry Brown entered politics, he wasn't called Jerry Brown. He was Edmund G. Brown Jr., son of a former governor and, as far as the average voter could tell, not so different from dad. At this point, the younger Brown had been through several lives already: a seminary student who stopped short of becoming a priest, a globetrotting seeker who studied abroad, a lawyer who needed two tries to pass the California Bar. But his public life began as Pat Brown's kid, getting elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees in 1969 because he shared his father's name and then becoming California's secretary of state more or less the same way.

The senior Brown was associated with popular programs ranging from the Interstate to the state university system, and he was skilled at working both sides of the aisle. He had made his share of political missteps—Ronald Reagan's right-wing rebellion had blindsided him in 1966—but now he was a revered elder statesman. Voters remembered him fondly enough to cast their ballots for an almost identical name.

In 1974, at age 36, Jerry Brown won the race to replace the retiring Reagan as governor, defeating the Republican nominee Houston Flournoy with a vague campaign that didn't reveal much about Brown's views. In an entertaining tell-all, Jerry Brown: The Man on the White Horse, J.D. Lorenz, a fired Brown aide, quoted his boss bragging about a TV ad on crime: "I sound tougher than Flournoy, and I haven't proposed anything the liberals can criticize me for. In fact, I haven't committed myself to do anything at all." In Mother Jones, Paul Jacobs reported watching the future governor work some potential voters. The candidate didn't invoke space exploration or Buddhist economics. He said, "Hello, I'm Jerry Brown. I'm Pat Brown's son, and I'm running for governor. I hope you'll vote for me."

His unorthodox side was almost completely concealed. In that first gubernatorial campaign, a minor candidate—Elizabeth Keathley of the radical Peace and Freedom Party—promised that if elected, she'd adopt Brown and give him his old room in the governor's mansion back. No one suspected that once in office, Brown would decide to do without a mansion altogether.

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