SACRAMENTO (AP) — Jerry Brown is on the verge of doing what no one has ever done in California and what no one may ever do again: get elected to a fourth term as governor.
After sidelining opponents and steadying the state’s finances, the quirky 76-year-old Democrat is looking to put his stamp on the state’s water and transportation infrastructure and playing statesman on global climate change, recently addressing a UN Climate Change conference.
Brown’s relative success at wresting control of the state’s once-massive budget deficit and his skill at distancing himself from political controversies have helped him eclipse his 1970s reputation as the “moonbeam” governor. His reemergence has even fueled speculation that he might make a fourth run for president against the unannounced front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
When asked about the possibility Friday, Brown told The Associated Press “there’s a lot of speculation and I’m not here to comment on speculation.”
Few in California think it’s likely, partly because he is still working to secure a legacy as governor that is at least equal to that of his father, a former governor who built the state’s water system that is now in need of an overhaul amid California’s historic drought.
Jerry Brown is a “serial achiever” who has an unconventional political style and is unconcerned with pretense, said Darrell Steinberg, outgoing leader of the state Senate and a fellow Democrat who has worked with Brown on all his major policy issues over the past four years.
“You don’t sit down at sort of a formal negotiating table,” Steinberg said. “The conversations are much more iterative and there’s less formality. It took me a little bit to get used to.”
Brown has already done one thing his father never did — win a third term as governor. And he told reporters after voting in June that he is cognizant of the historic nature of his quest for a fourth. Voters imposed a two-term limit for governors after Brown held the office from 1975-1983.
Brown’s November challenger, former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari, is a first-time candidate who helped lead the federal bank bailout at the height of the recession. Polls in overwhelmingly Democratic California show Brown leading Kashkari by 15 to 21 percentage points, and Brown has outpaced him in fundraising about 30-to-1.
Brown has also learned from past mistakes and built relationships with lawmakers from both parties. Republicans nearly unanimously endorsed his water bond proposal and GOP leaders have praised his fiscal restraint.
Many people credit Brown’s softened tone to his wife of nine years, Anne Gust Brown, a politically astute former corporate attorney for Gap Inc.
“She has burnished the rough edges, the bitterness,” said Sherry Bebitch-Jeffe, a senior political science fellow at the University of Southern California. “He knew everything the first time around. If he still believes that, he doesn’t show it quite as much.”
She said Brown is now doing what he likes to do and enjoys having a bully pulpit outside California when he wants it.
Brown uses that pulpit on his terms. He rarely holds news conferences and prefers to handle political feuds behind closed doors. His ability to fly below the radar as California emerges from the recession has won him a relatively high 55 percent approval rating among likely voters.
“I don’t think you could describe him as a governor who’s gone out of his way to create a high profile for himself, but when he does look for opportunities to connect with the public, it tends to be around issues in which there’s been some bipartisan support,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, which conducted the polling.
Brown led the campaign to persuade voters to approve temporary increases in the statewide sales tax and income taxes on high earners in 2012. The Legislature approved Brown’s plan to overhaul the education funding system to send more money to high-need schools and his restructuring of state prisons to allow lower-level offenders to go to county jails instead of state lock-ups.
Brown said in the interview with The Associated Press on Friday that he would work much more on both issues if re-elected.
But beyond those measures, Brown is still working to put his stamp on an initiative that would leave a lasting mark on the state. He remains a vocal supporter of a $68 billion high-speed rail project, which has been beset by legal troubles but remains one of his best opportunities for doing so.
The drought creates another opportunity, with Brown heavily promoting a November ballot measure to spend $7.5 billion on water infrastructure projects. His $25 billion companion plan to build two massive twin tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is more controversial.
After a lifetime in politics, though, the former Jesuit seminarian has taken a steady, workmanlike approach to governing, believing that constant vigilance is required. He frequently repeats his belief that experience is acquired over decades, not months.
“There’s a lot of serious tasks that I’m fully acquainted with, fully engaged in and committed to continuing over the next four years,” Brown said during the interview. “I can say honestly that there’s been good work done, and a lot of that good work needs to continue.”