The Reinvention Of Calif.'s New And Former Governor In California, former Gov. Jerry Brown, 72, is preparing to return to the job he left 28 years ago. After his first stint in the governor's office and three failed presidential bids, Brown took a new approach: immersing himself in the nuts and bolts of running a big city as mayor of Oakland.
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The Reinvention Of Calif.'s New And Former Governor

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The Reinvention Of Calif.'s New And Former Governor

The Reinvention Of Calif.'s New And Former Governor

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The Republicans had hoped to win the governorship in California. But the winner there was the Democrat, a man who has re-invented himself a time or two.

Back in the 1970s, Jerry Brown was California's youngest governor in more than a century. Now, at age 72, he's about to become its oldest. And he takes office in the midst of disastrous economic times.

As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, Brown may try to fix the troubled state the same way he tried to fix a troubled city.

RICHARD GONZALES: In 1998, Jerry Brown was elected mayor of Oakland by a big margin. But if voters thought they were getting a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, they were wrong. He adopted a take-no-prisoners attitude, advocating real change.

Governor-elect JERRY BROWN (Democrat, California): And real change isn't so easy. It's a word that rolls off one's lips.

GONZALES: In his first 100 days, he forced a popular African-American police chief to resign. And he invited the U.S. Marines to conduct urban warfare exercises in Oakland. He waved off howling protests, saying the Marines would bring several million dollars to Oakland.

Gov.-elect BROWN: But every time you have real change, there's some pain. There's tension. There's adjustment. There's some wrenching going on.

GONZALES: One of Brown's cornerstone projects was to attract 10,000 new residents to the city's beleaguered downtown. He minced no words announcing that downtown developers had a new friend in city hall.

Gov.-elect BROWN: I want to make this very clear. If I say nothing else, we're not going to be coerced. We're not going to be intimidated. And we're not going to be stopped in the pursuit of a renewed Oakland. And we're going to just move through opposition, listening where we must and where we should but not being slowed down.

GONZALES: The plan worked. And today, downtown Oakland is full of new apartments and condos. On other fronts, Brown was less successful. Crime remained stubbornly high, but it didn't stop him from living in a downtown loft.

Gov.-elect BROWN: I've seen what it is. I live in a town where we've had a lot of crime. I live in a building where we've had two robberies - one by knife, one by gun. So this is not an abstraction. It's a matter of personal safety and commitment.

GONZALES: That commitment to Oakland made Jerry Brown a rock star in the eyes of supporters like developer John Protopappas.

Mr. JOHN PROTOPAPPAS (CEO, East Bay Real Estate): He got us to look at Oakland in a different way. We've become very proud of being Oaklanders, and a lot of that is due to Jerry Brown.

GONZALES: By trying to re-invent Oakland, Brown was also re-inventing himself. The man once derided as Governor Moonbeam, immersed himself in the nuts and bolts of managing a big city. After running unsuccessfully for president three times, Brown talked about practicalities, like potholes and property values.

Former Sacramento state communications professor Barbara O'Connor is a long time Jerry Brown watcher.

Ms. BARBARA O'CONNOR (Retired Professor, California State University, Sacramento): Jerry Brown is a pragmatist. He used to be an idealist. Now, he's an idealistic pragmatist.

GONZALES: But critics accuse Brown of grandstanding and said he was just using Oakland as a stepping stone to higher office. One of those critics was former school board member Dan Siegel.

Mr. DAN SIEGEL (Former President, Oakland Unified School District): We once had a discussion when we were on more friendly terms about who he is as a person. He leaned across the table, he said: Siegel, remember one thing about me. I'm a hundred percent political. If you understand that, you'll understand why I do things.

GONZALES: After Oakland, Brown was elected state attorney general. Despite his opposition to the death penalty, he walked the line on law and order. Now in his second act as governor, he'll lead a state many consider ungovernable. The state is more diverse. The legislature is ideologically divided.

And voter-imposed spending rules will limit Brown's options, says former state deputy treasurer Mark Paul.

Mr. MARK PAUL (Former Deputy Treasurer, California): When Jerry was governor, there was a lot of flexibility with regard to raising revenue in years in which things were bad. Now, it's all going the other direction. They're more and more hemmed in. Californians want services, but there's not the wherewithal to pay for them.

GONZALES: But few people remember that Brown was a very frugal governor, says Barbara O'Connor.

Ms. O'CONNOR: And he is still a fiscal conservative. And I think his supporters on the union side will be surprised about how serious he is about cutting and not taxing without prior public approval. He's learned his lessons.

GONZALES: The morning after winning the governor's race, Brown said he's fully aware of what lies ahead.

Gov.-elect BROWN: I didn't create this mess. I'm going to be straight and tell it like it is. And I'll do everything I can to make it work.

GONZALES: And in Brown's own words, he said: I've been up, and I've been down. I'm going to do my darndest to stay up.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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