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Patt Morrison on Jerry Brown's fourth term as California governor

Jerry Brown speaks at the inaugural for his fourth and final term on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015.
Jerry Brown speaks at the inaugural for his fourth and final term on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015.
File photo by Andrew Nixon/ Capital Public Radio

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He’s been in public office for 30 years, and in the public eye even longer.

At the age of 76, he is starting his fourth term as California’s governor — older, even, than Ronald Reagan when he entered his final term as president.

And California’s still trying to figure out the puzzle that is Jerry Brown.

This man, who was a pallbearer at Cesar Chavez’s funeral and a volunteer with Mother Teresa, is also as wily a politician as they come. His fellow Democrats have called him selfish, self-absorbed, self-serving. Ten years ago, Brown admitted, “I’ve been in office and I’ve been out of office, and if I were to choose, I’d rather be in office.”

Brown is the only man who ever has been and now ever can be elected to four terms as California governor. What is it he wants?

Closure? Legacy? Maybe doing one better than his dad, a two-term governor of California?

Pat Brown built the state water system — Jerry Brown faces an epochal drought. The father governed in fat times, the son in lean times. As a family friend once said, the father reaches out — the son reaches in.

And yet Jerry Brown conveys a confident offhandedness that’s appealed to California voters, as if he could take the job or leave it. But he’s cultivated those symbols: the pinchpenny Democrat, the man who, 40 years ago, stopped the official giveaway of free briefcases to civil servants to end “the blizzard of paperwork.”

Mm-hmm, that worked.

He gets away with remarks like accusing select legislators of believing that “taxes are like some kind of sexually transmitted disease.” He didn’t get married until he was old enough for Social Security. He throws out remarks in Latin, quotes an Irish poet and a French philosopher in the same speech, and if he’s ever kissed a baby on the campaign trail or hugged a disaster victim, I can’t remember it.

He’s run for president three times, and the Beltway pundits would dearly love it if he ran again. But there’s plenty for him to do here:

He plans to end his governorship as he began it — as an environmental warrior. Brown’s fourth inaugural speech was about putting the brakes on climate change, about ending greenhouse gas emissions, maybe one solar rooftop at a time. Forty years ago, in his first term, he devised a tax incentive for solar rooftops.

And Brown says he also intends to see that high-speed rail actually comes to pass. The day after his fourth inaugural, he went to Fresno for the groundbreaking.

Maybe he’ll still be around when it’s finished, to drive in the 21st century’s Golden State golden spike. I wouldn’t put it past him.