Zen and the art of Gov. Jerry Brown

Jeremy Kinsman on California's enigmatic new governor, Jerry Brown, back for a return engagement.

The year was 1975. Elvis was alive and (apparently) well in Graceland. Montreal's Olympic Stadium was behind schedule. The Berlin wall would be good for another 14 years.

There were no personal computers, cellphones or ATMs. No one had heard of HIV/AIDS. Or climate change.

Out on the sunny "Left Coast," John Wayne was still alive and, after the statutory limit of two terms, his friend Ronald Reagan was stepping down as governor of California.

Elected in as Reagan's successor in November that year, Jerry Brown, 37, became the youngest governor in Californian history.

Curiously, Brown was the son of Reagan's predecessor, Pat Brown, a New Deal liberal. But as a sort of New Age contrarian, Jerry was a very different cat from his dad.

Yes, it was all so long ago, but it also seems eerily familiar. Indeed, California then seems like a lot of places now.

The once and future governor of California, Jerry Brown on election night, Nov. 2, 2010, in Oakland. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

For example, when Jerry Brown first became governor, California was going through something of an anti-government, populist tea party of its own, imposing term limits and capping property taxes and hence spending.

Today, there is evidence here of buyers' remorse, now that the state's finances have sunk and, with them, essential services.

But that hasn't stopped the rest of the country from following suit. In the U.S. midterms in November, Democrats and political insiders were shellacked by Republicans and insurgent Tea Partiers across the nation.

But the "Republic of California," true to form, bucked the trend.

In the biggest electoral contest on the coast, a new Democratic governor was elected in a landslide over a very well-heeled Republican opponent.

The winner? Seventy-two-year-old Jerry Brown, who now becomes the oldest governor in California history.

Crank up the time machine

What might this mean? And where has he been in the meantime?

As a two-term governor from 1975 to 1983, Brown became a national figure and used this platform to run for the presidency three times, most recently in 1992 when his campaign netted an impressive 596 committed delegates on the first ballot, second only to Bill Clinton.

Brown came up short nationally, in part because of a lingering reputation for flakiness. His long-time girlfriend, pop queen Linda Ronstadt had affectionately likened him to a moonbeam and the name, Governor Moonbeam, stuck.

But the fact is that Brown was always a very different professional politician from anyone else.

I first met him in 1983 at what was to be a quick breakfast to discuss Pierre Trudeau's invitation for the governor to join an advisory council on nuclear disarmament. The L.A. restaurant threw us out hours later when they needed the table for lunch.

Initially a Jesuit seminarian, then a Buddhist, he was and is a deep thinker, ahead of the curve. What's more, in opposition to his sunny dad, he has been a dark teller of "the way it is."

He warned before it became trendy about the limits to growth and preached that small is beautiful. He was green when other Americans thought the gas-guzzling could go on forever.

Back in the 1970s, politicians such as Jimmy Carter were pasted by voters for daring to warn that the good life couldn't last. But today, when reality is foreclosure, Brown has a reputation for clairvoyance.

Reduce expectations

Always a hard-headed fiscal conservative, he governed frugally, adapting state budgets to the debilitating impact of the tax cuts mandated by proposition 13-like referendums.

An editorial cartoon in the Sacramento Bee from those days shows a freeway sign on the state line counselling drivers entering California to "Reduce Expectations" — then another frame showing the sign for those leaving the state, "Resume Expectations."

After leaving office in 1983, Brown studied Buddhism for several years in Japan and then joined Mother Teresa for a time in Calcutta, emerging as a potent new political hybrid, a hard-headed fiscally conservative humanitarian.

Still a political animal, he came back as the mayor of Oakland, the tough and beaten-up side of San Francisco Bay, in 1999.

He led a redevelopment of the downtown core and certain neighbourhoods, and was a nuts-and-bolts mayor who lived downtown himself and confronted crime head on.

In 2007, to a great many people's surprise, he ran once again for state office and was elected attorney general. To no one's surprise, he was constantly on TV, leading the prosecution against Michael Jackson's drug-prescribing doctor, industrial polluters and child pornographers.

Though a long-time opponent of the death penalty, his Jesuitical background made him a natural law and order guy.

After Arrrnold

Several politicians savoured the Democratic nomination to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this year, but backed off challenging Jerry in the primary.

No small podium, being governor of California. Here, outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger address British guardsmen, with British PM David Cameron looking on, in central London in October 2010. (Paul Hackett/Reuters)

His Republican opponent was presumed to be formidable: The former eBay CEO, billionaire Meg Whitman who, in line with conventional political wisdom for a big-media state, proceeded to spend over $140 million of her own money on the race, mostly on TV ads attacking her opponent.

It was the most money ever spent in the U.S. on a non-presidential campaign and, if the response of California voters can be trusted, we can at last conclude that money can't buy everything, especially at a time when a great many ordinary Californians had lost their jobs, homes and aspirations, while the Super Rich kept raking it in.

It didn't help that, as a candidate, Whitman was simply dreadful. It turned out she hadn't even voted for 28 years.

The big teachable moment came about when it became known that Whitman's maid, Nicky Diaz, was an illegal immigrant but had been working for Whitman for nine years.

The candidate threw Nicky under the bus with no offer to help her legal plight or tide her over until her problems were resolved. Nicky Diaz went public with her anger and pain and the Latino vote, 25 per cent of the electorate, broke 63-30 for Brown.

So, what is likely to happen to America's largest and most powerful state, the world's seventh largest economy if it were a country, with Jerry Brown back in the governor's chair?

With a budget deficit of some $26 billion and many state services battered almost beyond recognition, there are no easy answers. But California is still the place where every tech genius wants to be.

Mr. Austerity, who is also Mr. Humanitarian, has everybody wondering what's going to get the chop. Brown has promised a hard-headed statewide conversation with interest groups and the public at large to identify what it is people want and how they propose to pay for it.

If they are smart, non-Californians will pay attention. Financial austerity and environmental stewardship are mantras around the globe, even if few have figured out how to make them co-exist.

There could be lessons on life once again from Jerry Brown, back as the governor of the place where trends begin.