THERE ARE PLENTY OF BAD reasons to vote for Jerry Brown for attorney general. Don't do it out of nostalgia. Brown was governor in the 1970s, but he can't return us to that less crowded state of yesteryear, with its newer highways and more mellow vibe. Don't do it out of a sense of mischief. Having an ex-governor as attorney general could create some interesting political dynamics in Sacramento, but Brown will have his hands full with his own job if he gets elected. Don't do it out of partisanship. Democrats are often as exasperated as they are energized by Brown's iconoclastic approach to politics. And don't do it out of sheer curiosity, to witness another chapter of the state's most fascinating story of personal reinvention and political longevity.
No, the reason to vote for Brown is simply that he combines an independent, thoughtful approach to government with decades of experience. The attorney general's office may be the best and most productive place for Brown, who began his political career in 1970 as secretary of state and is now mayor of Oakland. ("I specialize in unusual trajectories," he said, in one of the self-deprecating quotes that make him so popular with the media.)
The attorney general is often described as California's "top cop," and law enforcement is a crucial component of the job. Brown's experience as mayor of Oakland put him face to face with the problem of urban crime. He made some headway, but there has been a spike in crime at the end of his tenure. He now appears to be more aware of the limitations of get-tough programs and the suffering endured by crime victims and their families. Brown champions new technologies such as satellite tracking of parolees, and he is willing to admit past policy mistakes, such as demanding determinate sentencing.
But the attorney general's impact is probably widest in the area of consumer protection, and here Brown has a record of creative policymaking. As governor, he angered trial lawyers by capping medical malpractice awards, but his action helped lower medical costs. He has been a consistent fighter for the environment, civil rights and political reform.
The attorney general is charged with upholding all of the state's laws, but he uses his discretion to emphasize one area or another. For that reason, his interest, talents and political positions directly affect the lives of Californians. Brown's opponent, state Sen. Charles Poochigian (R-Fresno), is by all accounts smart and conscientious. But he focuses almost exclusively on the criminal enforcement side of the office, and his legislative record shows him to be insufficiently protective of state laws on the environment, abortion rights and gun control.
Brown has not mellowed over time, and his restless energy will keep his tenure from becoming just a victory lap or postscript to his career. He brings the outlook and experience necessary to the job.