FROM SACRAMENTO — Three years ago, when he was campaigning for attorney general, Jerry Brown scoffed at the notion that he was positioning himself to run again for governor.
"No, I don't want to be governor," he told me. "I've been there. That's a tough job."
Of course he was being disingenuous. But it was an unfair question.
No candidate can admit he really has his eyes set on a higher post -- not Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when he was running for reelection, not Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner when he was bidding for his obscure job, not San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Like Brown, all now are plotting to be governor.
That was the only politically acceptable answer for Brown at the time. Times have changed. He's the attorney general -- the second most powerful statewide officeholder -- and, based on polls, the early favorite for the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nomination if U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein doesn't run.
Nobody really knows what Feinstein will do. But the best bet is she'll hang onto her Senate clout.
Brown was governor from 1975 to 1983. He succeeded Ronald Reagan, who had ousted his father, Pat Brown, from the governor's office.
Why would anybody want to be governor again, particularly at his age? Brown just turned 71.
The short answer is the obvious one: Politics and public policy are his passion. It's in the bloodline. In all, he has held five elective offices, including Los Angeles Community College trustee, California secretary of state and Oakland mayor, 1998 to 2006.
"I liked being mayor. I liked being governor. I like being attorney general," Brown told me. "As mayor, I learned about making things happen."
He didn't always make things happen as governor -- most notably property tax relief. His and the Legislature's long lollygagging led to passage of Proposition 13, sponsored by apartment owners lobbyist Howard Jarvis. It resulted in substantial property tax reductions but led to fiscal chaos in local and state governments and shifted more responsibility and power to Sacramento.
Any objective chronology of when California governments and schools began to slide downhill begins with implementation of Prop. 13 in 1978.
But Brown says, "I'm not going to advocate messing with 13. That's a big fat loser."
If he had it to do over again, the former governor says, he would have created his own property tax initiative and used it to threaten the Legislature into compromise -- as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did on workers' compensation insurance in 2004.
"More relief and simpler," Brown says, "without all the bells and whistles" -- presumably such as Prop. 13's two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases.
One thing Brown did make happen as governor was collective bargaining for public employees. I asked him whether he'd created a monster.
"Well, they certainly are a formidable force now," Brown acknowledges, referring to the unions that help bankroll Democratic campaigns. "One cannot be a Democratic candidate without having good relationships with public sector unions. That's a fact."
But the unions "are going to have to come around" and help solve the budget crises of state and local governments, Brown says.
Employees have been "asking more of government than the voters can be convinced to finance," he asserts. "That's a fundamental problem. They're going to have to start contributing more" to their own pensions.
As a young governor rebelling against his father's political generation, Brown famously -- often annoyingly -- preached that people needed to "lower their expectations." Does he still think that?
"I think they're going to," he replies. "But I haven't said I'll be the apostle of lowered expectations. I've said I'll be the apostle of common sense."
Referring to the way he'd govern, Brown continues: "You've got to take the world as you find it. You can improve it. But you can't improve it in ways that require miracles. You do as well as you can. . . .
"There's going to be a reshaping of what we have a right to expect."
The next governor is likely to find Sacramento in a horrible financial mess, especially if the budget fixes on the May 19 ballot fail.
"For a while you'll have to borrow," Brown says. "You're not going to cut or tax your way to absolute [budget] balance. I don't think it's possible. You hopefully get money from the federal government. . . . You can sell some assets to pay back accumulated debt.
"You're going to have to curb spending. That's going to be extremely frustrating.
"I'm not going to advocate raising taxes. There's no limit to the taxes. When you say, 'Just get the money,' you get new programs."
Brown seems to be calibrating his political persona to fit what he gauges to be the public mood.
"So much of it is the times," he says. "What makes sense after Arnold?
"I kind of think a guy who knows his way, is pretty down to earth, no bells and whistles, just meat and potatoes. That's kind of where I am."
Three decades ago, Brown would not have been described as meat and potatoes.
"It's back to basics," he comments, grinning.
How about president? Does he still yearn for that? He ran three times.
He mumbles a dismissal.
"That's definitely unrealistic," he says. "We've got a young president. Unrealistic."
Anyway, he adds, being a sitting California governor "is more quicksand than catapult."
But Brown still craves the quicksand.