Reporting from Oakland — Shortly after Jerry Brown became California's attorney general, a lawyer with a conservative property-rights group urged him in a letter to drop a global warming lawsuit against automakers.
Brown read the letter and promptly called the lawyer, M. David Stirling, counsel to the Pacific Legal Foundation. Although Brown refused to drop the suit — "He strongly believes in the global warming thing," Stirling said — the two men reminisced about the old days in the late 1970s and early '80s when Brown was governor and Stirling a Republican assemblyman.
" 'Dave, you and I aren't really that different,' " Stirling quoted Brown as saying. " 'You are a conservative, and I am a moderate.' And then we both started laughing."
Across more than four decades of holding or seeking public office, one of the defining characteristics of Jerry Brown has been political flexibility: an admirable lack of ideological rigidity to his admirers, a failure of political principle to his detractors. His four-year term as the state's attorney general has underscored that quality.
Brown has sided with prosecutors over civil libertarians, made gun control advocates wary, encouraged those who want to limit civil lawsuits and disappointed some consumer activists. On those issues, he has surprised liberals, some of whom suggest that his positions have been politically calculated toward a run for governor.
At the same time, he has also taken the relatively rare step of challenging two voter-approved laws in court, Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage and Proposition 209, limiting affirmative action. The California Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the novel legal theory Brown advanced against the marriage ban. On affirmative action, the court is considering Brown's argument that in certain cases, Proposition 209 might violate the U.S. Constitution.
Brown, 72, bristles at the suggestion that he has been inconsistent. His performance as attorney general shows that he is "very open-minded" and receptive to others' views, he said in an interview. "Knee-jerk ideology doesn't impress me much."
But those who have followed him for decades said Brown has long been defined by a willingness to change his mind.
"When circumstances change, Jerry will change," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, who worked for Brown three decades ago in the secretary of state's office. "You have to give him some credit for that, but at the same time, people get frustrated because they don't know where he will be."
Brown's eight years as mayor of Oakland, where he went to funerals of crime victims and worked with the real estate industry to try to revitalize neighborhoods, made him an occasional target of the left. Some conservatives believe the experience tempered him.
Unlike other attorneys general, Brown has declined to sponsor much new legislation, declaring that there are already too many laws. He has also said people have a fundamental right to own handguns.
"He is a complicated person, and his positions and views don't fit a simple profile," said Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Legal Community Against Violence, a gun-control group.
John Sullivan, head of the Civil Justice Assn. of California, a state tort reform group that fights trial lawyers, said Brown "knows the problem of too much litigation now far better than he did when he was governor" and can empathize with those who are hounded by lawsuits.
Stirling called Brown a "chameleon," whose demeanor now "is more cordial and more personable and warmer than when he was governor."
As he was in his previous jobs, Brown is known as a hands-on manager who bypasses channels to quiz lower-level lawyers, brainstorms legal arguments on major cases and even double-checks news releases to make sure his quotations are accurate, staff members say.
If he has a question, he doesn't transmit it to a top deputy and wait for an answer, staff members say. He picks up the telephone and calls the lawyer.
Those who have received such calls describe an intimidating Brown spouting an encyclopedic knowledge of policy and state history, demanding information on every detail and jousting over the proper direction for the office to take.
He has also continued his practice of relying heavily on close personal confidants. During his first two years as attorney general, his wife, Anne Gust, served as his de facto chief aide, an unpaid lawyer with her own office who called staff members about cases and dispensed advice, lawyers said.
Despite the highly unusual arrangment, staff members said Gust was a welcome presence.
"Jerry likes to process issues a little longer than Anne does," acknowledged James M. Humes, Brown's chief deputy in the office.
Gust now works for Brown's gubernatorial campaign