When Brown took over as attorney general, he streamlined the office. Budget cuts over three years have produced $228 million in state savings, which included the elimination of 750 of 5,000 positions, a spokeswoman said.
He also overhauled the office's consumer division, to the disappointment of some consumer activists.
"I wouldn't call his record as attorney general that of a stellar consumer advocate," said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog.
The consumer division had been renowned nationally for its work. But Brown said it was too busy going after "little cases" and targets like "dance studios," whereas he wanted to tackle immediate and larger-scale problems.
Shortly after taking office, Brown wanted to sue Countrywide Financial Corp. over its loan practices. He said the consumer unit was slow; the state was facing a deadline, and he grew frustrated.
He appointed a new manager and sued Countrywide, resulting in a billion-dollar multi-state settlement. Overall, settlements reached by Brown's office have produced $287 million for the state, the spokeswoman said.
Former Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp said he was "disappointed about what happened at the consumer section."
"A lot of people who had been there for years left," he said. Van de Kamp said that he suspects Brown has been distracted by running for governor and that the attorney general's office recently "has gotten more involved in press-worthy activities."
Van de Kamp also said Brown's aversion to new laws contrasted with the work of his predecessors, who saw sponsoring criminal and civil justice reforms as a key part of their job.
As Van de Kamp observed, Brown is quick to use his position to weigh in on breaking news, firing off a multitude of news releases. He occasionally overreaches, such as when he used the death of actor Corey Haim to illustrate the dangers of prescription drug abuse.
Brown called the late actor "the poster child" for such abuse and released records showing that Haim went doctor shopping for powerful prescription medicines before his death. An autopsy later determined that the actor died of pneumonia and that drugs were not a factor.
Prosecutors, uneasy about Brown's election, were relieved when he elevated Dane Gillette, a staunch defender of the death penalty, to head the office's criminal division. Gillette's years of fighting death row appeals won him the nickname "Dr. Death."
"For the most part in criminal law, Jerry Brown has put the right people in charge and just let them do their job, which is fine with me," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a law-and-order group.
Brown opposes the November ballot measure to legalize marijuana. "We enforce the law, and law enforcement is very solid that this would not be helpful," he said.
In dealing with prosecutors, Brown had to overcome suspicions created by his 1977 selection as chief justice of the late Rose Bird, who voted against every death sentence she reviewed. Voters removed Bird from the bench nearly 10 years later after a heated campaign by prosecutors and business.
Brown, who faces no major opposition in next month's primary, said he would be "more cautious" about his judicial selections if elected governor again. Bird was "in many ways courageous, but there were some things that were missing," Brown said, his voice trailing. He paused. "You could say that about all of us."
He has also sided with law enforcement in his handling of cases involving state prisons. Although courts have criticized the state for deplorable treatment of inmates in its overcrowded prisons, Brown has portrayed litigation by the nonprofit Prison Law Office as frivolous and profligate.
"He hasn't been very constructive in trying to resolve these very life-threatening issues," said Donald Specter, director of the law firm. "In fact, his office has been as litigious and as difficult to deal with" as his predecessors'.
Specter said the attorney general has refused to give prison lawyers access to their clients' files, causing the group to go to court. "It was unreal," Specter said.
The former secretary of state, governor, presidential candidate and mayor of Oakland said the best part of being attorney general has been the mental stimulation of working with intelligent and dedicated lawyers.
"I spend a lot of time exercising my mind, and the attorney general's office really provides an opportunity for that," Brown said.
But he is already thinking ahead to the next job, which he hopes will be governor. He railed against the dangers of divisive partisanship and called for "a common purpose." When reminded that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also pledged to bring Democrats and Republicans together, Brown said he would devote more time to the challenge.
"I don't take vacations," he said.
This is one in a series of articles examining the backgrounds of the major candidates for California governor and U.S. Senate in the June 8 primary election.