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Jerry Brown, a survivor at the top of his game

It's said in politics that timing is everything, that success depends on picking the right time to make one's move. When Barack Obama decided in early 2007 to launch a presidential bid as a freshman U.S. senator at age 45, the naysayers wondered why he was in such a hurry. He proved them wrong.

Three decades earlier, another young political comet named Jerry Brown, freshman governor of California at age 38, similarly had reached for the presidency in 1976. However, despite a late-surging campaign, he lost. He tried again in 1980 and lost again, seemingly ending a promising political career. He should not, some said, have been in such a hurry.

In 1982, he ran for the U.S. Senate and lost, and again for president in 1992; once more, his career in politics appeared to be over. Yet today, after a tortuous path as two-term mayor of embattled Oakland (1998-2006) and state attorney general (2008-2010), Jerry Brown is now is serving his 11th year as governor again, at the top of his game.

Mr. Brown recently delivered his annual State of the State address to a legislature controlled in both houses by his Democratic Party, boasting a balanced state budget after years of dismal fiscal downturn. If it were not for the fact that he is approaching his 75th birthday in April (and battling prostate cancer), he might well be in the mix of speculation for the next Democratic presidential nomination.

In his California address, Mr. Brown the survivor spoke about convincing California voters to pass Proposition 30 to provide new tax revenue in a state that in 1978 had approved a property-tax lid that later spread nationwide. He also trumpeted plans for a new high-speed rail line linking Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, and a water-tunnel system to bring water from Northern California to highly populated regions to the south.

Mr. Brown, son of the late and revered Democratic Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, has found, as a three-time presidential loser, political redemption in the state he earlier had sought so earnestly to leave for a grander stage.

In a way, some of his most notable achievements so far came in response to the challenges he took on in the gritty urban-renewal struggles in Oakland across the bay from San Francisco. Living and working out of an old warehouse loft, Mr. Brown tackled the sorts of unglamorous blue-collar woes that plague most large cities across the country. His record there was impressive enough to revitalize his career and bring him back to statewide office after many years on smaller stages.

In concluding his State of the State address in Sacramento, a still engaged Jerry Brown declared: "This is my 11th year in this job and I have never been more excited. Two years ago, they were writing our obituary. Well, it didn't happen. California is back, its budget is balanced, and we are on the move."

About 37 years ago, the one-time boy wonder of the Golden State brashly made a late effort to take the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination from front-running Jimmy Carter. Unofficially, he teamed with Idaho Sen. Frank Church as one or the other of them defeated the future president in many of the late-voting primary states. But that was the problem. In splitting the late primaries between them, neither Mr. Brown nor Mr. Church could overtake Mr. Carter's early delegate lead in the end.

However, Mr. Brown had another problem that always plagued him as a national candidate. He was a visionary with futuristic ideas that didn't play as well outside trend-setting California as they did within. He was labeled "Governor Moonbeam," and it stuck, though he also preached lower expectations in the face of fiscal realities, which set him apart from usually promising politicians.

Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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