Dan Walters: It's too early to assess Jerry Brown, version 2.0

05/06/2013 12:00 AM

05/06/2013 6:18 AM

One of the questions that Capitol veterans often field from those newer to the political arena is whether today's Jerry Brown is markedly different from what he was during his first governorship three-plus decades ago.

The answer is that of course he's different.

Brown 1.0 was one of the state's youngest governors and Brown 2.0 is the oldest.

During his earlier incarnation, Brown was consumed by making a rapid ascent on the political ladder – running for president scarcely a year into his governorship – and paid only passing attention to governing.

This time around, Brown is much more focused on governance, as he has often said himself.

In demeanor, however, Brown has not changed a great deal.

He still eschews the trappings of office and still projects an extemporaneous, other-worldly aura – sustained by frequent emissions of Latin phrases, obscure references to Greek mythology and other learned verbiage that sets him apart from the usual political bloviating.

To first-timers – especially those from elsewhere – Brown can be rather overwhelming, and he relishes giving the full treatment to out-of-state journalists who trek to Sacramento to consult the oracle.

Brown carefully limits his exposure to Capitol journalists, who might ask pointed questions about specific issues, but makes copious time for the out-of-towners, who usually emerge from interviews completely be-dazzled and eager to write fawning articles.

So it was in the 1970s, and so it is in 2013, as two recent magazine profiles, one in Britain's Financial Times and the other in Bloomberg Businessweek, attest.

The writers of both got the full Brown treatment and both accepted, uncritically, Brown's assertion that his second governorship has been a great success.

It's a great story, a kind of political "Rocky." Unfortunately, however, it's not accurate – at least not yet.

Brown 2.0's noteworthy achievements have been to persuade voters to pass higher taxes on someone else – the wealthy – to close the state's chronic budget deficit, to shrink that deficit through some spending cuts that may or may not be permanent, and to reconfigure penal policy to shift more felons into local jails.

However, the tax increases are temporary, the budget is balanced only if one ignores certain obligations, such as a deficit in the teacher retirement system, and the jury's still out on whether penal realignment is a creative way to reduce prison overcrowding or a huge mistake.

It's certainly interesting that Brown is back in the governorship, and he's as entertaining as ever.

But whether Brown 2.0 deserves a positive place in history books or will go down as a septuagenarian's ego trip remains to be seen – a nuance that those out-of-state journalists don't understand as they fall under Brown's semantic spell.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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