LOS ANGELES — Jerry Brown calls himself "the most durable politician in the Western hemisphere next to Fidel Castro." And he doesn't even smoke a cigar.
Outside the state, he is perhaps best remembered as the Jesuit seminarian who, in 1974, became California's youngest governor at age 36. While in office he dated singer Linda Ronstadt and lobbied for state use of communications satellites back when cellphones were the size of canned hams.
Here in California, Mr. Brown is known as one of the most visionary and uncategorizable politicians in state history. Now mayor of Oakland, Brown has served two terms as governor, run for president three times, and now at age 68 appears poised to become the state's attorney general, the second most powerful politician in America's most populous state.
A Democrat, Brown was 24 points ahead of his Republican rival, state Sen. Charles Poochigian, in an Oct. 19-27 Hoover Institution poll.
"Jerry Brown is the most unusual politician I've come across in 50 years of politics," says Joe Cerrell, a veteran national and California Democratic strategy analyst. "If elected, he will be the most critical and visible attorney general the state has ever had."
Brown may well be the Madonna of California politics: always reinventing himself. Some say he may be eyeing the governor's mansion again – something he denies. Others say Brown aspires to the US Senate. As attorney general, some say, he would be an activist akin to New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, pursuing cases of corporate corruption, civil liberties, consumer protection, and environmental regulations.
Whatever his long-term intentions, Brown will be a press magnet who could compete for the media spotlight with California's current leading man, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).
In a recent phone interview, though, Brown indicated he'd rather share the spotlight with the governor than compete for it. He has his eye trained on California's groundbreaking new law to reduce the state's emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming – and can picture himself striding arm in arm with Governor Schwarzenegger around the country as covisionaries of a bold bid to, well, save the planet.
"We are going to work together to persuade other jurisdictions to adopt sensible laws to control greenhouse gases and control global warming," says Brown. "We have to bring other states and Congress along. I think the governor of California and the attorney general will be a very powerful team to bring that message to the nation's capital."
Though Brown is a Democrat and Schwarzenegger a Republican, some analysts say Brown could wield a degree of influence on the governor's evolving agenda in other matters – wage discrimination, consumer protection, education, and law-and-order issues.
Key state newspapers have endorsed Brown, saying he probably is the kind of activist attorney general the state needs.
Some analysts, though, worry that despite his rhetoric and stump-speech excitement, Brown will tire of a job that is essentially "like running a giant law office," in the words of Tony Quinn, a veteran Sacramento political analyst.
Others say a frustration for Brown could be that attorney generals don't deal with the "shoulds and can bes" of politics but instead focus on the reality of laws already on the books.
"The concern with Jerry Brown is that he will lose interest in the job, get buried in lots of technical and legal stuff," says Mr. Quinn. "The opportunities for grandstanding are not that great."
During his varied political career, Brown chalked up a number of firsts. Before his term as governor ended in 1982, he'd appointed California's first woman, first black, and first Latino to the state Supreme Court. He also legalized acupuncture. Later, the woman he'd appointed to the Supreme Court was famously recalled by voters for opposing the death penalty. After leaving office, he spent six months in Japan and worked with Mother Theresa in India. And, oh yes, he has practiced law.
A critic of big-money politics, Brown decided during his third bid for the presidency, in 1992, that his campaign would take no contributions larger than $100 – and he set up a toll-free phone number to raise funds. That year he was the only candidate besides President Clinton with enough votes for the Democratic National Convention.
"He has always been provocative and unpredictable," says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "Because of that, his creativity, and his bigger-than-life persona, he is fun to watch. Reporters will cover his tenure in ways they have never done before."
As mayor of Oakland, where he has served since 1998, Brown has been considered more of a moderate, focused on revitalizing the inner city, opening schools, lowering crime rates, and raising property values. He is questioned about his political motives for pursuing the attorney general job so late in his career.
Besides helping to establish the rules that will govern implementation of the state's new global-warming law, Brown says a priority would be to better protect workers in California's underground economy, where wages can fall below minimum wage and overtime and benefits are nonexistent.
Some believe Brown will relish a role in which he can emerse himself in fighting white-collar crime and pursuing civil litigation.
"Brown will return to his roots as a reformer," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. He suggests that Brown will draw on his own experience as California's secretary of State and that of New York's Mr. Spitzer "to go after bad actors in the boardroom."
Brown's own summation of his long contribution to California highlights his unconventional path in life.
"I am a person who had almost four years' experience in pre-Vatican II seminary. Latin, silence, ... and a very strict system," Brown said. "What does that bring? A totally different perspective on today's world. It gives me a sense of distance and perspective in which to look at our contemporary issues."
• Occupation: Oakland mayor, front-runner for California attorney general.
• Claim to fame: Was elected California's youngest governor at age 36 in 1974. Also ran for president three times.
• Why he wants to be attorney general: He says he wants to work with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to defend the state's new global-warming law from attack by the federal government and oil companies.
• Quote: "I am a person who had almost four years' experience in pre-Vatican II seminary. Latin, silence, ... and a very strict system," he says. "What does that bring? A totally different perspective on today's world."