For Brown, The Beginning of the End

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In a quip he made to the New York Times last year, one the paper reprinted this morning, Jerry Brown joked that the job of governor isn't much of a career builder.

"It's more of a career ender," said the now 71-year-old Democrat.

Nonetheless, the enigmatic scion of California's most famous political family today officially launched an effort to retrace his steps and serve a third term as governor -- a feat which would position him to become the longest serving chief executive in state history.

Brown ended almost a year of coy hints at another gubernatorial campaign just before 11:00 a.m. this morning, with a forceful three minute and 17 second video on his website. And, as the apparent sole Democratic awaiting a November election against one of two independently wealthy Republicans -- former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner -- Brown made it clear what one of the narratives of his campaign will be: only an experienced hand can guide the state through the current turmoil.

"We need somebody with an insider's knowledge and an outsider's mind," says Brown sitting in an exposed brick room that seems careful to not look like a politician's office. And though the Democrat has been friendly, almost chummy, with the incumbent Republican governor through the years, today he made it clear that the state doesn't need any more Schwarzenegger-style leaders.

"Some people say that if you've been around the process, you can't handle the job, that we need to go and find an outsider," says Brown, "who knows virtually nothing about state government. Well, we've tried that, and it doesn't work."

While he didn't say it today, Brown will also no doubt wave the green flag of money in this campaign -- as in, the personal fortunes of the two Republican candidates. He recently alleged that "money is being spent to manipulate opinion" in the campaign. And there's a chance the Brown message will stick.

"Populism is in," says political analyst and USC lecturer Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "And my guess is he will wage a populist campaign. He has done it before. He knows the rhetoric, he knows the moves."

The formal declaration by the man elected attorney general in 2006 solidifies the cast of characters chatted about by political junkies ever since last October, when Gavin Newsom walked away from the contest. But because he appears to be running unopposed for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, things aren't likely to change much in the next few weeks; Brown can still keep collecting campaign cash and spending very little of it, instead using his post as the state's AG to keep his name and his proclamations in the press.

Perhaps the only real change after today's announcement may be the strategy of Republican wannabe Whitman. Or, perhaps more precisely, it may reinforce her desire to looking past the June primary and Poizner, who she's been leading mightily in the polls.

"We're looking forward to discussing Brown's 40 year political career," said Whitman campaign spokesperson Sarah Pompei in an email to reporters. So much, in fact, that before Brown's announcement video ever went online, Team Whitman had posted a seven page document full of snippets about Jerry Brown of times gone by. The core argument of the Whitman campaign hinges on the Republican candidate's experience in the business world, a life away from politics... unlike, say, the guy who's been running for elective office almost non-stop since 1969.

Interestingly, the initial reaction from the other Reep candidate was more in line with the Brown messaging, albeit probably that's not what he intended. "This election will be about the future of California, not the past," said, in part, the emailed statement from Steve Poizner.

Depending on the outcome of the GOP contest, voters are likely to be inundated with both the "business smarts vs. career politician" and "regular folks vs. corporate barons" campaign message wars between now and the fall.

"Which side of that debate triumphs," says USC's Jeffe, "depends on the communications skills of the candidates."

For now, though, the appetite of political junkies has both been finally fed... and, at the same time, whetted. Brown's declaration gives Democrats someone to rally around, Republicans someone to attack, and the rest of us a front row seat for what will no doubt be one of the nation's most talked about campaigns in 2010.

[post-script: I referred to it above, but it's worth another line: the longest serving governor in California history was Earl Warren, who left his third term early to take over some small-time judicial operation back east...]

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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