SAN FRANCISCO - Jerry Brown -- who once warned that the riptides of California politics should be navigated by paddling "a little bit on the left, then you paddle a little bit on the right" -- is sailing into the history books this week and becoming California's longest serving governor.
As an energetic political wunderkind, he first took office in 1975 at age 36 as the nation's youngest governor. Today, he's an energetic, 75-year-old political silverback, in the midst of his third term, and is the nation's oldest governor, as well.
Brown's service as governor will exceed the late Gov. Earl Warren, also a third termer, who resigned Oct. 5, 1953, to become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Political watchers love to speculate over whether Brown, son of the late Gov. Edmund "Pat" Brown, will be the first California governor to run for a fourth term next year. If he does, as is expected, and wins, he and his father together will have governed California for a quarter of a century.
With a few exceptions, then-and-now comparisons of Brown's terms are not very different.
His famously frugal persona, for example, is backed up by San Francisco Chronicle file photos from the 1970s. In those, Brown is seen wearing a tie he slips on for speeches and other appearances to this day.
His penchant for populist symbolism also hasn't wavered: In 1975, Brown rejected the trappings of office and drove a basic blue Plymouth sedan that endeared him to millions of working voters. Today, he and his wife, Ann Gust Brown, share their home with a Corgi named Sutter Brown -- California's "first dog," and a brilliant ambassador for the everyman Democrat.
" He's never, ever changed," said former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who was the only elected official to endorse Brown -- back then "a skinny, geeky kid," he said -- in his first statewide campaign for California secretary of state.
Willie Brown said a Jerry Brown political hallmark, and perhaps the secret of his longevity, is that "he's a loner."
"He's never been ... an adherent to any group of people, and he has his own ideas about everything," said Willie Brown, the former Assembly speaker and a Chronicle columnist
Perhaps that's because more than anyone else in statewide office, Jerry Brown "knows California granularly," said Barbara O'Connor, professor emeritus of political science at Sacramento State University, who has worked with Brown for decades.
O'Connor noted that the governor, who learned the state's history and studied politics at the knee of his father, "started out on a community college board ... and he's held about every relevant office in California," including state attorney general and mayor of Oakland.
The unique training has made Brown "the best prepared governor in state history," O'Connor said.
On his first day in the governor's office in January 1975, Brown told Californians the state's challenges lay in energy, environment, including solar energy, economy, and "the lack of faith in government." He called for prudent spending, and also for unity, saying politics is "not the work of one person, it is the work of all of us working together."
Thirty-five years later, at his 2010 inauguration, he stressed virtually the same issues -- spending included -- while adding: "It remains to elicit the best from each of us and show us how we depend on one another and how we have to work together."
Early on, Brown appeared "terrifically far-seeing," dubbed "Governor Moonbeam" for backing ideas like satellites for communication, space exploration, solar energy, even mass transit. He also urged Californians to "lower your expectations," and not expect government to be pounding nails and pouring concrete, notes Chuck McFadden, author of the recently published "Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown."
Today, "he still has overtones of a visionary in his makeup. For a 75-year-old man, his whole persona and ethos looks forward," McFadden said.
Republican strategist and Hoover Institution fellow Bill Whalen said Brown has maintained a remarkable partisan independence.
Noting the governor's favored navigation philosophy, Whalen said that "in a state absolutely dominated by Democrats -- and where Republicans haven't won a statewide race -- you would think it would be paddle to the left all the time.
"He doesn't. He will occasionally defy his party's orthodoxy," Whalen said, especially "when it comes to keeping his state competitive."
Critics say, however, that the governor has been consistent -- about keeping himself at center stage.
Politically, "he's very selfish, and he has absolutely no hesitancy" to demand complete loyalty from others, said one veteran Democrat who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "He reads the contribution reports closer than any other politician, and he reminds you that you haven't given."
Others have accused him of having a short attention span. He ran three times for president, a move