They know him here. They want to shake his hand, to whisper a word of hello, to hear his voice again. Jerry Brown still has that effect, especially in a room like this, at a crowded gathering of Latino activists and politicians, mingling in an epic dining room with big windows overlooking the nighttime San Francisco Bay Bridge. Brown is just a guest here, passing through from one event to the next on another busy day of politics and contemplation. And he’s running for office.

He was California’s governor once, from 1975 to 1983, a young politician who openly supported farm-worker rights, who fought for environmental protections, who appointed minorities into real positions of power. He also ran three times for U.S. president, nearly derailing the Clinton juggernaut in 1992. And he is the current mayor of Oakland, a visitor from across the bridge and his own urban landscape, where his tenure has been a profound education in government at the ground level, where crime and drugs and poverty are right at his doorstep.

Now he wants to be your next attorney general, the state’s top cop. Even in a year when Arnold Schwarzenegger will be vying for reelection as governor, Brown’s candidacy inevitably brings some serious political star-power to what is normally a down-ticket race between grim lawmen. The joke that A.G. stands for “aspiring governor” does not apply.

It’s been an unlikely career trajectory for this former governor, a man who has been in the same room as every president since Truman, and who also mingled with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and a wide variety of artists and poets and holy men. Mayor wasn’t a step down, and neither would be the A.G. job. “Some people think I should run for governor,” he says now. “I don’t want to do that.”

When he first ran for mayor, it was seen as an almost bizarre act, a lark for an ex-governor and a hobby for a would-be president. Tonight he’s relaxed and practically cheery in a suit and tie, standing here at this gathering of the Latino Caucus of the League of California Cities with his new wife and campaign manager, Anne Gust. Across the dancefloor is Rocky Delgadillo, L.A.’s city attorney since 2001 and Brown’s chief rival in the Democratic primary race for attorney general. At 67, Brown remains energetic, engaged with his thoughts and immediate surroundings. (And you can see it whenever he gets together with former state chief execs for the occasional Governors Summit, chatting up the other ex-governors on stage with a spark mostly absent in Deukmejian, Wilson, Davis, each of them already fading to a nostalgic beige. Which is maybe understandable, now that their political careers are over.) Brown remains restless.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is at the microphone introducing Brown: “He still makes it across the bridge occasionally. The mayor of Oakland … it’s still hard to call him mayor.”

The speeches are only beginning as Brown slips out the door, heading to Herbst Hall and a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the infamous first reading of Ginsberg’s “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. He’d known the Beat poet, and was a teenage freshman at the University of Santa Clara in 1955 when “Howl” was first read. But tonight he’s been invited to read something from Jack London, who was himself twice a candidate for mayor of Oakland a century ago. The story is “The Edge of the Abyss,” a social critique about the plight of ghetto children in 1902: “The outlook for children is hopeless. They die like flies and those that survive, survive because they possess excessive vitality and a capacity of adaptation to the degradation with which they are surrounded.”

When he’s finished, Brown removes his reading glasses. “Pretty heavy,” he says, “but it’s still going on.” And then he’s gone.

Against the Grain

Fox News seems to like Brown, a lifelong Democrat willing and able to underline the errors of his own party (and Republicans) for anyone who asks. So he’s in a small TV studio down in Jack London Square on a Saturday morning for a few minutes of political chat across the airwaves, focused mainly on terrorism and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Soon, he’s back by his car, pacing slowly as he discusses his comments on a cellphone.

For many voters, he’s still hard to pin down. Edmund G. Brown Jr. is a man who can’t let go of politics and its possibilities to make change, but other interests continue to pull at him. It is rooted in his four years of study and contemplation in the Jesuit order, and the notion of agere contra, the concept of going against one’s self, to consider radical ideas, new solutions. He was elected as California governor in 1974 at age 36, beginning an administration that was progressive in ways that were not merely political, but openly philosophical, intellectual, spiritual, following no party dogma but his own.

He wasn’t the youngest governor in California history, an honor that still belongs to J. Neely Johnson, 30-year-old partisan of the Know-Nothing Party, and a man who once vetoed a bill for “bad spelling, improper punctuation, and erasures.” Brown had his own quirks, a governor who dated a rock star while living like a monk in a Sacramento apartment with a mattress on the floor. He drove himself to work in an unglamorous Plymouth sedan.

Brown was a puzzlement even to some supporters, who wondered about his calls for solar power and his notion that California should launch its own satellite, ideas few could honestly debate today. Since losing a race for the U.S. Senate in 1983, he’s been in and out of politics, taking side trips where few have followed.

“It’s a very ambitious, power-oriented occupation,” he says of politics. “I’m unusual in that my father was governor, so it is easier for me to follow this path. I’ve followed many paths, but I kept coming back to the political because I like it. But I have other things in my life and they are against the political, against the grain of that.

“I just got married. I’ve just got my second wind here as a human being.” His political second wind perhaps began when he became Oakland mayor in 1998. He aimed to attract 10,000 new residents to the city and his election was seen by supporters as bringing desperately needed attention to a place troubled by crime and decay.

“Oakland had a lot of empty spaces that needed to be filled up,” Brown says, as he walks through the redeveloped Jack London Square. “To fill them up, you need people to spend money, bring in private capital. Government does not build restaurants and, for the most part, doesn’t build houses. That’s done in the private sector, so you have to attract it. For 25, 30 years, people weren’t investing in Oakland. Now they are. It’s dramatic. There wasn’t a building built in this neighborhood in more than 30 years. I built the first one. Now there’s many.

“Doing that, I have no doubt, is a great positive,” he continues. “It creates jobs; it’s vitality. When I first moved to Oakland, this was dead.”

Four cranes tower above the street now, the sign of a continuing boom for which he only takes partial credit, acknowledging the boost provided by low interest rates and a Bay Area real-estate boom. But some who supported him in the past or backed his initial run for Oakland mayor suggest Brown has taken a turn to the right with his law-and-order policies. Development meant gentrification. And Brown’s support for a city 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew for felons currently on probation sparked protests at Oakland City Hall.

At the Oakland-based Critical Resistance, a national penal-reform group, organizer Sitara Nieves mostly dismissed Brown’s progressive past. “For the last few years, it seems like Jerry Brown’s been more interested in running for attorney general than being the mayor of Oakland,” she says. “He has been trying to make himself look tough on crime. It’s had a real destructive effect on the people of Oakland.”

Brown argues that city leadership goes beyond the usual ideological battles between Democrats and Republicans at the state and national level. “Right-wing people don’t want to use government as much. More liberal people are comfortable with government — that’s true,” he says, “but you’ll find most city mayors tend to be more on the independent pragmatic side, whether that’s Villaraigosa, Willie Brown or myself. That’s just the way the role of mayor is. We have to do things. We can’t sit there and pontificate. They want the potholes fixed; they want the garbage picked up; they want stuff happening. That’s why mayor is a good school for practicality.”

His time as mayor required a focus on law-and-order issues, but Brown insists that it’s always been there. A speech from 1982 listed a variety of crime statistics, such as more than doubling the number of felons imprisoned. “Use a gun, go to prison” was a slogan seen by every Californian endlessly on billboards, buses and televisions. The state criminal recidivism rate was about 15 percent when he left the governor’s office, Brown says. It’s now above 60 percent.

His views on the death penalty haven’t changed, either. “I would prefer that we not have a death penalty,” he says simply. Then he adds, “But I certainly see, when I’m in a place like this, and you see vicious killings, you may say, ‘Well, these guys are certainly getting what they deserved.’ ”

He also points out that, in California, more death row inmates die from old age and suicide than from execution. There have been just 13 executions in California since Reagan was in the statehouse, a tiny number relative to the likes of Texas (which put to death a record-breaking 40 people in 2000 alone). As attorney general, Brown says, his role would be to simply defend the death-penalty verdicts of juries before the Supreme Court. His own views on capital punishment are irrelevant. “I will carry out my duties as attorney general — as I’ve always done,” he insists.

That isn’t what interests him about the job. He will not be there to flip the switch or buy the chemicals or mail the invitations. The A.G.’s special unit that defends death-penalty verdicts in court will continue to do so as a matter of routine. There are other areas of law and order to consider, though maybe something other than outgoing Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s recent suit to put warning labels on French fries.

“I signed 10,000 laws,” Brown says of his terms as governor. “Since that time, there were another 15,000 added. Suffice to say, there is plenty of room for greater protection of the environment, greater protection of education equality, greater protection of worker rights, greater enforcement of corporate accountability.”

He’s sitting outside a small coffeehouse, and he’s approached by a young law student, a kind of preppy Billy Idol figure with spiky platinum hair and a white T-shirt so bright and crisp it looks dry-cleaned. “I live here in Jack London … and I’m a big fan of yours,” says the student. “I just want to wish you the best on your next run. Attorney general, let’s make it happen.”

“Well, OK. Did you sign up on my Web site?”

He hasn’t, but does read Brown’s blog. “I’m moving down to L.A. next year to practice law, but I could help you out down there. I’m in pre-L, so I’m kind of in that slump where I’m not doing a whole lot of anything.”

“Is that right? Well, maybe we’ll find something.”

Staying Clean as Things Get Dirty

After losing the U.S. Senate race to Pete Wilson, Brown disappeared to Japan for six months to study Buddhism. He then flew to India and became a volunteer for Mother Teresa and distributed food in areas inundated by floodwaters in Bangladesh. “I’ve met a lot of people in my life,” he says. “I’ve read a lot, I’ve encountered a lot, from Mother Teresa to the Dalai Lama to Pope Paul VI to the head of the Jesuit order. I’ve seen a lot and it gives me a perspective that is very valuable for a prosecutor. Because the power of the office — you can destroy somebody’s life, you could destroy a corporation. To have this power, I think you need a sense of restraint, and I’ve studied restraint.”

His A.G. campaign office is in the same converted Sears building where he lives with his wife and their black Labrador, Dharma, in a neighborhood where he has found needles and spent bullet casings on the ground. “There have been a number of shootings,” he says, and he stands up, pointing out the window. “Right over there. You see Col. Sanders? A guy was killed there two years ago. Gunned down in the parking lot. Down there on 32nd, we had two people killed.” And there were others, a total of six people within two years just in Brown’s immediate neighborhood.

His wife is a lawyer and former executive with the Gap. They met 15 years ago, though Gust was mostly oblivious of the famous Governor Brown during her years at Stanford. They were married in June in a ceremony conducted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, with 600 guests and a camera crew from CNN and coverage in The New York Times. Brown chose the soundtrack: Gregorian chants and medieval music.

“Jerry has always been an independent thinker and he’s a creative thinker,” Gust says with a smile. “He doesn’t take to control all that much. He hasn’t run traditional campaigns in his life. Not that he’s running one now.”

Brown is moving around the room, from one desk to another, shuffling through papers, making calls as Dharma sleeps on the floor. I’m sitting nearby with Gust, talking strategy in her capacity as campaign manager. Inevitably, the death penalty comes up and how to counteract use of the issue by his likely Republican opponent, Sen. Chuck Poochigian of Fresno. Brown hears this and stops in his tracks.

“I’ve got to tell you something for the fifth time,” he says, standing over me. The man is yelling at me, not in anger, but more like a frustrated college professor. And he brings up an example from this year’s election, this one concerning the recent governor’s race in Virginia, which was won in an upset by Democrat Tim Kaine. “They had a campaign in Virginia — they executed twice as many as California, in a smaller state — they love the death penalty. They have a Republican attorney general who took ads out saying, ‘This guy would not even execute Hitler!’ and he lost. That’s a fact. In a state where the ads were vicious, where the governor can issue clemency, has the power of life and death, is the key to capital punishment, people still voted for the Democrat. And he was behind in the polls. He went on and said, ‘These are my feelings, but I will carry out the law.’ They believed him. So I think this is a total non-issue. And I’ve been around this business for 40 years.”

That’s true enough, but some ugliness is inevitable if he wins the nomination. Just because that’s how politics are played now. And maybe because Jerry Brown will bring out the worst in certain Republicans with long memories.

He breaks it down. “What you do is spend a lot of money and they dig up as much dirt, and then they throw it as cleverly and as cleanly as they can,” he says. “And in the end, the least dirty one wins, at one level. I don’t do that.”

So I ask him, “Does the least dirty one always win?”

“No, but many times that happens.”

Brown seems disappointed in all this talk of the death penalty when there is so much else to consider. “You guys are sort of counterculture. Aren’t you going to get more into the more poetic aspects of the campaign?”

Gust laughs, but he’s serious. “This is the biggest cliché. It’s cable-news stuff. Your worst adversaries just wallow in this stuff,” he adds.

Either way, Brown’s presence in the election will shift the equilibrium of an already heated election cycle. He almost seems to believe the race won’t be noticed much in the shadow of Schwarzenegger’s ultimate judgment day next November. “This is very limited exposure,” he says. “If you have three weeks of television, it will be a miracle.”

But there is a certain perverse poetry to Brown’s decision to reach for the one office where his views on the death penalty might actually be a factor. Anything else would just be too easy. Too boring. And he’s counting on his other accomplishments and the basic intellect and logic of his argument. He’s counting on the public being able to see a man working agere contra, against himself, and to agree that’s really the way to move the culture another step toward the future.