If Brown is arguably the most accomplished progressive governor in America, he does have a dark side. His path back to the governorship ran through the state attorney general's office, leaving him beholden to California's formidable law-enforcement interests. The state prison system is so dangerously overcrowded even the John Roberts Supreme Court declared it a form of cruel and unusual punishment in 2011. But rather than use the ruling as cover to undo the damage of decades of draconian sentencing for potheads and other low-level offenders, Brown has dragged his feet – maintaining the prison system at 150 percent of designed capacity. In June, a panel of federal judges rebuked Brown for his "repeated failure" to "remedy the constitutional violations in the prison system" and threatened the governor with contempt if he didn't schedule the release of 10,000 inmates. Brown angrily appealed the ruling back to the Supreme Court. "He does have a problematic side," says Hayden, who first profiled Brown for Rolling Stone back in 1974. "He's the kind of guy who, when he knows he's wrong, argues harder."
Brown's law-and-order streak also makes him a wild card on issues like gun control and drug reform. The state legislature is pushing a raft of bills that would toughen California's gun laws, already the strictest in the nation, including a measure to ban semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines. But it's anyone's guess whether Brown – who has recently called for both "much greater control" and a "sensible middle path" on guns – will sign the bills. On pot, the governor seems to be opening his mind. Campaigning for governor in 2010, Brown opposed the legalization of cannabis. But after voters in Colorado and Washington moved to tax and regulate marijuana last year, Brown demanded the Justice Department respect the sovereignty of the states on drug reform. "We're capable of self-government," he said. "We don't need some federal gendarme to tell us what to do."
Brown is a year short of what's likely to be his last campaign – a cakewalk re-election bid. But with his successes so far, Brown has again elevated California's governorship into a rarefied platform for ambitious politicians. Crowding the wings for 2018 is a formidable slate of contenders with national profiles – including Newsom, a hero to progressives for his leadership on gay marriage; former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who would become California's first Latino governor since the 1870s; and State Attorney General Kamala Harris, a rising political star of Indian and Jamaican descent whom some have dubbed "the female Obama."
For his part, Brown now has a relatively small window – between now and the ripe old age of 80 – in which to pursue his grand ambitions for California, the nation and the planet. Understanding the urgency that drives Jerry Brown today is no mystery, says Hayden: "He doesn't have time to waste on flops."
This story is from the September 12th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone
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