After persuading the Golden State's voters to put an initiative on the state ballot for construction of the nation's first true high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Brown got the initiative passed, and ground has already been broken for the $65 billion project over a 10- to 15-year period.
Meanwhile, he has made progress in dealing with the state's overcrowded prison population by transferring short-time offenders of many less serious crimes to local jails and using state money to pay for their upkeep.
A major fight in the next six months, Brown says, will be rallying public support to reallocate state funds in education to schools with disproportionate challenges. At the college level, he is focusing on keeping tuition low -- now $12,000 a year at the university level -- and also trying to reduce reliance on student loans that impose a heavy toll on young Californians. A 5 percent annual increase for the system over the next four years has been approved, without raising tuition.
He credits students across the state with a major role in mobilizing votes for the new tax initiative for education, and putting a public face on the campaign. "It became a public debate about investing in schools," he said, and the campaign not only got the initiative on the ballot but also carried it with 55.4 percent of the vote, overcoming GOP opposition.
To critics who suggest that a "star system" of faculty heavyweights exists in California universities, and that holding down tuition costs will create "a brain drain," Brown declared emphatically, "I don't believe that." At the same time, he noted, he insisted to the legislature that the students not be made the prime financiers of higher education.
In the heyday of Brown's father, Governor Edmund G. Brown Sr., California's university system was widely regarded the best of the states, and the whole state was a model for progressive thinking and action. His son, striving to restore that reputation, said: "We'll bring it back. California, I think, to the extent that we're successful, will have some (national) impact in a given period. ... And politically, we're going to have a model that other people will have pay attention to."
Just as President Obama has had to deal with obstructionist Republicans, Brown noted that the California GOP was so resistant that "moderate Republicans could not be seen coming to visit me." But the governor had the initiative tool that enabled him to go over the head of opposition legislators directly to the public on higher taxes and education reforms.
The resurrection of Jerry Brown's political career came after losing three bids for the Democratic presidential nomination and one U.S. Senate bid in 1982. Thereafter he was elected to two well-regarded terms as mayor of troubled Oakland and four years as state attorney general before regaining the governorship in 2010.
Sizing himself up after that long political journey, he remarked: "Both in government and politics, I've spent a lot of time thinking and reading about it. So therefore I feel more confident that when I'm pushing things, I'm pushing in the right direction. ... I realize I used to be one of the youngest (officials) in Sacramento. Now I'm the oldest."
Asked whether he will seek a fourth term next year, he said it's too early to say, and quoted the late Gov. Earl Warren: "You don't announce until the first snow falls in the Sierras."
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)