SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When he takes to the campaign trail, Jerry Brown is fond of reminding voters that he shunned the governor's mansion in Sacramento in favor of a rented apartment during his first tour in the executive office and lived in a downtown loft in Oakland while he was mayor of the crime-ridden city.
The stories are part of a campaign narrative of frugality. The Democratic nominee wants voters to remember that when they consider whether to send him back to the governor's office as California faces a $19 billion budget deficit, an unemployment rate above 12 percent and a continuing foreclosure crisis.
What California voters do not hear is Brown boasting about his latest home.
He and his wife, former Gap executive Anne Gust, own a custom-designed, $1.8 million house in one of the San Francisco Bay area's most prestigious neighborhoods – a Zen-inspired, five-level architectural gem perched high in the wooded Oakland Hills.
The three-bedroom home comes with bamboo floors, a spiral staircase, breathtaking views of the bay and roll-up family room windows that let the sea breeze wash in.
The office on the top floor has a private entrance. A spa level features a sauna and wetbar, while a dumbwaiter services every floor, making it easy to send a bottle from the wine cellar to the dining room.
When fog isn't hovering over the bay, the home provides a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, according to a brochure of the home when it was on the market in 2007.
That a former governor and nationally known political figure owns a great house in a great neighborhood isn't surprising. But Brown has made his past austerity a central theme to his general election campaign, using it to draw a contrast to his Republican opponent, billionaire Meg Whitman. The former eBay chief executive lives in a $3 million home in the Silicon Valley community of Atherton.
Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University, said Brown should be mindful about how he defines himself because he's not the same person he was three decades ago.
"He needs to be careful not to be misleading because if there's anything that gets people angry, particularly when it comes to politicians, it's folks who say one thing and do another," Gerston said.
He said Brown's reputation is one of his strongest advantages on the campaign trail against Whitman, who has said she is prepared to spend $150 million from her personal fortune.
"That capital, if you will, can get deflated pretty quickly if he's giving an impression that's incorrect," Gerston said.
Brown and Gust bought the home in 2007, the year he became California attorney general. At the time, it was listed for $2.68 million, according to a story published at the time in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Records at the Alameda County Assessor's Office show the house is now valued at $1.8 million.
Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford said the attorney general openly talks about his new house in interviews with journalists, but it typically doesn't come up in campaign speeches because it's not relevant.
"It gets left out a lot because it's not central to the point," Clifford said.
Clifford added that Brown lives a frugal lifestyle, taking advantage of the senior citizens discount, buying suits in three-for-one sales and flying Southwest Airlines.
Jack Citrin, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said voters would be naive to think Brown, California's 34th governor, didn't live in a nice home.
"Jerry Brown is in many ways very unusual because he has been many, many things," Citrin said. "He was the governor's son, so he didn't grow up in poverty. He went to Yale University."
Those are parts of his past that Brown typically doesn't highlight when he compares himself to Whitman. Rather, he tries to connect with voters by touting his thrifty ways. He entered the governor's office in 1975 as a bachelor and one of the state's youngest governors, got an apartment and drove around in a 1974 Plymouth Satellite.
Brown, 72, served until 1983.
"I know how to live within limits," Brown said the night he won the Democratic Party primary earlier this month. "I got rid of the governor's limousine, his private jet, and instead of the new mansion, I rented an apartment across from the state Capitol and paid for it myself."
"The truth is that I don't like to spend money. Not my own and not the taxpayers," he told the crowd.
Ronald Reagan was the last governor to live in the state's official governor's mansion, but moved to a prestigious Sacramento neighborhood three months into his first term in 1967. The mansion was converted to a state historic park, and has not been replaced.
Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commutes to the statehouse from his gated community of Brentwood and picks up the tab for his own private plane. A foundation pays for his lodging at a Sacramento hotel whenever he spends the night, his spokesman said.
Clifford said Brown has not decided where he will live if elected governor.
Whitman's wealth has been a constant backstory to her campaign because it has allowed her to go on a record-setting spending spree and blanket the airwaves with commercials.
For her part, Whitman has criticized Brown for increasing state spending and leaving California with a budget deficit when he left office. Brown and the Legislature used much of a budget surplus to help cash-strapped schools and local governments after voters in 1978 approved Proposition 13, which rolled back property tax assessments and capped future increases.
"Even more important than his mansion in the Oakland Hills is the fact that Governor Brown has been a Sacramento politician who has not been frugal with taxpayers' money," Whitman spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Clifford said Brown is the only governor who built up a multibillion rainy day fund, vetoed excessive raises for public employees and signed $5 billion in personal income tax cuts into law.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects to `thrifty' in graf 20)