WASHINGTON -- Following the success of his November ballot initiative to raise taxes and his declaration that the state budget is balanced, Gov. Jerry Brown said California could become a model of good government for the rest of the nation.
The idea was the focus of Brown's part of a lecture he and former Obama strategist David Axelrod gave graduate students at the University of Chicago last week, where Brown was visiting his sister before heading to Washington for a meeting of the nation's governors.
"I talked about the 'California Miracle,' how it's going to provide the model for the rest of the country in getting out of gridlock, cutting government, finding new revenues," Brown said.
In the nation's capital, however, Brown is turning out to be a curious ambassador.
"It's like Coca-Cola: We don't reveal our formula," he told a Washington reporter when asked how Democrats achieved their success in California. "Why should we tell you guys?"
The interview concluded, and Brown turned to another reporter: "Did I say anything substantive there? I tried to avoid it."
At an annual meeting where many politicians, including Brown in previous years, revel in national attention, the governor of the nation's most populous state is giving only one minor speech and is appearing on no talk shows. He is avoiding political controversies and anything close to a spotlight.
"The electronic media flickers too much," Brown said.
Instead, Brown is meeting privately with opinion leaders, courting audiences whose view of California -- and of its 74-year-old, third-term governor -- may be more lasting.
Brown talked for more than an hour and a half with Thomas Friedman, the famous New York Times columnist, in the lobby of the conference hotel on Saturday, and he dined with "a bunch of reporters" he described as "Washington types" that evening. They included writers Walter Isaacson and Norman Ornstein, and PBS' Judy Woodruff, Brown said.
Roman Buhler, who runs a conservative advocacy group in Virginia, said of the governor's meeting with Friedman, "There you go. People take his ideas seriously."
Buhler, who once lived in California, worked for Houston Flournoy's campaign for governor against Brown in 1974, the year Brown first won that office. Following three failed bids for president -- most recently in 1992 -- Brown is "past the stage where he's thinking about what office he's going to run for next, and that makes him a very unique politician in America," Buhler said.
"Whether you agree with his ideas or not, he's free to talk about ideas."
In a nation in which Republican governors outnumber Democrats, there are many governors who disagree with Brown. Texas Gov. Rick Perry paid a highly publicized visit this month to California to recruit businesses, criticizing the state's economic climate.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad followed Perry's example and went to California, too. He made fun of Brown for visiting Iowa without a coat during his presidential campaign in 1992.
"Iowans found that a little strange," Branstad said.
One of the purposes of Brown's visit to Washington, D.C., was "building relationships with other governors," Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said last week. Brown, who was seated beside Branstad at the conference, leaned over to shake his hand.
Asked about his relationship with the California governor, Branstad said, "We focus primarily on what we can do for our own state, and how we can grow business and jobs. And we see California as kind of a happy hunting ground."
Brown and other governors may find common ground in one major policy area, implementation of the federal health care overhaul. Brown said he and California Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley were lobbying the Obama administration for assurances that California will have "broad authority" to curb future spending as the state moves to expand health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
Brown also urged governors to take action to combat climate change, warning weak environmental policies in other states could prove catastrophic.
"We know we're playing Russian roulette with our climate," Brown told a committee of other governors Sunday, "and I believe we have to take action."
Brown's brief remarks constituted his only formal speaking engagement of the weekend. It is a far lighter public agenda than last year, when his calendar included a meeting with members of California's congressional delegation and an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."
On Saturday, before meeting with former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta of the Center for American Progress, Brown said the occasion had nothing to do with Podesta's brother, a Washington lobbyist at whose home Brown raised money for his tax initiative last year.
"He's a think-tank guy," Brown said. "It's intellectual, developing ideas on all of the policies, things that we deal with in California."
First lady Anne Gust Brown acknowledged, "We're more understated this year."
Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for ex-Gov. Pete Wilson, said it may be advantageous for Brown to have limited his public appearances. It is easy for a governor far from home to "get dragged into the Washington mess," he said.
For the most part, Brown has managed to avoid it.
In the interview in which Brown invoked the secrecy of Coca-Cola, Politico's Jonathan Martin asked Brown to weigh in on gun control and other matters of national concern.
"So what's your point, you want me to comment on what's going on in Washington?" Brown said.
In one of the few instances in which he would, Brown said Hillary Clinton will "probably" clear the Democratic field if she runs for president in 2016.
"But I don't know for sure," Brown said. "I mean, how do I know? These are all fortune-telling questions, and my Ouija board is not operative in Washington."
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.
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