Now that Jerry Brown is the "official" Democratic nominee for governor (what a nail-biter that was), Californians are tuning in to figure out what kind of governor he'll be.
They're not getting any answers. And we've known so many Jerry Browns over the decades, it's hard to know who'll show up if he's elected.
I personally hope he'll be the Jerry Brown who called Maurice Lim Miller in the middle of dinner nine years ago to yell at him.
Miller, then executive director of a job training and social service organization, was at home eating when the phone rang. "Have you seen the proposals?" barked an angry voice, which Miller instantly recognized as Brown's, then-mayor of Oakland. They'd met before and Brown knew Miller sat on the board of a local agency that had applied for $10 million in federal funds for a new youth employment program.
Miller had no idea how he got his home number, but was even more surprised by his tone. Most mayors would jump for joy when $10 million might be coming to their city. But Brown sounded pissed off.
"Uh, no I haven't," Miller stammered.
Fifteen minutes later a car pulled up to Miller's house, and one of Brown's aides jumped out with the budget proposals. Immediately Miller understood Brown's anger. The $10 million would hire 120 social workers, employment specialists and administrators.
But like so many programs, there was little guarantee that the lives of at-risk teenagers would improve.
"Does this look like poverty pimping to you?" Brown demanded when Miller called him back. The only people guaranteed jobs from the funding, Brown said, are the professional workers, not the kids.
Miller hadn't heard "poverty pimping" since the sixties. It's a derogatory term describing groups who benefit from acting on behalf of poor communities, rather than truly helping them.
Miller got defensive and explained how federal funding is a nightmare to apply for. Brown shot back that after 30 years the war on poverty still hadn't come up with anything that works. Then Brown challenged Miller.
"If you really wanted to make a difference and you had the freedom to do anything you wanted to do, what would you do?" Mayor Brown asked. "Come to my office next month and tell me."
Miller was stumped. For 22 years he had been leading a nonprofit lauded for its work offering affordable housing, job training and counseling. President Clinton even invited Miller to sit in his box at the 1999 State of the Union address.
But in truth, Miller says he rarely saw anyone truly exit poverty and make it into the middle class. What bothered Miller most was when his clients' kids grew up and started showing up for services themselves. "We hadn't 'broken the cycle' of poverty,' " said Miller. "We had only made life a little more bearable."
So Miller thought about how his own family and other immigrants he'd grown up with had left poverty for good. They'd done it by relying on each other, sharing skills and connections. They'd pooled money and loaned it to one another to start small businesses, a common technique in low-income ethnic communities.
Miller made an appointment to see Brown a few weeks later. When Miller entered, Brown was as blunt as ever. "So what would you do?" he asked immediately.
Miller started talking about his mother. She had only a third-grade education when she came here from Mexico. But she got Miller to succeed. Perhaps the secret was to empower mothers like her, not to make them reliant on professionals or outside services.
What would happen, Miller wondered, if low-income families of all backgrounds had access to some of the funds traditionally spent on professionals to help the families? And if families were instead encouraged to turn to friends and social networks for help and direction?
Miller sketched out a plan to re-ignite ways that immigrants had long used to build better lives. He wanted to challenge families to take actions they thought would lift them out of poverty, whether that was by improving kids' grades, saving more or starting a business. They could then earn small amounts of money for reporting what they did. Instead of hiring staff to monitor progress or run meetings, Miller thought he could pay the families to do that at a fraction of the cost.
Also, Miller only wanted to enroll families in groups so they could turn to each other for help, instead of to a caseworker or a program. No one gets out of poverty alone.
Brown told Miller to discuss it with his aide. Later that year, Miller left his job and started The Family Independence Initiative using pilot funding Brown helped him find.
Over a two-year period, participating families of all ethnicities in Oakland increased their incomes by 26 percent on average. Their savings went up by 141 percent. And 36 percent bought homes within two years. The organization has since achieved similar results in Hawaii and now in San Francisco, all at a fraction of the cost of traditional social service programs.
Who knows if Jerry Brown even remembers this interaction. It was a few lives back for a politician who's had more than James Bond's stuntman.
Whoever wins in November, I do know that this exemplifies what I want from our next governor: someone who effectively leans on people in Sacramento to think outside of funding and regulatory restraints. Someone who spurs people to accomplish more with less. And someone who challenges the status quo, even when it's not politically expedient to do so.
Our state is in crisis. Times like these require leadership like that. Whoever our next governor is, I hope phones across our state start ringing at dinnertime.