By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - Governor Jerry Brown, a popular Democrat who has steered California on a centrist path, said on Thursday he would seek re-election to another term as leader of the most populous U.S. state, in a widely anticipated move.
Brown's decision to seek another term comes at a time of nearly unprecedented strength for California Democrats who hold large majorities in the state legislature, although it also coincides with a debilitating drought that has deepened regional divides.
He begins his campaign with high approval ratings and respect, if at times grudging, from both Democrats and Republicans for guiding state finances back to solvency after a severe recession. His $17 million campaign war chest dwarfs those of his Republican opponents.
Social media savvy at 75, Brown made his announcement on Thursday by tweeting a picture of himself filling out his candidacy papers, along with a statement saying he was looking forward to another four years as governor.
"At this stage of my life, I can say - without any hesitation - that I am prepared and excited to tackle these challenges and the many others that lay before us," Brown said in the statement.
"In fact, there is nothing I would rather do. So today, I have taken out the papers to run for re-election," he said.
Brown has forcefully steered the heavily Democratic state on a centrist path since voters returned him to the governorship
in 2011, vetoing some laws proposed by liberal members of his own party and keeping a tight hold on California's finances.
Brown is the state's longest-serving governor. Another term would mark his fourth at California's helm. He first served two terms as governor from 1975 to 1983. After a decades-long hiatus, he was elected again in 2010.
In his announcement, Brown cited the state's recovering economy and improvements to its beleaguered prison and school systems as evidence of progress made during his third term.
"For our schools, where once there were thousands of layoffs and widespread elimination of arts and science programs, there is now local control, new hiring and restoration of programs - $10 billion in additional funds this year alone," Brown said.
He also promoted new state laws that moved the state forward on its own version of immigration reform after that issue stalled at the federal level in the U.S. Congress.
Faced with a court order to reduce crowding in the state's troubled prison system, Brown developed a plan to shift responsibility for some inmates to local counties. That saved the state money and bought some time even as municipalities pushed back against the added responsibility and cost.
This month, the judges, who had previously threatened to hold Brown personally in contempt if he did not reduce crowding further, gave the state two more years to work out its problems.
A former seminarian, Brown is the son of Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, a Democrat who served as governor from 1959 to 1967. Jerry Brown's own first round in the state's top job spanned the economic problems of the late 1970s and early '80s, as well as California's last devastating drought.
Brown sought his party's presidential nomination in 1992, famously refusing to take donations larger than $100 and ultimately losing to Bill Clinton. He was elected mayor of Oakland in 1998, serving for two terms, and was later elected the state's attorney general.
A Field Poll released in December showed that Brown was enjoying strong popularity in the state, with 58 percent of registered voters approving of the job he was doing.
"He's starting out from a very strong position," said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, whose agency's own polling showed Brown with a 60 percent approval rating last month.
"The budget situation and the economy have improved markedly during his time in office and the mood in California is much more positive than it was when he entered office," Baldassare said.
Two Republicans, Neel Kashkari and Tim Donnelly, have begun campaigning to unseat him. Kashkari, who worked on the federal response to the mortgage meltdown in two presidential administrations, has raised about $1 million since announcing his bid last month, according to campaign finance reports.
Donnelly's campaign had about $54,000 at the end of 2013, records showed.
Both Republicans were quick to criticize Brown on Thursday.
"In announcing his plan to run for a record fourth term, Gov. Brown again touted a status quo that is devastating for millions of families and communities all across the state," Kashkari said in an email.
Donnelly, who is favored by the Republicans' Tea Party faction, called Brown a socialist and accused him of releasing criminals into the streets.
"I welcome Governor Brown to the race, and I look forward to this showdown between socialism and freedom," Donnelly said.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, James Dalgleish, Jonathan Oatis and Jan Paschal)