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Editorial notebook: Jerry Brown could learn a thing or two from Jim Hunt, who took a similar path

In his first go-round as governor, he was bold and brimming with ideas, but somewhat undisciplined. His political ambitions took a hit with a loss in a U.S. Senate race. His dreams to become president never came true. After years away, he returned to the Governor’s Office – wiser, a little less idealistic and more focused on his state’s future than his own.

No, I’m not talking about Jerry Brown.

I’m describing Jim Hunt, who traveled a very similar path in North Carolina. The more I watch our governor in action, the more I’m struck by the parallels with Hunt, whom I covered as a reporter.

It’s like I’ve seen this movie before. Given how much better the sequels of Brown and Hunt are, it makes you wish you could hit the fast-forward button so they could skip their mistakes. But like the rest of us, politicians have to learn lessons the hard way.

Hunt first became North Carolina’s governor in 1977, two years after Brown took office here. Both Democrats, they shared an interest in technology and worked together through the National Governors Association. Hunt visited Brown on his industry-hunting trips to California; Brown once stayed at the governor’s mansion in North Carolina.

During his first two terms, Hunt made the state better by raising teacher pay and standards, opening the N.C. School of Science and Math and the Microelectronics Center and pushing through a gas tax hike for smoother highways. Yet, he always seemed to have his eye on the next political prize. In 1984, however, his career was derailed when he lost to Republican icon Jesse Helms in what was then the nation’s most expensive U.S. Senate race ever. Some believed that if he had won, Hunt would have been a strong presidential contender.

After eight years as a corporate lawyer and education reformer, Hunt ran for governor again in 1992. In his inauguration speech, he said he was “not the same old Jim Hunt” and pledged to be less partisan and less reliant on government to solve problems.

All those promises came together in “Smart Start,” a public-private partnership to vastly expand early childhood education. Hunt recruited business and nonprofit leaders, reached out to Republicans and persuaded legislators to launch it with $20million. I still recall him talking incessantly in that drawl of his about the importance of developing the brains of “little chil’ren.”

Twenty years later, Smart Start is still considered a national model. In 1993, North Carolina had the nation’s worst child-care standards. Today, 70percent of children in preschool are in four- or five-star programs. Last year, the first Smart Start kids finished high school; the state’s graduation rate rose to a record 80percent, compared to 68percent in 2006. It is a big reason why North Carolina ranks six places ahead of California overall and 12 places better on education in the 2013 Kids Count compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

When I talked to Hunt on the phone this week, he sounded much as I remembered. At 76, he’s still “working his head off,” leading institutes on educational leadership and emerging issues, while also trying to help revive the downtrodden Democratic Party in North Carolina.

While he hasn’t talked to Brown recently, he has been keeping tabs. He’s “extremely impressed” with Brown’s success in stabilizing California’s finances. “He is one of the great leaders in America,” he said.

Hunt also sees the similarities between his career and Brown’s. As young governors, they wanted to “conquer the world,” he said. As older governors with more experience, they were “clearer on just what they want to do and how to do it.”

“That’s the way I was, that’s the way he is,” Hunt told me. “I think the public benefits from that.”

Already California’s longest-serving governor, Brown, 75, can extend his run if he is re-elected next year. He follows his own instincts, but it wouldn’t hurt to seek Hunt’s advice.

Hunt’s legacy as North Carolina’s longest-serving governor is clear. Brown is obviously thinking about his, saying recently, “I’m in a unique position, so that makes me want to do something big.”

But what will be Brown’s most lasting bequest to California? Will it be spending more on the neediest public school students, or overhauling the state’s prisons – the kinds of far-reaching changes that take years to bear fruit?

Or will it be moving full steam ahead on high-speed rail and the Delta tunnels – gargantuan infrastructure projects that could be monuments to him but also burden the state with debt for decades?

Luckily for Brown, he can still write the ending to his movie.