By David Siders
Published: Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010 – 11:09 am

For someone who liked to joke about his lack of “message discipline” in the campaign, Jerry Brown sure has buttoned up.

By announcing just two appointments and sharply limiting public appearances, the governor-elect has avoided distractions common to gubernatorial transitions while closeting those wandering, occasionally off-color musings that have tripped him up before.

The effect has been to focus public attention almost exclusively on California’s financial troubles.

“He’s focused like a laser on the budget,” former Gov. Gray Davis, Brown’s former chief of staff, said Tuesday.

Maintaining that focus is important to Brown, whose historic third term will be judged in large part on his management of California’s economic crisis.

In the past two weeks, Brown has organized widely covered budget forums in Los Angeles and Sacramento, where he estimated that the budget deficit could be as much as $28 billion over the next 18 months and lowering expectations before proposing a budget in January.

Yet except for those forums and an appearance Tuesday at the California Hall of Fame ceremony, where his late father, Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, was inducted, Brown has stayed almost entirely out of public view.

The 72-year-old former governor hasn’t once joked about Monica Lewinsky or compared someone’s media apparatus to that of Nazi Joseph Goebbels. And no one on his transition team has been taped calling anyone a “whore.”

A turning point came soon after the election, when it seemed for a moment that Brown might stray. Having invited the media to photograph him meeting with budget advisers in his office – supposedly a photo-only affair – Brown obliged reporters by addressing various non-budget matters, including his refusal to say where he had been on vacation.

Aides asked reporters more than once to leave, and Steve Glazer, Brown’s campaign manager, said, “Guys, we won’t do photo avails again.”

He wasn’t kidding.

In the month since, Brown has held no news conferences and given no lengthy interviews.

He has avoided any conflict with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger about lame-duck appointments. And by announcing two uncontroversial appointments – Ana Matosantos will continue as finance director and Diana Dooley will be health and human services secretary – Brown dampened criticism he was not naming appointees while delaying public scrutiny of others he will name.

Brown has been marginally quicker to name appointees than when he was first elected, in 1974, but he is proceeding more slowly than some other governors.

Asked last week about the pace of his transition, Brown denied there was any strategy to it.

“Look, you take each day as it comes along,” he said. “I’ve got a lot on my plate.”

The pace is hardly accidental, however. Years ago, when Brown was leaving the governor’s office, he advised incoming Republican Gov. George Deukmejian to “go slow,” said Steve Merksamer, who was Deukmejian’s chief of staff.

“The two of us walk into Jerry’s office a couple of days after the election,” Merksamer said. “And he says, ‘Hi guys. … I’m going to give you the best advice you’re ever going to get: Go slow in your transition. Don’t make major changes right away. Remember, you will be defined by the kinds of men and women you choose to surround yourself with, so go slow.’ ”

The advice is still good today, Merksamer said.

“He does not want to be distracted,” he said. “The only thing that matters is coming up with a budget plan that he has to present to the Legislature by Jan. 10.”

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