On the morning before Gov. Jerry Brown was due to give his state of the state address, one of the closest things Brown has to an opponent was making a whistlestop run through the Central Coast. (The only opponent, that is, unless you count the Republican former Goldman Sachs banker who ran the Troubled Asset Relief Program under Presidents Bush and Obama, or the state assemblyman who founded the California Minutemen Party and once tried to bring a loaded handgun on a commercial airliner)

And let’s face it: while the 75-year-old Brown hasn’t declared whether he’ll run in the 2014 election, even that closest thing – Independent candidate Luis J. Rodriguez – probably doesn’t have much of a chance at winning. He’s only raised about $5,000 so far. He’s never held elected office (although he was presidential candidate Rocky Anderson’s running mate in the 2012 presidential election on the Justice Party Ticket). While Rodriguez is endorsed by the Green Party, $5,000 and a Green Party endorsement won’t get you very far against a wealthy former investment banker (Neel Kashkari) and sadly, probably not a member of the lunatic fringe (Tim Donnelly) either. And if Brown declares, all three of them can forget about it. Game over.

Then again, so many people have counted out Rodriguez before, maybe we’re foolish to count him out this time. The cops counted him out when he was a child and joined his first street gang in the San Gabriel Valley at age 11. They counted him out again at 18, when he was facing six years in prison for assaulting a police officer; a judge saw something in him, took the felony charges down to a misdemeanor and gave him only a few months in jail, with a warning it was his last chance. He’s shot and been shot at, he’s been stabbed and he’s been a heroin addict. But when that judge gave him that chance, he took it and ran with it.

Always a voracious reader, Rodriguez became a prolific writer, covering crime for the San Bernadino Sun, writing for the LA Weekly and becoming a radio reporter at Chicago’s largest news station, WMAQ. In Chicago, he wrote the book that would make him one of the most famous Chicano writers in the country. Always Running: La Vida Loca, My Gang Days in L.A., published in 1993, sold nearly a half-million copies and became one of the most banned books in the state – and one of the most stolen from libraries, Rodriguez says. His follow up, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions and Healing, published in 2011, was named a finalist by the National Book Critics in the autobiography category. He’s also published numerous books of poetry and founded a popular cultural center in Sylmar, called Tia Chucha’s Central Cultural & Bookstore.

That’s one of the things he’s advocating for as candidate Rodriguez: arts in every community, and an arts policy for every neighborhood, so wherever you go in the state, even to the smallest towns, you can find culture and visual and performing arts. He’s also advocating for a full moratorium on fracking, and a greater reliance on solar, wind and water power to drive the economy. And he’s also advocating for full healthcare coverage via a single-payer system, education reform and the end of the California prison system as it currently exists. He wants to declare a real war on poverty. There are 2.7 million more poor people in the state now than before Brown became governor, he says.

“He did balance the budget, but he did it on the backs of poor people and working people, by cutting Cal Fresh and Cal Works,” Rodriguez says over a plain latte before a 9am radio interview and a visit with Alisal High School students in Salinas. “Our perception is it’s already raining. People need help now.”

Rodriguez needs help too. He has to have 10,000 signatures gathered by Feb. 20 to get on the ballot. He’s not sure how many he has right now – he and his grassroots campaign leaders are in the process of tallying.

“It’s possible I could be the second highest vote getter in June,” Rodriguez says. “We might be able to go all the way to November. We’re going to go as far as we can go.”

Mary Duan is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at mary@mcweekly.com or follow her at twitter.com/maryrduan.

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