Los Angeles (AP) - Democrat Jerry Brown was elected California governor on Tuesday in an extraordinary political encore, defeating billionaire Republican Meg Whitman and the $142 million she spent of her own fortune as he reclaimed the office he held a generation ago.
The victory by the 72-year-old state attorney general leaves him with the enormous task of lifting the state out of a recession and driving down a persistently high jobless rate. The former Jesuit seminary student said he would be up to it.
"I still carry with me my sense of that kind of missionary zeal to transform the world," he said. "And I'm hoping and I'm praying that the breakdown that's gone on for so many years in the state Capital -- and we're watching it in Washington -- the breakdown paves the way for a breakthrough."
Brown was California's 34th governor during his previous tenure from 1975 to 1983, and now becomes its 39th.
"It looks like I'm going back again," Brown said as he took the stage at the historic Fox Theater in Oakland to chants of "Jerry, Jerry, Jerry."
Whitman conceded and said she called Brown to wish him well.
"Tonight has not turned out quite as we had hoped. We've come up a little short, but certainly not for lack of hard work, determination and a clear vision for making our state better," she told supporters at Universal City near Los Angeles. "We overcame great obstacles to get this far, and I could not be any prouder of the race we have ran. And I gave it my all, and so did you."
Brown's victory over the former eBay chief executive brought the office back under Democratic control. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's term will end in January after a little more than seven years in office.
Schwarzenegger congratulated Brown in a statement and praised him for his "lifetime of public service." He pledged to work with Brown for a smooth transition.
The son of a former two-term governor, Brown has spent a lifetime in and out of politics that began when he was seated on the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees in 1969.
As the campaign entered its final days, Brown promoted his deep ties in California, with family roots stretching to the Gold Rush era, presenting an image of a native son deeply connected to the place he will oversee for a second time.
His win over Whitman in a governor's race that set a campaign spending record came in a year when Republicans appeared to have the edge and were expected to win a majority of governor's seats across the country. Including contributions from others, Whitman's total spending was expected to exceed $162 million.
Brown, who has run for president three times and lost a run for U.S. Senate, returns to the governor's office as a more mature but still unconventional politician, one who often speaks his mind and rarely relies on a script or notes when he goes before a crowd.
The campaign for governor turned increasingly negative in the final weeks, when the airwaves were filled with attack ads.
Whitman's campaign was knocked off message when it was revealed that she had employed an illegal immigrant housekeeper for nine years, undermining her warnings that employers should be held responsible and fined if they hire illegal workers.
Brown faced his own controversy after a Los Angeles police union released an audio tape of a private conservation between Brown and his campaign staffers. A female aide was overheard calling Whitman a "whore" for currying favor with the union to win its endorsement.
The controversies at times overshadowed debates on more substantive issues such as job creation, the budget deficit, college costs and public education.
Brown's prize for returning to the Capitol is trying to lead the troubled state out of high unemployment, a stagnant economy and political gridlock. He is expected to face a multibillion dollar budget deficit and has said he will start meeting with lawmakers as soon as December to find solutions.
Successive years of steep deficits have left the state's general fund with $15 billion less than it had just three years ago, leading to severe cuts in many state programs and higher costs for college and university students.
When he is sworn in this January, Brown will be the second oldest governor to hold the office, after Gov. Frank Merriam, who turned 74 during his final weeks in office in 1939. Brown will be 76 at the end of his term in 2014.
Brown was eligible to run because his previous stint as governor came before voters enacted term limits.
Only one other California governor has served three terms, Republican Earl Warren, who became the 14th chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Warren resigned the governor's office with a little more than a year left in his final term.
Brown's father, Gov. Pat Brown, lost his 1966 re-election attempt for a third term to Ronald Reagan.
Associated Press writer Samantha Young in Oakland also contributed to this report.