Letter from Uruguay: In Frugality, Sutter & Jerry Have Competition

Brazil Uruguay

The corgi Sutter Brown of Sacramento and Oakland, Calif. -- and his human owner Gov. Jerry Brown -- are riding high these days. Sutter pushed Prop 30 to victory, with help from the governor. And the media is eating up the image they've been selling of themselves as regular, frugal guy (Jerry) and his fun-loving dog (Sutter).

But Sutter and Jerry can't hold a candle compared to another pairing of older politician and his dog: that of Uruguayan president Jose Mujica and his three-legged friend, Manuela.

I've been learning all about the Mujicas this week, since I'm in Montevideo, Uruguay, putting on a global conference on initiative and referendum (and yes, we've been hearing from Uruguayans and others that they have designed their initiative and referendum process to avoid becoming "another California").

I met with Mujica's staff and have chatted up Uruguayans, who are proud of the frugality of their president, even if they're not political supporters of him.

The lesson for Californians: The Browns live like royals compared to the Mujicas. The president, a former political prisoner and guerilla known here as "El Pepe," is the real frugal thing.

The president doesn't live in the official mansion, just as Jerry Brown shunned the former governor's mansion in his first run as governor. But Mujica's digs -- his tiny poorly kept home on a rundown farm outside Montevideo -- is a couple steps down from Brown's Sacramento loft and Oakland home.

Mujica sounds like Brown: "I'm called 'the poorest president,' but I don't feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more," he told the BBC. "This is a matter of freedom. If you don't have many possessions then you don't need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself."

But the differences speak volumes.

Indeed, Mujica has set a standard for frugality that expose Brown's poses as hollow. The Uruguayan president gives away 90 percent of his tiny salary. He drives himself in an '87 Beetle. And of course, Mujica wouldn't think of taking a tax measure to the ballot, for example, since Uruguayans don't permit referenda on taxes (or international treaties).

There are political differences, too. Mujica, at 77, is three years older. And he's already made clear that he's retiring from politics at the end of his term.

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