The 72-year-old state attorney general will take the helm of a state mired in recession and high unemployment after defeating Republican Meg Whitman, a billionaire former chief executive of eBay who spent $142 million of her personal fortune on her campaign.
Brown's victory Tuesday will return the governor's office in the nation's most populous state to Democratic control. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger leaves office in January after a little more than seven years in office.
Brown, the son of a former two-term governor, 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.
Brown was California's 34th governor during his previous tenure from 1975 to 1983, and now becomes its 39th.
He told voters they could count on his government "know-how" to work with lawmakers in an attempt to fix the many problems plaguing the nation's most populous state.
"I know where all the bodies are buried over there at the Capitol, where all the skeletons are buried," he joked at a campaign rally over the weekend. "In fact, I created some of them."
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.
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 race between Brown and Whitman 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.
Neither Brown nor Whitman offered specifics about how to solve California's budget gridlock. Brown campaigned on a moderate platform, saying he would not raise taxes without voter approval and would try to control labor and pension costs by bucking the powerful public employee unions that spent $26 million to support his campaign.
Brown told voters that after decades of public service he was uniquely qualified to bring lawmakers together to turn the state around. He compared Whitman's lack of experience to that of Schwarzenegger, who stepped into the governor's office with no previous experience as an elected official.
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.