If you’re sick and getting sicker, you look for a top doctor. If you get pulled over by the cops and blow a .15 on the Breathalyzer, you call the best lawyer you can find. When a pipe breaks and water is filling the basement, it’s no time for the guy with the “Plumbing for Dummies” book.

When times are tough, people want a professional in charge and times don’t get any tougher than they are in California right now. That’s a huge part of the reason the voters in November picked Jerry Brown to run the state for the next four years and why the once and future governor is my choice for Californian of the Year.

These days, it’s no compliment to call someone a “professional politician.” On any recent list of America’s most respected professions, you’d find politicians in the basement, rambling around with the used car salesmen, infomercial hosts and oil company CEOs.

But while the country is run by the people, the country’s government is run by politicians elected by those people. And as California has discovered, rookie officeholders aren’t necessarily the reincarnation of Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, Pat Brown or Ronald Reagan.

Despite 24 years in public office and a couple of dozen election campaigns, Jerry Brown doesn’t view himself as a politician. The books that came out during his first tour of duty as governor, way back in the late ‘70s, had titles like “The Philosopher Prince” and “The Man on the White Horse,” not “Jerry Brown, a Life in Politics.”

But Brown was five-years-old when his father was first elected district attorney in San Francisco. Except for the few years he spent cloistered away as a Jesuit seminarian, Brown grew up surrounded by politics and politicians. It was a grassroots education he never forgot.

Take this year’s campaign for governor, for example. When Republican Meg Whitman started filling the airwaves with non-stop TV and radio ads last summer, Democrats begged Brown to start running his own ads.

When he refused, arguing that voters wouldn’t pay any attention until election day was at least in sight, there was plenty of grumbling, much of it by twenty-something progressive bloggers and out-of-work Democratic consultants about how time had passed the one-time boy governor by and how much state politics had changed since his glory years.

Not everything’s changed, though. To get elected, you still need to collect more votes than your opponent, which is something Brown has been pretty good at over the years.

His campaign was pretty simple. As he told the Los Angeles Times, being governor of California is “a very challenging job. Obviously, I think knowing a great deal about it is a big asset.”

Voters agreed and are bringing Brown back for an encore as governor.

Brown managed to get elected without having to make the type of “chicken in every pot” or “blow up the boxes” promises that can come back to haunt politicians. Instead, he’s been telling anyone who will listen that the state’s budget is so deep in the dumper that it’s going to take time and sacrifice to get things moving in the right direction.

That’s not the upbeat, feel-good message most politicians prefer to spin for voters, but not even Brown’s friends would call him a warm and cuddly type of leader. His style at this point of his life is more Old Testament prophet. But more to the point, his type of straight talk is a welcome change for Californians, weary of the steady diet of pleasant-sounding fiscal snake oil politicians of both parties been selling for years.

In electing Brown, California voters opted for someone who says there’s value in political experience and that a leader who’s willing to speak hard truths and make tough and often unpopular decisions can force a truce in Sacramento’s partisan wars.

But while Brown may be Californian of the Year for 2010, he doesn’t take office until Jan. 3, 2011. Come next year, Brown will be judged on his accomplishments. If the past is any guide, that’s likely to be a tough standard for the governor.

There were a few people beside Brown who made a splash on the California’s public scene this year.

Kamala Harris, San Francisco’s district attorney, became the first woman and the first person of color to be elected state attorney general, which has long been a stepping stone to the governor’s office (See: Warren, Earl; Brown, Pat; Deukmejian, George; Brown, Jerry). The 46-year-old Harris was the underdog in the race, but out-campaigned and generally worked harder than her GOP opponent, L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley.

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, 37 years in public office and counting, was, along with state Controller John Chiang, a voice in the wilderness on the budget, warning early and often that politics as usual wasn’t possible when the state’s financial future was on the line. California finances would be in better shape if more legislators had listened.

Finally, Charles T. Munger, a physicist from Palo Alto, showed that a Republican can win a self-financed campaign in California. Munger, whose father is the business partner of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, put more than $9 million of his own money into the successful Prop. 20, which puts the 2010 congressional redistricting in the hands of a multi-partisan citizens’ committee instead of the ultra-partisan Legislature.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.