Dream Candidate

Front-running mayoral candidate Jerry Brown offers Oakland vague, pretty solutions to its real, ugly problems

Fifteen years after his term as governor ended, Jerry Brown still has star power.

Everywhere Jerry Brown speaks, there is a full house and an excitement that isn't normally associated with an Oakland mayoral campaign. Whether Brown is making his pitch to the blue-collar neighborhoods of North Oakland's flatlands or to the well-heeled high-rise residents of Lake Merritt, extra chairs are needed and latecomers lean against walls.

Then Jerry Brown, all 5-foot-10 of him, strides into the room. He's swathed entirely in black. ("It's easy, you don't have to think about it.") He sips at some water. He delivers one of his high-speed monologues.

And the audience listens. Closely.
After all, Brown claims to offer solutions to Oakland's most-entrenched problems -- problems that have left this city of 367,000 half-alive economically, and its citizens desperate for solutions. A recent poll places Brown so far ahead of his 10 competitors that a second-place finish is almost a theoretical concept. Some of the solutions seem awfully theoretical, too, but no one except his opponents seems to care.

In 1993, Jerry Brown installed himself in a modernist, 11-bedroom, $1.6 million live/work loft hard by Oakland's Embarcadero. The reason for the move is the subject of much talk in East Bay political circles. Some observers take the cynical view: Brown saw that Oakland's leadership was weak. He could wedge his way into office, and then he'd have a national platform from which to launch an independent bid for the presidency in 2000.

Or as one of his mayoral opponents, Mary King, puts it, "His political-biological time clock was ticking."

But running for mayor of a small city is not a move many political consultants would suggest to a potential president. And whenever the subject comes up, Brown always spins talk away from presidential ambitions and toward local possibilities.

"Oakland has such incredible potential," says Brown, now 60 years old. "It's been on the verge for so long, but it's been held back by forces that hold it beneath what it could be."

Brown repeats that theme wherever he goes: Oakland, he insists, will be great again. But he's the only politician honest enough to bounce the money-changers. Everyone else is on the take.

Critics and competitors have picked up on Brown's X-Files-applied-to-politics paranoia.

"That tone was in his political expression early on," says Mary Ellen Leary, who writes about California politics for The Economist. But, she says, as governor he never produced the changes people expected and turned out to be "very impractical" as a political leader. Brown himself acknowledges that he left office in 1983 as one of the least-popular governors in state history.

But today's audiences appear to have forgotten those days. They are, quite simply, star-struck, amazed that they are in the presence of someone who, for all his much-publicized quirks, was once a couple of months from becoming president.

Brown doesn't talk in specifics, but dreams in public. And little is stranger than to sit down and listen to Brown, who in 1996 called corporations "out-of-control Frankensteins," describe how he will draw businesses to Oakland.

"It's just a matter of marketing to the people with the capital who want to invest," he says.

You might think Brown would need to offer more concrete ideas:
-- A solution to the city's 6 percent unemployment rate, which runs 2 to 3 percent higher than the rest of the Bay Area.

-- A solution to crime, given that Oakland was host to 99 murders in 1997 -- half of them drug-related -- making the city's per capita murder rate 3 1/2 times San Francisco's.

-- A solution for a school system on life support, where the districtwide GPA for high school students is 1.9 (i.e., C-), and the district has deferred $400 million in needed maintenance.

-- A solution to the unfortunate reality that Oakland has been barely dusted by the silicon glitter of an economic boom that has supercharged the rest of the Bay Area.

You might think that, but you'd be wrong.
Because more than anything, it seems, Oakland voters just want Jerry Brown to make Oakland feel good about itself.

Brown says economic development is the answer to Oakland's problems. "I think downtown Oakland can come alive. I think there can be investments and activity there. I'd make it my business to go out over the whole world to get people to come to Oakland and truly make it the crossroads of the world."

But Oakland has a huge image problem with business, partly because of the crime and education situations mentioned above, but also because the city gags businesses with red tape. Then again, the majority of downtown's buildings are not wired with fiber optics -- and buildings without fast Internet connections stay vacant in the high-tech world surrounding Silicon Valley and Multimedia Gulch.

Emeryville has drawn many high-tech and biotech companies. Richmond landed Steve Jobs' Pixar. Alameda is called "Silicon Island."

How did Oakland become so disconnected from the economic benefits of the Information Age?

Many in Oakland political circles argue that it has to do with the city's 44 percent African-American population growing weary of white leadership. In 1978, Lionel Wilson was elected to the first of three mayoral terms. In 1990, Elihu Harris followed.

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