Dream Candidate

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

The logic: African-Americans should be represented by African-Americans. The reality: Both administrations, instead of delivering promised changes, turned to politics-as-usual, letting the competing political machines of former U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums and Assemblyman Don Perata wield behind-the-scenes power. Meanwhile, City Hall devolved into a place where citizens and businesses could expect roadblocks rather than service.

"People in Oakland have blindly elected black leadership, convinced that they'll get some change in their neighborhood," says Shannon Reeves, current mayoral candidate and former executive director of the East Bay NAACP. "It doesn't work like that."

The way things often work in Oakland is typified by the deal to lure the Raiders back from Los Angeles. In 1995, behind closed doors, the City Council and Alameda County Board of Supervisors signed off on $197 million in bonds related to the refurbishing of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The deal was engineered by Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente and Supervisor Mary King -- both now running for mayor -- and it has since exploded. As matters stand now, the agreement will cost the city $8 million a year for 16 years.

"That deal was corrupt from the start," Brown tells audiences. "It's worthy of a criminal indictment."

It was, in fact, the Raiders deal that gave Brown the opening he needed to jump into the race and trumpet his reformist and progressive politics -- the same reformist politics he's tossed around since the '70s. But when he's pressed as to exactly what he would reform, precisely what businesses he'd pursue while progressively rebuilding Oakland, Brown struggles for examples. He says something about service-sector and light-manufacturing industries, and asks an aide for more coffee.

"We're made-to-order here for expansion," he offers.

If his campaign is short on specific local solutions to Oakland's many problems, Brown fires on all cylinders when he says that only regional solutions can address Oakland's problems. His argument: Oakland has absorbed more than its fair share of poor people, it's a "sacrifice area," and the Bay Area -- especially, San Francisco -- has "a moral and almost legal debt" to help Oakland.

But the mayor of Oakland has no legal standing to force other Bay Area municipalities to finance Oakland's renewal. Moral duty is seldom the basis for transfers of taxpayer funds from one city to another.

And actually, Jerry Brown will need Merlin's magic just to make Oakland's "weak mayor" form of government produce anything resembling significant change. Under that governing structure, a city manager calls the day-to-day shots. The mayor is but one vote on the nine-member City Council; in essence, he's cheerleader in chief. So Jerry Brown will not be able to cut deals and act regally on anything approaching the Willie Brown, strong-mayor scale.

This won't make Jerry Brown an immediate political eunuch if he's elected mayor, but it will force him to build a majority on the City Council if he wants to pursue particular changes in city policy. And that reality will place him head-to-head with Assemblyman Perata, who has close ties to at least four council members and significant support from the real estate development industry.

Brown says he's not worried. "Come on downtown," he enthuses. "We've got a lot of buildings that need to be developed." But, Brown says, developers should understand that Oakland doesn't have "a lot of money in the piggy bank" to pass out in the way of incentives.

It could be argued that Oakland does not need Jerry Brown, because it's already primed for renewal. Despite its reputation for crime, West Oakland has broad streets and century-old Victorian houses just begging to be inhabited by people squeezed out of San Francisco's insane housing market. The city's downtown, cuddling the west side of Lake Merritt, has a certain urban charm.

And there's so much economic activity in the Bay Area that a spillover effect is almost inevitable. But Oakland is tired of almost. It wants certainty.

So whatever the city's future, it's nearly a certainty that Jerry Brown will be anointed as mayor of Oakland, if not in the June 2 primary, then in the November runoff (where he'd most likely face Mary King).

And then, Jerry Brown says, he'll get on the phone, and ring up the Steve Jobses and Bill Gateses of the world, and ask them to bring at least some of their high-tech dollars to Oakland. To be fair, Jerry Brown is far more likely than any other Oakland mayoral candidate to get someone like Gates on the phone. But he'll need to do more than run up a phone bill to make the reality of Oakland match his public dreaming.

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