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.

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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