Jerry Brown as Oakland's mayor? Champion: The idealistic former governor and presidential hopeful has found a city where he can make a difference -- small enough to get things done, big enough to be a national model.

Sun Journal

May 28, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It was only a sound check, but it wasn't a joke. "Jerry Brown, running for mayor of Oakland," the former California governor piped into his microphone at a recent candidate forum.

It is, in fact, the riches-to-rags political tale of the year: Jerry Brown, a presidential candidate in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, hopes to greet the millennium as mayor of Oakland -- the eighth-largest city of the state he once led, and long overshadowed by his glittering hometown across the bay, San Francisco.

The outcome of the race, according to the polls, is not in doubt. Brown will easily win next week's primary.

The real question, which Brown says he's heard countless times, is: "Why are you doing it?" Why, indeed, would the man who replaced Ronald Reagan as governor, the bearer of one of this state's proudest political names, want to succeed Elihu Harris as presiding officer of the Oakland City Council?

It's no mystery at all, skeptics insist. The aging boy wonder of California politics, starved for attention, desperately wanted one more fling in the arena -- any arena. His "political-biological clock was ticking," as one of his 10 opponents in the mayor's race put it.

Friends and supporters see something else: a lifelong bachelor and searcher who has found in Oakland a place where he can make a difference -- small enough to get things done, big enough to be a national model.

"He's a guy who still very much has the Jesuit roots somewhere in his psyche," says Van Gordon Sauter, who is married to Brown's sister, Kathleen, the 1994 Democratic nominee for governor. "You take Jerry for where Jerry is. At this stage, he's very much committed to this."

Brown, who moved here a few years ago, promises to serve out his term as mayor, if elected. But he envisions a wider role for himself: a champion for America's neglected cities, where many have been bypassed by the booming economy.

"Everything I've been preparing for is in Oakland," he says in an interview. "Oakland is the microcosm of America, and America's unfinished agenda is race and poverty, as it is found in the city."

"It's a big step," he adds, with characteristic excitement in his voice. "To take this on is incredible."

At age 60, Brown has gone largely bald (what hair remains is cut close). He has quit the Democratic Party and registered as an independent. ("The two-party system is a scam. From Bush to Clinton, you had virtually no change.") Otherwise, he seems to have changed not at all -- still attracted to exotic ideas that are easy for others to deride.

With considerable zest, he's immersed himself in his campaign, stressing renewed civic involvement under the slogan "Oaklanders First." He's held 85 house parties with small groups of voters and is gamely taking part in an almost daily ritual of candidate forums around town. It's elemental politics, "like running in New Hampshire or the Maine caucuses," he says.

Brown's power-to-the-people message is well received in this city, a cradle of African-American radicalism, which spawned the Black Panthers of the '60s and the short-lived Ebonics craze of the '90s.

"We are not governed by anybody but ourselves, and we can chart our own destiny," he tells 30 voters at a forum sponsored by the League of African-American Voters. "This is self-determination at its basics."

"Right on!" shouts a supporter, while others applaud.

Brown is selling Oaklanders his celebrity. The only white candidate in the field, he's within striking distance of winning the June 2 primary with more than 50 percent of the vote and avoiding a November runoff. A new San Francisco Chronicle poll shows him leading his nearest rival by a 46 percent to 8 percent margin, with 30 percent undecided.

Already, in fact, he is looking beyond Election Day. He recently launched an effort to greatly expand the power of the mayor's office, which would require voters to approve a ballot initiative in November. (A similar effort failed two years ago, but the Chronicle poll shows 2-to-1 voter support for Brown's proposal.) Under Oakland's current council-manager form of government, the mayor is a glorified city councilman.

Rivals call Brown a carpetbagger and predict that he quickly would lose interest in the gritty details of governing a city of 367,000. But in some ways, Oakland and Brown make a surprisingly good match.

Blessed with a mild, sunny climate and diverse ethnic mix (40 percent black and 30 percent Anglo, with Latinos and Asian-Americans making up the rest), Oakland has both a large black middle class and a growing number of young white professionals. The downtown commercial area is slowly reviving, and the port is the bay area's busiest.

At the same time, it suffers many common urban ills: crime, a struggling school system and decaying neighborhoods. One in five residents lives below the poverty line.

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