Brown shapes up Oakland

June 25, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Politics, the saying goes, makes strange bedfellows. But it also takes strange turns. Twenty years ago, Jerry Brown was governor of California and his chief of staff was an obscure fellow named Gray Davis. Today, Mr. Davis is governor in Sacramento and Mr. Brown is mayor of Oakland, the economically depressed "other" city across San Francisco Bay.

But Mr. Brown, six months into the job, argues that in some ways he's got the better of it. "I don't see that much difference between governor and mayor," he said. "Being a mayor is more concrete than being governor. The governor talks about the same issues but all he can do about it is send money or pass new laws. But as mayor you can clear land, put up buildings. . . . It's a more direct function."

Washington, too, like Sacramento is a dispenser of funds rather than being on the firing line of action as cities are, says the man who three times ran unsuccessfully for president. If such comments sound like sour grapes, Mr. Brown seems convinced that he is in a place now where he can better see the product of his labors than he could as governor or, had he ever won the big job, as president.

Creating a destination

A year ago, he won a majority in Oakland's 11-candidate mayoral primary, thus avoiding a runoff, and immediately set about to keep his main campaign promise: to shake up the old, deteriorating city's governmental structure and face and put Oakland "on the map as a drive-to rather than a drive-through" city on the way to popular San Francisco.

On the weekend of that primary, he successfully launched a petition drive to put an initiative on the ballot in November to change the city's charter, shifting real executive power from the appointed city manager to the mayor. About 75 percent of Oakland voters approved it and Mr. Brown has been aggressively working to change Oakland ever since.

The city manager, Robert Bobb, who now reports directly to Mr. Brown, enthusiastically talks of his new boss' "impatient agenda" that, borrowing from football jargon, amounts to "a two-minute drill every day."

The governor-turned-mayor, identifying Oakland's major problems as a high crime rate that drives off newcomers and a failed public school system, has installed a new police chief and new superintendent of schools. "The key to Oakland is bringing down crime," he said. "The image of Oakland has to change as a safe and friendly place" to attract downtown residents and businesses. For example, with San Francisco putting a moratorium on loft conversions, he said, he persuaded a major developer there to come across the bay to look at prospects in Oakland.

Mr. Brown has created 57 neighborhood crime-prevention councils organized by 20 full-time city workers. At the same time, he has pressed the state corrections department to be more diligent in keeping track of parolees, who he says have flooded the city because of its criminal environment. "If they don't report [to their parole officers], they should find them," Mr. Brown said, "because it means they're out committing crimes."

Mr. Brown's other prime goal to make Oakland more livable is to sharply upgrade its schools. To this end, even before naming a new school superintendent, he helped create eight new charter schools in the city, bringing the total to 12. While he was an advocate of better schools as governor, he says, here he is able to observe at close range the challenges and what he can do about them. Before his four-year term is up, he said, he will have visited all 80 of the city's public schools.

In all this, Mr. Brown repeatedly talks about making better use of his political experience at the local level. "Every problem I talked about 25 years ago is still the same," he said, "but I know a great deal more now than I did then." With congestion growing everywhere, he said, "there's a real rationale for [improving] urban living."

Yet Mr. Brown acknowledges that he's not sure at 61 that he's ready "to get to the armchair stage" in national politics. He said he knows his previous setbacks would be hard to overcome, but he won't rule out using whatever success he has in revitalizing Oakland to try again: "I've demonstrated in the past a certain degree of ambition."

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 6/25/99

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