Jerry Brown crafts new political image as Oakland's mayor

Comeback: The New Age governor of the '70s has reinvented himself as the common-sense leader of this gritty bay town.

July 11, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. -- If things had turned out differently, Jerry Brown would be cruising through his second White House term now. Instead, he's standing in an industrial flatland near the Oakland airport, about to cut the ribbon for a new motel. A Holiday Inn Express.

In a sense, the cut-rate lodgings reflect the current state of Jerry Brown: relentlessly modern and very competitive, but with certain obvious limitations. The man who once dreamed about protecting the entire planet is now trying to revive one gritty little part of it.

Brown is halfway through his first year as mayor of Oakland. And he's clearly been a bargain for the people of this working-class port town. Already, he's shaken up City Hall, improved the delivery of government services and brought a touch of celebrity to an often overlooked corner of the San Francisco Bay area.

Cynics predict it won't be long before he finds his way to another presidential campaign, perhaps as a Reform Party candidate. But that seems unlikely. Starting over again after turning 60, the famously flighty Californian seems to have found his niche right here.

In 1992, he won a few Democratic primaries from Bill Clinton as a late-starting challenger. And he says he'd like to be an advocate for America's cities in next year's debate. But in a recent interview, he spoke almost dismissively of the presidency and of some of those currently pursuing it.

"Bushie?" he says of the nation's latest political phenom. "I've never seen the man."

"He's like Clinton. This is the new state-of-the-art politician," he adds. "Instead of fixing up the cities, you put your arms around an African-American student. The natural selection of our political process is requiring it. I doubt if President Polk did a lot of hugging on the campaign trail. I'm not even sure Roosevelt did. Or Wilson. Or Taft."

"Early fund raising. Huggability. These are two clear criteria for a presidential candidate," says Brown, referring to Texas Gov. George W. Bush's recent California tour, in which he hugged Latino voters, kissed a black schoolgirl for the cameras and set a new money-raising record.

He looks more kindly upon Vice President Al Gore ("He knows a lot. I wonder how much Bush knows.") and Bill Bradley ("He called. We talked about the whole racial issue in America. It's not solved. At all.").

But it's too early, he says, to decide whether he'll endorse either one.

Brown, who abandoned his Democratic Party affiliation for independent status last year, contends that Republicans could have the advantage in the presidential contest, because elections run in cycles and voters may be looking for a fresh start.

"Ronald Reagan was very popular" as governor of California, he says. "But in his eighth year, I came along and was elected, at the age of 36. So the pendulum definitely swings. That's the Democrats' problem."

As the state's New Age governor a quarter-century ago, Brown eschewed the perks of power, rejecting the official limousine in favor of his old Dodge sedan.

Today, he rides around in a new black Lincoln Town Car. ("It's leased," he says, a bit edgily.)

`Right person right time'

That's hardly the only change. Conservatives across the country cheered when Brown, a labor liberal, took on -- and helped defeat -- the powerful California Teachers Association this year over its demands that charter schools be required to hire union members.

Most surprising of all, he is impressing almost everyone with his commitment to the job.

"I didn't think he was going to be as serious as he has been over the last seven months," concedes Laurence E. Reid, president pro tem of the City Council.

But it's clear that, as Oakland's first white mayor in 20 years, Brown is "the right person at the right time to lead the city," adds Reid, an African-American who supported another candidate in last year's election.

Brown enraged much of the old-guard black leadership by firing the African-American police chief (his replacement is also black).

The mayor also forced out the Chinese-American school superintendent, who had close ties to the district's mostly black central administration.

None of this seems to have hurt him with African-American residents, the largest voter group, who helped give him a landslide victory last year, then joined in passing a ballot measure that greatly expanded his mayoral powers.

"They thought he was the great white hope," says Martha Paul, who runs a nonprofit group that provides emergency food, shelter and clothing in the Oakland area. "And they're happy with the results."

In her drug-infested East Oakland neighborhood, Paul says, "you could hear Uzis going off when you took a shower." But with the city's crime rate continuing to drop under Brown's administration, "I don't hear that now."

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