Jerry Brown in Oakland: A Man of Many Ideas and Identities
He's energetic, but is he prepared to be mayor? residents ask.
BOSTON — It's a drizzly Saturday morning and Jerry Brown is standing on a bench in the airy atrium of his live-in work loft waving his arms, exhorting his volunteers before a campaign march through the city he hopes to rule as mayor.
Once outside, California's former governor, presidential candidate, and one of America's most intriguing political figures of the past 25 years, is at the front of the pack. He's worrying about the damage the rain might do to "all this paper" his supporters plan to hand out, directing them through busy intersections already filling with traffic.
But as his group of 50 or so snakes through China town, the candidate has drifted to the back of the pack, looking disengaged from his own march. Without notice, he hops into the truck of a supporter and races to another venue for politicking, unbeknownst to his marchers.
It's vintage Jerry Brown: restless, impatient, and unpredictable. As he rejoins the march later, he's focused, storming through a street fair, drawing looks of bemusement, curiosity, and semi-shock as residents process the famous face over a bagel and hot chocolate.
This too is vintage Brown: laser intensity, a direct, almost confrontational style, and for many, a magnetism that whatever its source, is not born of the warm and fuzzy, empathetic embrace taught in contemporary political charm school.
"I really wasn't interested in politics," says Ken Addison, who runs a program in Oakland to reduce youth crime. That is, until he met Mr. Brown at a crime-prevention forum for teens. "It was his sense of, I don't know, commitment and engagement that grabbed me, so here I am," says Addison, working as a weekend warrior in hopes of electing Brown mayor on June 2.
Oakland is a gritty town: high crime, dirty streets, poor schools, deep poverty. From here, you can see San Francisco's skyline floating on a bed of fog across the bay, pastels wrapped in white cotton. From here, you can almost see the digital mushroom cloud of the world's technology revolution, rising from nearby Silicon Valley. From here, you detect a weary envy that so much fame and fortune is close, but never calls Oakland home.
Jerry Brown could bring star power to Oakland. On that, even critics agree. Voters too, according to polls which show him way ahead and likely to win election, either outright on June 2 with over 50 percent of the vote, or later in November, if a runoff is necessary. "He's great at getting us attention and I'd appoint him ambassador of the city," says one of his mayoral opponents, half jokingly "I just don't think he should be running the city day to day."
About halfway through the march, a woman confronts him on the sidewalk and asks why he's reneged on earlier vows to stay out of politics - an institution he has railed against for years as corrupt to the bone. He denies saying he would never seek office again. He explains his conviction that local politics is the only viable place to try and rebuild a direct connection between citizens and their government, broken at the state and national level by big money.
Later, in an interview, he elaborates on what has become a central question of his campaign: Just why is he reentering politics? "I'm an activist at heart and I have the experience. I wasn't satisfied just commenting on things" through writings and his Oakland-based radio show.
"I'm very critical of politics as it works. But we live in the world. You can have an idea, but there is this reality. There is always a gap there," he adds. "Politics is controlled by outside forces. But local government offers the possibility of a more human scale, potentially. I can help people get greater control over their lives."
For some, there is something else vintage about the Brown campaign in Oakland: opportunism.
"There are two views of Jerry Brown," says Bruce Cain, director of Berkeley's Institute of Government Studies. "One is that he's this restless opportunist who re-creates himself at whim. The other is that he's this angry outsider who always wanted to do things differently. My guess is there's truth in both."
In conversation, Brown is nimble and eclectic. He ranges from contemporary politics to the role of technology to the parallels between Albert Camus's writings and Taoism. Yet in a discussion that turns philosophical, he's wary of a trap, reminded of stories over the years that have chided him for his new-age ideas. "The media likes to recycle stories," he says.
AT an afternoon candidates' debate, he's all nuts and bolts. He knows the value of a simple message and hammers his home: lower crime, improve schools, attract investment. Critics worry Brown is using Oakland for bigger, though undefined, ambitions. Nonsense, he says. But in Brown's mind, Oakland clearly represents something more than a moderate-size city of great diversity and promise.
"It's a microcosm of the unfinished American agenda," he says. "The cities have the potential to be places of artistic and democratic discussion, not these crime-ridden nodes controlled by outside economic forces."