When a philosopher king runs city hall
OAKLAND, CALIF. — Squinting into a mid-morning sun through the grand windows of his new office, Jerry Brown is thinking out loud about opposing theories of how things change. Is history moved by the lone acts of great individuals, or by thousands of small decisions by the masses?
The musings don't go far, though, before he's interrupted by a message that an important, and not very happy, African-American activist has called. "When did he call? Why wasn't I told," barks the tieless Mayor Brown to no one in particular as he disappears into a side office to return the call.
In many respects, the career of one of America's most intriguing politicians has undergone a similarly abrupt transition. Famous as an innovative thinker, an asker of questions as often as a provider of answers, the former California governor and presidential candidate is now wrestling with pressing problems: arresting crime, improving schools, and making a troubled city a magnet for residents and businesses.
"That job was more abstract," says Brown, recalling his days as governor. "You could pick your issue of the day. What do you want to talk about, forest lands, highway safety, what?" he asks rhetorically. "This," he says, referring to his eight-week- old stint as mayor of Oakland, "is a very place-based job. It's more tangible."
Brown's star power still flickers, evident in the number of observers, both local and national, watching his mayorship and issuing early report cards. Some are critical, most are favorable.
BUT Brown vintage 1999 has a few qualities that all seem to agree on: First, the guy who made national headlines by giving up the governor's limo in the "think small" era of the 1970s is still a master of symbolism. Days into his mayorship, Brown took a lead role in helping the city come to grips with another murder, this one the unprovoked slaying of a black policeman. He also recently sat in on the sentencing of a local drug lord, emphasizing his personal commitment to fighting drugs.
Second, the presidential candidate who gave interviews while jogging (long before such theater was part of the political mainstream) is still on the run and in a hurry. Though he jogs less, there is the unmistakable air of urgency to all he does. In his January inauguration speech, Brown spoke disparagingly of "gradualism" as an approach that "fears rocking the boat." Instead, his goals are ambitious and provocative, and he's already upset some power centers in local Oakland politics.
Third, Brown isn't going to provide any fresh oxygen for his lingering reputation as flighty and disengaged from the mainstream. In the early weeks of his administration, he helped engineer the death of a city ordinance that would have asked parents not to spank their children, and he criticized a capital punishment "teach in" at the public schools. Both were destined to give Oakland the public-relations bruising neither it, nor Brown, can afford if the city's star is to rise.
"He seems more mellow, mature, focused, less prone to off-the-wall ideas," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the nearby University of California, Berkeley, who has watched Brown for many years.
Brown's tenure is too young to have many accomplishments, though he has closed deals begun by his predecessor to bring two new businesses and 1,300 jobs to town.
But his goals are ambitious. Within his first few years, he promises a double-digit drop in the crime rate, a downtown renaissance that will add 10,000 new residents, the launch of a number of charter schools to raise local education standards, and active encouragement of the arts.
And now, after weeks of listening and assessing, the wheels of the Jerry Brown administration have finally hit the road. In recent days, sparks have begun to fly and there is engagement on long-standing problems that no one believes will yield easily.
Recently, Brown, through city manager Robert Bobb, put all city department heads on notice that they'll be fired if they don't get enthusiastically behind the Brown agenda.
On the same day, Brown dropped his vague criticisms of the local school system and served notice he wants to oust the current superintendent.
Oakland school superintendent Carole Quan has close ties with the African-American community and, while Brown can't remove her from office, he is encouraging an effort by a state legislator to give Brown the power to appoint a trustee to run the schools instead of Ms. Quan. The tactic is triggering opposition.
"His attitude is that he has a mandate and he doesn't care about how we feel," says J. Alfred Smith Sr. of the Allen Temple Baptist Church, a prominent African-American activist. Mr. Smith got a face-to-face meeting with Brown, who listened but did not yield. While Smith says he continues to have a "wait and see attitude" toward the new mayor, many local analysts sense a brewing confrontation between Brown and some leaders of the African-American community, which represents about 40 percent of the local population, compared to 30 percent for whites.
Wilson Riles Jr., who left the Oakland City Council in 1992 after 13 years as a member, is struck by Brown's generally careful approach to his new job. "He's much more cautious as mayor than he was as governor," says Mr. Riles. Still, Riles worries that the confrontation with the school superintendent could end Brown's political honeymoon and mark the reemergence of what he calls Brown's "predilection to shoot from the hip."
Brown, however, is confident he's riding a strong mandate to do things differently. Not only did he sweep into office with 59 percent of the vote, but also voters subsequently gave him an even stronger mandate by approving a referendum he backed to give the mayor added powers.
Now, of course, comes the hard part. As Mr. Cain of UC Berkeley puts it, "he's got to walk a tight path, between trying for total change and making something happen, and running roughshod over the communities."
Tough as that may be, Brown has already changed the question from why he would want to be mayor to how he'll navigate the shoals of local politics. That, in a sense, means Brown's reentry into American politics has already been a success.