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When a philosopher king runs city hall

By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 1999


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?

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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.