Philosopher mayor seeks deep thoughts

In This season of what many pundits call alarming political apathy, former presidential candidate, ex-governor of California, student of Zen, worker for Mother Teresa, and current mayor of Oakland Jerry Brown, has an answer.

Go deep.

Not just into the issues, but into the very meaning of citizenship, civic engagement, and what it means to live in a geographic place amid globalization and the seeming loss of grass-roots power.

To that end, Mr. Brown is doing something well outside the job description of most American politicians. He's launching a series of high-brow lectures, discussions, and seminars - from his home - to plumb depths usually reserved for academia. The public is warmly invited.

"We want to understand how the exercise of citizenship is possible in an era of systems management of people," says Brown.

The Oakland Table, as the program which began last weekend is called, brings a group of intellectuals led by author Ivan Illich to live in Brown's warehouse loft near the Oakland waterfront. For six weeks, they will offer lectures, daily discussions and seminars on topics including Medieval Philosophical Latin, proportionality in architecture, tools for community building, and the "meaning of place."

They will live, teach, and discuss at Brown's residence, an arrangement Brown likens to a "faculty club."

For critics of the man once chided as Governor Moonbeam, it's eye-rolling time. For supporters, his new program is a welcome pushing of the envelope. For both camps, this is clearly something different.

Since his election to office in Oakland in November 1998, Brown has been determined to prove his mettle as a hands-on administrator, promising to fix potholes, lower crime, improve schools, and revitalize Oakland's downtown.

While Oakland needed all that, so did Brown.

His tenure as governor of California produced a reputation as more of an ideas man with a keen instinct for emerging trends than an effective leader or administrator. Should Brown still aspire to higher office, something many veteran Brown-watchers take as a given, he would need to recast his image, most analysts agree.

But any notion that Brown had lost touch, or interest, in the intellectual side of things, is being set straight, it seems. The philosopher king is back.

"It's the dichotomy of Jerry Brown. He's really two people in one," says Stacey Wells, a former member of Brown's mayoral staff. "He is the pothole pragmatist, but he's also the touchy-feely guy who likes to dabble in philosophy and new-age thinking."

Brown's track record on his promise to turn Oakland around is mixed. Homicides in the city are actually up this year compared with last, running at about twice the per-capita average for the nation as a whole.

The school system remains a disappointment to many, including the mayor.

Yet there is an unmistakable buzz in downtown Oakland, with new buildings, new residents, and new businesses, many of them dotcoms. That has generated some strong opposition, particularly among housing advocates for the poor, who have begun to call the process the "Jerrification" of downtown.

He makes no apologies and says far more people benefit than are hurt by the downtown development.

By most accounts, Brown is not as popular as when he took office. But that is little surprise, given the sky-high expectations surrounding him when he swept into office.

Midway through his term, Brown will probably find progress harder than it has been to date, say political analysts. The easy victories have already been won.

But as Brown turns to a more philosophical, intellectual role as city leader, his aides dismiss any notion that the nuts and bolts of daily affairs will suffer.

"He needs that stuff as a person, to get the kind of intellectual stimulation he needs to be an effective mayor," says Brown spokesman Erica Harrold.

Randy Hamilton, a public-affairs scholar at the University of California in Berkeley and close follower of Oakland, says the Oakland Table is merely a reminder "that Jerry Brown today hasn't changed since Jerry Brown the Moonbeam."

Mr. Hamilton is dismissive of Brown's accomplishments as mayor and says his style makes it easy to "mistake motion for progress."

Still others find the deeper discussion being offered by the mayor refreshing.

"Jerry is a magnet for superb thinkers," says Bruce Lawrence, a local physician active in civic affairs. "I benefit from that as a citizen of Oakland."

Brown himself is clearly excited about his new role in creating a deeper dialogue among residents of the city.

"The whole basis of what it means to be a human being is being transferred to bureaucratic institutions," he says, noting how society has created bureaucracies and institutions to deal with everything from the needs of the poor to the mentoring of children.

"Our ultimate aim" with the Oakland Table, he says, "is the recovery of common sense, that innate faculty that enabled people to recognize what was fitting, in proper proportion, and therefore good" in civic affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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