The Magazine


Jan 18, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 17 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
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Oakland, Calif.

"HE'S DEFINITELY EVOLVED in the 20 years since he's been in office," spokeswoman Stacey Wells said of her new boss, Oakland mayor Jerry Brown, last week.

Inaugurations in Oakland have evolved too. The new mayor, now 60, wore his hair in a buzz cut and donned a collarless shirt. Supporters and corporate sponsors attended a private pre-swearing-in meditation session. Martin Sheen would have emceed the festivities, except he got the flu.

Brown was sworn into office under a giant "seed pod" penetrated by a green moonbeam . . . er, laser beam . . . that symbolized technology and greenery, the converging of the old and the new, and some other cosmic stuff.

During his inaugural speech, Brown philosophized on the "transitory quality of things human. What rises, falls; what begins, ends; and what ends, begins again in some new form." Heavy.

Later, citywide festivities featured music from the Naked Barbies, poems from Bay Area bards (including "an ecofeminist, health-care activist, and lesbian theorist" and a "European-American performance poet"), two "organic materials" artists, three art-car artists, and the organizer of the "Subversive Science Fair".

Don't be fooled by all the swami stuff. Brown himself has evolved a great deal, not just since he last held elective office, but, even more markedly, since he started running for mayor.

Last year, when he first entered the mayor's race, Brown posted "Oakland Ecopolis: A Plan for a Green Plan," on his We The People Web site. This was supposed to be a manifesto for the green city Brown would create out of woebegone Oakland.

"Oakland Ecopolis is both for away and very near", the plan for a plan explained. It was packed with Zen wisdom: "A baby smiles and a flower grows." It sneered at wooing mere industry to Oakland, preferring to draw small boat craftsmen, organic gardeners, and innovative recyclers. Oakland would "turn the negative externalities of one industry into the resources of another industry. In this scenario, one firm's garbage becomes another firm's gold." His planning guru told the San Francisco Chronicle that Oakland Ecopolis was modeled after the Italian hill town of Perugia.

The public education curriculum of Oakland Ecopolis didn't call for challenging the pro-ebonics or insisting on student literacy. It instead called for exercises that let students play at being little urban planners and "a walkabout program" with "field trips to diverse areas of Oakland".

Crime? The plan gave short shrift to drug dealing and drive-by shootings, and instead talked tough about "the plunder of nature's depletable capital and the theft of our children's future".

But a funny thing happened on the way to running for mayor: Brown evolved. "No question, from the summer of '97 to the summer of '98 he changed 180 degrees on some issues," Democratic city councilman John Russo explained.

In 1997, Russo said, Brown was skeptical of fully funding the police department. "His concerns were traditional liberal concerns, like: By the time you get to the police, it's too late -- the early-intervention type theory. By the time he finished the campaign, he was talking about what a great job [Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani did in New York and how we have to do the same thing in Oakland."

What changed Brown? Meeting the people of Oakland. Brown attended coffee klatches. He listened to voters. They didn't tell him that they wanted better recycling or more earth-friendly crafts jobs. Their three big issues: crime, rotten schools, and a deserted downtown.

Candidate Brown evolved. He started talking about cutting crime, forcing the schools to shape up, and attracting employers. In June, he won 59 percent on a crowed ballot. (His success at attracting more than 50 percent of the vote spared him a runoff election in November.)

Mayor Brown has four goals: reducing crime, creating charter schools, drawing 10,000 residents into the down-town area, and making Oakland a city of arts and entertainment.

Brown's first official act a mayor: He met with Oakland's police chief. In his inaugural address, he talked of filling vacancies on the police force. And vowed: "I will supported every lawful action and utilize the criminal justice system to the maximum to rid our neighborhoods of crime and criminal elements. Hear this message: Crime and disrespect for the rights of others will not be tolerated. Period."

"By the time we get finished, there'll be a lot less crime in Oakland than Walnut Creek," Hizzoner boasted.

Brown's ace in the hole: city manager Robert Bobb. Even before Brown was elected, some supporters were arguing that, yes, the peripatetic Brown probably would get bored with the minutiae of governing Oakland. But that was not a bad thing, because Bobb could run the city -- better than Moonbeam -- leaving Brown free to do what he does best: contemplate his navel and attract national press coverage.

Brown certainly is anxious to upgrade Oakland's image. As he said in his inaugural address, "There's a there there." Deep.

Debra J. Saunders writes a nationally syndicated column for the San Francisco Chronicle.