The Magazine

The Zen of Sexual Harassment

Jerry Brown's guru has a zipper problem

Jan 29, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 19 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
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Oakland, California


JACQUES BARZAGHI is a legendary character in California politics, famed for his 25-year role as top adviser, alter ego, and some say guru (or Svengali) to Jerry Brown, mayor of Oakland and former governor. Barzaghi is head of the Oakland arts department, in which capacity he enjoys a $ 114,000 annual salary. (The city website informs citizens, "The source of art is in the natural flow of the human mind.") More important, Barzaghi is known as the person one has to go through to get to Brown.


Like Brown, the 62-year-old former Frenchman is partial to dressing in black. Unlike Brown, he shaves his head. Inseparable, the two are the Zen twins of political events. Indeed, Barzaghi, his sixth wife, and his seventh child actually live with Brown in a live/work loft/commune that Jacques helped design. City hall wags see the two men's relationship as akin to a marriage. Barzaghi once explained that he treated then-governor Brown "with the same respect" he would show a shoemaker.


Alas, trouble has come to shoemaker paradise. In December, a city employee accused Barzaghi of sexually harassing her verbally during a trade mission to Mexico City. Her attorney later explained that Barzaghi's behavior had humiliated the woman. But that was only the beginning of Barzaghi's woes. An investigation turned up a number of complaints from female workers in city hall, who said Barzaghi frequently made inappropriate comments to them, such as asking them if they were wearing any underwear and if so, what kind. Soon Barzaghi was hospitalized with heart trouble.


So what was the mayor of politically correct Oakland, a city with "zero tolerance" for sexual harassment, supposed to do with his guru gone bad?


Dao Mayor was not happy. For one thing, Brown objects to Barzaghi's being called his guru. "That's a silly statement," he told me over the phone. "Guru is a rather precise term for people who follow an Eastern religion, which I don't. And he doesn't function in that capacity. That's kind of a clever putdown, but it bears no resemblance to reality."


Besides which, it appears that Brown sees no problem in Barzaghi's behavior, although city policies, Brown says, forbid him from discussing the investigation. In fact, April 2000 guidelines call for Oakland to keep complaints and their resolutions confidential "to the fullest extent practicable." But Brown did reply that he did not see Barzaghi do anything untoward in Mexico City and has never seen him act inappropriately toward female employees.


"At the peak of your popularity," Brown added, "people don't take you on directly. They find some indirect way to slow you down." A friend of Brown's who wished not to be named expressed the same sentiment: People attack Barzaghi not because of Barzaghi, but because of their desire to get at Brown.


Wrong, noted one former city hall staffer, who said Barzaghi had come on to her and younger women in the office. "Jerry doesn't see a problem," she explained. "Jerry thinks it's the women's problem."


Brown and Barzaghi appear to be stuck in a time warp. Back in the late 1970s when Brown was governor and Barzaghi was his aide -- with titles ranging from "special assistant for liaison and coordination" to "director of administration" -- the Zen twins were the young dons of Sacramento. They ruled all California, not little brunt-of-jokes Oakland. In those days, working women often considered being hit on part of the job. Today it is a manager's responsibility to foster a professional atmosphere, but when Brown was governor, it was the woman's responsibility to graciously deflect unwanted advances. You could say that Barzaghi and Brown came of age at a time when male leaders behaved like the libidinous Captain Kirk -- and Barzaghi doesn't understand that managers today need to be hyper-proper and sensitive, a la Jean-Luc Picard.


Clearly Barzaghi doesn't get it. Before he stopped talking to the press about the charges, he told the San Francisco Chronicle's Janine DeFao, "I'm a Mediterranean. I hug people. I touch people. It's my culture."


This isn't the first time Barzaghi has shown a tendency to confuse liking women with liking to come on to women. His first marriage ended when he started sleeping with a woman who was living with the couple. He left his fifth wife, he told the Chronicle, because she wouldn't move with him from New York to Oakland to help Brown's mayoral bid. His antics aren't so charming to women not his betrothed. Today's young female workers don't appreciate questions about their undergarments. "The guy's a misogynist," the former city hall worker explained. A friend of Barzaghi's sheepishly confessed, "If I was a woman, I wouldn't want to be married to him."


Fortunately for women workers, Dao Mayor didn't have to decide what to do about Barzaghi. As prescribed by city policy, city attorney John Russo hired an outside attorney to investigate the claim, then recommended a remedy to city manager Robert Bobb. While neither Bobb nor Russo would reveal the outcome, the Chronicle learned that the city has suspended Barzaghi for an undisclosed length of time without pay and required him to undergo counseling and to limit his interactions with the employees who complained about his behavior.


Some insiders credit the mayor for not trying to interfere with Bobb, whom Brown has the authority to fire. Other observers doubt Barzaghi will reform. "The guy is going to do anything he wants," a source explained, "and he is still going to be living in the mayor's household."




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