Oakland

As I get into Mayor Jerry Brown’s city-owned black Town Car, he scrambles to move a folded red and black flag on the front seat out of my way. “You know what this is?” he asks as he puts it in the back seat.

“It looks like an original flag from Castro’s July 26 movement,” I answer.

“You got it,” says the Mayor. “It was given to me by Che Guevara’s widow one night after I spent eight hours talking to Castro. I’m taking it home from my office to keep it in a safe place.” Brown’s focus seems to drift inward for a moment. “That was a long time ago,” he says quietly as he starts the car and drives out of the City Hall parking lot toward downtown.

Nowadays, the former California governor, presidential candidate and Jesuit seminarian is more concerned with the mundane business of running this state’s seventh-largest city than he is reflecting on world revolution or the foibles of mankind. That’s evident as we roll through battered West Oakland; Brown seems to stop at every intersection, talking excitedly while pointing out old bars that have survived decades of change and spiffy new condo projects of the kind that push such neighborhood establishments into oblivion.

Brown seems to be an advocate of both, knowing full well they are contradictory notions. When he was overwhelmingly elected mayor three years ago, displacing an ossified Democratic political machine that had once been a showcase for rising black political power, Brown spoke in grandiloquent terms of a new sort of urban development: “elegant density,” something he called an Ecopolis. Depressed and disrespected (and, one might add, dangerous), downtown Oakland and its environs, he vowed, would be rejuvenated in a renaissance mix of ecologically smart projects and high-tech that would draw residents and artists to something akin to a modern-day Florence.

Now, as he strives to be re-elected to a new term on March 5, Brown has taken a decidedly more pragmatic view. “The flow of capital follows the rules of capitalism,” he says as he points toward a just completed, pastel-colored clump of upscale apartments. “It goes wherever it gets the highest return. In a city that has been neglected for twenty-five years, the only thing I can do as mayor is offer a certain level of confidence and reassure investors they are making a good decision. You just can’t turn every project into some sort of social experiment.”

Ask Brown about criticism that this attitude encourages gentrification and he visibly bristles. “I no longer know what they mean by gentrification,” he answers impatiently. “If gentrification means neighborhood improvement–well, what’s wrong with that? Please show me some neighborhood that doesn’t want to improve.”

This rather unromantic realism, as Brown might term it, is what stirs the always passionate debate around his person and politics–and with that, his record as mayor. While some of his former supporters now denounce Brown for selling out and betraying their hopes that he would become America’s most radical mayor, some of his former critics, like the conservative Manhattan Institute, now laud him as “America’s Most Innovative Mayor.”

Brown’s current supporters cheer his pan-ideological, can-do assertiveness and credit him with finally putting Oakland back on the map and on the road to some sort of recovery. Urban housing construction is way up. Crime is significantly down. The first major office building since the 1970s has just been finished. And hundreds of millions in public funds have helped subsidize a re-budding of downtown retail commerce. Brown says Oakland’s property assets have climbed $4 billion. “Jerry’s put the ‘there’ back into an Oakland that was on the verge of disappearing,” says an official of a union that still has not made an endorsement in the upcoming race.

Brown’s detractors interpret the same set of facts to conclude that he is little more than a West Coast Rudy Giuliani–a friend of landlords, big developers and aggressive cops, and an enemy of traditional neighborhoods, renters and the poor. They say he has developed downtown at the cost of local neighborhoods, that crime is down everywhere, not just in Oakland, and that while housing starts are up, so are rents, putting a squeeze on the poor.

The truth, more likely, resides somewhere in between. Jerry Brown may be accused of betraying the left, but he’s never really claimed to be on the left. The heir of his father (and former governor) Pat Brown’s high-tax, high-spending liberalism, the younger Brown displayed a remarkable political flexibility during his own stint in the Statehouse two decades ago. Governor Jerry Brown did appoint the most liberal state Supreme Court in history, he made radically diverse appointments for his era and he tenaciously defended the emerging farmworkers’ movement. But he also coined what might be called the ecoconservative slogan “Less is more.” When Southern California’s suburban homeowners revolted, Brown eventually signed the notorious Proposition 13–a property-tax-cutting measure that, more than two decades later, continues to strangle public schools and services. And when Brown ran in the 1992 Democratic presidential primaries, the same progressives he delighted by toasting Clinton from the left scratched their heads over his support for a version of conservative Steve Forbes’s flat tax.

Those looking to pigeonhole Brown’s ideology would be further confounded by his eruption into local Oakland politics. Oakland spawned the Pullman porters union and the Black Panthers, and by the late 1970s a black Democratic machine controlled the levers of political power. But the city languished and suffered. Poverty rates rose. Crime raged. Schools collapsed. And the black-majority school board became a national laughingstock when it proposed courses in “Ebonics.” Only a white politician with Jerry Brown’s unimpeachable race record could have dared to challenge the establishment of a city that is more than 40 percent black and is black-governed. Seven black candidates ran against Brown, but he carried a plurality of the African-American vote and eventually took City Hall with nearly 60 percent of the popular vote, a win attributed at the time to his celebrity, his enduring political popularity and a wide consensus that the city was failing in almost every respect and city government needed to be radically shaken up.

Brown didn’t cede an inch to Oakland’s longstanding identity politics, roaring into office and immediately engineering the sacking of a black police chief and Chinese-American school district superintendent. He brought in a tough-minded city manager, African-American Robert Bobb (himself a political liberal but a social conservative), who relished rattling the cages of ensconced city bureaucrats.

Against this backdrop, then, it is easier to understand Brown’s current political incarnation. As governor, his most implacable enemies were on the right, and his counter-rhetoric stirred the Democratic left. But Oakland is a town virtually bereft of Republicans. So Brown’s most heated denunciations are directed toward what he broadly calls the left–an entrenched urban liberal bureaucracy that Brown argues is an obstructionist failure. “Here’s the problem: We are making real progress in Oakland. And the left simply has no rhetoric for progress,” Brown says as we reach our destination. “The left only has a rhetoric for victimization. They just can’t stand success. Some people are just more comfortable managing misery.”

Considering what Brown has picked as his showcase project, you might conclude he’s going out of his way to make his point. As we walk onto the gritty Oakland Army Base, Brown prepares to show me what he considers his greatest success–and the one that has brought him the most political misery–the Oakland Military Institute, a public charter school he has just opened against the will and wishes of the local school board.

OMI is a neat row of brand-new, gleaming bungalows, each with its own uplifting name: Fort Success, Fort Respect, even a Fort Compassion. Some 155 seventh graders, all enrolled voluntarily, boys and girls, most but not all of them black, sit attentively in simple sweatclothes-like black uniforms as handpicked and certified civilian teachers patiently review the day’s lesson. Each student is addressed respectfully with the title of “Cadet.” And their answers are preceded always with a polite “ma’am” or “sir.” The school day lasts until 5 pm, and students on academic probation are required to attend Saturday classes. OMI seems much more Catholic school than West Point.

“Yeah–they call this a boot camp,” scoffs Brown. “But I call it a college preparatory academy. We have military-style discipline and a military structure. Instead of teaching assistants, we have people from the National Guard. But there are no guns and absolutely no military training of the kids. This is simply about excellence.” There’s even a glimmer of that old Governor Moonbeam quirkiness reflected in the OMI. Brown personally designed the school’s logo, which includes the motto Age Quod Agis–a Latin proverb learned during his days in the Jesuit seminary. “What military school, other than Jerry’s, would have a motto that essentially says ‘Do Your Own Thing?'” asks William Bradley, a former adviser to Brown.

But Brown is deadly serious about OMI. “School reform has a left component and a right component,” he says. “The left knows you need to spend a lot of money on public schools to make them work. The right knows you have to impose discipline and authority so that money gets spent most effectively.” Brown’s opinion is that poor children from dysfunctional neighborhoods can learn best in schools that offer a strict structure, like OMI.

Earlier in the day, as we sat in his office, Brown pumped out a series of grim spreadsheets from his desktop computer. More than 90 percent of Oakland’s public-school tenth graders are reading below national average. Only 2 percent of black male seniors last year completed the course work necessary to even apply to the California State University system. “Within five years we will have 1,000 students at OMI, and from that school alone, we will be sending more kids to college than the whole rest of the school system,” Brown says defiantly as we leave the school. OMI’s first year has yet to be completed, so no firm judgment can yet be made on its achievement. But so far, about two-thirds of the students have above C averages, significantly higher than in other Oakland schools.

Brown was unable to get local support for OMI, so he got funding from the Pentagon and the National Guard, and had the school chartered by Governor Gray Davis. “Can you imagine, the Oakland school board would not charter this school on purely ideological grounds? Can you imagine that?” he says with his voice rising. “These kids are trapped in schools that are killing their future, and the board didn’t want to give us a chance to try something else.” He adds, “For my second term, I’m going to be opening up a second charter school, a fine arts academy.”

Brown’s critics argue that the mayor has given up on the public schools and now cares only about further developing his preferred charter school projects. They also grumble that any positive results from OMI can’t be compared with other schools, as Brown has secured funding for OMI that is double the per capita rate of the rest of the city’s schools.

If Brown wins a second term, as most expect, the question of just where he is going will remain open. Is he repackaging traditional liberalism in a more updated semantics? Or is he fusing left and right? Or simply accommodating the powerful? Attempting an answer, Brown cadges some of the same verbiage he applies to school reform. “No big mystery what I’m doing here,” he says. “It’s pretty standard, old-fashioned, Democratic Party development strategy. Bring in the big projects, spread the wealth around. But offer a discipline and guarantees that are sometimes lacking.” Brown’s claims are supported, in part, by a notable rise in jobs and housing since he came into office. But his critics say the jobs are a product of last decade’s national boom and that the new housing is too expensive for the poor.

A half-dozen blocks up Broadway from City Hall, sitting in his storefront campaign office, 55-year-old Wilson Riles Jr. hopes there will be no second term for Brown. Riles served on the Oakland City Council from 1979 to 1992 and was often described as its most progressive conscience. He didn’t flinch from criticizing other African-American pols, from former Mayor Lionel Wilson on down. After retiring from electoral politics to head the pacifist American Friends Service Committee, Riles was a supporter of Jerry Brown’s initial run for mayor and even discussed becoming his chief of staff. Now he wants to unseat him, challenging Brown from the left.

“Jerry Brown is more about theatrics than anything else,” Riles says. “Our hopes were raised and then dashed.” He adds, “Jerry’s been disrespecting one group after another, and now they are all coming to me.” As if on cue, Riles’s press aide, another former Brown supporter, comes bounding down the stairs to announce excitedly that he has just picked up the endorsement of the local Sierra Club.

Indeed, Riles’s campaign appeals primarily to Brown’s former supporters and is also staffed by them. The teachers’ union endorsed Riles after Brown battled with the school district. Environmentalists are angry that Brown won an easement of ecological standards for downtown developments. Renters are angry because rents have gone up as the city’s economy has improved. Some labor unions are with Riles because Brown supports a living-wage proposal that is less sweeping than their own. Pacifists hate Brown’s OMI. And some women feel betrayed after his longtime adviser and crony Jacques Barzaghi recently settled a sexual harassment charge.

Reading Riles’s campaign newsletter, it’s hard to take exception to any of his broad-stroke proposals: an expanded living wage, more low-income housing, more support for unions, support for immigrant rights, even an expansion of Oakland’s status as a “nuclear free zone.” And Riles says he will give the public school superintendent, Dennis Chaconas, the kind of backing that he says Brown is balking on.

If Brown is worried, it doesn’t show. He still enjoys rock-star-level attention on the streets. He’s not running any public re-election campaign other than some direct mail. And though he has limited campaign pledges to his signature $100, he still has much more cash on hand than Riles, who in the past ran two unsuccessful bids for mayor. (Both candidates support Oakland’s limits on campaign donations.)

Local political professionals are predicting a cakewalk victory for Brown, arguing that Riles has no “machine”–only a temporary alliance of the disaffected. But then, Oakland’s political dynamics often play out unpredictably in the rarefied atmosphere of Northern California’s Bay Area. What other place can produce such a consistently enigmatic and engaging politician as Jerry Brown? And in what other city could Jerry Brown be considered the more conservative of the candidates?