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.”