After he lost the democratic presidential nomination to Bill Clinton in 1992, Jerry Brown’s once-promising political career appeared to be over. The son of Edmund G. Brown, the highly regarded two-term governor of California, Brown broke onto the national scene in his own right in the 1970s. He, too, earned two terms as the state’s governor and was lionized as the political voice of a new generation. But by the time his’92 loss to Clinton rolled around, Brown had racked up a series of other disappointments: a failed run for the U.S. Senate and two earlier tries for the presidency.
Out of office and off the campaign trail, Brown spent the early Nineties drifting around California, shopping for a community and a new home. He finally settled on Oakland — California’s seventh-largest city — and built a $2 million warehouse there, where he lives and works. He launched a radio talk show, took up jogging, left the Democratic Party to become an independent and planned his comeback. Last June brought resurrection. Winning fifty-nine percent of the vote, Jerry Brown swamped a field of ten other candidates to win an election for the first time in twenty years and become Oakland’s newest mayor.
In early January, Brown, now sixty, assumed elected office once again. As a candidate, he’d made conventional promises – improved schools, safer streets – but delivered them in his trademark unconventional style. “What rises falls,” he said in his inaugural address, on January 4th. “What begins ends, and what ends begins again in some new form.”
As he sits down to discuss his new position, ebullient and garrulous, it’s clear that Brown has been referring to the rebirth of not only his adopted city but also himself. Oakland is now the crucible where Brown’s global ideas face a highly local, street-wise, rough-and-tumble test.
You haven’t actually held office for almost sixteen years. What ran through your mind as you took that oath in January?
It didn’t seem strange to me. It has a certain historic quality. The first time I went to a swearing-in was at City Hall in San Francisco in 1943, when my father was sworn in as the district attorney.
You said during the campaign that being mayor is more real in some ways than being governor or president.
I guess the more accurate word is more concrete. There is a human face on issues for a mayor. I can walk up the steps of a local high school, for example, walk down the hall and see the principal. Governors and presidents are in a media space that has an artificially to it — it’s about performing, as opposed to doing.
Do you see yourself in any way as part of a trend of higher-profile mayors — Rudolph Giuliani in New York, Richard Riordan in Los Angeles?
Certainly I would like to be in the company of mayors whom people are looking at, because we need people to look at Oakland. That’s part of why people voted for me.
What are your primary objectives?
I’m concentrating on four goals: reducing crime, supporting school reform, making downtown residential and emphasizing artistic culture.
Within a week of your swearing-in, a sniper shot and killed a policeman. How did that affect the beginning of your administration and the way you are focusing on crime?
First of all, it got our attention. Here was an African-American officer with a young wife and family gunned down for no reason. And that underscored the importance of Crime as an issue here. Whatever other social ills have to be dealt with, the fact is that people get robbed and mugged and ripped off and killed in Oakland. And in order to change that, there must be an actual, significant reduction in thefts, in robberies, in burglaries and in murders.
What can a mayor do about that?
First, make crime reduction a clear priority. This hasn’t been done, as far as I know. A mayor can have an impact by introducing technology, recruiting more police officers, emphasizing local recruitment and giving life to the neighborhood crime-prevention councils. I believe that there’s a tone, a direction and a management that I can bring to this.
You suggested in your inaugural address that Oakland will be made safer than the [nearby] suburban community of Walnut Creek. There were no murders in Walnut Creek last year and eighty-one in Oakland. Were you being hyperbolic?
That was hyperbole, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t express a hope. I’ve made that statement before in less-publicized events and people reacted — they felt good about it. They wanted it to be, which is very telling. Now, to get there is not easy, because Walnut Creek is a very affluent suburb and Oakland is a city with probably four times the poverty rate. What I said was more of a metaphor, but I definitely think crime reduction can be very dramatic.
Let’s talk about education. You don’t have any formal responsibility for it, so what can you do as mayor?
One thing is to [help people] stop living in denial. I believe I’m the only city official who’s ever disclosed the fact that three out of six of the major high schools [in Oakland] have tenth grades where more than ninety percent of the students read below grade level. So saying that the emperor has no clothes is already a bold move. More specifically, I hope to use charter schools as a base from which to point to the public schools and say, “Look, your system is riddled with inefficiency, incompetence and mediocrity. Charter schools are producing excellent students. Now you have to do the same.”
Why the emphasis on charter schools?
I don’t have control over the Board of Education, but I can help form a charter school. And I’ve been meeting with people. I’ve met with people from the Edison Project [a privately owned school-reform program], which is controversial; but I visited some of their schools and I’m impressed. But it’s only one option.
Fixing the public schools is more than a six-month — or even a four-year — challenge.
Well, I don’t accept that. Didn’t Castro increase the literacy rate in Cuba very rapidly?
He had brigades.
He may have had brigades. Certainly it’s a big challenge. But take a look: These kids are smart. I know they can do more. It’s up to adults to figure out a way for them to do it.
Why is it important, as you pledged in your speech, to attract 10,000 new people to live in Oakland’s downtown?
The people want a lively downtown. And I plan to do it by seizing the advantage that Oakland has, which is location-it’s twelve minutes from downtown San Francisco. Unfortunately, a lot of the real estate in downtown Oakland is office space, so we’ll need to change the focus and make it a downtown neighborhood – one like SoHo or Greenwich Village. Oakland is a great place to pioneer an urban core in the age of antisprawl. But we need the private sector to invest capital. That’s another reason why crime has to be reduced: People aren’t going to set up a store in an area where there’s shoplifting. And people certainly aren’t going to bring families if there aren’t good schools or if there’s crime.
What about environmentalism? You emphasized the idea of sustainability early in your campaign, but it’s not one of the four issues you’re talking about now.
No. Because if you read about environmental concepts of sustainability, it’s hard to mesh them with the reality of an American city. What I’m faced with in Oakland is a downtown that needs to be revitalized along with a poverty rate well over the national average. So I am going to try to encourage development while keeping my eyes open for things like ending pesticide use in the park, changing the diesel buses to gas wherever I can and emphasizing recycling. But harmony with nature in the strictest sense would require not only incredible technological break-throughs — like hydrogen fuel and electric cars — but also a societal shift away from consumerism.
Don’t you worry about potential conflicts built into your program — more artistic expression, more police, more charter schools, a more integrated city, a big crackdown on drugs – not to mention the dynamics brought to bear in an anti-drug campaign?
I’ve already made my decision: Oakland has to become a safer city. People are leaving this town by the thousands. They want the buck to stop here, so I’m laying out my agenda. And I do expect tension.
This is a city where the majority of the citizens are minorities: forty-three percent African-American, fourteen percent Asian, fourteen percent Latino. Do you ever feel out of step as a sixty-year-old white man?
I don’t feel out of step, but I am certainly incredibly sensitized to what it is to be in a multiracial city. There’s a diversity here that I certainly never saw in San Francisco or Los Angeles, which are far more segregated by neighborhood. The fact that I’m a white guy… I don’t know. I’m pretty comfortable with that.
As governor, you were famously known for urging citizens to lower their expectations of government. Do you have any fear of raising them too high here?
They’re raised very high. But remember what we’re looking for — we’re looking for private capital to revitalize the city. There’s no other way. So we’re raising expectations, and it’s working — people are coming over here. In the last twenty-four hours, two national retailers have indicated that they want to invest in Oakland. So raising expectations like this is a different thing.
Do you intend to stay politically active on a national level?
I’m going to work through the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and I intend to be very active in that organization, speaking for the cities.
The Web site for your office includes the city charter of Calcutta, which says, “Entire ecosystems are under threat. And the city is at the center of the storm of destruction… The city can save the world.”
I like that.
Do you think Oakland could be a model for saving the world?
Well, that’s a really high expectation. That’s the charter of Calcutta, not the charter of Oakland. But Oakland is a beacon. It’s a beacon of light.
If it does prove to be a model, how does your role on a national stage develop?
It all depends on what happens here.
Everything depends on how you handle crime and the school situation?
Yep. It’s all here. It’s very real. Very measurable. You know, you can’t fudge dead bodies. How many do we have each month? Right now, we’ve got our work cut out for us.