This city's mayor doesn't dwell on his previous incarnations. Never mind the training to become a Jesuit priest, the gubernatorial romance with singer Linda Ronstadt or those stints with Mother Teresa and Buddhist monks.
As the indefatigable Jerry Brown embarks on yet another quest for statewide office, he's brushing by his storied past as California's rock 'n' roll governor. Brown's focus heading into the June 6 primary for attorney general is on cops and capitalism.
For nearly eight years, Oakland has been Jerry's town.
He rolled into the mayor's office in 1998 on a four-prong plan to revive a dying downtown, tame crime, energize underperforming schools and enliven the civic arts.
With the election drawing near, he's waving a list of accomplishments -- an urban housing boom that by the decade's turn will deliver 10,000 new residents, a 30% decline in serious crimes, dozens of new charter schools and a budding collection of art galleries. The city also enjoys an $8-million budget surplus this year, the biggest since the dot-com boom.
"My goal was to restore vitality to downtown Oakland," Brown said. "That's been my biggest success."
But there is a flip side. Critics say Brown's redevelopment agenda has priced the poor out of housing. A recent spurt in homicides, now running nearly double last year's rate, has Oakland on track to remain California's per-capita murder capital. In 2003, the city's deficit-stricken school district succumbed to a state takeover even after Brown put new members on the board.
"It's like something out of Dickens," said Clarence Thomas, a third-generation longshoreman disillusioned with Brown. "Oakland is a tale of two cities. It's the best of times for rich developers, the worst of times for the poor and African Americans who Jerry betrayed."
Brown's relationship with some black leaders turned icy early on.
In his first year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Brown promised to dismantle the entrenched African American political machine in Oakland, a municipality of 412,000 that was once almost half black, but is now 36% black, 31% white, 22% Latino and 15% Asian. (Brown contends the newspaper instilled a racial angle he never voiced.)
Instead of cozying up to the old progressive posse he cultivated during a 1990s turn as a liberal talk-radio host, Brown turned pragmatist soon after hitting City Hall. He talked tough on crime and promised an open door for any capitalist ready to invest in his city.
"When he came to Oakland, Jerry calculated that he needed to reinvent himself," said state Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland). "He needed to play down the quirkiness and become more centrist."
Brown's approach earned the embrace of the real estate sector, which accounts for nearly a quarter the $5 million he's raised for his primary run against Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who trailed by more than 30 percentage points in a recent poll.
Topping Brown's donor list are developers who won approval for big construction projects, sometimes weeks after giving to his campaign war chest.
Critics inside and outside of Oakland, including Delgadillo's campaign team, suggest the appearance of a "pay-to-play" climate at Brown's City Hall.
But the 68-year-old mayor, a West Coast maverick who was California's most recognizable political celebrity until Arnold Schwarzenegger rose to power, also has backing from donors of more modest means.
Nearly 40% of the contributions to Brown's campaign are checks of $100 or less. Such small donors account for just 6% of Delgadillo's $4.2-million fundraising total.
Brown, with his reputation as a free thinker, has also reaped a windfall from a mix of liberals and conservatives.
On the left, there's John Sperling, a big backer of California's medical marijuana initiative, as well as $60,000 from more than 200 acupuncturists who gained mainstream recognition during Brown's Gov. Moonbeam days.
But the mayor also has received $95,000 from executives at real estate title insurance conglomerate Fidelity National Financial and its chairman, William Foley, who is among George W. Bush's top political benefactors. Conservative radio firebrand Michael Savage, notorious for his tirades against gays and immigrants, also donated $5,600.
Brown's crime fighting has also paid off. His campaign reaped $8,000 from a venture capitalist backing a high-tech system designed to determine where gunshots originate. The mayor invited the firm to make a presentation to Oakland officials.
Brown insists there's no quid pro quo obligation to his campaign donors, be it a big-time builder, a practitioner of holistic medicine or a Republican.
In this latest political season, Oakland is unexpectedly riled up over crime, an issue that Brown counted on as a selling point in his bid to win a political office often described as California's top cop.
The Brown years saw Oakland's most serious crimes fall from an annual average of 40,000 for most of the 1980s and '90s to about 28,000. But during the first months of this year, a surge in gang violence sent the homicide rate skyrocketing.
Oakland had 50 homicides by the first weeks of May, nearly double the same time last year, as well as a rise in other felonies -- bad news in a city where 2005's 22.6 homicides per 100,000 residents topped the state.
Brown and his supporters contend it is unfair to pass judgment based on a few bad months. Instead of dwelling on an ugly spike, the mayor likes to extol his credentials as a big-city crime fighter.
A few months into office Brown forced out Oakland's police chief and hand-picked a replacement. He pressed for data-driven policing, focusing on the most frequent crimes and troubled areas. He rode with cops and walked Oakland's streets late at night, his dog Dharma in tow.
With Oakland home to thousands of ex-convicts, Brown successfully lobbied for curfews and urged police to keep parolees off the corners where they once plied drugs. He offset the aggressive policing with a program to help released felons get jobs or fight drug addiction.
Brown boasted early on of personally busting a heroin junkie. But the mayor experienced a recent role reversal. In March, a 26-year-old woman accused Brown of breaking her camera phone outside a downtown nightclub as she videotaped the mayor uttering disparaging comments about patrons. The district attorney refused to press charges, and Brown called the allegations hogwash.
The recent crime surge poses a bigger worry for Brown. Angry residents griped about the shortage of street cops, despite passage in 2004 of a Brown-backed parcel tax intended to quickly boost the force to 800 officers. High attrition and poor recruitment have limited the department in recent years to fewer than 700 officers.
In March, the City Council considered declaring a state of emergency, but stopped short after Oakland's powerful police union agreed to contract concessions that doubled the deployment of patrol officers during weekend crime hours.
Councilwoman Desley Brooks, who represents part of violence-racked East Oakland, criticized Brown for failing to step in decisively during the crisis, saying the mayor dallied out of deference to the police union, whose campaign endorsement he won.
"East Oakland burned while Jerry fiddled," said Geoffrey Pete, chairman of the Oakland Black Caucus. "He's been a disaster for this city. He went from Zen Buddhism to Rambo."
Brown dismisses the criticism as a product of longtime animosity over perceived slights by a grumbly few.
"I have strong support in the African American community," Brown said. "But there's these characters, about eight of them, who are mad at me."
Critics have also taken aim at Brown's ballyhooed "10K plan," the goal he established to bring 10,000 new residents to downtown Oakland. With more than 7,000 housing units completed or in the pipeline, Brown's effort to bring new life and commerce to a decaying urban core is on the way to topping his target by decade's end.
Critics say those numbers mask a sad story -- how Brown bypassed local minority contractors to embrace the well-heeled and mostly white development community, while low-income residents were forced out by rising housing costs.
"Ethnic cleansing," Oakland author Ishmael Reed calls Brown's 10K campaign. "He forced thousands of middle-class African American people out of Oakland. We expected more out of Jerry."
Brown counters that 2,400 affordable housing units have been built or planned in the city during his two terms, a 30% increase over the 1990s.
Meanwhile, Brown's campaign coffers fattened.
In January, the Brown-appointed city Planning Commission approved developer Roy Alper's mixed-use project, three weeks after he contributed the last of $11,200 to Brown's campaign. Another developer, Signature Properties, gave $10,600 in 2004 and later won city approval to build condos.
Shorenstein Realty Services gave $6,300 and Pulte Homes donated $4,500 to Brown's campaign and then received city approval for housing projects.
Phil Tagami, an ally appointed by the mayor to the Port Commission and a big redevelopment player, has with his wife donated more than $16,000.
He and other backers say Oakland's wilting downtown -- abandoned by department stores, infested by criminals, increasingly a home to the homeless -- blossomed under Brown.
Oakland benefited from the dot-com boom, its status as one of the most affordable cities in the region and its 12-minute Bay Area Rapid Transit ride from San Francisco. But it also rose on the celebrity of its mayor, who hawked the city as a destination for new business and development, attended trade shows and quickly conducted a housecleaning at City Hall, producing a more business-friendly environment.
"There was a well-entrenched culture of bureaucratic bossism here before Jerry arrived," said Tagami, who is restoring the Fox Theater, soon to be occupied by a charter arts school championed by the mayor. "He put the city's house in order."
But his two terms have not been without quirky, moonbeam moments.
He severed a three-decade alliance with Jacques Barzaghi, the tattooed former French soldier who had served as Brown's trusted political sidekick since statehouse days. Brown demoted Barzaghi in 2001 after a sexual harassment episode, then fired him in 2004 when police interceded in a domestic dispute.
More recently, there was the barbecue imbroglio.
In early April, Brown broke a tie vote to award the lease to a coveted city-owned restaurant site to a San Francisco fish house. Within days, a rival for the lease -- Oakland barbecue restaurateur Dorothy King -- came forward with a stinging accusation.
The mayor and his staff, King said, had reneged on a back-room deal to give her the lease if she defended Brown against charges of racial bias. She lived up to her side of the bargain, King said, with a laudatory letter written by Brown's staff and published in the Oakland Tribune.
A cadre of the mayor's foes called for a grand jury investigation, saying the office of attorney general "should not be shrouded with this cloud of impropriety, deceit and manipulation." Brown, meanwhile, labeled the allegation a crazed, campaign-season stunt intended to blunt his campaign drive. As the mayor seeks a job promotion, though, even a few allies have waffled.
Councilman Larry Reid believes the mayor proved a good civic cheerleader, but a mediocre quarterback. "I love Jerry Brown, but he did not put the time and energy into the job," Reid said. "He can take some credit for the rebirth of Oakland. I just don't think he lived up to expectations."
But around most parts of the city, from the flatlands hugging San Francisco Bay to pricy hillside neighborhoods, Brown appears as popular as ever.
"I think people feel a little more secure, and for that Jerry deserves a pat on the back," said Rod Divelbiss, an Oakland attorney. "But he's not your typical warm, fuzzy politician. I've given his campaign money, and he has no more use for me than the shoes he's wearing."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times