Jerry Brown Enters Race for Oakland Mayor


Former California Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, who made reinvention a personal art form, unveiled his newest incarnation Tuesday: big-time candidate for small-time office.

Leaping headlong to the top of a crowded field, the two-term governor and thrice-failed presidential hopeful announced a bid for Oakland mayor standing by the gourmet kitchen of his sleek $2-million live-work space near the city’s waterfront.

“For most of my life, I have been around government and had the privilege of serving as governor during the last creative phase in California politics,” Brown said at his sparsely decorated abode, which doubles as the headquarters of his grass-roots political organization, We The People. “I learned a lot from that experience and now I want to share it with the people of Oakland as their next mayor.”


Brown’s announcement, several months in the making, instantly established the Democrat as the front-runner in the June 1998 contest--even as it brought out the skeptics who questioned his aptitude for government with a small g.

“He belongs in the Senate or as a university professor,” said local Democratic activist Chris Peeples. “Local government is far too nitty-gritty.”

Even so, the big question among political handicappers Tuesday was whether Brown could take the mayor’s office by winning the primary outright with at least 50% of the vote, plus one. Failing that, Brown would face a November 1998 runoff against the second-place finisher. The incumbent, Elihu Harris, is not expected to seek a third term.

“I’d say it’s his to lose,” said City Councilman John Russo, who is neutral in the race. “He can lose it if he doesn’t get out there and campaign. He can’t just mail it in. But I think he understands that.”

Along with Brown, more than half a dozen other hopefuls have either launched their campaigns or signaled their intention to run for mayor of this city of roughly 400,000 people, among them City Councilman Ignacio de la Fuente and Ed Blakely, a USC urban studies professor.

A poll published last weekend in the Montclarion, an Oakland newspaper, showed Brown enjoying a commanding lead over all comers, with roughly 47% support.


In launching his mayoral candidacy, the 59-year-old Brown completed a circle of sorts. Twenty years ago, he preached small-is-beautiful and lectured Californians to lower their expectations--which is precisely what he seemed to be doing Tuesday.

After failing in his third try for president in 1992, the San Francisco native sold his Pacific Heights mansion there and joined the urban homesteaders in Oakland’s Jack London Square. From the waterfront warehouse district, Brown broadcast a national talk-radio program--the last of which he ended Tuesday with a valedictory blast at the Washington establishment--and slowly began insinuating himself into the city’s politics.

The $2-million live-work compound that Brown built in Oakland--complete with a professional broadcast studio and 500-seat auditorium--became a sort of unofficial Town Hall, hosting sessions on everything from urban planning to natural childbirth.

He became involved in local fights over bay-front development, campaign finance reform and plans to ship Oakland hospital patients to neighboring Emeryville. As his activism grew, Brown lobbied for a seat on the local Port Commission, a move rejected this year by Harris.

Tired of rabble-rousing without portfolio, Brown began inching toward the mayor’s race. In recent months he became a fixture in the city’s black churches, started trawling for police and labor endorsements--unsuccessfully so far--and began hosting various city interest groups at Friday night wine-and-cheese soirees.

A longtime friend and former aide who discussed the race with Brown said that becoming mayor of California’s eighth-biggest city, whatever comedown it may represent, would fulfill a loss Brown has felt since leaving Sacramento nearly 14 years ago.

“Not being in government service and not doing what he perceives as working for the people has been very difficult for him,” said Lucy Gikovich, who served as Gov. Brown’s administrative assistant.

But the feeling hardly seemed mutual.

It has been nearly 20 years since Brown waged a successful campaign for elected office, going all the way back to his 1978 reelection as governor. Since then, he tried and failed to win a U.S. Senate seat in 1982 and waged another failed bid for president in 1992.

In 1989, he was elected chairman of the state Democratic Party, a brief return to political power that soured when he abandoned the post midway through his term to run, briefly, a second time for the U.S. Senate, then again for the White House.

Indeed, that flickering attention span has been as much a part of Brown’s profile as his nimble mind and clairvoyant grasp two decades ago of concepts such as satellite technology and alternative energy. Knowing his penchant for big-picture thinking, some people on Tuesday questioned Brown’s ability to function on the small scale required of a city functionary.

“Everybody knows him, everybody respects his mind and everybody thinks he’s lost it if he thinks he would be happy as mayor,” said Peeples, an activist in Oakland’s trendy Piedmont Avenue neighborhood. “He’s been a governor. He’s been a Senate candidate. He’s been a presidential candidate. . . . Jerry Brown doesn’t do potholes.”

To which Brown replied, when asked that very question hours later at Tuesday’s crowded news conference: “A city is more than potholes. . . . Mayors don’t go around and fix potholes. They mobilize people and articulate ideas.”

Whatever his view of public works, Brown demonstrated an acute ear for Oakland’s long sense of aggrievedness, which has become something of a civic obsession in a town long overshadowed by elegant and showy San Francisco.

Lauding the Bay Area’s explosive economic growth over the past 30 years, Brown lamented that much of the cost was borne “on the back of Oakland’s poorest residents.”

“The new freeways and BART made the growth possible,” Brown said, “but tens of thousands of homes were destroyed. Many neighborhoods were permanently damaged.”

Brown, the picture of urban fashion clad in head-to-toe black, insisted that City Hall should hardly be seen as a demotion from the state Capitol, or even the White House.

“Government at this level is no different from any other level,” he said. “Welfare, crime, jobs, the air we breathe. It’s less abstract. You’re more directly in touch with the people.”

There was little, however, in the way of specifics to fortify his supporters or turn around the skeptics. “Oakland doesn’t need more red tape or new taxes,” Brown said in one typically vague passage. “It needs fresh ideas.”

He did answer one question shadowing his candidacy. Forswearing any further ambitions--at least for now--Brown pledged that if elected mayor, he would serve a full four-year term.