Magazine article Insight on the News

Oakland's Mayor Moonbeam?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Oakland's Mayor Moonbeam?

Article excerpt

Former governor Jerry Brown's liberalism is legendary in the Golden State. Yet, many Democratic voters in Oakland are uneasy about opening the doors of the mayor's office to him.

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown can do a lot of things. He can pull the name of every influential Democrat in the country out of his Rolodex and have them return his calls. He can have an intelligible conversation on his nationally syndicated radio program with MIT's left-wing brainiac Noam Chomsky. He can grow organic carrots on his rooftop garden. And he can groove to the thrumming sounds of radical cleric Matthew Fox's Techno Mass booming from the auditorium of his We the People headquarters. He even can comfortably press the flesh with local hoi polloi at Esther's Orbit Room and Breakfast Club--an eating and drinking establishment that might be described as sitting beneath the wrong side of the tracks. But can Brown be the mayor of Oakland?

Maybe. But he might have to run a more difficult electoral gauntlet than he ever imagined.

Brown has wanted to be a lot of different things in his lifetime. He used to want to be president: Twice he leaped into the national political fray only to fall headlong into nothingness, which is great for a student of Zen but not for someone with aspirations to a political career. Afterward there were the meditation retreats and time in India working with Mother Teresa. Always there was the relentless need to do something.

Three years ago, following his last tilt at the presidential windmill, the 60-year-old bachelor sold his home in San Francisco and built a $1.4 million galvanized metal and glass compound along the Oakland estuary. There, amidst a rapidly gentrifying warehouse neighborhood of design studios, residential lofts and artisans workshops, he founded We the People--an organization that detractors and admirers alike sometimes refer to as "We the Person." "What we are trying to do is create a place where we can realize the potential for creating the city of the future," Brown tells Insight. "We need to create a sustainable model that will take us through to the 21st century."

Brown says he realizes that the first step in achieving that lofty goal is to become the mayor of Oakland. He says he's not interested in running for the vacancy created by the sudden retirement of California Democratic Rep. Ron Dellums. "What would I want to do that for?" he says dismissively. "This is where I want to be." Brown says he wants to back his "think globally" call with an "act locally" response. But while name recognition almost guarantees the former Golden State chief executive air time on the national evening-news broadcasts, a not insubstantial income from public-speaking engagements and immediate front-runner status in the crowded eight-person field of candidates, the mayoral contest still is a long way from being won.

From his fledgling campaign headquarters--carved out of a corner of the We the People compound--Brown, who is fashionably clad in the Left Coast uniform of black turtleneck, pants and sandals, sees it as a proposition. "I have been in politics all of my life, so this is nothing new. We're going to win this election the old-fashioned way--walking door to door, one house at a time. I know how to do this," he enthuses.

And if there are yet to be any phone banks or legions of true believers licking envelopes, the phone indeed is ringing with calls from folks who want to know where they can send their checks. "I'm not taking any contribution larger than $100," he proclaims, but adds that he expects to get money from supporters around the nation. Brown fields one such call himself from a man who identifies himself as a member of the local carpenter's union, who clearly is surprised that the former governor actually has answered the phone. As they banter over the speakerphone, Brown jostles the caller. "You're a Wobbly," he jokes, using the nickname for members of the turn-of-the-century Marxist labor movement, Industrial Workers of the World. …

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