UnderCurrents: Picky-Picky While Chopping Liver

Friday April 30, 2004

One of the more interesting things about living in Oakland in the Jerry Brown years is never quite knowing where our mayor is going to turn up. Lately Mr. Brown has been on cable television, hawking cars for the merchants at Oakland’s Auto Row, complaining that two-thirds or thereabouts of Oakland residents who have recently bought new cars have chosen not to do so in the city in which they live. 

One might argue that Mr. Brown’s auto commercials cannot really count as ongoing public appearances, no matter how many times they are aired, since they were probably all taped in a single afternoon. Meanwhile, Mr. Brown could now be anywhere. And often is. 

A quick glance at the mayor’s posted itinerary for the week of April 25-May 1 is—as I said—interesting. On Sunday, the 25th, he was interviewed on Fox Television’s Scarborough County. Then a break in the public schedule until Wednesday, when he was scheduled to introduce a book on “The Etiquette of Illness” at Cody’s in Berkeley. The next day, a weekly interview on KGO radio (I didn’t know the mayor was doing weekly interviews on KGO radio; I wonder what he talks about), and the day after that—Friday—a morning television interview with Phil Matier on Channel 4. At noon, the mayor has another weekly interview with KNX radio in Los Angeles, and, that evening, it’s down to Los Angeles to appear at an awards dinner for his late father’s institute. On Saturday, the 1st, he’s scheduled to give opening remarks to women educators at the Oakland Marriott in the morning, and then, that evening, a couple of appearances at local events promoting his School for the Arts (as well as, we are told, a fund-raiser for the restoration of the Fox Theater, of which we will speak further, later). 

I know I’m being picky here, but don’t you find a sort of scarcity, here, of activities related to the actual job for which Oakland residents are paying Mr. Brown such a handsome monthly stipend to perform? 

I happened to catch, quite by accident, a small portion of the Sunday night Fox interview, in which the mayor was offering advice to Senator John Kerry on how to run a Presidential campaign. This makes as little sense—for Mr. Kerry to take such advice—as it does for a a man to take singing lessons from a braying mule (the theory being that one should never confuse persistent and repeated attempts at a project—no matter now spirited—with a successful completion thereof). 

And though no-one—not me, anyways—would begrudge the mayor an L.A. trip to an event in honor of his father, a question must be raised about the noontime L.A. radio interview, announced as both a weekly event and intended to concentrate on “state and national issues.” Nice that he’s sharing his thoughts on various events not actually directly related to Oakland, I suppose. 

Meanwhile, the only person in the city who appears to be able to draw Mr. Brown into any sustained public discussion on Oakland issues is Rob Harper, the Oakland-based artist-activist whose complicated ties with the mayor go back to Sacramento in the days of father Brown’s gubernatorial years. Their running e-mail battles periodically, for some reason, land in my inbox. 

“Jerry, I’ve been thinking about you lately,” Mr. Harper recently writes (to Mr. Brown). “You’ll be leaving the mayor’s office someday, and you’ll have NO legacy to leave behind in Oakland... Say, for example, Mayor Harris, has left us with two beautiful office towers, the Federal Buildings, which occupy the Oakland skyline, and they help to define the idea of ‘City,’ and, of progress. You, have no physical structure to show your presence, nor to show your ‘magic kingdom.’” 

To which Mr. Brown (or someone doing a good job of pretending to be Mr. Brown while posting from “Jerry Brown jb@jerrybrown.org) replies: “Starting two great schools and restoring the Fox ain’t chopped liver. The Oakland Arts School earned the best scores in Oakland and has attracted more middle class and out of city kids than any other public school in the city. And, yes, it has enrolled a majority of African-American students and has the most integrated-across color and class lines-than any school in the East Bay, public or private. Just these three items I will stack up against any mayor in California. Go Oakland!” 

Let us concede, without checking, and solely for the sake of the argument, the truth of the above contentions. A couple of things sort of jump out at you about the mayor’s Statement of Legacy. 

The first is that saying the Oakland School for the Arts has attracted more out-of-city students than any other Oakland school is like saying Skyline High School has more students attending a high school whose name starts with an “S” than any other high school in Oakland. (If that’s confusing, I’ll wait while you read it again.) The fact is, since the job of public schools in Oakland is only to teach…well…Oakland students, the idea of beating Oakland public schools at teaching out-of-Oakland students does not seem much of an accomplishment. And since the Mayor offers in a follow-up e-mail that “the Arts School enrolls by audition, seeking young artists with the greatest potential talent,” the fact that it thereafter ends up with the best test scores—if that, indeed, is true—seems hardly a fair comparison to the aforementioned public schools, which cannot pick and choose among their charges, but are more of a whomsoever-shall-let-them-come operation. 

As for listing the restoration of the Fox as one of his accomplishments: well, I know I’m old-fashioned, but I was brought up to believe that an accomplishment is something that has…ummm…actually been accomplished. That would appear to drop the unoccupied and still-dilapidated Fox out of the list, at least for the time being, $65,000 marquis lights notwithstanding. 

Picky, picky, again, I know. In any event, let the stacking-up begin.