UnderCurrents: Bro’ Brown Unsticks From the Tarzaghibaby

Friday July 30, 2004

Me, I always did like those Tricky-the-Rabbit tales, which originated in African villages in the Anansi Spider stories and then grew ears and fur as they made the Middle Passage and settled themselves around the fires in the slavery-time cabins. In these stories, the smallest creature in the field or forest uses his cunning to outwit his enemies and connive his way out of impossible jams. Bro’ Rabbit getting out of the boiling pot by convincing Bro’ Fox and Bro’ Bear to throw him into the thornbriars. The Signifying Monkey escaping Cousin Lion’s teeth by goading the lion into a fight with Cousin Elephant. You might remember them from the Joel Chandler Harris or Walt Disney versions. Anyway, I guess I was partial to these stories because I was always the smallest kid on the block. 

And so—feet dragging all the way—I must admit that I’ve got some grudging admiration for the way our own Bro’ Brown has loosed his paws and feet from the Jacques Barzaghi tarbaby and seems to have got hisself clean away from that mess. Didn’t ever think he could do it, but damned if he didn’t. Admire it, friends, whether you like its results or not, because this is one of the best acts of political Houdini you’re apt to see in a while. 

A brief bit of background for those of you who’ve been too busy to keep up. 

The French emigrant Mr. Barzaghi has been attached to Jerry Brown’s hip since they met in Sacramento in the 1970s when Mr. Brown was serving as California’s secretary of state. They’ve been together through Mr. Brown’s two terms as California governor, two runs for the United States presidency, one-and-a-something terms as mayor of Oakland, and the years of wandering in political exile in between. Mr. Barzaghi has served in various capacities for Mr. Brown during that time, from campaign manager to spiritual adviser—at one point, in Oakland, he even got himself a concealed weapons permit and announced himself as Mr. Brown’s bodyguard. But the exact nature of the Brown-Barzaghi relationship is one the great mysteries of modern life. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? King Henry II and Thomas Beckett? You could do a UC Berkeley dissertation on the subject. But like Malcolm el Shabazz used to remind us in another context, those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say. 

Oakland—being a tolerant sort-of town—liked to comment on the Brown-Barzaghi relationship, but for the most part accepted it as a necessary—if odd—component to Mr. Brown’s putting-us-on-the-map machine. In Oakland, the two men shared living quarters—along with Mr. Barzaghi’s wife—at Mr. Brown’s Second Avenue loft, with Oakland helping to foot the food and clothing bills by employing Mr. Barzaghi in different city jobs. For a while he served as the arts-something-or-other for the city, though damned if you can find five people who will even try to make a guess at what benefit Oakland got out of that deal. 

Anyhow, the relationship took a decided turn for the worse in late 2001 when Mr. Barzaghi was accused by two female employees of sexual harassment during a trip to Mexico for the incoming Mexican president’s inauguration. Some local newspapers tried to minimize the incident as nothing more than “ear-fondling,” and Mr. Barzaghi himself claimed that his natural Mediterranean friendliness had been—perhaps—misunderstood. But City Attorney John Russo ordered an investigation of previous informal sexual harassment complaints by a number of other city female employees against Mr. Barzaghi. An outside firm produced a report on those complaints. The details of that “smoking gun” report itself is one of the most closely-guarded secrets in the city, but based upon its contents, Mr. Barzaghi was suspended for several weeks by then City Manager Robert Bobb for violation of the city’s sexual harassment guidelines and forced to undergo counseling. 

And there, for a while, the matter sat, with Oaklanders grumbling but accepting (if not necessarily forgiving) the inevitable, even re-electing Mr. Brown to a second term as mayor. Meanwhile Mr. Barzaghi continued in his six-figured job on the Oakland payroll, continuing to share Mr. Brown’s living quarters and—presumably—his confidence. 

And if Mr. Brown would have opted to stay in Oakland, then there the whole matter might have died. But nobody believes that Mr. Brown wants to stay in Oakland. In fact, it is difficult to see why Mr. Brown came to Oakland at all, except as a steppingstone to a revival of his larger political goals, since he does not especially seem to like our city and its various quirky amenities. And, so, as soon as Mr. Brown whupped Wilson Riles Jr. in 2002 to take a second term as mayor, the speculation began to burn fierce as to Mr. Brown’s political future outside the Oakland city limits. 

But there was that Barzaghi thing. 

A year before Mr. Brown’s 2002 re-election campaign, I wrote the following in an earlier incarnation of the UnderCurrents columns (“Oakland Unwrapped,” for the now-defunct Urbanview newspaper): “The Barzaghi Problem may not hurt Mayor Brown too badly in his probable run for re-election in 2002, but that has more to do with the likely lack of heavyweight opposition in that race. But if Brown chooses to run in 2004 either for president or against U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, having a possible sexual harasser as his best buddy and advisor is going to hang around the mayor’s neck like a noose. Sure, there’s always a chance that people might forget about this in four years. But after watching the Clinton-haters hound the president for the past two terms, would you want to bet on it? Sooner or later, unless they burn it, that ‘smoking gun’ report is going to come out. And that could sink Brown’s political career.” 

That “smoking gun” report, by the way, still, presumably, sits locked in the desk of Oakland City Attorney John Russo. 

Since that January, 2001 column was written, Mr. Brown has cast aside—temporarily, at least—any plans he might have had to run for president (again) or the United States Senate. Instead, he has taken out papers and announced his intent to run for the office of California attorney general in 2006. That only intensified Mr. Brown’s Barzaghi problem, since the attorney general is charged with enforcing—among other things—the state’s sexual harassment laws. 

How the artful Bro’ Brown cleared himself of that mess is the subject of next week’s column.