Column: Undercurrents: Jerry Brown is Missing in Action at the End of His Term By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday March 31, 2006

My grandfather Ellis was a dreamer, a visionary who always had more ideas and plans carried around in his pockets than he had room in his life to complete. The house he and my grandmother once had off of Seminary Avenue in East Oakland was full of his projects—gardens and sheds and walkways—in various stages of completion and uncompletion. Once, he decided he wanted to add an upstairs bedroom to the house and immediately began to build it, starting with an outside staircase. The staircase was completed and then my grandfather got distracted by other things, so that for the longest it hung there on the side of the house by itself, a stairway to noplace. 

My grandfather is a beloved figure in the Allen family, his eccentricities on these spare projects always forgiven, because he never left his main duties undone. He was a Pullman porter who kept his wages and tips in his pockets and stayed on the train while many of the other porters hit their favorite station stops along the way, and when my grandfather got back to Oakland he’d empty all of the money out on the bed for my grandmother to manage, asking her only for some change to buy cigarettes. 

In 1998, Oakland thought we had elected such a man as mayor. We knew that Jerry Brown had his quirks and eccentricities, but we also believed him when he said he was all grown up and ready to get down to business. 

It didn’t exactly end up that way, did it?  

Like the Nazgûl racing across Mr. Tolkien’s Mordor towards Mount Doom near the end of the third book, Mr. Brown appeared as a bright comet across the Oakland sky “shooting like flaming bolts,” but eventually, “as caught in the fiery ruin of hill and sky,” he simply “crackled, withered, and went out.” With nine months still to go in his administration, there is hardly a trace of the mayor’s presence in and around Oakland, except, maybe, to use the city as a backdrop to his campaign for California attorney general. 

The signs of the mayor’s inattention, sometimes bordering on boredom, are everywhere. 

At Mr. Brown’s official website on the city server, there is a schedule page on which Oakland residents are supposed to be able to see the mayor’s official calendar and what events he is attending to every day. If Mr. Brown’s online schedule is to believed, the mayor of Oakland has not done anything on the job since Sept. 18, 2005. That’s the last entry for the schedule.  

And even then, much of the work had little to do with what we were paying him for. Mr. Brown was on three week vacation from Aug. 25 through Sept. 14. When he got back in town he had a few ceremonial duties, but mostly the mayor was appearing on talk shows that perhaps had something to do with his Oakland work, perhaps not: a live interview on KABC radio in Los Angeles on Sept.16, Fox News interview on Sept. 17, Fox News, “At Large with Geraldo Rivera” on Sept. 18, when the schedule entries end. Nice work, if you can get it, as they used to say in my grandfather’s day. 

Mr. Brown’s personal blog on the web has suffered a similar fate. Launched with much fanfare early last year, it drew the attention of veteran bloggers who commented on how interesting it was that Mr. Brown was able to keep up with new trends. (For those of you who don’t keep up with the new trends, a blog, short for web log, is an online diary, or running commentary, that its owners write to several times a week, and often every day.) Mr. Brown himself, in one of his first posts, wrote that he was “glad to see all the lively responses to my entry into the blogosphere. I welcome the robust debate.” The debate was apparently not robust enough, and Mr. Brown’s last entry was posted in October of last year. 

Even when local events force Mr. Brown to turn his attention away from statewide campaigning and back to his Oakland duties, he seems oddly disengaged and removed from the realities that everyone else is experiencing in this city. 

Asked by a UC Boalt Hall law student earlier this week if the recent explosion of violent crime in the city was giving Oakland a negative image, Mr. Brown said it was not. “I don’t think there is a negative Oakland image,” the Oakland Tribune quoted the mayor as saying. “There is some crime going on, and historically that is true. But crime is down 30 percent from a 30-year average. And it just so happens that we’ve got a little surge.” 

A little surge? 

Earlier this month, during the heated debate how to deploy more police on city streets, Oakland Chief of Police Wayne Tucker reporting increases in the city since this time last year of 300 percent for homicides, 127 percent for assaults with a deadly weapon, 100 percent for robberies, and 47 percent for sexual assaults. There were 33 homicides in Oakland already in the first three months of this year when I began this column, 34 by the time I finished. That’s a trend that would put us over 130 murders if it continued for a 12 month period, a ghastly statistic. 

But Mr. Brown needs “law and order” credentials in his run for attorney general, and so must fiddle with statistics and downplay what everybody else in Oakland feels is a big deal. 

That “crime is down 30 percent from a 30-year average” sounds impressive only if you forget what was happening over the past 30 years. In 1976 Oakland—like every other major American urban center—was in the middle of the crack epidemic, and murders and violent crime skyrocketed as drug dealers fought over the lucrative new turf and crack addicts stole everything in sight to pay for their monstrous new habits. The early ‘90s saw another wave of violence as crack dealers fought over turf. Comparing the recent crime wave to those days doesn’t make today’s crime wave any better, it only makes it seem better. And for Mr. Brown’s purposes, it’s the seeming that is important, as the king said in The Madness Of King George. 

When people imply that he is not paying attention to Oakland’s suddenly-rising violent crime Mr. Brown bristles, often saying—as he did in the Attorney General’s race debate this week held in Oakland by the Alameda County Lawyers Association—that he lives in a high-crime area himself, what he calls “the second toughest crime beat in Oakland.”  

Well, I’ve been to the corner of 27th Street and Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, where Mr. Brown and Ms. Gust have their condominium, and it doesn’t seem like the second roughest neighborhood in Oakland to me. But even if it were, the implications in Mr. Brown’s assertions are strange, as if he were saying that if violent crime weren’t happening on his block, he wouldn’t be quite so involved. That’s not what you want to hear from someone who is supposed to be the mayor of an entire city, with all of the many problems that the mayor himself might not actually have to face. 

This week, the nice people at OakPAC, Oakland’s big business political action committee, were kind enough to send me a campaign brochure for mayoral candidate Ignacio De La Fuente that asks, on the cover, “Who Knows Best What It Takes To Run A City?” Open up the brochure and you get the answer: “California’s Best Mayors Know What It Takes To Run A City.” Next to that is a full-color picture of Mayor Brown. 

If Mr. Brown knows how to run this city, I wish he would go ahead and do it, even with the little time he has left in his term. It’s fine to have a visionary in the family. As my old church deacon used to say, faith without work is dead. And as some of the young people would say today, a visionary who doesn’t put in the work to realize those visions is nothing but a slacker.