UnderCurrents:Lamenting Brown’s Artful Oakland Dodge

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday June 16, 2006

When my good friend, Wilson Riles Jr., ran against Jerry Brown for mayor of the City of Oakland four years ago, I thought he made two major mistakes. The first mistake was that he waited too long to go after Brown’s record as mayor. The second was that he did the going himself. 

In the new politicalspeak of slate mailers and media soundbites, going after your opponent’s record is considered a negative act, and is made synonymous with the popular term “mudslinging.” The two, however, are not synonymous. You can point out the errors in your political opponent’s record without being nasty about it, though that’s a trick that is not as easy as it might seem. A lot of politicians aren’t particularly good at the art, my good friend, Wilson Riles, being one of them. He has the demeanor of a pacifist and a thoughtful man—both of which he is—and so, when he took to criticizing Mr. Brown for his failure as mayor back in the 2002 election, it was so out of character that it probably lost Mr. Riles more votes than it gained him, and contributed to his getting roundly trounced by Mr. Brown, 64 percent to 36. 

Comes the dreary race this spring for the Democratic nomination for the attorney general of the State of California and Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, flexing his street cred as a tough kid from East L.A., decided to hit Mr. Brown early and often in news releases and debate statements and e-mail updates.  

“Speaking to a group of Alameda County Democratic lawyers,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported last spring, Mr. Delgadillo “accused Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown of failing to fulfill a campaign promise of reducing crime in Oakland to the level of Walnut Creek. Oakland has had 31 killings so far this year compared to zero in Walnut Creek. ‘He calls 31 homicides a surge, I call it a crisis,’ said Delgadillo, who also accused Brown of waffling on the death penalty.” 

As a result, in last week’s primary Mr. Delgadillo did slightly better than Mr. Riles, losing only 63 percent to 37 percent. 

State media outlets mostly credited Mr. Brown’s decisive primary win not on the issues so much as on his name recognition and star power, with the Los Angeles Alternative newspaper giving out the bad news in an article called “Rocky In A Hard Place” a month before the actual vote took place: “Delgadillo—a decent guy with no surplus of magnetism—is running against the most famous Democrat in California, Oakland mayor and former governor Jerry Brown, one of the most articulate people alive. Brown’s name is the top brand. And, unlike other former governors (Wilson, Deukmejian, Davis), Jerry doesn’t just have fans—he has True Believers. … Jerry’s thousands of ex-Brownies are out there in all walks of life, in appointed and elected offices all over the state, spreading the word. Hence, Rocky’s rough road.” 

Calling Mr. Brown “one of the most articulate people alive” aside (??????), myself, I think that’s a misreading of the race. Mr. Delgadillo’s problem against Mr. Brown was not that he attacked a state icon, but that he attacked him in the wrong way. True, Mr. Brown made public safety a major platform in his two runs for Oakland mayor and true, under Mr. Brown’s watch, homicides skyrocketed. But in places like Lodi and Fresno and Santa Barbara and San Diego, I’m sure, they figured of course, homicides skyrocketed in Oakland … it’s Oakland, after all … and at least Jerry Brown went there and tried, taking on a tough and dirty and thankless job. It’s not Jerry Brown’s great image that made the difference so much as Oakland’s poor one. Who, in the rest of California, expects much out of us? 

Brace yourself, friends. For those of us who have followed Mr. Brown’s work (or lack, thereof) as mayor of Oakland, and wouldn’t wish that experience on the rest of the state, it gets progressively worse (pun intended). If Mr. Brown is a bad choice for California attorney general, there is pretty much no choice at all in the general election. Our Republican friends, bless their right-wing hearts, have managed to nominate someone who Schwarzenegger Republicans will have to hide their faces about. 

Witness the sampling of Project Vote Smart ratings on two-term Fresno State Senator Chuck Poochigian, the Republican attorney general nominee: On the issue of abortion and a woman’s right to choose, Mr. Poochigian voted with Planned Parent Affiliates of California 11 percent of the time in 2005. Three years before, Project Vote Smart reports, NARAL-Pro Choice flatly “determined Senator Poochigian to be anti-choice.” On budget spending and taxes in 2005, the Fresno State Senator supported the California Taxpayers’ Association 100 percent of the time and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association 94 percent. He supported the California Chamber of Commerce 93 percent in 2005, slipping a little from his 100 percent support a year before. On the environment last year, Mr. Poochigian supported only 9 percent issues important to the California League of Conservation Voters, and the Sierra Club, flat-out never. He voted with CalPIRG 19 percent on governmental reform issues in 2005, but 100 percent with the Gun Owners of America the same year on issues important to that organization. On labor concerns, he voted with the California School Employees Association 10 percent of the time in 2005, the California Labor Federation-AFL-CIO 11 percent. And PawPAC, the animal rights folks, gave him an F grade in 2003-04. Grrrrr…. 

In his campaign website letter to his “Dear Friends” of California, Mr. Poochigian tells us that “the holder of [the California attorney general’s] office has no more important duty than protecting Californians and their families from crime.” 

In reality, Californians tend to depend upon law enforcement agencies that actually have police officers and police powers to do that particular job, from the various city police departments to the county sheriff’s offices and the State Highway Patrol, as well as prosecuting officials like the county district attorneys. The attorney general’s office has a much broader mandate, intervening in civil and legal and political matters in a way that can have a profound effect on local situations (an example was when, in 2003, current Attorney General Bill Lockyer gave an “opinion” against the transfer of construction bond money to bail the Oakland Unified School District out of its budget problems, leading directly to the state takeover of the Oakland schools). 

(In all fairness, in his “Dear Friends” letter Mr. Poochigian says that the attorney general’s job “also includes a wide range of duties, including civil justice, representation of the executive branch of government, advising law enforcement and other local and state public agencies.” The addition, however, appears to be an afterthought to his emphasis on the law enforcement aspects of the job.) 

Mr. Poochigian immediately went the ridicule route on Mr. Brown, reprinting on his campaign website a recent Jim Boren Fresno Bee column that manages to revisit both the old Governor Moonbeam tag put on Mr. Brown in 1978 by Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko and Mr. Brown’s old love affair with singer Linda Ronstadt, none of which, one imagines, will make much difference to California voters in November. 

But also, as one would expect of someone with his political background and his take on the responsibilities of the job, Mr. Poochigian has also taken out after Mr. Brown’s Oakland crime record, writing on his website that “Jerry Brown took a big gamble when he decided to wage his campaign for Attorney General based on a pledge to ‘lead the fight against crime as I have done as Mayor of Oakland.’ Brown was betting that he could confuse the press and public into buying his Soprano-style boo kkeeping regarding crime statistics. … Unfortunately for Jerry, the release of actual crime statistics not filtered through the lens of his attorney general campaign has caused the Mayor’s crime-busting claims, built on a house of cards, to come tumbling down.” 


My guess is that Mr. Brown, ever the artful dodger throughout his political career, will be able to dodge this one, too, running not so much on the platform of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” as he will on the slogan “Oakland’s so broke, nobody could fix it.” But if there is any choice in the California attorney general’s race in November, you can label them Worse and Worser, without much difference in which candidate gets stuck with which.