My dinner with Jerry

By Joan Walsh
January 6, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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Watching former California Gov. Jerry Brown being sworn in as mayor of Oakland on Monday, it was hard not to think about the day I spent with him in desolate West Oakland, where we interrupted a drug buy in progress, chatted up local prostitutes who fondly remembered his "daddy," ex-Gov. Pat Brown, and sat in a local dive drinking white wine and arguing about black poverty until it got dark. I knew that day he was going to be the city's next mayor, and it both scared and exhilarated me, because he didn't seem to have a clue as to what the hell he'd do when he got there.

It was over a year ago, and I was covering Brown's incipient candidacy, back before anyone took it quite seriously. He was starting to drop in on black churches of a Sunday morning, sitting quietly in the back -- a pilgrim, a penitent -- waiting to be called to the pulpit. On this Sunday, after a two-hour service, a brief speech and lunch in the basement -- Brown, a vegetarian, just picked at his heaping plate of turkey, potatoes, stuffing and beans, while I tried to make up for it by asking for seconds, to show that some white people had the manners to eat what they're offered -- he surprises our host, Rev. Richard Williams of Morning Star Baptist Church, by asking for a tour of the neighborhood. Williams balks, but Brown is out on the sidewalk before he can say no.


He is particularly curious about an apartment house two doors down from the church, a fading-blue Victorian with a black wrought-iron fence around the perimeter and a rowdy crowd outside: young men and women and pit bulls and the occasional toddler milling about. It's known locally as "The Palace." Brown asks Williams who lives there.

"It's just a den of thieves, governor," the reverend says.

"Really?" Brown is intrigued. "Will you introduce me to them?" But he doesn't wait for an answer, he just strides down the block on his own. The reverend starts off behind him, and so do I, just in time to interrupt a drug deal in progress. Small items change hands fast, and then all but one of the young men scurry in all directions and disappear, like cockroaches under a kitchen light.


Brown approaches the lone youth left behind, who stands glaring at us, carrying a small pit bull puppy in one large hand. "What's your name?" Brown asks, and the young man, not quite 20, looks at him hard. Brown just smiles and thrusts his hand out. "I'm Jerry Brown. I used to be governor of California." The young man isn't charmed. "Never heard of you," he says, maintaining his cold stare, no handshake.

"Well, there you go!" Rev. Williams says. He throws up his hands, turns on his heel and walks back toward his church, laughing sardonically. "Next time you walk the neighborhood, governor, bring some big men with you. You need an entourage." The tour is over. Williams goes back inside the church, leaving Brown alone. The governor has worn him out.

But Brown isn't through. "Come on," he says to me as he bounds across the street to shake some hands. Again, I follow, thinking he's a little crazy venturing where Williams wouldn't go, but also knowing that God blesses drunks, children and patrician white men who used to be governor. Besides, I've spent a fair amount of time in West Oakland -- I lived in Oakland for three years and worked on poverty issues in the city for over a decade. The street's starting to hop. People have gotten the word Brown's in the neighborhood, and they've come out from behind barred windows and doors, on to their porches and lawns to see him.


"What do you need in this neighborhood?" he asks one small group, and he hears a litany of troubles. Too many drugs. Not enough jobs. A school janitor complains of taxes. Now that he's got his entourage, people are flocking to see him. A woman in hair curlers asks if I'm his wife. "Nah," her male friend corrects her. "You know he's always been a bachelor!" Several people ask how Linda Ronstadt is. "She's just fine," he tells them. Someone tells me I look like Linda Ronstadt "before she got heavy" and winks conspiratorially.

Next a woman named Wanda comes flying down the street at us pushing a baby stroller. "I knew I knew you!" she says, clutching Brown's hand and not letting go. "I gotta tell my daddy! He's a die-hard Democrat. He loved your daddy. I loved Linda Ronstadt. She sings like she black." Wanda follows as we continue down the street, and we run into a friend of hers, a scrawny, toothless prostitute. Wanda gives the woman some turkey neck bones wrapped in a greasy napkin she's got stored in a back pocket of her baby's stroller. "I try to help everyone out," she tells me.


We stand outside a market owned by Yemeni immigrants. Brown goes inside to greet the storeowners, but they don't remember him. When he comes out, another prostitute joins our group. She remembers his "daddy," too. The late Pat Brown is still a legend in Oakland for appointing black judges and politicians and paying attention to Oakland, a tradition his son continued, inviting Oakland's Black Panthers to the statehouse they'd recently marched on fully armed and funding an Oakland freeway the Panthers pushed despite his anti-freeway mania.

"Do you go to this church?" Brown asks the women, pointing across the street to Morning Star. "No, they think they better than us," Wanda tells him. "Say they Christian, but they only feed us on Thursday." Wanda used to live in a shelter, now she rents an apartment for $425 from "poor white trash." She used to have a crack problem, she confides. Brown asks them about welfare reform. They all know it's coming, but not what to do about it. He urges them to get jobs, get training. He points to some more neck bones Wanda's got clutched in her hand. "You could be a cook!" he tells her. Wanda seems offended, but he doesn't know why. He's thinking Alice Waters; she's thinking Aunt Jemima.

The sun is fading and it's getting cold. Wanda asks me and Brown for money "for some Pampers" as we say goodbye; Brown looks flummoxed and I give her two dollars before he can respond. He finally seems overwhelmed by his day on the street.


"Let's go get a drink," he says, and I'm ready for one.

We head to nearby Mexicali Rose, a mediocre restaurant but a downtown institution. Brown orders white wine and a plate of rice and beans. He asks the waitress her name. "Araceli," she says. He struggles with it until he gets it right. Brown speaks only tourist Spanish, but he speaks it militantly. "Put some queso on the beans," he tells Araceli. "And I'd like maiz tortillas. Gracias." The waitress smiles. She recognizes him, too.

"That was depressing," he says. "We saw four drunk people in 15 minutes."


I shrug. "Look at us -- we needed a drink after an hour on those streets." He grants me that, and orders another glass of wine.

"What can you really do for that neighborhood?" he asks me. "They've had urban renewal, the War on Poverty, everything. The place looked the same when I was governor. What can you really do that's gonna make a difference?"

And were ministers like Williams, he asked me, part of the solution, or part of the problem? Williams had tutored Brown on how to approach other black ministers -- who hated whom, and who was trying to get what from the city -- a new roof, a new youth program, more money. Maybe Wanda was right. "What are they really doing for the people?" he asks me.

I'm appalled by his pessimism and his irreverence, and liberated, too. I start lecturing him about Oakland's successes. Oakland gets no respect. Just across the bay from thriving San Francisco, less than an hour's drive from sprawling Silicon Valley, this majority-black city has been left behind in the Bay Area's economic boom, with a reputation for backwardness and bureaucracy that's two parts racism, one part reality. It never gets credit for what it does right. A laboratory for Lyndon Johnson's anti-poverty crusade, it was the only major city with a large black population that didn't riot in the 1960s or '70s, and it moved from white to black political control with comparatively minor turmoil. Today, as its Latino and Asian populations continue to grow rapidly, Oakland is widely judged the nation's most residentially integrated city. It pissed me off to see Brown dissing this city he was aspiring to lead.


And besides, in just the last few years, I tell Brown, it has cut the black infant mortality rate by half, the teen birthrate by 30 percent and brought the murder rate down to the levels of the early 1970s. Brown knows shockingly little about all this, and refreshingly, he admits it. But then he starts poking fun at a local anti-poverty advocacy group/think tank I've consulted for over the years. "Who needs more reports? These people talk about their rich data, but what are they doing for poor people? I listen to them and I think: Rich data, poor people. Rich data, poor people. Know what I mean? It's a waste."

Now he's under my skin, and I'm back at him. I tell him we used that rich data to figure out that black infant mortality was concentrated in certain neighborhoods, and to develop strategies that focused there. We used it to figure out that teens were having the least healthy babies, and to focus on them, and bring the teen birthrate down dramatically. Those strategies built around rich data actually helped poor people.

He's impressed but not chastened. "You know a lot; come work for me." I thank him, but tell him I'm moving the other way, out of politics and policy work and back into journalism. I realize I'm late for a party, and he walks me to my car. We continue our conversation outside, but we're constantly interrupted by people who recognize him: a black doctor, a Filipino laborer and a grizzled middle-aged white bar patron who follows us outside to shake his hand. They all assure him he'll have their vote. The doctor insists she and her husband will put checks in the mail tomorrow. As we say goodbye a black family comes up and greets him, and a white couple stop their car in the middle of the street and jump out to have their picture taken.

Whether I like it or not, I can tell: Brown's going to be mayor. So I accept his invitation to continue our conversation a few days later, at his "commune" on the Waterfront near Jack London Square. He lives there with about a dozen other people; it also houses his "We the People" organization, which spearheaded his last presidential drive and housed his mayoral bid. White people in their 20s mill around in a communal kitchen making an organic vegetarian dinner. White volunteers stuff white envelopes at a table nearby. The only two people of color in the place are two old black ladies in hats, one of them blind, who came in to volunteer.


He takes me into his office, where we start our sparring again. I chide him for his campaign platform: the "Oakland Ecopolis" plan, a manifesto written by a couple of out-of-town professors pledging to make Oakland a center of "green" industry and model its civic life on the hill towns of Italy. He shrugs. "You don't like it? Why don't you rewrite it?" Seriously, I ask him: The "green" that black West Oakland needs most is money. How is he really going to reconcile his environmental causes and his anti-corporate crusading with his pledge to bring jobs to Oakland? What are his plans?

He goes to a wall and begins pulling old reports -- redevelopment plans, waterfront plans, environment plans -- off a bookshelf and recklessly tossing them at me. "You want plans? This city has no shortage of plans. It needs someone to galvanize people to solve their own problems." I catch a two-foot-high stack in my bare arms and ask him to stop: I get the point. Oakland doesn't need any more plans.

I was unsettled by my conversations with Brown. Culturally very white, he seemed an unlikely mayor for multiracial Oakland. There he was, mangling Spanish in conversation with our waitress; later, outside the restaurant, he asked the friendly Filipino laborer, "What are you, Chinese?" In somebody else, his naiveté might be read as arrogance. But the waitress just beamed at Brown, while the Filipino shook his hand and said, "God bless you, governor. You're a good, good man." He gets credit for his curiosity, the mere attempt to reckon with the changing face of California voters, which understandably enraged his black and Mexican rivals in the mayoral race.

His appeal among blacks was particularly astonishing. In a field with several African-Americans who wanted to be mayor, he became the official black candidate. It had to do with a reservoir of good will going back to his father, since between the two of them they appointed more blacks to judgeships and state commissions than any governor before or since. It was also his air of loss and loneliness, which passes for a kind of cool. Brown's the kind of white misfit who finds a long-sought comfort in the black community. But it also seemed like realpolitik, and maybe cynicism, on the part of black power brokers who were afraid of Oakland's changing demographics. Brown's Mexican rival, City Council President Ignacio de la Fuente, told me that Brown was the mayoral choice of a waning generation ofblack leaders "with very little political muscle" who'd rather have a white mayor than a Latino.


But my biggest fear was that Brown would inflict a downwardly mobile, dystopic, dilettante's worldview on Oakland. His anti-capitalist, post-politics nihilism seemed a white luxury that black Oakland couldn't afford.

Watching his inauguration a year later, however, I wasn't so worried anymore. I'm not sure what happened to him, but in the year since we talked Brown has crafted an urban plan of sorts, and it's surprisingly conservative and in tune with the times: Keep bringing down the city's crime rate, clean up the neighborhoods, improve the schools, attract jobs and industry to this overlooked city by the bay with high real estate vacancies and low rents.

I still don't know what he's going to do, exactly, to accomplish those goals, but he's shed his grim, green, less-is-more rhetoric. "Technology, nature -- we're gonna put it all together!" he told his inauguration audience. And he seemed to get that he's inheriting a city on the brink of possibility, not a rundown retirement community for an ex-governor and scion of San Francisco. "Let's get moving and marching to make this city great. And I just wanna thank everyone who's made this possible," he said in his speech. "Because when I take over, it's gonna be a piece of cake."

I also realized Brown had accomplished the impossible with his idiot-savant approach to race. Just as in the '70s, when Oakland managed the transition from white to black political power without violence, Brown is presiding over a transition from black to multiracial political power in Oakland with exactly the spacey, colorblind sang-froid that's needed. The City Council and School Board, once majority-black, are thoroughly mixed up -- black, white, Asian, Latino. Black Oaklanders are voting for politicians of every race, and vice versa. Brown's election didn't represent the waning of black political power, but its maturity.

And that's crucial. Because if white corporate racism has been the primary reason majority-black Oakland has lagged behind the rest of the thriving Bay Area, a close second has been black racism: the preference on the part of certain black power brokers that places like West Oakland stay poor and black, if the alternative is prosperous but integrated; the equation of palm-greasing with economic participation; the corrupt conflation of programs that provide jobs for black middle-class people with the needs of poor black people.

Just last week, the Oakland School Board engaged in another ugly, post-Ebonics race war over a pricy contract for a top black administrator (awarded, by the way, by the district's Chinese superintendent). Outgoing black board member (and Ebonics sponsor) Toni Cook screamed "racism" at the board majority for questioning the contract, but the white, black and Latino members didn't blink. Race-baiting is harder to play in mixed-up Oakland nowadays. And at Brown's inaugural on Monday, there on the stage at the Paramount Theatre was the feuding School Board as well as the warring City Council, representing every color and ethnicity and political persuasion, who'd put aside their bickering to celebrate.

And the city's sometimes scolding poet laureate, Ishmael Reed, was beaming. He recited a poem that could be Brown's platform, and the manifesto of the quiet urban cultural revolution that's remaking cities, which has gone almost unremarked: "Let achieving A's and B's be as important as scoring jump shots ... Let the police be courteous to all our citizens and the citizens be courteous to police ... Let our hotels be filled to capacity ... Let our jazz clubs be smoking ... Let us enjoy teriyaki, couscous, fettucine, pizza, red beans and rice, gumbo -- and let our waistlines narrow. Let Oakland be a city of civility. Let the good times roll."

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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