Jerry Brown shakes up Oakland's black political establishment

The hard-charging mayor challenges an entrenched bureaucracy -- and a racial spoils system.

Published June 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

All the drama, dysfunction and potential for redemption in black urban politics today could be seen in Oakland this spring, when a coalition of black ministers and community leaders took to the streets to block Mayor Jerry Brown's attempts to clean house. Brown and his allies were gunning for two Oakland officials -- the city's first black police chief and its Chinese-American school superintendent, an ally of the school district's majority-black administration -- and a group of black leaders calling themselves the Community and Clergy Coalition rose up to try to stop them.

In March, the coalition brought more than 100 people to march on City Hall, and then over to Brown's bay-front warehouse, which houses his "We the People" organization. They chanted "We're the people!" and attacked his early decisions. Some criticized Brown's proposal to draw 10,000 new residents to downtown Oakland, which he called his "elegant density" plan, because they fear the newcomers will be whites with money, who will flock from around the Bay Area to enjoy Oakland's better weather, lower housing costs and proximity to San Francisco. A few black leaders began to compare the liberal former California governor with New York's Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "I don't think he cares much about diversity," former Mayor Elihu Harris, who is black, told the San Francisco Chronicle after Brown's State of the City address in April. It looked like an outbreak of ugly racial politics was going to paralyze Brown's attempts at reform.

But two months later, the storm is over. Brown ousted the two officials -- and at least three others -- and lived to talk about it. But he doesn't want to talk about it, insisting the controversy is ancient history now. We're sitting in his small City Hall office, which is strangely anonymous five months into his tenure -- no photos or plaques or even art on the walls -- and Brown is uncharacteristically tight-lipped. "Nobody's talking about that anymore. The Chronicle's not covering it. The [Oakland] Tribune's not writing about it." Just because the media isn't covering something, I remind him, doesn't mean it's irrelevant. "OK, maybe they're talking about it in some of the black churches," he admits. "But tell me who else is talking."

When I repeat Harris' comment about "diversity," I touch a nerve, and suddenly Brown can't help himself. He's talking, all right, an angry, staccato stream-of-consciousness rant.

"Let's talk about diversity. Every city department head but one is black -- is that diversity? People can say anything they want." He points to my cup of water on his desk. "They can say there's two cups on the desk, but that's demonstrably not true. Facts are facts." I nod, and he moves on to the issue of crime, which he's made his own. "Reducing crime is saving minority lives. Let's look at the city's murder victims last year. Almost all of them were black.

"Oakland government was not working," Brown continues. "We had process paralysis. The insider group needed to be shaken up -- the friends getting jobs for friends. People voted for change, and that's what they're getting."

The irony of Brown's early battles with Oakland's black leaders is that when he ran for mayor last year, Brown became "the black candidate," despite the presence of seven real-live African-Americans in the race. Much of the city's black leadership, and a plurality of its black voters, seemed prepared to elect this white man mayor, judging that his track record on issues of concern to African-Americans, not to mention his Oakland-boosting celebrity, more than made up for his lack of melanin. Brown got 59 percent of the vote in the crowded field, and carried every Oakland precinct, including black strongholds, except for a couple in a Latino rival's City Council district. And after his June election, Brown put a city charter change initiative on the city ballot, giving the traditionally weak mayor more power. In a clear mandate for Brown, the measure won 75 percent of the vote.

Then suddenly, just a few months into his tenure, Brown seemed to be in trouble with the black community. The cause: His quest to oust both Chief Joseph Samuels, who he alleged paid insufficient attention to bringing down Oakland's declining but still high crime rate, and Superintendent Carole Quan, who he argued put school district bureaucrats before the interests of school children. Certain black leaders were also angry that Brown, backed by Oakland's take-no-prisoners city manager, Robert Bobb, was threatening the tenure of seven other department heads and another 60 middle managers who had been put on notice to improve their performance or find new jobs. "Bobb was hired to clean house and bust up the hegemony of African-Americans at City Hall," charges Leo Bazile, a former city councilman, two-time mayoral candidate and leader of the Community and Clergy Coalition. "He and Brown teamed up."

But Brown's cool response to the crisis -- "Nobody's talking about that anymore" -- may be more than just spin. Oakland's new mayor has won every battle he's picked to date, and there have been more than a few. Not all the conflicts have had a racial element: He recently fought the powerful California Teachers Association and won, beating back a bill that would have forced unions on teachers in charter schools, one of Brown's pet populist issues. But most of his battles have had a racial element -- and yet the racial tumult he inspired early on has subsided, at least for now. Brown's most bitter black opponents, the head of the local NAACP and the city's largest black church, didn't return repeated phone calls asking for their comments about Brown. And his chief black opponent in the mayor's race, urban planning scholar and education reformer Ed Blakely, just agreed to head Brown's new Mayor's Commission on Education.

"Jerry's white, but he's refreshing. If I were mayor I wouldn't have fired the police chief -- or if I did, I'd have done it a different way," Blakely says. "But you have to admit: That got every bureaucrat's attention. They're on notice that things are going to change."

And opponent Leo Bazile grudgingly agrees. "If you want the mule to change, you've got to get the mule's attention. And he's done that. Let's just see what he does next."

At the time of the noisiest protests against Brown's school maneuvers, I happened to be reading Tamar Jacoby's "Somebody Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration," her one-sided, irritating but occasionally irrefutable indictment of the way liberals sold out to black militants to ruin the cities. And even as an Oakland booster, I found it unnerving: Here was Jacoby, writing about the 1960s, when black activists stormed school boards to attack white bureaucracies that were not educating their kids. Now, in Oakland, black leaders were turning out to defend black bureaucracies that were not educating their kids.

To understand that bizarre role reversal, you have to understand that Oakland is sacred ground in black political history. It's the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the nation's War on Poverty. Its first black mayor, Lionel Wilson, rode to power in 1978 in the Panthers' political wake, and though he governed as a centrist, his administration was a time of black ascendancy in City Hall and beyond. Black administrators took the helms of most city agencies, and moved into key posts in the school system, too. The city got a reputation for backwardness and bureaucracy that was part racism, part reality, and its troubles were deepened by the industrial exodus that hurt all blue-collar cities -- and decimated the black working class -- in the 1970s and '80s. Although black control of City Hall and the school district helped enlarge the city's black middle class, it did little for other groups, and in fact poverty climbed throughout the 1970s and '80s.

There were, of course, periodic attempts to reform the city's bureaucracies and revive its economy, but they were often derided as the product of white backlash. Yet nowhere was reform more desperately needed than in Oakland's public schools. Test scores have long been among the lowest of any district in the state -- especially among black students -- and the incidence of corruption was arguably among the highest. The district reached bottom in 1989, when a grand jury indicted a roster of administrators and employees for corruption. Then-Assemblyman (and mayoral candidate) Elihu Harris carried a bill to put the district into state receivership, the superintendent resigned and the School Board couldn't hire anyone to replace him, as promising candidates refused to come to work in Oakland.

But even at its nadir, the district had its black defenders. I worked in Oakland then, for a fledgling school reform initiative, and though the reform effort was black-led, there were longtime black activists who badmouthed it as a tool of the white business community -- though the white business community was, sadly, little involved in any effort to improve Oakland schools, including ours. The discrediting campaign didn't work: Although the school reform effort stalled short of its goals, a groundswell of support from black parents, as well as whites, Asians and Latinos, kept the gossip about its alleged white business ties from destroying the effort. But to this day, attempts at school reform are viewed suspiciously, as though they might be part of a plot by the white elite to take Oakland back from black leadership and make it safe for white business.

And yet, over time, a constituency for reform has developed, among every race in Oakland, and it has spread beyond the schools. You might be reading about change and controversy and painful urban reform in Oakland, at least occasionally, even if Jerry Brown weren't its celebrity mayor, thanks to the City Council's selection of Robert Bobb as the new city manager. The tough-talking reformer moved out from Richmond, Va., promising to shake up City Hall. Bobb is black -- notwithstanding the perception he was brought in "to bust up African-American hegemony" -- and that has probably helped insulate Brown a little from charges of racism.

At first, Brown and Bobb seemed an unlikely couple: Brown, a cosmopolitan, big-picture guy (aka Gov. Moonbeam), could have easily clashed with Bobb, a detail-oriented social conservative from a small Southern city. But instead they joined forces, and turned out to have a lot in common in their crusade to bring accountability to Oakland government. They both sweat the small stuff: Bobb is known for phoning city employees at random, and chiding those who don't properly identify themselves (repeat offenders get sent to training classes); Brown circles spelling and grammatical mistakes in department heads' letters and sends them back.

With the backing of the nation's most famous mayor, the pace of change in Oakland accelerated dramatically. Quickly, Brown and Bobb moved into an area where city leaders have little formal control: the schools. "If you want to improve life in the city, you're going to very quickly get to the issue of the schools," says George Musgrove, the deputy city manager Bobb brought with him from Richmond, who next month will become acting superintendent of Oakland schools. But that's getting ahead of the story. "People expect their mayor to have some control over the schools," Musgrove explains. "You'll be held accountable if you don't improve them."

So Musgrove, Bobb and Brown began looking at why decades of efforts to reform Oakland schools have produced reams of reports and recommendations, but little in the way of improved student achievement. Much of the criticism focused on Superintendent Carole Quan. Though she got high marks for good intentions, and some fledgling attempts at reform, she received failing grades when it came to making the tough choices -- cutting the bloated central administration and firing or reassigning low-performing principals and teachers -- that real change requires, at least partly because she'd been with the district more than 30 years. "It's hard for an insider like Carole to make rapid change in the district -- too many issues have people's faces on them," said one African-American education advocate, who liked Quan but thought she had to go.

Meanwhile, local state Sen. Don Perata, a white Oakland power broker (whom black conspiracy theorists see as the mastermind of the long-rumored plan to take Oakland back from black people), saw Brown's political popularity, and floated a bill in the Legislature to have the state take over Oakland's failing schools and install the new mayor as trustee in order to force the departure of Quan. And that's when the Community and Clergy Coalition got involved -- just in time to weigh in on Brown's plan to oust Police Chief Samuels, too.

Community and Clergy Coalition leader Bazile says openly what some black leaders will only say privately: that black politicians in Oakland, who've tried to make sure top jobs go to blacks, have gotten rapped simply for doing what their predecessors did before them. "The Irish did it, the Jews did it, and it's only when African-Americans took over City Hall that you had liberals clamoring for 'good government,'" he says. That ignores the history of good government reform efforts going back to Tammany Hall, of course. But it is true that blacks inherited the cities when the coffers began to empty -- as the tax base declined, the middle class fled and black cronyism was more obvious, and harder to defend, than white cronyism had been.

When I argue that black kids in Oakland schools have been hurt the most by the notion that the dysfunctional school system is a jobs program, Bazile retorts: "Schools have always been a jobs program, run by the group in power. Again, it's historical, but people only want reform when it's African-Americans in charge." Add Don Perata to the list of Brown-backers who wanted to take over the schools, Bazile says, and the black community was duty-bound to fight back. Jerry Brown was starting to look like white mayors in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York who've moved to strengthen their control over the schools -- and in the case of Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley, have won, and watched the schools improve under their control.

"You had Perata wanting to turn the schools over to the state," says Bazile. "So we said: Why get the state involved?" Some of the city's black leaders were also upset that Brown was trying to oust Samuels and Quan without properly consulting them. "He made the leaders look like paper tigers, and they are paper tigers today," Bazile says with a chuckle. "But it was obligatory for us to circle the wagons around them."

But this time, their arguments didn't carry the day. In the end, Quan tearfully resigned, averting a state takeover, and George Musgrove was named acting superintendent, a sign that Brown had won the power struggle. But the mayor isn't through. Now he wants to change the city's charter again, to allow him to appoint a majority of the School Board. He's appointed an education commission, chaired by Ed Blakely, to "study" possible charter reforms, including the notion of a mayor-appointed School Board majority. And if Blakely and Brown didn't see eye to eye on every issue during the mayor's race, they're soul mates when it comes to education reform in Oakland.

"Jerry and I have one key thing in common, and that's that we're both over 60, and the future is now for us," says Blakely, whose involvement in Oakland school reform goes back 15 years and at least five superintendents. "We can't listen to excuses anymore. I know people in the district have a lot of fear, and their fears are legitimate in this case. We're going to settle for no less than a complete transformation of the schools." Blakely won't commit himself to Brown's plan to let the mayor appoint the School board majority, but says, "There will be changes in governance, I'm sure. The mayor will have a role." The commission promises to finish its work within three months.

School reform advocates are mostly positive about Brown's efforts to date. "Jerry's right: Change needs to happen faster," says Junious Williams, executive director of the Urban Strategies Council, which has spearheaded several past school-reform initiatives. "Too much process is bad strategy, and we've certainly studied the schools to death. But I worry about whether he actually understands how hard it is to change schools, raise test scores. Does he know how to change a whole district?"

"Nobody should underestimate the intelligence and connections of Jerry Brown," retorts Musgrove, his choice to lead the school district. "He knows the best minds of everybody in the country personally. He is an amazing person. Oakland is process crazy, and Jerry knows: You've gotta move. Now."

Back in his City Hall office, Jerry Brown is visibly excited by the dizzying pace of change in Oakland. "This is all much more interesting, much more engaging, than I remembered," he tells me. And critics -- myself included -- who said he wouldn't have the patience for the details of the job turned out to be wrong. He's got yesterday's crime statistics at his fingertips and rattles them off to me. "No murders -- homicide's down 41 percent over the same period of last year. Still a lot of car theft, though."

He wants to show me the city's new computerized crime-tracking equipment, but it's slow to boot up and we both lose patience. But while we're waiting, I ask about a rumor that he tried to recruit former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton to be Oakland's chief (a staple of the paranoia that Brown is turning into the Giuliani of the West). He scoffs. "No, but we brought him out here to talk to us. And he taught us a lot. You know the first thing he told us? You have to reduce police brutality." Giuliani fired Bratton, Brown points out, because they differed over community policing. He leaves unstated the implication that his critics' fears of Bratton shows their ignorance.

When I ask him how he's going to share the wealth with the city's still-large poverty population and bring jobs to the unemployed, he gets defensive. "Unemployment is only 5 or 6 percent in Oakland now. Jobs are going begging," he tells me. I respond that unemployment is much higher in black West and East Oakland, and the city's welfare population has dropped, but only half as much as San Francisco's. "That's interesting," he says. "I've never seen that statistic. I'd like to know more about that." But soon he's defensive again.

"You're coming at me from the left," he complains. I disagree, telling him I've thought in recent years he'd moved to my left -- he was the one with his radio show on rabble-rousing Pacifica station KPFA, I remind him, the one who ran for president in 1996 ranting against corporate power.

He softens, but doesn't quite smile. "Well, you want me to be talking about the things I talked about on KPFA: global trade, technology, class stratification. I can't affect any of that. All I can do is make Oakland a better place to live. And the attraction of capital, making the neighborhoods safe and friendly and improving the schools will do that. It will take us to much higher ground."

A little bit mollified, he returns unbidden to the racial complaints that dogged his early months in office. "There are many consequences to poverty and racial division. That's all real. I don't mean to say it isn't real. The resistance is still there. But I think people are ready to ask not 'Who is the police chief?' and 'What race is he?' but 'What is he doing?'"

And he may be right. (It also helped that the police chief Brown selected, Richard Word, is black, and popular with the East Oakland neighborhood where he was commander, and that blacks still hold almost every department-head post in the city.) Brown still has his black critics. "The word on the street is that Brown is surrounded by some elitist-wannabes who are isolating him from blacks and browns," says author Ishmael Reed, who supported Brown's candidacy and wrote and recited a poem at his inauguration. "I hope that 'elegant density' doesn't mean black and Hispanic removal."

But it may be that most of the black community is ready for Brown's brand of change. "We've been through 20 years of addressing the most hideous discrimination of the past by using the same methods the oppressor used to govern: cronyism, favoritism, corruption, the attitude of 'They got their piece, and I'm gonna get mine,'" says Musgrove, who is black. "A movement of good government for cities has swept the country, and all good mayors -- African-American, white, Latino -- are governing that way."

Maybe surprisingly, Bazile agrees. "I think black hegemony is not our concern anymore," he says. "We have talented individuals, and if they lose their job in Oakland, they'll find jobs elsewhere. The concern now has to be how many children will be left behind and become prison fodder. We want results, and the color of a person doesn't make any difference anymore.

"I ran against him, but maybe Jerry Brown is the perfect person for Oakland right now. Other mayors would bring a flashlight to our problems, and Jerry brings a spotlight. He's certainly got the mule's attention."

By Joan Walsh

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