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In His Own Image : Elihu Harris Vows to Improve Perceptions--and Reality--of Life in Oakland


OAKLAND — At the end of a long meeting and an even longer day, Elihu Harris looks around the table at a Chinese restaurant. The man who will be mayor of Oakland for the next four years asks a question that none of the experts who have been talking about the drug crisis can answer.

"Politics is perception," Harris says, referring to that most difficult of problems in his city. "How do you get people to think that things are getting better?"

Harris wants a way to measure the success of drug treatment centers and educational efforts. Experts say it's hard to judge success in this field. If that's the case, the mayor-elect replies, it might be hard to get money to continue old programs.

Image and perception are important to Harris these days. In his view, they are the keys to success in a city long dismissed as a distant blue-collar cousin of the urbane and charming San Francisco. Or scorned as an industrial city turned to rust, or a place where drug dealers and criminals run amok.

"Part of it is racism," the former state assemblyman says of the city's image problem. Roughly two-thirds of Oakland's 360,000 residents are minorities. Because of that, Harris says, people assume the city must be in trouble.

"We've got problems, and we're going to deal with them. We're not going to sweep them under the rug," he says. Then, quickly, he adds that Oakland's reality is not as bad as its reputation.

First, Harris intends to convince the people of his city. Then he'll start working on the rest of the world.

Harris, 43, talks in rapid bursts. He's quick-witted, a fast thinker. He also gets impatient and has a short fuse.

He looked so young when he arrived in Sacramento in 1979 as Oakland's assemblyman that some Capitol hands assumed he was a legislative aide. But he made himself known. He launched into tirades at hearings. From the Assembly floor, he called a fellow assemblyman a racist.

Harris left a safe Democratic Assembly seat after 12 years to run for mayor. Raising and spending $1 million, five times his closest rival, he trounced Mayor Lionel Wilson, 76, who had been in office since 1977, in the primary. Then he defeated Councilman Wilson Riles Jr. in the November runoff for the $80,000-a-year job.

"People didn't know whether to offer congratulations or condolences," Harris quips.

When he's sworn in Monday, Harris will take over a city that doesn't have City Hall for him to occupy. The 1914 landmark has been shut since the Loma Prieta earthquake in October, 1989. The building needs repairs of $90 million or so. Whatever the amount, the city doesn't have it. So Harris will move into rented offices, like the rest of the city work force.

But that may be the least of his problems. The number of murders in Oakland reached a record of 161 in 1990, breaking the previous mark of 148 the year before. Infant mortality among poor blacks hovers at near 20 per 1,000 births, more than twice the rate of non-blacks. At two of Oakland's high schools, more than 95% of the students come from families on welfare; more than half the 50,000 students in Oakland schools score below the 50th percentile in standardized tests. And since 1978, at least 27 after-school recreation programs have been shut for lack of public money.

Readying himself for office, Harris has met with department heads, civic leaders, activists, advocates and experts of all kinds. He has proposed a health department for Oakland--usually the county runs such an agency--as well as a homeless commission. And he has confronted all the issues of urban America: homelessness, drugs, poor health care, schools that don't make the grade, an intractable city bureaucracy, the difficulty of getting banks to finance inner-city projects.

By nightfall on one of those days last month, and with one meeting left to go, he was in some kind of mood. Why he did he enter politics?


Harris tells of an old-time legislator in Sacramento who defined happiness as a function of distance. If you were 80 miles from your constituents, you weren't nearly as happy as if you were 500 miles, or 3,000 miles, from the folks back home and their many problems.

If that is the case, Harris faces a lot of unhappy days.

As he walks through downtown Oakland, people nod and greet him. Only a few months back, few would have recognized him. Name and face recognition of an assemblyman is nothing compared to that of a mayor.

"When you are the mayor, you are there. You can't hide," Harris says.

"Oakland is a microcosm," he says. The problems are the same as in any other big city. The difference, Harris says, is that Oakland is relatively small, so problems aren't so big that they can't be solved:

"It is one-tenth the size of L.A. L.A. is so big that you start wondering whether you get a handle on the problem, much less a handle on the solution. Here, people can access the mayor."

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