OAKLAND — Twenty years ago, when his promise burned bright and the future seemed boundless, Jerry Brown preached lowered expectations to a captivated California and famously forecast an era of limits. For Brown, at least, that prophesy may have finally come to pass.
From a glassed-in booth here in Oakland, the ex-governor has continued the exhortatory mission of his flame-throwing 1992 presidential campaign, railing against the venal, shortsighted and stupid--as he sees them--five days a week through the megaphone of talk-radio.
Now, in a lifetime full of unexpected turns, Brown is contemplating a move almost as startling as any in his idiosyncratic career: a run for Oakland mayor. The election is more than a year off and the former governor stubbornly refuses to discuss his intentions. "There is no campaign," he insists. "It's all a media invention."
But political pros see all the stirrings, from Brown's heightened profile on city issues to his stepped-up appearances before community groups to the "green plan for Oakland" now being drafted by acolytes of his political group based here, We the People.
"He's walking like a duck and talking like a duck. Whether he's a duck or not, I don't know," said one civic leader. "But he's certainly showing all the signs of duckdom."
And so Brown has come to live the words he once spoke, having failed in three increasingly feeble tries for the White House. Today, he jousts with the macro-problems of the world while contemplating power at the micro-level. Save the city, save the planet, says We the People's recruitment manifesto.
"From Jerry Brown's point of view it makes perfect sense," said J. Anthony Kline, a longtime friend and confidant who has discussed the race with Brown. "For the last several years he's been advancing the . . . idea that all politics is local. Oakland provides the ideal vehicle to address what are really the most important domestic issues of our time."
Fueling talk of a potential candidacy, Brown has injected himself into battles over the city's campaign finance law--with the candidate of $100 limits favoring tougher restrictions--opposed plans to ship hospital patients to neighboring Emeryville and protested a newspaper's firing of its Asian American columnist.
To fight a proposed bay-front development, Brown used his radio pulpit to summon followers to City Hall. He has also lobbied for a seat on the Port Commission, a move rejected by Mayor Elihu Harris because of the possible political overtones. Harris, who is serving his second term, is widely expected to create an opening by stepping aside next year.
Brown, 59, who grew up in San Francisco, entrenched himself in Oakland not long after his failed 1992 presidential bid. He sold his home in San Francisco's ritzy Pacific Heights and moved decidedly down market to Oakland's Jack London Square.
There, amid the thrum of the city's working waterfront, Brown constructed a sort of live-in town hall, combining communal eating-and-sleeping quarters with a broadcast studio and 500-seat auditorium. A regular We the People lecture series has covered topics from midwifery to monasticism, and the center hosts regular sessions of Zen and tai chi.
Where Brown portrays all this as an effort to "strengthen the bonds of community and friendship," others see a ready-made political operation. The question is whether Brown will risk his last shred of credibility on a small-time contest that presents no certainty of success. "He knows he can't lose another race," said one old friend. "I don't think there's any more embarrassment that Jerry's going to endure."
Oakland, to the everlasting frustration of boosters, is a city largely defined by what it is not. This other city by the bay is more way station than destination, a transshipment point for upwardly mobile people and oversized egos, for outward bound products and grandiose schemes.
Neither pretentious nor prettified, it is no smug civic boutique. Rather, Oakland is a striving and struggling urban core, with a booming port, affluent hillside enclaves, and vast stretches of impoverished lowlands aching and isolated amid the Bay Area's sea of plenty.
Contrasting the two neighbors, campaign strategist Larry Tramutola offers what could be Oakland's unofficial civic motto: "San Francisco tends to attract people who think of themselves or the city as bigger than what it is. Oakland just is what it is."
And yet humble Oakland succeeds in a way other, more elegant places might envy. It is one of the most thoroughly integrated cities in America, according to census data, and a place where people of different races and cultures get along remarkably well.
The city experienced its white flight decades ago, and the large number of whites who stayed remain precisely because they cherish Oakland's diversity, a word enshrined in the idealized mission statement hanging at City Hall.