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As Oakland Mayor, He Has Embraced a Military Academy, Wooed Big Business and Fought Environmental Regs. And He Insists He's Just the Same Old Jerry Brown.

November 04, 2001|MARIA L. LA GANGA | TIMES SAN FRANCISCO BUREAU CHIEF

For one brief moment they are all there--every Jerry Brown we've had the pleasure of watching for the past quarter century, all the incarnations of a man who has alternately delighted and confounded, annoyed and enriched, angered and engaged the American public. Everyone from the Philosopher Prince to Mayor Fix-It, all on one small patch of cracked asphalt.

First the scene: a chilly Monday morning in West Oakland, on the scruffy grounds of a decommissioned Army base, now home to Brown's latest pet project, the Oakland Military Institute. Brown has turned out to review the troops, OMI's inaugural class, 170 or so cadets in uniforms that match but whose neatness levels dramatically do not. They are seventh-graders from mostly poor families fleeing Oakland's other public schools for Brown's grand experiment in discipline, education and incongruity.

On this, the very first day of class, the media are out in force. They're listening to National Guard sergeants drill 12- and 13-year-olds and dress down stragglers. They're listening to proud parents gush about Hope and the Future and the importance of a Good Education. But mostly, they've come to hear the man who opposed Operation Desert Storm explain the difference between military and militaristic, to hear Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, in the relatively carefree weeks before Sept. 11, impatiently describe how it is possible to oppose combat while embracing the discipline that leads to it.

"This is tradition, and it's a structure. It's part of this country and what the state is all about. And it's being made available by choice to those families and kids who want it," Brown says of his new charter school. "It's not engaging in foreign policy or going to a Gulf War or engaging in debates on 'Star Wars' or having army commandos. That's just something that some folks from Berkeley conjured up in their mind one evening a year or two ago."

Brown's black jacket is zipped high against the morning cold, its black-and-silver OMI patch bearing the school's cryptic Latin motto, one the cadets have a little trouble grasping: Age Quod Agis. What does the motto mean? he is asked. Brown slides out a small smile. Suddenly he is berBrown, a little bit of every Jerry he's ever been.

"It's from the seminary," he replies. "We used to use the motto Age Quod Agis. And it means to focus on what you're doing. It actually comes from a Roman playwright, Terence. That's where it derives from. And then I learned it in the Jesuits. And it also has a certain Buddhist ring to it, because it's focus and consciousness and attention. Do one thing at a time. And when you're studying, that's a very good idea. You might apply it by saying, 'Turn off the radio.' Or 'turn off the television.' And just do that which you're doing."

But you gave them the motto? he is pressed. "Yes. And also the black and silver, too. Like the Raiders," Oakland's professional football team.

The Buddhists, the Jesuits, the Romans, the Raiders, all in the space of a 10-second sound bite. It is a performance that only Edmund G. Brown Jr. could give, a performance that could happen only now, more than halfway through Brown's first term as mayor of California's eighth-largest city.

The 63-year-old with a face like a bird of prey--hawk nose, firm brow, sharp eyes and spare black plumage gone white at the temples--has left an indelible stamp on the city of Oakland after nearly three years at its helm. There were 10,000 new jobs by midsummer. Nearly 7,000 housing units are in the construction pipeline, mostly in a drab downtown that Brown wants to turn into some kind of Manhattan. Crime is mostly down--except for homicide. Pride is mostly up. The camera crews that once watched a two-term governor and three-time presidential candidate campaign for mayor (How the mighty have fallen! ) are back to watch a city rise up from the depths.

But Oakland's isn't the only evolution taking place on the low-rent side of the San Francisco Bay. As much as Brown has changed this city, being its mayor has changed him. The man who once derided government assistance to business as AFDC--"Aid to Financially Dependent Corporations"--now does his best to bring businesses to town. The man who chatted with political theorist Noam Chomsky about the "fabricated war on crime" walks into his City Hall office each day to review overnight crime stats and shows off a picture of his maternal grandfather, San Francisco Police Capt. Arthur Layne, in uniform. The man who brought the house down at the 1992 Democratic Convention with a denunciation of politics as we know it now speechifies about buying better bus shelters.

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