OAKLAND — Has the Moonbeam become a laser ray?
According to aides at Oakland City Hall, Mayor Jerry Brown -- the former California governor whose dreamy political visions earned him the nickname "Gov. Moonbeam" -- suddenly has become focused on this troubled city's affairs as never before.
Brown recently fired Oakland's popular city manager, with whom he had feuded over a proposed downtown baseball stadium. Last week he dismissed two senior planning officials and announced that more heads would roll in Oakland's "top-heavy" bureaucracy.
"I'm definitely flattening the organization chart," Brown said almost gleefully in a hallway interview. "There's 4,000 employees here. It's not a perfectly oiled machine with no redundant parts ... that I promise you."
In an effort to "simplify" his own life, the maverick scion of a California political dynasty also recently moved out of his 17,500-square-foot "We the People" communal loft, where he had lived for eight years with a revolving set of roommates that included a recovering drug addict, a philosopher and a pistol-packing, French-speaking confidant/bodyguard and a dog named Dharma. His new digs, "one-tenth the size," are in a converted Sears Roebuck outlet on Telegraph Avenue.
All the signs are there that the 65-year-old Brown, the master of political reinvention who once recovered from a failed presidential bid by traveling to the slums of Calcutta to serve under Mother Teresa, is morphing again. The new Brown is an aggressive, hands-on, budget-slicing city leader with renewed statewide political ambitions.
"He is really digging into details in a way that only Jerry Brown can do it," said Anne Campbell, his chief of staff.
Press attache T.T. Nhu said, "He is finally asserting himself as a strong mayor."
Last week, for the first time in five years as mayor, Brown participated in City Council committee meetings, getting mixed reviews from participants startled to find hizzoner in attendance and holding forth.
"He was nonresponsive, he's off-point, he doesn't understand the program," one baffled participant told a reporter for the Oakland Tribune. "It's like talking about a novel you haven't read."
Countered Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, normally a strong critic of Brown: "I found it refreshing, having him at committee meetings for the first time. I thought he made some astute observations."
Meanwhile, Brown's firing of longtime City Manager Robert Bobb and the promise of more dismissals to come, have produced an atmosphere of fear in city offices. City Atty. John Russo, usually a Brown ally, described the mayor's abrupt personnel actions as whimsical and compared them with an 8-year-old boy's shaking an ant farm just "to see what happens."
Critics scold Brown for firing experienced city officials while keeping his longtime political advisor and former loft-mate, Jacques Barzaghi, on the payroll as his assistant at a salary of $89,500. Barzaghi, a stylish, multi-tattooed former member of the French Foreign Legion who acts sometimes as Brown's armed bodyguard, used to make $126,000 a year as director of the city's Craft and Cultural Affairs Department. His salary was reduced recently, however, after the city agreed to a $50,000 settlement in a sexual harassment case involving Barzaghi and a female city staff member.
Other longtime Brown watchers see other possible motives for the mayor's revived attentiveness to city affairs. "I think he's preparing another run for statewide office -- maybe attorney general," said an Oakland attorney and school board member, Dan Siegel.
Brown, whose extensive political career has included stints as a member of the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, California secretary of state, state Democratic Party chairman and three-time candidate for the U.S. presidency, confirmed that he has his sights on the job as the state's chief legal official. The position, like the governorship, was held previously by his father, the late Pat Brown.
"Sure, I'm looking at the attorney general," Brown said, standing outside City Hall near his black Lincoln Town Car. "I'm a lawyer and I enjoy the practice of law. I know a lot about state agencies. I've been involved in crime fighting."
As a candidate for attorney general, Brown would almost certainly be engaging and controversial.
As mayor of a city with a chronic crime problem, Brown recently has become an outspoken critic of the state criminal justice system, which he says demands that cities do the job that prisons fail to do: take hardened criminals and turn them into productive citizens.
The problem of criminal recidivism is especially acute in Oakland. According to state Department of Justice statistics, about one of every 14 adult males in Oakland is on parole or probation.
"It's a treadmill; it's a merry-go-round; it's a scandal," Brown told a recent meeting of the Little Hoover Commission in Sacramento. California prisons, Brown charged angrily, are nothing but "postgraduate schools of crime."