Governor Moonbeam is back in business

Jerry Brown tells Andrew Gumbel about his plans to create a 'centre of ideas and culture' among the potholes of post-industrial Oakland
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The Independent Online
WHEN Jerry Brown first announced he would run for mayor of Oakland earlier this year, his own mother thought he was crazy. And she should know.

Not only was Bernice Brown deeply familiar with her son's long rite of passage from political wunderkind to quintessential whacko liberal, she had lived and breathed Californian politics for half a century - as the wife of two-term governor Pat Brown as well the mother of two highly political children.

Jerry Brown was himself governor of California for eight years, went soul-searching in India for a bit, care of Mother Teresa, ran the state Democratic Party machine until he became disgusted by it and launched two colourful, if abortive bids for the presidency. Why would anyone who had strutted the national political stage turn his attention, aged 60, to potholes and neighbourhood crime watches in Oakland, San Francisco's ugly sister across the Bay?

He got asked that a lot in the campaign and his answer was that he saw the place as a crucible in which to reinvent popular democracy in an age of cynicism and political corruption. Not your average small-town pitch, perhaps, but enough to get him elected.

Now, with office a looming reality - he takes over in January - his sense of mission remains unwavering. "Nobody says I'm crazy any more. People are taking this job very seriously," he insists in an interview at his headquarters, a vast open-plan office-cum-commune-cum-macrobiotic kitchen in a ware- house-like structure near the docks in central Oakland.

"Politicians in this country are no longer dealing with daily life. Fighting crime, cutting off welfare, waging anti-terrorism campaigns, promoting Nafta and Gatt - this is the liberal agenda embodied by Bill Clinton," he says.

"We are living in a society of institutionalised dependency and control, where the only values are entrepreneurialism and the magic of the market. People's lives are taken over by jobs which they don't particularly like, and patterns of consumption which merely make them work harder and harder."

All of which sounds very fine in theory - Mr Brown is fond of theory, peppering his conversation with quotes from everyone from John Stuart Mill to Jean Baudrillard - but where does that leave the day-to-day concerns of Oakland, with its depressed post-industrial workforce, vacant city lots and crime rate? "I want to create a centre of ideas, of exchange of art and culture," he says. "The city is where life shows up, it doesn't have to be about potholes."

To be fair, Mr Brown is better than he sounds at engaging with specific issues. In a meeting last week with union representatives, he gave a cogent, if suitably quirky, vision of crime prevention through greater community policing, of promotion of the arts through a little creative rearrangement of municipal facilities (kicking the police and the city jail out into the suburbs and replacing them with some thumping good song and dance) and of an end to corrupt and wasteful city management.

His first fight in Oakland will be charter reform - or Measure X, as he likes to call it - to extend his own powers as mayor both to get things done and also streamline the chain of responsibility, so the city is no longer run by an unelected and largely unaccountable city manager. The outgoing mayor, Elihu Wilson, has a sign on his desk reading "THE BUCK DOES NOT STOP HERE" - a situation Mr Brown is determined to reverse.

When it comes to this sort of purely political issue, Mr Brown is highly convincing. But there remains the nagging suspicion that he finds it hard to concentrate on the nitty-gritty. He is so concerned with searching for the broader theme he sometimes loses the point altogether.

When asked for his opinion on bilingual education, which California has just voted to abolish, despite fierce opposition from the Oakland school district, it turned out he didn't have one. "I leave all that up to the teachers to decide," he said. When asked how he would approach the issue of race as a white mayor in a predominantly non-white city, he replied: "We have to get beyond race and ethnicity and create a politics of being." This might sound fine in a seminar up the road at Berkeley, but probably won't help him appreciate the precarious balance of mutually suspicious blacks, Hispanics and Asians on his doorstep.

While it is an open question whether Jerry Brown will be good for Oakland, one could argue that he will be good for America, if only as an eccentric counterblast to the prevailing political wind. As he points out himself, no other politician is so quick to denounce the essential rottenness of the system, of the dependency on campaign contributions, of the over-reliance on polls and focus groups, of public policy determined by narrow personal ambition and the power of industrial lobbies.

When he ran for mayor, he limited campaign contributions to $100 (pounds 60) a head and built support through grassroots meetings in people's homes - as well, of course, as relying on his own celebrity. That in itself deserves to be applauded in an era where political candidates can spend tens of millions of dollars on television advertising without making a single public speech.

The problem is whether anyone will sit up and take notice. When Mr Brown's brand of Sixties radicalism wore off with the advent of the Reagan era, they called him Governor Moonbeam and wrote him off as a joke. Now, with radicalism once again out of favour in the age of Clinton and Blair, he wants to change the world from Oakland, California. It's hard to know whether to laugh or cheer.