A Bay Area Journalist's First-Hand Account Of How Mayor Jerry Brown Screwed Over Oakland On His Way To Sacramento



J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
UnderCurrents Column
Berkeley Daily Planet Newspaper
July 4, 2003

If you were anywhere near Oakland City Hall this week–or near a news broadcast, for that matter–it was impossible to miss the buzz around the abrupt firing of City Manager Robert Bobb, and the just-as-sudden, simultaneous resignation (supposedly for personal reasons) of Parks And Recreation Director Harry Edwards.

Except for those who believe that the two men left of their own accord, the questions being most asked by most people were:

Why did Mayor Brown fire the top-ranking official in his administration? Why now? And, what’s next?

Damned if I know.

Relying upon the mayor himself for an explanation only spreads the confusion. On Channel 2 Brown was saying that philosophical differences in the way the city needed to be run caused him to let Bobb go. An hour later, Channel 4 showed a clip from the same press conference, in which Brown said he was cutting staff to deal with the city’s budget shortfall.

Some people might accuse the mayor of disingenuousness in such contradictory statements–if not outright lying–but I’m not so sure. To be able to lie, one must have a spot somewhere in his brain where the actual truth is reposited. Because Brown seems to arrive at decisions in such a Byzantine way, it is entirely possible that he may have misplaced the actual reasons why he got rid of Bobb in the first place.

In such cases, Brown seems to be using his rambling conversations as a way to figure the thing out himself. He appears sometimes to talk until he comes up with a reason that sounds, well, reasonable both to himself and his listeners and, if he does not get the desired reaction, then he talks on until another reason comes to mind. In such a situation, truth, if it happens to occur at all, may be an unintended byproduct.

It is entirely possible that the mayor woke up one morning, four and a half years into his administration, and suddenly felt it necessary to surround himself with his own people. That’s where the “why now?” question is most appropriate. With the exception of Jacques Barzaghi, the mayor has appeared entirely uninterested in staffing City Hall with Brown loyalists. You can find an Ignacio De La Fuente contingent, a John Russo contingent and an (exceptionally large and influential) Don Perata contingent in city government. Bobb himself seems to have brought half his top staff with him when he came out from Virginia. But Jerry has seen fit to make do with borrowing close staff members from the city’s other power brokers.

City Councilmembers Larry Reid and Desley Brooks think they know the reason for the shakeup: noting that both Bobb and Edwards are black, Reid and Brooks cite racism. Reid was particularly incensed. “Jerry sees the African-American community as irrelevant and shows us disrespect,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. Which is probably true, though it is difficult to see how that makes Oakland’s African-American community substantially different from much of the rest of Oakland.

So is Jerry Brown an anti-black racist?

Well, certainly, the Mayor has taken advantage of anti-black racism. There was always that subliminal message in his original mayoral campaign of the white savior come to rescue poor Oakland from a corrupt and incompetent black political establishment. True, you can find no quotes of Brown saying that the goal in his first year as mayor was to break the back of black political power. However, when newspapers reported that assertion (“Jerry Brown shakes up Oakland’s black political establishment,” headline, Salon.com, June 1999, and, “Brown’s election in this birthplace of the Black Panthers has a further significance: it may signal the waning of Oakland’s counterproductive race politics. In voting for Brown, black Oaklanders decisively rejected a black political establishment they saw as arrogant and incompetent,” City Journal, autumn 1999), you can also find no quotes from Brown stating a belief that the use of the term “black” political establishment in such context might be inappropriate.

Does that mean that Brown believes that he, because he is a white man, is better than every black person on earth? No, I pretty much doubt he believes that.

If, on the other hand, you’re asking if Jerry Brown believes that because he was born Jerry Brown, he is on a higher plane than most other people on earth, I’d have to say that this is distinctly within the realm of possibility.

I’m not sure whether this is better or worse. Just different.

Anyway, back to the Bobb/Edwards thing.

As for Mr. Edwards, one can only wonder why it took so long for him to wear out his welcome. Edwards’ hiring came during Jerry Brown’s infamous search-to-find-well-known-and-well-qualified-African-Americans-to-put-in-positions-for-which-they-were-not-actually-qualified period. That was the period in which Brown recruited Maya Angelou and Angela Davis for Oakland’s head librarian position, presumably on the theory that one who has written a book must therefore know where to place them back on the shelf.

Edwards, with no known administrative experience and no stated work background in either parks or recreation, was picked as administrator of Oakland’s parks and recreation department. That he failed, miserably, is hardly a surprise. That he lasted three years while failing miserably is, at the very least, a tribute to a remarkable, long-running display of stubbornness and tenacity in the face of disaster ... either on Edwards’ part, or Brown’s, or both.

Bobb is another issue altogether. At the very least, he demonstrated that he was interested in actually running Oakland, which put him light years ahead of his boss. Who comes in as his replacement, and what marching orders that replacement gets from Jerry Brown, will go a long ways toward determining the real reasons for the mayor’s City Hall shakeup. Or, on the other hand, it might not.

With Jerry Brown, unfortunately, one never knows. Maybe not even Jerry Brown.