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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Brown's Town

Air Date: Week of

Why is Jerry Brown, a well-known national figure, taking a job as a mayor of a mid-sized city? Brown was recently sworn in as chief executive of Oakland, California. He says national politics in America has bottomed out. He argues that it's in cities like Oakland that America's democracy can be revived and solutions can be found to environmental crises. But he's long on rhetoric and short on details. Living On Earth’s Peter Thomson reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Jerry Brown was sworn in as Oakland, California's Chief Executive on January fourth, after already serving 2 terms as governor of that state and running for President 3 times. Skeptics suggest Mr. Brown might be more interested in reviving his political career than reviving that city. But Mr. Brown says that the best hope for restoring American political life and safeguarding its environment lies in its urban centers, and that Oakland can help lead the way. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson caught up with Mayor Brown in downtown Oakland.

(A radio blares rock music in the background)

BROWN: How are you doing?

MAN: Pretty good.

THOMSON: It's just past 8 in the morning, and before he can even start thinking about his new job Jerry Brown's got to find something for his nasty sore throat. Twenty years ago when he was Governor of California, he might have had to hunt around for a jasmine-scented health food collective. But today, he finds the herbal cure he needs at a national chain drug store, right in downtown Oakland. America has caught up to Jerry Brown, if only for a moment.

(Cellophane crinkles)

MAN: All 3 together, zinc, [inaudible] and Echinacea. You know, it's just like a candy, you can suck on it.

BROWN: All right. Thank you very much.

MAN: Good luck. Thank you.

THOMSON: The new mayor pops a couple of herbal lozenges in his mouth and heads for the door, ready to talk, impatient to get on with his day. He's got a city to tend to.

(Rock music continues; fade to car engine running)

BROWN: So okay, so this is a very lively part of Oakland. It's filled up with people, as you can see. You look all the way down, you see the Federal Building. I think it's an example of resurgent Oakland.

(Traffic sounds)

BROWN: Oakland had a fire, had an earthquake, suffered the ill effects of the recession and all of that really set Oakland back. But we're definitely on the move, now.

THOMSON: In this new incarnation, Jerry Brown is sounding like an old- fashioned civic booster. It's a bit of a shock, really, coming from a guy who's long thumbed his nose at politics as usual. In his 2 terms as Governor of California 20 years ago, his unconventional ideas earned him the derisive nick-name Governor Moonbeam. Later, he studied Buddhism. He ran a grassroots campaign for President in which he refused contributions over $100. And he hosted a high-brow radio talk show, featuring leading intellectuals and progressive activists. The common thread has always been a focus on the power of big ideas rather than the practicalities of everyday life. But now, as mayor of a city which has seen better days, he's vowing to focus on just those kinds of practicalities. Jerry Brown is promising 3 things to the citizens of Oakland.

BROWN: Dramatic reduction in crime. The creation of both charter schools and site-managed schools within the larger system. We want to see some academic improvement of substantial proportion. And then we have to have every neighborhood a safe place in which people will feel comfortable in living and having their children walk to school, and go to the school.

(A man calls over)

HALIB: How goes it, Brown?

BROWN: How are you?

HALIB: How are you?

BROWN: I'm fine. How are you?

HALIB: Good. My name is Halib. I own Take Five.

BROWN: What kind of a shop is that?

HALIB: Snack shop. Welcome to Oakland.

BROWN: Thank you.

HALIB: Yes, sir.

BROWN: Appreciate it.

THOMSON: Business people and regular folks are eager to introduce themselves to their new mayor, as they would be in any city. But there's an unusual sense of anticipation here. Jerry Brown trounced 10 other candidates in last year's election. Voters also approved a plan that Brown sponsored to vastly expand the mayor's powers. Oakland residents seem to have tremendous faith in their new mayor.

WOMAN: Hello. Congratulations.

BROWN: Hi, how are you?

WOMAN: Glad you're the mayor.

BROWN: Thank you.

WOMAN: You can clean up this city.

BROWN: Think it needs that?

WOMAN: Yeah, it does. 'Cause I'm scared to walk at night and I was born and raised here.

BROWN: Well, we're definitely going to do something about it.

WOMAN: I get to tell all the kids at the school I work at I shook your hand.

BROWN: What school?

WOMAN: I work at first...

THOMSON: At times, when talking to his constituents, Jerry Brown's restless mind slows down a bit, and his gruff demeanor softens. Along with his interest in big ideas, he's always had more than a touch of the populist in him.

WOMAN: Okay. Bye bye.

BROWN: Take it easy.

THOMSON: Still, some people outside the city have questioned his motives and his sincerity in Oakland. Where some see a dynamic and unconventional leader, others see a man who craved the spotlight desperately trying to keep from being yesterday's news. But if there's a hint of truth to that view, Mayor Brown doesn't let on.

(Various street sounds)

THOMSON: (To Brown) Now, you've been Governor of California, elected twice. You've run for President. You're a person with national stature, national ambitions, global ambitions in some senses. Why do you want to come back and be mayor of a relatively small city?

BROWN: In America today politics are dead. The two major parties are corrupt. The President is being impeached for perjury and abuse of power and all the rest of it. His accusers are highly partisan and lack credibility themselves. This overall political system is in a crisis stage. Yet in a city and in the city of Oakland in particular, there's still a vibrant, Democratic culture. There's room for conversation, for initiative, for local power. And that's what interests me, because I think out of these cities, out of the heartland of America, the democracy has to be saved and brought back.

THOMSON: But Jerry Brown can only help save democracy if he can also save his own city. And you don't have to walk far from the new downtown plaza to see some of what's broken here. We head up Broadway, in the shadow of imposing stone office buildings from the city's heyday, to the corner of another of the city's main boulevards, Telegraph Avenue. Where we stop to talk about Mayor Brown's vision for Oakland and how he's going to make it happen.

(To Brown:) Tell me about this part of downtown, looking to the north. What's going on there?

BROWN: Okay. Well, what you see here is you see The House of Wigs, you see a closed jewelry store. There's a loan shop. Then you see the beautiful remains of the Fox Theater. Down a few more blocks you see the Sears Department Store, which is the only one in Oakland. This is the part that definitely has to be brought back. And we already have plans for an entertainment district here, for several thousand units of housing, market rate, and that's really my vision for the city. As you see, right now, you know maybe there's a thousand people in the blocks that we've just walked. Well, we need tens of thousands of people.

THOMSON: And how are you going to attract those people to the city? You've got to do some real practical things. You've got to work with property owners, business people.

BROWN: You know, it's just happening because of the market. All you have to do is banish the bureaucracy and make sure that the policy of people living has an equally high priority to the use of buildings for work. Two thirds of the people who work in Oakland don't live here. So what we're missing, now, is the appropriate housing, and I want to see that housing downtown. What I would call the elegant density that we find in a great city.

(Street sounds continue)

THOMSON: But density is exactly the opposite of the trend of the last 50 years. People want space.

BROWN: Okay, the game plan now is to move out further and further into the greenbelt, the prime agricultural land, to pave it over with cement, for a very simple reason. The land's cheaper, it's safer, and the schools are better. We have to fold all that up and bring people back into the city by reducing crime, improving schools, and making this whole thing work right. Certainly, the national decision is not to go there yet. The national decision is still sprawl, fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gases, global warming, mounting social inequality. Now here in Oakland, which is a city of just about 400,000 people, we can deal with these issues on the micro level, and perhaps that will operate as an example.

THOMSON: Even in trying to take care of the small things that make a city work, Jerry Brown is still putting his faith in the power of big ideas. That faith served him well as Governor, when he was re-elected to his second term with the largest vote margin in California history. And it's made him the most popular guy in Oakland these days. But his popularity could crumble if the changes he's promised don't start happening. Perhaps more than any other job in politics, to succeed as mayor you've got to deliver the goods. Mayor Brown understands that. After his election, he said the real victory would come only when Oakland residents could take the bars off their doors and windows. Still, he doesn't seem to be sweating the details when it comes to making his city work.

BROWN: How did Jack Kennedy put a rocket ship on the moon? Not by getting down there and turning bolts, but by setting a goal and encouraging people and making the right kinds of appropriations to get the job done. You have to demand of the people that are hired to get the job done that they do it, and if they don't do it, find new people to carry it out.

(More traffic and street sounds)

WOMAN: I want to thank you for doing what you have for Oakland. I had to move over here from San Francisco because I could no longer afford it. It's like you've brought a kind of good spirit over here. Thanks for being a good person ... (trails off)

BROWN: So there, you see, they're already moving in. They're coming.

(More traffic and street sounds)

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in Oakland.



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