Thursday, December 16, 2004

Moonbeam Shines Brightly

Ten years ago I was strolling down Broadway in Oakland, CA, when I crossed paths with one of the many street vagrants that inhabited the nooks and crannies of the rundown downtown area.

A man, sporting baggy pants, army jacket, high top Converse tennis shoes, and a week-old beard, stepped out of the shadows and caused me to alter my direction. Being a product of U.C. Berkeley, where street characters are the norm, I quickly categorized this man as a sixties drop-out and probable acid casualty, making his way to the food kitchen. If he had asked, I might have flipped him a quarter.

But there was an unexpected awareness in his eyes, and something vaguely familiar about him. Mentally replacing this man's face outside of his current dress, I realized that he was Jerry Brown, former Governor of California and Democratic Presidential candidate.

Fast forward to this past weekend, where I caught part of an interview with Brown who is now serving his second term as Oakland mayor, rationally and pragmatically discussing the insufficiency of relying on taxes and increased school budgets to raise test scores. He had bravely taken on the moribund Oakland education establishment (an oxymoron) with limited success, and he was speaking freely and honestly about the economic and sociological challenges to improving urban areas.

Regardless of how flakey many of Brown's public policies are, and how quirky his personal life (he lives communally with a group of civic activists), he has put himself on the front lines in the urban battle to improve people's lives. And he has done some good.

Test scores and overall incidents of crime have shown some improvement during his tenure, despite a major jump in homicides in '02 and '03. Anecdotally, the downtown area has been revitalized, the Fruitvale retail and low-income housing developments have been a success, and I have witnessed school and athletic field construction projects flourish like oases in a desert of urban blight.

Brown will run for state Attorney General at the end of this term, and he already is squawking about Roe vs. Wade, which is a shame. At the mayoral level, politicians are judged by real-world results, instead of the political posturing that is endemic at the state and national level. For characters like Brown, mayoral politics can bring out their best as they are forced to deal with the street in reality vs the abstract.

Now if he'd only decide to move a few miles west across the Bay. There's always trouble brewing there. . .