It’s rare these days that I find myself in agreement with Mayor Jerry Brown’s attorney general campaign consultant and spokesperson, who specializes in the kind of fighter pilot/attack dog responses you would expect from someone named Ace Smith. But when Mr. Smith calls it “pathetic and desperate” a recent threat by Republicans to file a lawsuit challenging Mr. Brown’s attorney general credentials, he’s right on target. This is a matter for the voters to decide, not the judges.
The chairmen of the Contra Costa and Yolo County Republican parties are saying that Mr. Brown “is ineligible to serve as attorney general, because he does not meet the minimum qualifications for the office as set forth in California law.” That opinion is based upon an obscure part of the law which reads that a California attorney general must have “been admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the state for a period of at least five years immediately preceding his election or appointment to such office.” Brown passed the bar in 1964, but went on inactive status, by his own choosing, for several years, reactivating his bar status three years ago.
In such overtly political cases, judges tend to rule in the direction their own particular political winds are blowing. A Superior Court judge once allowed State Senator Don Perata, for example, to sidestep the term limit laws and serve two-and-a-half terms in the State Senate—rather than the legally-limited one-and-a-half—because Mr. Perata voluntarily chose to stay away from Sacramento a couple of days into his first half-session and thus got to work late. Only in politics, it seems, are slackers directly rewarded for their slackerness. That being the case, I think that it is highly likely that a Superior Court judge take a brief, amused glance at the Republican County Chairs’ lawsuit and return the attorney general’s race back into the hands of the electorate, where it belongs.
State Senator Chuck Poochigian, Mr. Brown’s Republican opponent, could have made Mr. Brown’s overall fitness and temperament an issue in the attorney general’s race. Goodness knows, there’s enough material in Oakland on which to judge. Instead, Mr. Poochigian has narrowed the race to strict law-and-order, criticizing Mr. Brown because he once famously opposed the death penalty and because of Oakland’s soaring, virtually out-of-control crime problems. As to the death penalty, Mr. Brown says that, yes, he has his doubts, but will willingly follow the law, and that has settled that. On the issue of Oakland crime, predictably (at least, long-predicted in this column), Mr. Brown has sighed, rubbed his fingers knowingly across the back of his hand, and said it is Oakland, after all, and California voters—not expecting much out of Oakland—give understanding nods of agreement and grant Mr. Brown points for a good try in a hard spot.
All of that is bull, of course—the part about Mr. Brown having tried very hard to solve Oakland’s problems—but Mr. Poochigian is hampered by the laziness of the various state newspapers, which appear to have taken Mr. Brown at his word about Oakland without doing the requisite digging themselves.
In a recent Los Angeles Times articles, as one of many examples, staff reporter Eric Bailey praises Mr. Brown for fulfilling his 10K promise, notes that ‘condos are sprouting [in Oakland] and business capital is pouring into a city long in the shadow of glittery San Francisco across the bay,” points out that Mr. Brown has “embraced the Police Department” (not sure what that means, but Mr. Bailey seems to think it’s a good thing) and has been endorsed by the California Police Chiefs Association, and buys Mr. Brown’s apples-and-oranges comparison that “serious crime has fallen 30 percent [in Oakland] during his tenure compared to [Mr. Brown’s] predecessor.”
As his sole expression of dissent to all this Oakland success and prosperity, Mr. Bailey only says that the mayor has “irked some African American leaders who were bothered that he didn’t apply progressive tactics to boost job opportunities for troubled youths.”
There have been far more serious and articulate criticisms of Mr. Brown by African-American leaders in Oakland, as well as from various other segments of the Oakland community. The LA Times’ Mr. Bailey, however, has not seemed to be able to find them.
The Times is by no means by themselves. In an editorial endorsing Mr. Brown for attorney general, the lesser-known Los Angeles Daily News wrote that despite the fact that Mr. Brown opposes the death penalty, “what matters is not whether the attorney general supports every law in the state, but whether he has the integrity to enforce even the ones he doesn’t. No one seriously disputes Brown’s integrity. He has demonstrated it over the course of his political career.” Mr. Brown, the Daily News concludes, is “straightforward, honest, sensible, down-to-earth.”
That is surpassed only by the legal newspaper, The Recorder, where reporter Cheryl Miller tells us earlier this week “Brown runs his Oakland office with the smallest staff of any mayor that’s ever served the city, said former aide John Betterton … The mayor works long hours, … he said.” Ms. Miller did not come back with the obvious question to Mr. Betterton: “yes, but at what?”
There is an old joke about the woman who kept standing up and peering into the casket at a funeral to determine, she explained, whether or not the man they were burying was the same one the minister was praising from the pulpit. The fellow she remembered was distinctly less admirable. But the attorney general’s race not being a funeral but becoming more like a hero’s reception, flower garlands and all, perhaps that’s not appropriate.
In fact, the only California newspaper which seems to be taking a critical look at Mr. Brown’s actual Oakland record is, you guessed it, the Berkeley Daily Planet. We have that on the authority, not of our own observation, but of the Wall Street Journal.
In an October 14 interview with Mr. Brown, syndicated columnist Jill Stewart writes that “these days, just about the only newspaper regularly whacking [Mr. Brown] is the leftist Berkeley Daily Planet. In response, Ms. Stewart says that Mr. Brown “promptly slams the Daily Planet, saying the paper repeatedly and wrongly reported that he tried ‘to remove the black leadership of Oakland,’ and they have always quoted or used that description against me, that my efforts were a racist move! In order to try to get me! … The … guy who writes about me [at the Planet] is nothing! He’s nobody!”
Readers with a long memory or a good google may already know that the black leadership quotation actually came from the Wall Street Journal itself, an August, 1999 article in which WSJ staff reporter Peter Waldman wrote “In his  campaign for mayor, Mr. Brown … promised to dismantle the African-American-dominated political machine that presided over much of the city’s decline since the 1970s.”
And, actually, while I did later write about that remark, I didn’t call it a “racist move.” In fact, I said just the opposite.
In a July, 2005 column comparing Mr. Brown with former Congressmember Ron Dellums—who was then just beginning to consider a run for mayor of Oakland—I wrote that Mr. Brown “did ride the wave of underlying feeling in some areas of Oakland [in the late 90’s] that there had been enough of black rule.” I pointed out, however, that although Mr. Brown fired some prominent black staffmembers when he was first elected, he “retained some of the black presence within Oakland government that was there under Mayor Elihu Harris,” and that “it cannot be said that [Mr. Brown] swept Oakland’s decks clean of black faces.” While saying that Mr. Brown’s actions as Oakland mayor “have not been overtly anti-black, they have often strayed very close to the edge in their appeal to anti-black stereotypes,” my conclusion back in 2005 was that “Mr. Brown is not accused of being an anti-black racist, if by that term we mean someone who either hates black people, or thinks they are not his equal. (Mr. Brown probably thinks that few people are his equal, but that makes him arrogant and elitist, not racist, which is another thing altogether.)”
Our experience with Mr. Brown has been that when he has been unable to win a political argument on its merits, he simply alters what his critics or opponents actually said, argues forcefully and brilliantly against these manufactured statements, and walks away, triumphant. Thus saying he is not racist is turned into having said he is racist. This injudicious temperament of Mr. Brown’s (a tendency to alter facts to fit a pre-determined conclusion) is what Mr. Poochigian should have, but failed to, highlight to the voters as Mr. Brown’s chief lacking for a post that requires, well, judicious judgment.
Helped by a curious lack of curiosity by my journalistic colleagues, however, Mr. Brown more often than not gets away with these various transgressions, and appears poised to get away with them again, all the way through the November canvass. If so, we will revisit this issue a year or so from now, with a “Don’t Blame Oakland, Y’all; We Tried To Warn You” post-it reminder memo stuck on the side of the computer.