|Bay Window : The Celebrity and the City: Subject Biographies
Jerry Brown, Mayor of Oakland
Mayor Edmund G. Brown, Jr., known as Jerry, is the "celebrity," the well-known politician who has brought a media spotlight to the long-ignored city of Oakland. In the world of politics, "travelling with Jerry, it's like travelling with a rock star," according to Oakland City Manager Robert Bobb. "It's good for Oakland. It really is."
A son of privilege, Brown was born in San Francisco in 1938 to a political family and graduated from the city's St. Ignatius High School. His father, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, was a respected, liberal governor of California, serving two terms in office. Jerry Brown was elected governor in 1974 at the age of 36 and reelected in 1978 by the largest vote margin in California's history. Though his opponents mocked him as "Gov. Moonbeam," Brown was one of the state's most progressive governors, who pushed energy conservation and alternative sources of energy long before that was fashionable. Always a political maverick, Brown, a three-time presidential candidate, is widely known for his unconventional and forever-changing views, as well as his raspy voice and combative style. Not many politicians can claim to have once dated singer Linda Ronstadt, worked with Mother Teresa in India, studied Zen Buddhism in Japan and hosted a radical radio talk show in Berkeley. He has never married and has no children. Oakland voters elected him Mayor in a landslide in 1998. He is already running for reelection next year.
Robert Bobb, City Manager, Oakland
Hired by the City Council a year before Jerry Brown's election, Robert Bobb is a highly-paid, respected city management professional, whose previous job was running Richmond, Virginia. Born to a poor family in rural Louisiana, Bobb is Catholic, African American, a social conservative and a no-nonsense administrator, brought in as an outsider to shake up and transform Oakland's entrenched and lethargic city bureaucracy.
"I wasn't coming here to win a popularity contest," explains Bobb. "I declared the honeymoon was over, day one."
After voters changed the city charter in 1998 to give Mayor Brown more power, Bobb decided to stay—out of "curiosity," he saysand now he and Brown are an unlikely but effective pair of political powerbrokers, pushing the redevelopment and revitalization of Oakland. If Brown handles "the vision thing," Bobb is a problem-solver and a tough negotiator. "I think Jerry's smart enough to realize that he needed someone who would be here to grind it out, to make the mayor successful at the end of the day."
Dennis Chaconas, Superintendent, Oakland Unified School District
Born and raised in Oakland, Dennis Chaconas is a crusading educational reformer who has spent his professional life working to improve the public schools of Oakland and Alameda as a teacher, principal and superintendent. In 2000 he took over Oakland's notoriously troubled 54,000-student district just as state auditors filed a report giving the city's schools an "F" in nearly every category. He is convinced he can succeed in transforming a failed system. "If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't have taken this job," Chaconas stresses. "You need to be a missionary."
Chaconas has moved aggressively to reform the system, firing 55 of 90 school principals, recruiting new teachers and administrators, and opening five new schools. Chaconas and Brown are both educational reformers, but the Mayor publicly opposed the hiring of Chaconas, and they disagree sharply over the value of the Mayor's new military charter school. "He's not a big believer in the Oakland public schools," complains Chaconas.
John Protopappas, developer, Oakland
Oakland native, John Protopappas is president and CEO of Madison Park Real Estate Investment Trust, a $70-million company based in Oakland's landmark Tribune Tower, which Protopappas purchased in 1995 and saved from the wrecking ball. The developer is also a friend and advisor to Mayor Jerry Brown, serving as the treasurer of Brown's 1998 and current mayoral campaigns.
"He's fascinated with the problems of urban America," Protopappas says, "I think he sees solving the problems of the cities as the key to the future of the country."
Protopappas is a strong supporter of the Mayor's plan to redevelop downtown Oakland and attract 10,000 new residents, and he is currently developing a number of live/work lofts, including a renovation of the old Sears building on Telegraph Avenue. Brown appointed Protopappas to serve on the powerful 7-member commission that runs the Port of Oakland, but he insists it's not a conflict of interest because "I’ve chosen to keep away from any projects near the port."
Protopappas considers Jerry Brown to be a "national treasure" and declares that with Brown as Mayor and the city on the rebound, "It's cool now to be from Oakland."
Richard Word, Chief of Police, Oakland
Mayor Brown appointed Richard Word, a veteran Oakland police officer, chief of the department in 1999, promising to shake up the department and reduce crime by 20 percent. The mayor and the chief have succeeded, but are still trying to cope with a disturbingly high murder rate in East Oakland. "Way, way too many guns in the wrong hands," says Chief Word. "It's unfortunate, but a good percentage, probably 80 percent of our homicides are young African American menvictims and perpetrators."
Word is proud of the racial diversity of his 750-strong police force, which is 26 percent black and 18 percent Latino. But Word admits it's a young, relatively inexperienced force, and he would like another 200 officers on the job to end Oakland's reputation as a "violent, crime-ridden city."
As far as Oakland's current police brutality "Riders" case is concerned, Chief Word says he finds it "extremely disturbing" and he fired the four accused officers.
"There are hundreds of officers on the force that were disgusted by the acts [of the Riders]," Word says. "We have to learn from this."
Shannon Reeves, businessman and political activist, Oakland
Another son of Oakland, Shannon Reeves is president of the Oakland NAACP, a Republican, and someone who ran against Jerry Brown in the 1998 race for Mayor. But Shannon is a supporter of Brown's economic revitalization plans, as well as a champion of economic development in the African American community. The young entrepreneur convinced Chevron to let him and a friend purchase a run-down gas station in East Oakland and turn it around financially. "There was a time when Oakland was the hole in the doughnut, when the cake was rising all around, but we were just kind of stuck," recalls Reeves, "but we're moving now."
John Russo, City Attorney, Oakland
Brooklyn-born John Russo moved to Oakland in 1987, became active in community affairs and ran successfully for the City Council in 1995. He has long been an advocate of open government—helping to write the city's "sunshine law"and fiscal accountability, and was one of the early key players in reforming Oakland’s city government. Russo supports the Mayor's crackdown on crime, but he also considers himself a civil libertarian.
"Mussolini made the trains run on time. You can crack down on crime, but you don't want to violate people's civil rights."
Russo thinks Brown has been great for Oakland. "He opens doors. People want to meet Jerry Brown. He's a compelling figure."