Grading the Mayor
By Jeff Swenerton
When Jerry Brown was elected Mayor of Oakland in June 1998, it was the latest scene in one of California’s longest-running political acts. The son of former Gov. Pat Brown, he has been in California politics since elected secretary of state at 32. He has never strayed long from politics, though he hasn’t always won—he lost three runs for president and one for U.S. Senate. Brown has also been chairman of California’s Democratic Party, governor of California, mayor of Oakland and, now, California’s attorney general.
When he was elected mayor, Brown had only lived in Oakland for four years, but he settled in quickly. After firing four department heads in as many months, he outlined a series of broad goals (available on the mayor’s Web site, www.oaklandnet.com/government/mayor/mayorhp.cfm) meant to address the city’s most pressing problems—the crime rate (which was improving but still largely uncontained), poorly performing schools, a downtown with few residents that became a dangerously empty after-hours vacuum and a largely underground arts scene that had the potential to play a vital role in ushering in Oakland’s cultural renaissance.
After eight years as mayor, how has Brown done on fulfilling his goals?
CrimeThe Goal: “To reorganize the Police Department and formulate a crime-reduction strategy based on geographic accountability. The objectives include significant reduction in the incidence of both property crimes and crimes of violence, increased recruitment of Oakland residents as police officers and the forging of close ties between the officers and the people of Oakland.”
The Result: Any statistician can tell you that a number can only mean one thing—unless it means something else. And in Oakland, it seems, no number is asked to work harder than a crime statistic. This can be a tough town, and the crime rate is troubling, especially with inexplicable and regular spikes in violent crimes, but there are many different types and degrees of crime. The 2006 murder count surpassed 2005’s by August, but crime statistics from the past 50 years show that year-to-year homicide increases or decreases of 25 percent or more aren’t uncommon.
The mayor claims on his Web site, “crime dropped by 30 percent” during his tenure, but he’s a heavy-handed rounder—the incidence of the most serious crimes dropped 26.7 percent in his first seven years. But he also took over at a time when the violent-crime rate was already heading down from its 35-year peak during 1988 to 1993. When Brown was inaugurated, the murder rate was already down more than 50 percent, instances of rape had been reduced by 40 percent and there were 43 percent fewer robberies.
Brown announced nearly 20 different initiatives aimed at reducing crime while mayor, but he had to be creative about doing more with less. Part of Brown’s strategy was to hire more police officers, and with the passage of Measure Y in 2004—a parcel tax earmarked for this purpose—money was no longer a problem. But competition for cops nationwide is high, and fewer than 5 percent of the few applicants who apply pass the background check and physical. Salaries are high, rising to nearly $90,000 after three years, but officers are still required to live in the city, and housing prices still haven’t fallen. George White, a graphic designer who lives on High St. near Mills College, says, “It’s a shame I have to pay half a million dollars to live here and still need to look over my shoulder all the time. I appreciate that Oakland is bringing on more cops, but until then, crime will continue to happen. Hopefully power in numbers will turn things around.”
The Grade: C
SchoolsThe Goal: “To create an effective working relationship with Oakland’s schools and support the establishment of charter schools. The objectives include measurable improvement in public school performance, creation of a context where learning is truly valued and widespread involvement of Oakland citizens in the work of ensuring genuine opportunity for every student.”
The Result: One of the first phone calls Jerry Brown made when he took office was to Don Shalvey, a former school superintendent in San Carlos and the man some call the father of charter schools in California. He opened the first one in the state in 1998, and then founded Aspire Public Schools, a nonprofit company that launches and manages charter schools. He explained how charter schools work, and the mayor was sold. But Shalvey doesn’t believe that public schools have to be shortchanged in favor of charters. “My sense is that he’s entrepreneurial, but I don’t think it was an either/or strategy,” Shalvey says. “I think he really believes in mild competition. He really saw charters as a way of doing the innovation that it’s difficult to do inside a typical school system.”
Oakland has been opening charter schools at a fantastic pace—28 schools in the last eight years. Brown even opened two of his own. And charters have been doing well. Monarch Academy, Shalvey’s first school in Oakland, started with an Academic Performance Index (or API, a standard measure of how schools compare) score of 466 in the year 2000 and is now up 247 points, exceeding the state’s goal of a 36-point increase in the same period. The American Indian Public Charter School, a middle school opened in 1996, has more than doubled its API score since 2001 and was recently named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Secretary of Education, the first public Oakland school to earn the award.
But in a region that is losing families to the suburbs, overcrowding is not often a problem, and every student lost to charter schools is nearly $8,000 a year the public schools won’t get back. Oakland Unified School District schools have often been criticized in the past for poor performance on the API. But 2006 saw the scores of Oakland’s 132 schools rise 3 percent, a better improvement than any other large school district in the state. “The latest test results show a continued upward trend,” says Kimberly Statham, the OUSD’s state administrator.
The district has far to go, though—its API score of 653 is far below the state average of 720, and even farther below the goal of 800. But not everyone believes charter schools are a better alternative, and they were buoyed recently by a national study that said public school fourth graders read better than their counterparts in charter schools. The debate that Brown started eight years ago is far from resolved.
The Grade: B
10K InitiativeThe Goal: “To mobilize the resources of city government to attract 10,000 people to live within the downtown area. The objectives include lively streets, increased shopping and new places for people to meet and share the excitement of urban living. Parallel efforts will be made to revitalize neighborhood shopping districts.”
The Result: The logic of adding more residents to Oakland’s downtown was clear to most. Adding residents brings a bigger property tax base for the city, and more residents mean more restaurants, bars and theaters, boosting nightlife while reducing the crime rate. But could it be done? The 10,000 residents works out to roughly 6,000 new units, in the area bounded by 27th Street, the Bay, Interstate 980 and Lake Merritt.
The plan involved first using redevelopment land, which is governed by different rules and allows the city to keep more of the property taxes. The city’s Community and Economic Development Agency, which functions as (among other duties) the planning and redevelopment departments, issued requests for proposals from developers for three initial parcels, all of which are now completed. The second phase was heavy on marketing, with brochures, maps, and lobbying aimed at luring housing developers to Oakland to build on available parcels. Planners had identified plots of “underutilized” land—that is, when the buildings are worth less than the land itself and the owners might be keen to sell—and they passed this on to developers. Patrick Lane, the redevelopment manager for West Oakland and 10K Initiative point person, explains, “We were saying ‘here are the sites that are undeveloped ... get them to sell to you and build on it.’ Anyone who had significant pieces of property that we could build on, we talked to them early on.”
If all the projects in the planning stage are built, Oakland will have room for nearly 17,000 residents. For now, 35 percent of the projects have been built, 40 percent are under construction but some of the rest may fall victim to the slowing housing market. If prices fall, Lane believes several of the planned high-rises might balk. But the momentum has started, and before long, downtown will be the place thousands of new residents call home.
The Grade: A
Jerry Brown has never been accused of being wistful, but his term as mayor might cause him some moments of fond reflection. The face of Oakland is changed for good, by his design. During his 1980 presidential campaign, he reportedly ran on the slogan, “Protect the Earth, Serve the People and Explore the Universe.” It sounds like he might have only one more to go.