California's Jerry Brown, age 68 and ageless, is running for statewide office this year, 36 years after he did it the first time, and the question you have to ask is, Why doesn't he give it up? It's Thursday morning, and Brown, mayor of Oakland, is standing in incandescent sunshine outside the renovated Sears store he calls home. Not much is going smoothly this morning: the city had its 50th murder the night before, adding to a huge spike above 2005; his opponent in the race for California attorney general has just called him soft on crime; one of the two charter schools he helped start is in need of cash; and now Fox television wants him to go on camera as a commentator and defend a new text-messaging service being marketed to teens that offers information on sex. "I am a little stressed today," he says.
But asking Edmund Brown Jr. to give up politics is a little like asking the Rolling Stones to quit rock 'n' roll. It's just what they do. Brown is a rock star himself. The son of a storied California Governor and a veteran of nearly four years in a Jesuit seminary, he ran for California secretary of state at 32, was on the cover of TIME by 36, served two terms as California Governor, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate once and for President three times, moved to Japan, studied Buddhism, worked with Mother Teresa and was a radio talk-show host--all before diving into the unforgiving cauldron of Oakland politics a decade ago. He is at an age when overachievers in nearly every other profession would start to pack it in. But no man who wakes up at 5 a.m. to read and has been known to keep an eye on Fox News after midnight should be considered a candidate for retirement anytime soon.
BROWN IS IN AN AIDE'S CAR, TALKING nonstop, jabbing and gesturing, impervious to interruption, pointing out potholes and telling the aide where to stop and when to turn. Brown is fun to watch. He is trim, constantly in motion, his brown eyes still piercing and just a touch sad. Compared with almost any other politician, he's a riot to talk to, a one-man romp through everyone from St. Paul to Albert Camus. Jane Brunner, a city councilwoman who didn't vote for the mayor but thinks he has done a good job, says that when she goes into his office, she is never certain whether she is going to be in there for two minutes or two hours.
It's an old joke that Oakland has been a city of the future since forever, but that is finally coming true in ways that are good and bad. The city of 412,000 is roughly 35% black, 31% white, 21% Hispanic and 15% Asian. Refugees from more expensive ZIP codes across the bay have fled to Oakland in the past decade, seeking cheaper housing. But the city has long been slow to seize its opportunities, and Brown's time as mayor has been a test of whether even that can be changed. When he was elected in 1998, he successfully led an effort to restructure Oakland's government and give the mayor new powers to break through a stolid municipal bureaucracy. Since then, he fired his city manager and two city planners, replacing them with people who worked harder to lure private investment. As he tours through a booming residential area south of downtown, he sounds a little dismayed by how resistant some Oakland residents remain to change.