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Jerry Brown's Latest Quest

Jerry Brown hasn't changed much. Fifteen years after leaving the governor's office, six years since he last ran for president, he's still haughty, still elliptical of speech, still unable or unwilling to show emotion.

But of all his political quests -- and the list is long -- his newest may be the strangest.

This privileged politico who thinks big thoughts, once dubbed "Governor Moonbeam" by the late columnist Mike Royko, wants to be mayor of blue-collar, down-on-its-luck Oakland. He's a white man running in the mostly minority city that gave birth to the Black Panthers.

And he stands a good chance of winning.

The latest polls show Brown well ahead of nine minority opponents, including a city council member, an Alameda County supervisor and the local NAACP president. The nonpartisan primary election is June 2.

There is real affection for Brown among blacks, who constitute more than 40 percent of Oakland's 400,000 people. Asians and Hispanics make up 30 percent.

Black voters remember that when he was governor of California, nearly half of his 6,150 appointments went to minorities and women. They remember the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put city kids to work, and Brown's close association with Black Panther leaders.

And they remember his father, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Sr., a bigger-than-life liberal who ruled California from 1958 to 1966 and died two years ago.

"I voted for his daddy and I voted for him, too," said resident Lenora Dessalle, 54, as she entered Parks Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church on a recent Sunday morning. "I like him. I only know good things about him."

Former Black Panther David Hilliard works on Brown's small campaign staff.

"He can pull this city together," Hilliard says.

Hilliard admits that not all blacks like Brown.

"I think there's a certain part of the population who see him as a white boy who doesn't have a clue as to what is going on. But those people are very myopic anyway," he says.

There are many people, of all colors, who fault Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. for his arrogance, his dabbling in mysticism, his three failed runs for president -- two of them while he was still governor -- and his penchant for changing his mind, sometimes at taxpayer expense.

At 59, Brown is still a bachelor, though with less hair and a few more pounds than in the 1970s when he was dating singer Linda Ronstadt. In an interview, he gives little. To questions he doesn't like, which are most of them, he retorts, "What kind of question is that?"

He wants to be mayor because "the city's the place where all the action is." National politics is "pretty trivialized."

Four years ago, he surfaced in Oakland, across the bay from his birthplace of San Francisco.

He formed a think tank called "We the People" and took over a 18,000-square-foot warehouse next to Jack Lndon Square and the Amtrak station. He paid $1.2 million to convert it into a live-in town hall, complete with communal kitchen, broadcast booth, community meetings, and classes in yoga and tai chi.

Brown used the booth for a radio talk show, taking on such topics as midwifery, monasticism and stupidity - specifically the political kind.

His mayoral campaign basically repeats the mission statement of "We the People": save the city, save the planet, save the arts, save the environment.

As in his last presidential bid, Brown refuses individual donations of more than $100. Money, he says, is the root of all political evil.

He campaigns at churches, at bus stations, and at small gatherings in private homes.

At Parks Chapel AME, Brown is speaking at both services.

Worshippers number only 20, but the gospel choir is in full swing, arms upstretched, faces upturned, singing, "we'll understand it better, by and by."

Of all the things Brown does, this is what he does best.

By Deborah Hastings ©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed