The woman can't recall the exact nature of the meeting, but one thing stands out clearly: Jacques Barzaghi. That afternoon, the man who has been Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown's trusted adviser for the last thirty years allegedly turned to her during an official city meeting and asked, in his thick French accent, "What color underwear are you wearing?" No one who heard the comment flinched, she says, not even the woman herself. Everyone was already used to Barzaghi and his Pepe le Pew-type ways.
In a roomful of city bureaucrats, Jacques Barzaghi definitely stands out. He is bald, wears only black, and is covered with tattoos -- resembling nothing so much as an artsy Jean-Luc Picard. He also has six ex-wives, once lived in an Australian rain forest, and may be the only political adviser in America who also does professional feng shui consulting -- the ancient Chinese art of decorating one's home or office to invite harmony and prosperity.
Also remarkable about Barzaghi, according to one former mayoral staffer, is the extent to which he believes the world revolves around sex. Nor is this sexually charged view of the world confined to his private thoughts. Two other former staffers say Barzaghi's amorous murmurings permeated the day-to-day workings of the mayor's office.
For years, no one paid much attention to Barzaghi's sex-infused blathering -- that is, until he met Nereyda Lopez-Bowden. Hired in 2000, Lopez-Bowden was brought on to manage the city's Office of International Affairs and act as a trade representative to Mexico, her native country. She later alleged that from the moment she was hired, Barzaghi began a campaign to get her into bed. With a lifetime of political service behind him, Barzaghi understood the importance of staying on-message. And that, Lopez-Bowden says, is exactly what he did with her.
Lopez-Bowden was not amused. She was married with three children and really didn't like enduring Barzaghi's sexual banter as she went about her business at City Hall. So, she later claimed, she went to an assistant to the mayor to find out what the hell was going on. That woman, who is unnamed in Lopez-Bowden's legal declaration, allegedly told her Barzaghi was "simply weird" and informed her "the usual practice in the office was to inform prospective employees of Barzaghi's behavior" before they came on board. Weird or not, Lopez-Bowden decided to make some noise -- a lot of noise -- and for the first time during his three decades at Jerry Brown's side, Jacques Barzaghi's political fortunes took a very public and humiliating nosedive.
City officials investigated her complaint and found other women who said he'd also made inappropriate sexual remarks to them. Barzaghi was suspended for three weeks without pay and sent to counseling. Later, he was demoted from his post as director of the city's Craft and Cultural Affairs Department to the more amorphous position of senior adviser to the mayor. Several months thereafter, he surrendered his former salary of about $126,000 a year for the reduced annual wage of $89,500 as part of an officewide salary reassessment.
And Barzaghi, after being taken to the woodshed and disappearing from public view for several months, is back at Brown's side. He regularly shows up at the mayor's staff meetings, and confers with police department brass, local developers, and school district officials on Brown's behalf.
Oakland officials from Brown on down insist that the messy, unseemly matter has been taken care of and it's on to the business of governing. City Attorney John Russo asserts that Barzaghi's demotion ensures he won't harass any other women. Because Barzaghi is no longer in a supervisory position, Russo claims that the city has minimal legal risk.
But legal experts say the city's remedy for curbing the lascivious Frenchman is hardly as neat and tidy as city officials claim. As they see it, Oakland is legally exposed and could potentially face a nasty sexual harassment judgment given Barzaghi's troubled track record with women at City Hall.
Look for Jerry Brown and it's likely you'll find Barzaghi hanging around somewhere. Barzaghi has had a staying power in the political life of Brown equaled by no other insider. The beret-wearing Barzaghi was at Brown's side when he served as California's governor for eight years and during his 1992 presidential bid. He's been a part of Brown's mayoral team since the mayor first took office in 1999.
Barzaghi brings a spiritual, artsy, almost whacked-out spin to government. He's worked with poets, actors, and filmmakers. He once encouraged the governor to bring a Sufi choir to an official prayer breakfast, a move that was later ridiculed in the press. Perhaps his most famous touch was encouraging Brown to eschew the governor's mansion in Sacramento and live like a monk in an apartment furnished with a used mattress and old towels from a state hospital.
"Without that creative approach, government tends to reproduce itself in an unimaginative, pedestrian way," Brown explains. "Jacques is a catalytic element in the mix of advisers I have. I understand he's not everybody's favorite person, but he's quite remarkable."
The loyalty between Barzaghi and Brown runs very deep. It's a brotherly, almost familial kind of connection that is rare in an arena in which alliances frequently shift and change according to the latest polls, news, or elections. Up until recently, when the mayor moved in with his longtime girlfriend, Barzaghi and his latest wife and child were roommates with Brown at his now-famous We the People loft in Oakland. Now both 64, the two met at a party in the early '70s while Brown was secretary of state. As the story goes, the men were deep in conversation when Barzaghi asked Brown when the secretary of state was coming -- not realizing he was already talking to him. Barzaghi, who was then working on a documentary about Native Americans, spent much of the evening sternly lecturing Brown about the plight of American Indians. His lack of deference to Brown's power, insiders say, was the key to their connection.
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