Tales from the Crypt of Politics 

Elihu Harris' promising career choked on chicken bones and something Green, but he's risen again for a formidable challenge: saving Peralta.

Heard any news about Jerry Brown lately? Oakland's beloved mayor ended months of speculation with a resounding boom two weeks ago when he finally fired City Manager Robert Bobb. The daily papers and TV news outlets acted as if Jerry had just detonated a dirty bomb in the middle of Frank Ogawa Plaza, and the mayor finally got to make the big splash he's craved since he rode into town. It's official now: There's not a single person left in Oakland who doesn't know that their leader is a capricious, socially autistic, eggheaded drama queen.

And it just keeps getting worse, as Brown has announced that from now on, he intends to stop delegating authority and take over the business of running the city himself. Jerry Brown the detail guy? Does anyone really believe that our Jesuit-in-chief will turn his attention from illuminating manuscripts to fixing potholes?

Kinda makes you long for the good old days of Elihu Harris, don't it? As the mayor pisses away all the power he's grabbed over the last five years, one's thoughts turn wistfully to the East Bay's most underrated politician, the man who fruitlessly begged for the kind of authority Brown has, but managed to accomplish great things without it, if only by getting out of the way.

When Harris left public life in 1999, he wasn't known as the guy who led Oakland out of an era of fires, earthquakes, and record homicide rates into the relative prosperity of the dot-com years. He was the guy who bribed voters with chicken-dinner vouchers and got humiliated by Audie Bock. Harris was put out to pasture with a paper-pushing sinecure in the state building that bears his name, while Brown got to cut ribbons on development deals Harris helped put together.

Now, as Brown gets to face the same kinds of problems Harris did, guess who's getting back in the game? After four years of spinning his wheels, the man who lives for the rush of politics has taken a new job, and it's the worst gig there is in local public life: Rescuing the pathetic joke most people call the Peralta Community College District.

Harris had his faults -- he spent more time whining about his lack of real power than mustering a majority bloc on the council and, like Brown, he's sometimes too smart for his own good -- but the man was a quality mayor. Consider what Oakland accomplished on his watch: the City Hall renovation, the massive Shorenstein office development deal, the rise of Jack London Square, the Fruitvale Transit Village. Sure, Harris had to 'fess up to his part in the Raiders deal. But last I heard, state Senator Don Peralta had something to do with that too.

"Under Elihu, we had a lot of mess in the city we had to deal with," says County Supervisor Nate Miley, who served with Harris on the council. "Despite the fact that Elihu didn't have the outward appearance of leadership, I think he had a real good city council, and Elihu was able to work with us to try to bring the city back. The big bugaboo was obviously trying to make Oakland economically viable again, but the way to do that was to address the image, the violence, the lack of professional attention from our staff, things of that nature. There were a lot of fronts to work on, and Elihu was able to achieve success on all of these fronts."

Unfortunately, Harris grabbed for the brass ring once too often, and it left an indelible stain on his legacy. As he ran for his old job in the state Assembly, his campaign workers handed out vouchers for chicken dinners in black neighborhoods to get out the vote. The fallout so tarnished his reputation that Green Party crackpot Audie Bock took him out in the general election. And when Harris couldn't even muster enough signatures to get back on the ballot for the next round, everyone treated him like a boorish guest who wouldn't leave. Eventually, he took an appointment to the state unemployment appeals board, where he watched Brown enjoy the last fruits of the tech boom and take credit for a revitalized downtown.

"He was a very decent public servant, and I don't think he was well understood," says City Attorney John Russo. "That chicken dinner thing is the last thing people remember, and part of that is the shock of having Audie Bock win. I don't know how he erases that. Time helps, but no discussion of Bill Buckner's career will ever delete that moment in the sixth game of the [1986 World] Series."

But you just knew a man as smart and restless as Elihu Harris couldn't stay out of the political game forever. Humiliating as his final chapter was, he actually wants back in the limelight.


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