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.

More than one observer snorted in disgust when the Peralta Board of Trustees appointed Harris as interim chancellor back in March. He has no education credentials, and since his estranged wife Kathy Leal was campaign manager for trustee Linda Handy last fall, the whole affair smelled political.

But as Peralta Federation of Teachers president Michael Mills will be happy to tell you, the previous chancellor had all the credentials you could ask for, and look what he did to the district. After virtually bankrupting community college districts in Detroit and Chicago, Dr. Ronald Temple took over Peralta and promptly threw the door open for his cronies. He centralized all sorts of administrative jobs, hired his old Chicago buddies to sit on their asses and pretend to do them, pumped their salaries into the six-figure range, and gave them increasingly grandiose titles until it seemed every other bureaucrat was a vice chancellor. The most notorious deal occurred in 1999 when Temple outsourced maintenance of the district’s computer systems to CampusWorks, a company whose founder and point man once did time for securities fraud. Have I mentioned that Temple once sat on the board of CampusWorks?

Despite these scandals, the sweetheart contract Temple negotiated for himself, and the universal hatred he engendered in both faculty and staff, it took four years and the defeat of Temple-backing trustee Brenda Knight to finally get rid of the chancellor. Now Harris has the unenviable job of cleaning up the mess. Not only does he have to regain the trust of district employees alienated by the previous administration, but he has to do it while cutting the budget, lowering enrollment, and laying people off.

It didn’t help that Harris blew one of his first major acts as chancellor. Just days before Temple was due to leave, the former chancellor fired Tom Smith, the district’s chief financial officer. Furious trustees and employees called Temple’s final act a petulant slap at an official who’d questioned some of his contracting decisions. Insiders also realized the district was about to enter a period of painful cutbacks without the one man who knew the budget cold. But despite the pressure to rehire Smith immediately, Harris went with former UC Extension official David Dowell instead. Two months later, Harris gave Dowell sixty days to clean out his desk, and the district is again looking for a new bean counter. The episode made people question whether Harris is really the right man for the job.

Dowell aside, some wondered whether Harris had the stomach to clean out Temple’s deadwood. According to Russo, Harris could never bring himself to cut employees loose. “If Elihu had a failing, it was that he was too kind,” Russo says. “He had trouble with layoffs, firing people that should have been fired, because he didn’t want to hurt anybody. When other people would look at somebody and think, ‘That guy’s gotta go,’ Elihu would think, ‘Oh, that person’s got a kid in college, I can’t let him go.’ “

But even as Harris was learning the ropes, faculty and clerical staff drew up a hit list of contract managers associated with the Temple administration: district lawyer Larry Schoenke, former vice chancellor Larry Hardy, Measure E consultant George Herring, and Dezie Woods-Jones, a former Oakland city councilwoman and longtime friend of Harris. For three months, Harris avoided any blanket purges. “I didn’t come here to get people, to be a hatchet man,” he says. “I came to build a district.”

Then a funny thing happened: On June 30, almost all the managerial contracts set up by Temple expired, and Harris decided not to renew them. With the exception of Larry Schoenke, who is still working on an hourly basis for the district, almost everyone on the hit list is gone. Harris treats the bloodless bloodletting as a mere procedural matter, but some faculty members wonder if they’ve just seen an example of refined leadership in action, in which Harris removed the district’s most controversial officials without being seen as part of some anti-Temple vendetta.

Harris still has a lot to do. He’s cut the budget by 12 percent, but that won’t really draw blood till the next school term begins. Under a state mandate, Harris has to reduce enrollment from 19,000 to 16,000 students, a remarkable contraction for a district that’s already reeling. And he has to do that while hiring a new district lawyer, director of human resources, and procurement director, not to mention keeping the Board of Trustees happy. “With the board and with the faculty, right now one can say that on Elihu, the jury is still out,” faculty president Michael Mills says. “He hasn’t been here more than three months.”

Still, if you compare the way Harris handled the Temple holdovers with the way Jerry Brown handled Bobb’s firing, there’s no doubt who has a better sense of finesse.

But why wade into this muck at all? Why didn’t Harris just keep drawing his state paycheck? Harris claims he was born a public servant, and the Peralta gig was simply a chance to do some good in the world. I have a better answer: legacy building. Harris went out looking like a two-bit ward heeler, buying votes with chicken dinners and treating the public with contempt. We all know he’s better than that, and now he’s got a chance to prove it. But it’s going to take a lot more than finesse.

“The only way Elihu Harris will change his legacy, to change the final perception of what Elihu Harris is all about, is to bite the bullet,” says City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. “Unless he cleans up the bureaucracy, and has qualified people do their mission, his legacy’s gonna stay the way it is. If all you wanna do is be okay with everybody, especially the elected officials, good luck. The ones that are gonna pay in Peralta’s case are the students.”

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