There are two main routes into the lobby of the Oakland Marriott hotel. The front entrance lures you in from the bustling thoroughfare of Broadway, where crisply attired bellhops wait to open your limousine door, and signs of a resurgent Oakland are all around you. But the view from a side entrance tells a different story; at the corner of 10th and Washington, empty storefronts locked behind security gates bake under the sun.
On the morning of March 20, the most prominent members of Oakland’s business establishment arrived at the Marriott’s Jewett Ballroom to nibble on bagels and omelets, and to listen to one man assure them that the city is finally poised to put dismal scenes like the one at 10th and Washington behind it forever. The man was Robert Bobb, the city manager and the person charged with taking Mayor Jerry Brown’s often ethereal, aphoristic visions and transforming them into something tangible. More than anyone else in town, the buck stops with him, as local leaders strive to finally deliver to Oakland the prosperity that has eluded it for so long. At this Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce “power breakfast,” Bobb’s theme was summed up by the slogan flashing on the screens behind the podium: “Oakland — a city on the move!”
As the army of suits settled in beneath a firmament of chandeliers, Robert Wilkins, the president of the YMCA of the East Bay and an ordained minister, set the proceeding in context. “In the ancient book of the Hebrews, in the writings of Nehemiah,” he began, “it is recorded that after the Hebrews spent a number of years in exile, a group of men came to see Nehemiah. He asked them how things were going in Jerusalem, and they said to him, ‘Things are not going well. Our brothers and sisters are suffering, because the gates of Jerusalem have been burned. The walls lie in ruins, and the temple has been destroyed.’ And that moved Nehemiah substantially, and he went to Cyrus, the king of Persia, and asked him, ‘Can I go back and begin a redevelopment project in the city of my fathers?’ Cyrus allowed him to do so, and he went back and said, ‘Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.’
“And the scripture says that each person according to their own skills took a part of the project, and they worked shoulder to shoulder. Along the way, others in nearby cities looked at them and ridiculed them, saying, ‘Those people, the Hebrews, they don’t know how to build anything. It’ll fall down.’ Many in other cities resented them and said, ‘How dare they seek to build up their city, and take their place among the greats like us?’ But they kept the faith and continued to build, and the scripture says that they worked and they worked, and the wall was rebuilt, because the people had a mind and a heart to work.”
As the waiters began to hand out plates of hot food, and a chamber representative read from a schedule of upcoming events, the air hummed with the sound of fingers on the keys of Palm Pilots and laptops. Bobb sat beside the podium, glancing down at his notes while the emcee dispensed with a few rituals of civic boosterism: New businesses were acknowledged and applauded, the annual holiday parade was cheered, and an oversized check for $25,000 was presented to Children’s Hospital. Finally, it was time for Bobb to address the assembly, to sell the idea of a successful Oakland to its own movers and shakers. Bobb can speak quite passionately when the occasion calls for it, but today’s presentation sounded more like an annual shareholders’ report — filled with numbers, spreadsheets, and an aura of inevitability. “Oakland is engaged in an economic resurgence, and we see that resurgence continuing,” he boasted. “We may not have as much money as many of our sister cities around the Bay Area, but no one can outhustle us. Wherever there is a deal to be made, we will go there.”
Bobb’s benchmarks for the city’s new prosperity were impressive: three hundred new companies, many emphasizing biotech, transportation, and food processing; a fifteen percent rise in income since 1995; and 10,000 new jobs — a growth rate of six percent, twice that of the nation’s average. As the attendees dusted off their home fries, Bobb introduced his redevelopment dream team: Bill Claggett, Leslie Gould, and Calvin Wong — people who, Bobb promised, will work day and night to make your business flourish — or seize it if it is blighted. Together, these men and women and their colleagues are responsible for nearly sixty major development projects, a stark contrast from four years ago, when the city had only eight projects in the pipeline.
There’s nothing Oakland won’t do to help your business, Bobb promised. Its One-Stop Capital Shop will offer small businesses start-up loans; its brownfield campaign will leverage EPA money to clean up old industrial sites; its port is about to embark on a $3 billion expansion of its airport and maritime operations; and its population is the eighth most educated in the country. It’s even willing to go head-to-head with San Francisco; a new media campaign in the Chronicle, Mercury News, and Wall Street Journal mocks the West Bay’s high rents as it tries to lure businesses to the east side of the Bay Bridge.
Of course, Oakland has always been willing to dream the impossible dream, and Bobb concluded by pitching a series of famously dubious projects. As the crowd suppressed giggles, Bobb’s slide projector flashed a drawing of an Oakland A’s ballpark superimposed on Laney College, titled “Opening Day 2007?” (“Isn’t that beautiful?” he grinned. “It looks as if it really belongs there, right on that football field.”) The mayor’s proposal to build a casino at the Oakland Army Base got even more laughs. (“I like to think of it as Oakland, Las Vegas style,” he cracked.) Finally, Bobb came to his own boondoggle, the privatization of the Lake Chabot golf course. “There’s nothing wrong with having Wall Street dollars invest in the city of Oakland,” he said rather peevishly. “The way you redevelop a community is to have public and private dollars working together.”
With that and a thank-you, Bobb abruptly concluded. He was all business, and business was good. It was what the gathering wanted to hear, that morning in particular. The night before, some pretty unsettling news had broken when officials of Zhone Technologies, the $500 million communications technology start-up of which Oakland is part owner, announced that it was suspending the construction of its multimillion-dollar headquarters near the airport. Bobb himself had helped broker the deal that brought Zhone to Oakland, and it had long been considered the jewel in the crown of the city’s high-tech sector. Still, if the news cast a slight chill over events, it was easily allayed by Bobb’s enthusiasm.
It was clear, even at the time, that Robert Bobb’s assumption to power would be a watershed moment for the city of Oakland. When he agreed to take over as city manager in 1997, everyone from business leaders to city councilmembers and Mayor Elihu Harris hailed Bobb as the man with the acumen, determination, and professionalism needed to get a handle on the city’s most intractable problems. Unencumbered by years of horsetrading with local players, Bobb was a fresh face who would weed out the nepotism and sloth at City Hall, get tough on crime, clean up the city’s blighted neighborhoods, and pave the way for the high-tech boom to finally reach Oakland’s shores. A new sheriff was in town, one who would force the city to succeed despite itself.
A year later, the city experienced a second, even more celebrated shift in the topography of political power. Since his election, Jerry Brown’s odd but undeniable celebrity has captivated both the national press and Oakland residents, and that coupled with his virtual self-appointment as a strong mayor might have empowered him to appropriate much of Bobb’s authority. But rather than chafe at Brown’s ascendance, Bobb has worked hand-in-hand with the mayor, in no small part because their politics and priorities are virtually indistinguishable. Together, Brown and Bobb have focused on the mayor’s celebrated 10K plan to bring new residents downtown; a zero-tolerance, statistics-driven approach to public safety; and a charter-school-based plan for education reform that seems tailor-made to attract the loft-dwelling yuppies for whom the mayor yearns.
In Jerry Brown’s Oakland, Robert Bobb’s role is quite clear. While Brown is the public face of the new Oakland, Bobb is the detail guy whose job is to fire lazy bureaucrats, jail predatory criminals, and terrify homeowners whose front yards are strewn with cars put up on blocks. “I get into the precise details when that’s called for, but mostly I spell out the vision,” Brown says. “I’ve laid out the goals that he works on with me.”
Additionally — and critically — Bobb is the man who closes the big development deals. From negotiating the Zhone land deal and developing the sites that comprise the core of the 10K plan, to courting Wall Street money for a glitzy new Lake Chabot golf course, and from finalizing the Rotunda renovation to building a new baseball stadium, Bobb is Oakland’s man at the bargaining table.
It all seems so simple, so inevitable, that it’s easy to forget about the twenty-year-long chapter in Oakland’s history that Bobb’s arrival brought so dramatically to a close. The town that once seemed to be in a constant struggle to reconcile its liberal values with the interests of an entrenched black political class seems, in the last three years, to have gotten rid of both. Aside from City Councilmember Nancy Nadel, whose leadership has always been undermined by her failings as a coalition-builder, almost no one is presenting a coherent, progressive vision of the city that presumes to compete with Jerry Brown’s. And the black middle class that once defined the city’s political dynamics has collapsed in such disarray that Brown sometimes seems to take its impotence for granted. (Even Councilmember Larry Reid has complained of feeling out in the cold lately.) That Brown’s opponents have pinned their hopes on the mayoral candidacy of former Councilmember Wilson Riles may very well say all that needs to be said.
Much of this comes from the unlikely fact that Oakland seems to have suddenly developed a Midas touch. Whether the city’s prosperity and confidence is due to Brown’s magnetism, the afterglow of the dot-com boom, or merely the fact that ten years have elapsed since the last major natural disaster, everyone can feel the magic in the air. “I am far less critical of [Brown] than I once was,” confesses former county supervisor and rival mayoral candidate Mary King. “Recently, I took a cab from SFO to Oakland late at night, and the entire ride home, the cab driver was telling me how different Oakland’s become lately. You can’t deny that.”
History may ultimately judge Brown and Bobb for failing to provide safeguards for the poor during the city’s march toward prosperity, but right now these two men, who arrived in town as virtual strangers, have been blessed. They are enjoying the waning days of an unprecedented economic boom, the disorganization of their enemies, and a popular mandate not seen since Lionel Wilson’s first election in 1977. Together, as they proceed with their plans for Oakland, they have virtually no one in their way.
The landscape within which Bobb works is so different from that of his predecessors that there is almost no comparison. Rather than being hamstrung by the political establishment, he has allies in almost every crucial position: State Senator Don Perata brings to the table his Sacramento influence and money-raising capacity; City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente keeps both the council and organized labor in line while absorbing much of the political fallout; and local developers John Protopappas and Phil Tagami represent the city’s new class of developers. This group can often be found eating breakfast at the Cuckoo’s Nest on Fourth Street near the mayor’s loft, or having drinks at Kincaid’s or Jack’s on the waterfront. Sometimes City Attorney John Russo or school Superintendent Dennis Chaconas will also drop by.
So how did this conservative Roman Catholic who courts Wall Street and fights crime by kicking ass arrive at the helm of one of the most progressive cities in the country? To understand this, it’s necessary to examine the power structure that he has had such a large role in replacing. That story begins, as do so many Oakland stories, with the Black Panthers.
In 1973, Bobby Seale shocked the white Republican establishment that had run Oakland for decades. With a surprisingly strong showing in a mayoral primary election, Seale sent a signal to the city’s leaders that the time had finally come for the city’s African-American population — which then comprised sixty percent of the total population — to begin to flex its muscle at City Hall. The days when Kaiser Aluminum, Clorox, and Bill Knowland’s Oakland Tribune could run the city unchallenged were clearly coming to an end. Clearly frightened, the old guard searched for an acceptable candidate and found him in the person of a moderate-leaning superior court judge named Lionel Wilson. Supported by an impressive coalition of mainstream Democrats, Black Panthers, and white progressives, Wilson was elected mayor in 1977. Two elections later, the City Council had its first black majority.
That African Americans had finally achieved political enfranchisement was a much-celebrated historic moment, but progressives who had envisioned a powerful new Rainbow Coalition of labor, minorities, women, and environmentalists were soon disappointed in Wilson. It was a surprise to no one when, during Wilson’s reelection campaign in 1981, the same white business establishment that had backed Republican Dave Tucker four years earlier lined up to support the mayor. As Wilson moved further to the right, what had appeared in 1977 to be a sea change in Oakland politics began to look like just more of the same.
Critics of the Wilson regime charged that the mayor had simply cut a deal with the city’s Brahmins: If Oakland’s big-business establishment agenda continued, Wilson would be given a free hand to install African Americans at City Hall, dole out contracts to minority business partners, and reward his friends. If Wilson refused to rock the boat (his opposition to a strong rent-control initiative in 1980 almost certainly killed it, to cite but one example), the payoff came in the form of a new army of black bureaucrats, many of them members of East Oakland’s Allen Temple Baptist Church, which, in turn, soon became the city’s new epicenter of black political power. Henry Gardener was hired as city manager, James Ashley became the head of the powerful Office of General Services, Avon Manning became deputy city manager, and by the early ’90s, Joe Samuels — a deacon at Allen Temple — was heading up the city’s police department.
“Although Wilson was by national standards a liberal Democrat, he worked with the establishment; they were comfortable with him; he played tennis at their club,” says one critic. “And the deal they cut was this: ‘You can take care of the African-American community and make them happy, as long as the agenda of promoting downtown development and what we say goes remains unchanged.’ Eventually Henry Gardener, a Republican, becomes city manager and hires a bunch of people through the Allen Temple pipeline, and that becomes what they’ve done for the black community: that we now have a bunch of African Americans in very high roles.”
Oakland’s new black establishment suffered the misfortune of coming to power at the very time that the city’s economic engine began to sputter and die. Manufacturing and heavy industry, once the mainstay of Oakland’s economy, began to flee south to Mexico and the Third World, and Oakland was left with acres of empty factories and warehouses, contaminated with plumes of dioxin and vinyl chloride. A desperate Wilson tried to turn things around by spearheading a series of increasingly grandiose downtown development projects, but most of them turned out to be expensive boondoggles, weighed down by his patronage system and exploited by unscrupulous developers, who repeatedly embarrassed the city and drained cash from the Redevelopment Agency.
Perhaps the most notorious example was the so-called City Retail Center, a $362 million scheme to build a retail corridor anchored around four department stores in the city’s uptown district near the Fox Theater. The deal not only never happened, it displayed almost every unsavory aspect of Oakland’s development strategies. In December 1985, Wilson organized a big campaign fund-raiser — which seemed rather odd since he had just been reelected in April. To insiders it was clear that the real significance of the event was that the city was less than a month away from deciding who would win the contract to develop the Retail Center. Each of the competing developers decided to contribute thousands to Wilson’s war chest. (The patronage system worked its magic in other ways as well; one highly placed City Hall source told the Express that he recently had occasion to read the original Rouse contract, and found a line item worth tens of thousands of dollars which was to be given to a local community activist; the activist’s contribution to the Rouse deal consisted of “providing the political climate in which construction can proceed.”)
As usual, the city’s financial contribution to the deal was astronomical. Originally $100 million, the estimate of the necessary public subsidy would swell to $234 million before the city began to have second thoughts. Even then, it took the untimely death of a senior Rouse executive to finally end the deal. Meanwhile, many uptown shopkeepers, convinced that the city was about to bulldoze their stores to make way for the Rouse project, allowed their properties to fall into disrepair and blight.
In 1990, Wilson was finally turned out by a coalition of reformers who rallied around then-state Assemblymember Elihu Harris, and by 1992, a reform slate had taken a majority of seats on the City Council. With such disparate members as De La Fuente, Nate Miley, and Sheila Jordan, the emergence of this coalition held the hope that a broad alliance of labor, white progressive, and African-American constituencies would finally be forged, and the team would effectively challenge the Chamber of Commerce establishment and bring the decades-long era of downtown-development-or-bust schemes to an end. Within six months, Henry Gardener was gone, and Harris, who had already attempted to dislodge Oakland’s patronage system by forcing the school district into state trusteeship, set about trying to reform the city’s bureaucracy. Office of General Services head James Ashley soon found himself without a job when Harris and the Council eliminated his entire agency and decentralized its procurement and building-maintenance services. But the bureaucrats proved harder to excise than Harris and his allies thought, and as East Oakland City Councilmembers Miley and Dezie Woods-Jones came under blistering criticism from black ministers, the reform effort bogged down.
The Harris years were also marked by a shift of emphasis away from enormous downtown development projects and toward revitalization of neighborhood commercial corridors. While this met with mixed results, there were some notable success stories, particularly in Fruitvale, along Broadway’s Auto Row, and at Old Merritt College, whose rehabilitation had languished during the Wilson years. But Harris also had to contend with the economic and psychological consequences of both the Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1991 Oakland hills fire. In addition, Harris was clearly a better Sacramento legislator than chief executive of a large city; his standoffish personality alienated many erstwhile allies, and his governing style favored back-room deals over public exhortation; he seemed most comfortable piecing together different coalitions from among councilmembers as the occasion warranted. Although he accomplished great things during his tenure, Harris will probably be better remembered for the chicken-dinner fiasco that marked his departure from local politics. When Ignacio De La Fuente introduced the city manager to the Chamber audience in March, he was careful to list the elected officials who, in their foresight and wisdom, were responsible for hiring Robert Bobb; Harris didn’t make the list.
This was the legacy that Bobb confronted when he took the job of running Oakland. Burdened by a bloated, apathetic bureaucracy, reeling from a horrific crack epidemic that was just beginning to subside, struggling to pull out of economic doldrums that never seemed to end, and smarting from years of being taken to the cleaners by dubious developers, Oakland was a city convinced of its own ineptitude. Its leaders hoped that they had found in Bobb someone who would clear the deadwood from City Hall, whip the city into shape, and negotiate development projects that wouldn’t give away the store. (They had already experienced Bobb’s negotiating prowess; as the price for coming to town, he demanded a contract that, with a salary of $180,000 and a city-financed mortgage, made him one of the most richly compensated civil servants in California.)
Robert Bobb is a very private man who seldom allows himself to relax in public. Before coming to Oakland, he served in similar roles in Santa Ana, as well as Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Richmond, Virginia, racking up a bumper crop of awards and accolades along the way. There’s an anecdote about Bobb’s first day on the job that has become the stuff of legend: While jogging to work, he saw a couple of young kids smoking dope and hassling passersby at the corner of 14th and Broadway, in the heart of the city. Bobb was so enraged that by the end of the day, two cops were stationed at that corner, and no joints would henceforth be passed in the shadow of City Hall. The story is entirely accurate, except for one thing — it didn’t happen on his first day. What actually did happen on his first day, however, is just as telling: Bobb drove to work and parked in the Clay Street garage, in the space reserved for the city manager, a spot roughly five feet from the sidewalk. Before the sun had set, someone had broken into his car. When word spread through City Hall, officials and politicos slapped him on the back and joked, “Hey, welcome to Oakland!”
“Bobb just lost it,” recalls Jay Leonhardy, a former aide to City Councilmember Henry Chang and a longtime City Hall denizen. “He found absolutely no humor in that joke. He saw it as people in Oakland putting down their own city, and he just wasn’t going to stand for that. That was the last time he ever parked there.”
From the very beginning, Bobb established a tough line on crime — sometimes a little too tough in the eyes of his critics. While detailing his stand on public safety, he announced a plan to implement a curfew for Oakland’s youth, but somehow failed to discover that the city had just gone through a painful discussion about that very subject; he abandoned the plan when studies indicated that most juvenile crime occurred in the hours between three and five in the afternoon. In addition, Bobb called for unilateral police power to stop any car within city limits and search it for guns or drugs — once again failing to notice that state law prohibits such a practice. Bobb is a determined law-and-order enthusiast — each morning, his aide hands him a list of all the crimes committed the previous day — and his disdain for programs like civilian oversight of the police is no secret. His approach to public safety has occasionally gotten him into trouble.
As Bobb set about shaking up City Hall, he moved with impressive speed. One of his signature management techniques is his practice of cultivating talented subordinates who accompany him from city to city. Thus when Oakland hired Bobb, it also hired his team of protégés, including deputy city manager George Musgrove, Laurie Devarney, and his twin lieutenants Simon Bryce and Gregory Hunter, two young staffers whom he recruited out of college to manage his “special projects.” (Bryce, for instance, is the city staffer charged with administering Jerry Brown’s military academy.) “Those two are a couple of twentysomething psycho dogs,” Leonhardy marvels. “They’re heads-down, ass-up, totally loyal. Seventeen-hour days? No problem.”
Bobb handed Musgrove the task of firing city employees who didn’t meet his stringent performance criteria, and Musgrove soon earned the sobriquet “Doctor Doom,” because when he paid you a visit, as often as not it was to hand you a pink slip informing you that your services were no longer necessary. (Less generous observers claim that his nickname also refers to the pleasure he takes in watching someone realize that his or her job is gone.)
As the months went by, the casualty list began to swell: Life Enrichment Agency head Shirley Stubblefield, her aide Sandra Nathan, violence prevention coordinator Clayton Collins, Community and Economic Development Agency director Kent Sims, and Avon Manning were either fired, invited to resign, or banished to bureaucratic Siberia until retirement. As a corollary to the bloodletting, Bobb introduced his “banishing bureaucracy” campaign to demand a higher level of responsiveness from city employees. The centerpiece of his campaign was a “no voicemail” policy; if a citizen called in with a complaint or question, employees must actually answer the phone and treat the caller courteously. Bobb even periodically called random city staffers and pretended to be a citizen with a question; if the voicemail picked up at a time when Bobb knew the staffer to be in the office, Bobb personally visited the employee and reprimanded him or her. (Those who answered the phone nicely were rewarded with shiny gold oak-tree pins.)
“Kicking the bureaucracy into action — that had to happen,” Leonhardy says. “You get somebody that’s been sitting there fifteen, eighteen years, that’s just counting down the days to retirement, that just wants to work nine to five, it’s just a job — they don’t go the extra mile. They’re lifers, they have tenure, they don’t have to work that hard. And they won’t, until somebody kicks them in the ass. But as soon as they know they’re being watched, that their performance is truly being evaluated, when they see people either getting fired or laid off, or not getting promoted, they start to realize that their job is a little more precarious than they thought. And that’s just good management.”
Bobb took his share of heat when he went after officials with political connections. Shortly after Brown took office, he and Bobb fired Police Chief Joe Samuels, and the response from the Allen Temple leadership was swift and fierce. Reverend J. Alfred Smith led pickets outside Brown’s warehouse loft and crowded into City Council meetings; during one particularly heated exchange, Smith and John Russo nearly came to blows in the council chambers. This strategy had always worked in the past. In 1991, for instance, when a massive police brutality scandal erupted at the Oakland Housing Authority, Harris’ appointees to the OHA board demanded that executive director Harold Davis fire his police chief, William Smith. It was an open secret at City Hall that Davis’ own job was in jeopardy, especially when he refused to fire the chief. But J. Alfred Smith led a number of powerful Davis loyalists down to the OHA board meetings and raised a ruckus — even to the point of reportedly turning on one of his own congregants who sat on the board and saying, ‘Don’t you forget, I helped bury your wife.’ But Brown’s electoral mandate, and Bobb’s outsider status, kept them from depending too much on Allen Temple for their political survival, and the conflict ultimately broke the back of the black political establishment.
“It’s not easy to get rid of people who aren’t performing at their top levels,” Bobb says. “And there still exists in the organization individuals whose commitment to excellent performance is less than desirable. Hopefully, we all have a connection to some institution [like Allen Temple], and I don’t criticize anyone for having their advocates come forward and act on their behalf. But frankly, many advocates on the outside don’t see what we in the inside see in terms of levels of performance and commitment to the task at hand, and everyone has to be responsive to community needs over their own needs.”
As Bobb was clearing out the deadwood in City Hall, he was also implementing his “crime and grime” campaign. Mayor Harris had set up his own “We Mean Clean” program to spruce up the city, but Bobb’s approach was considerably more aggressive. While Harris’ policy stressed cooperation and civic pride, Bobb’s program targeted blighted properties and threatened to seize property if the owners didn’t clean it up — a rather bold and perhaps not entirely legal move. It was in West Oakland that Bobb’s program attracted the most attention — and the most heat. For years, neighbors had been complaining about a few persistent trouble spots, and they found a sympathetic ear in Bobb, who considers blight a catalyst for crime and drug dealing. On the other hand, blight is often in the eye of the beholder, and many properties that Bobb considered eyesores were in fact businesses that were run out of people’s homes; given West Oakland’s chronic unemployment, some argued that cottage industries were this neighborhood’s only option.
Bobb was unmoved by such arguments. “It distresses me that many people will go to Disneyland, eat a hamburger, and seek out a container to drop the wrapper, whereas in Oakland they drop the wrapper on the street,” he says. “We have to work harder to stop that, because frankly I’m disgusted with certain parts of town.”
Cleaning the streets, fighting crime, and improving city services are critical missions for a city manager, because they diminish the “broken window effect” and establish the conditions for economic growth. But sometimes a city takes a more direct hand in development, and because Oakland bought so many declining properties during the hard times, it has a lot of land with which to work. This is Bobb’s other great challenge; while Brown is Oakland’s pitchman and Perata its banker, Bobb is the guy who closes the deals.
When working with developers in public-private partnerships, there are two ways a deal can be blown; the city can give its partner too much latitude — allowing it to demolish historic buildings, for example — or it can micromanage projects into the ground. Finding a delicate balance between the two is no easy task. “If you talk to the developer who couldn’t make the deal happen, the city’s to blame,” says Phil Tagami. “If you talk to the developer who concluded the deal, they’ll say they did it, and the city didn’t. With the cowboy boots and a very good poker face, I would say that Robert Bobb is a closer.”
For more than ten years, Tagami has built a career out of renovating old Oakland buildings and putting them back into operation. Along the way, he has established a reputation as a smart, solid businessman who invested his own money in Oakland when few were willing to take such a chance; he’s also known as someone who has mastered the art of befriending the city’s up-and-coming politicos. In 1992, Tagami and the city embarked upon an ambitious venture to restore one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, the Rotunda Building, located directly across from City Hall and fronting Frank Ogawa Plaza. Shuttered since 1980, the building was a victim of years of dilapidation and recession, but in 1997, Tagami and the city were finally ready to bring it back to life. Under the terms of the deal, the city sold Tagami the building and loaned him $12 million to rehab it as an office and retail complex. Now nearly complete, the Rotunda is seen as one of the city’s more prominent success stories, a symbol of prosperity and renewed vigor. But the road to success hasn’t always been easy.
“There were half a dozen occasions when, through no fault of the city, the Rotunda deal could have fallen apart, and Robert Bobb absolutely played a role in making sure the deal stayed on track,” Tagami says. “This was a very difficult deal — it was extremely risky for us — and because the city had been burned on a number of deals, staff threw so many requirements at us that most people would look at them and think we were crazy for even wanting to do the deal. We had to put up $4.2 million in cash and lease a majority of the building before they would let us close escrow, which is almost unheard-of. We had to secure historic tax credits and meet their conditions and standards for hiring and retaining certain consultants they thought we should have. The city literally wanted to play developer.”
Point by point, Tagami, Bobb, and city staff hashed out the details of the Rotunda deal. “When we felt that city staff was being unreasonable, did we go to the city manager?” Tagami continues. “Absolutely. Did he sometimes tell us to go fly a kite? Absolutely. But sometimes he said, ‘Well, if that’s really true, then we need to get to the bottom of it.’ For example, we went to the city and said that the requirement that we lease 75 percent of the building two and a half years before anyone moves in is ludicrous. People don’t want to commit to move that far in advance. We’re real estate people, and we’re telling you that people make that decision nine months in advance, not two and a half years. And the city manager says, ‘Hey, he’s right.’ When the staff said that the council was concerned that we wouldn’t be able to rent it, the manager said, ‘Wait a second. We have four and a half million dollars of their money. And they’re signing personally on the loans, so that means their other assets are secured. What are we worried about? If they fail, we’ll just take their money.’ Now, I didn’t want to hear that, but it’s the truth. His deal-savvy and experience is worth something.”
“When the bureaucrats start becoming unreasonable, Robert will act almost like an appeals body,” says City Attorney John Russo. “Developers can say, ‘Robert, why did I go get this permit, when now your people are telling me I can’t do it?’ Robert’s the kind of guy who will cut up all that red tape and force the bureaucrat to justify the requirements, to explain what the city is gaining by forcing developers to do something. On the other hand, developers always whine ’cause they’re always trying to cut corners and are completely driven by profit. Often you’ll get a city manager that will just roll over for developers ’cause he identifies with them or he’s a wannabe, or they take care of him in other ways. Robert doesn’t do that either; he really has the best interests of Oakland at heart.”
To be sure, not every detail in the Rotunda deal worked out smoothly. This spring, Tagami and Bob Lyons, a CEDA staffer and the man responsible for overseeing the 10K plan, got into a bitter dispute over the color of some tiles outside the Rotunda Building. Neither man backed down, and the fight escalated until both Bobb and the mayor were dragged into it. Eventually Lyons, who was the point man on the mayor’s most important project and has been variously called a redevelopment genius and a tyrannical micromanager, was forced to resign.
As enamored of Bobb as Oakland may be, some of his initiatives have run up against serious opposition. His ideas about public safety are considerably further to the right than those of many Oaklanders, who’ve struggled not only with a terrible crime rate, but with a long history of police brutality and cops who see themselves as soldiers in an occupying army, keeping the natives in line. For the last ten years, community activists such as Dan Siegel and Don Link have fought to implement a policy of meaningful community policing, going up against a department that, from Chief Samuels down to the rank-and-file, treated the idea with contempt. But over time, the system they created has begun to flourish and is credited with playing a role in reducing the crime rate and reestablishing trust between the police and the neighborhoods they patrol.
Recently, however, Bobb’s office has floated a plan that critics claim would essentially gut the community policing program. Under the current hard-won arrangement, each of the city’s 57 beats is assigned a community liaison officer, who works with a group of civilian volunteers organized into Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils to identify problem liquor stores, hot spots for drug dealing, and other catalysts for crime. But now that the city has agreed to assume responsibility for security in Oakland’s schools, Bobb’s office has proposed pulling the beat officers from their neighborhood liaison duties and putting them to work patrolling the campuses; in return, every patrolman will now be considered a “community liaison officer.” Critics charge that this amounts to redefining community policing out of existence, the way Chief Samuels, who fought the program every step of the way, used to claim that community policing was “a philosophy, not a policy.”
“If the community policing officers are removed from the system, I can’t picture how the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils would go on,” says Don Link, chair of the Community Policing Advisory Board. “They’d probably struggle on for a few months and then dissipate. The members of my own council have said that if these changes are implemented, there’d be no reason to go on, that it would be citizens coming up with a list of problems and projects, requesting action from the department, and probably not getting any kind of response, or getting a response akin to a  call for service. There’s no partnering, no cooperation, no joint effort at all. It means going back to 1992, and the neighborhoods are going to suffer.”
Bobb bristles at such a claim — indeed, for a man who routinely receives rave reviews, he can sometimes be remarkably thin-skinned. “I don’t need anyone to lecture me on what community policing is, because I’ve been at the forefront of community policing since the ’80s,” he snarls. “The effective program is not to create specialized services among community policing officers, but to create a system where you have all officers within a beat accountable to the community. This has been proven time and time again; the more specialized services you create, the more disengagement you create between the police and the community it serves.”
Bobb’s visions of large-scale development projects have also occasionally embroiled him in controversy. He is a firm believer in the value of professional sports for a city’s image, and will go the extra mile to safeguard Oakland’s roster of pro teams. He clearly also has a taste for the big deal. “I remember a story about Walt Disney,” he says. “Walt Disney came to the City Council of a town in Southern California and said he wanted to build Disneyland in a nearby orange grove. The city said, ‘Forget it, we’re not building anything on our orange grove.’ Today Disneyland is in another city, and that orange grove is an apartment complex.”
As a cautionary tale, this story may not exactly resonate with a progressive, multicultural port city like Oakland. Indeed, some might say that it was just this kind of eagerness to deal, combined with a crippling civic self-image, that drove the deal to return the Raiders football team to Oakland. But while most Oaklanders seem to believe the deal that led to the Raiders’ return was a fiscal disaster, Bobb suggests that history will actually regard that deal favorably. “It may turn out that the Raiders deal was the best among professional sports teams in the country,” he says. “When you look at what other cities are doing, it’s hard to say whether the Raiders deal was really so bad.” Over the last several years, Bobb’s enthusiasm for such ventures led him into the one clear setback of his tenure so far: his plans for the Lake Chabot golf course.
Only cockeyed sentimentalists would call the city-owned Lake Chabot golf course anything but shabby and decrepit, but at least the price is right; for years, local golfers have been able to play a round for as little as fifteen dollars. For Bobb, however, cheap links are hardly what he considers a civic asset. Well-known all over town as a diehard golf nut — Bobb found time to attend neither a Raiders nor a Warriors game during his first few weeks in town, but he had already played at Chabot and found it embarrassingly substandard. By the beginning of 2000, Bobb was talking with KSL Recreation, the company that owns the Claremont Hotel and a subsidiary of the Wall Street investment firm KKR Associates, about a potential lease arrangement. Under the terms of the deal, KSL would spend $12.5 million improving the facility, which the city would lease to the company for forty years. Meanwhile, the Claremont would build up to 165 new hotel rooms to house the legions of wealthy golfers who would presumably fly in to play the course.
Public outcry was swift and fierce. Advocates of good government objected to the secretive nature of the talks and suggested that they may have violated the city’s sunshine ordinance. The Claremont’s neighbors complained that an expanded resort would dump hundreds of additional cars onto already congested Ashby Avenue, and when word leaked that KSL was considering boosting greens fees as high as $150, critics across the city charged that Bobb was planning to turn a public asset into a rich man’s playground. As KSL and the city negotiated a plan to offer discounts to city residents, the Environmental Impact Report shocked city residents by declaring that the company’s plans included cutting down more than 750 trees. Opposition mounted, and KSL pulled out of the deal earlier this year.
“A lot of people want to play golf for twenty bucks,” says Mayor Brown, who has no sympathy for the notion. “If you have blight, you can get a cheaper apartment. If you fix it up, you pay a higher price. Bobb resonates with excellence, and the key issue in Oakland is, are we about excellence, or are we just treading water and tolerating mediocrity?” Meanwhile, an undaunted Bobb has declared that the city will spend $2.5 million of its own money to improve the course. Hearing these numbers, some observers see a parallel between Lake Chabot and the downtown ice rink, which ran into embarrassing cost overruns and was the brainchild of city manager Craig Kocian, who happened to be a big hockey fan. More than one City Hall source shook his head and told me, “I just don’t know what it is about Robert Bobb and golf.”
Overall, however, incidents like the Chabot deal are minor blemishes on what has been a stunning record for Robert Bobb. Almost everyone interviewed for this story started off by expressing a deep admiration for the city manager’s sophistication, versatility, and iron will to get things done. Phil Tagami summed it up best when he marveled at “the rarity of finding someone who can play in the complex universe of [development] deal structure, but can also talk about negotiating with police and fire, dealing with unfunded pension obligations, bond issuances for revenue bonds, running a Joint Powers Authority at the Coliseum and the Arena, negotiating with lawsuits — I mean, the guy has got a very, very large array of talents and skills that he’s assembled in his thirty-plus years of being a city manager.”
But even if Robert Bobb is the best thing to happen to Oakland in years, when it comes to such issues as public safety, economic development, and substantial change to the city’s destiny, there’s only so much that even the most talented manager can do if history, demographics, and market economics aren’t on his side. Had he been running the city in the ’80s, Bobb couldn’t have stopped the manufacturing sector from fleeing to the Third World any more than he could have prevented the Loma Prieta earthquake.
Take Oakland’s recent bid to host the Super Bowl, for example. When Bobb set out to secure this particular plum, he knew that the Coliseum expansion should have put the city on the short list of contenders, and he hoped he could capitalize on Jerry Brown’s celebrity. With economic development consultant Zennie Abraham in charge, Oakland organized every player in town (over a round of golf — Russo and Tagami even got Alameda Newspaper Group president Scott McKibben on board) and mounted a full court press for two years. The city produced a promotional video with clips of Ken Stabler lofting a football over the heads of the Dallas defensive line, and promised to convert Jack London Square into a theme park named “Jack London’s NFL Playland.” But it was never really in the cards for Oakland. The city never got the enthusiastic support of either the 49ers or the city of San Francisco — whose hotels were desperately needed to host corporate executives during Super Bowl weekend — and Oakland’s corporate base was simply not wide or deep enough to mount a convincing pitch. Finally, and crucially, the city needed the support of the Raiders, who at the time happened to be suing both Oakland and the NFL. During the crucial vote in Atlanta last year, Al Davis didn’t even bother to show up.
Similarly, Bobb’s vaunted blight and crimefighting programs have hardly made a dent in cleaning up the city. The homicide rate is on the rise again, and Oakland’s sprawling ghettos may be too dilapidated to fix, at least in the short run. “My pet peeve is the amount of litter in the city,” says Dan Siegel. “You remember when Bobb came in, his mantra was crime and grime. He’s now been here three years, and the litter’s still here.” In addition, Jeanette Sherwin, a persistent critic of Bobb, claims that the voicemail phenomenon has been creeping back into City Hall of late.
“The reality is that this is a tough town, and running it is a tough job, and no one person can do all that,” says one City Hall source.Still, Bobb’s most important contribution may not lie in producing actual results, but in giving people a sense that results may someday be possible. From one department to another, city staff all say the same thing: that inside City Hall, there is a sense of hope for the first time in living memory. Others have another word for it: salesmanship. It’s not a word that Bobb shies away from. “Salesmanship is a large part of it,” he acknowledges, “but salesmanship isn’t sitting in an office. Salesmanship is when Elihu and I went out on the streets of West Oakland and hacked weeds. It’s when you’re sitting in a barbershop and you see someone throw litter on the ground, you get out of the chair and go talk to them, even though they’ll probably tell you where you can go. It’s going to the sentencing of a notorious drug dealer. It’s demanding that the city refuse to settle for less.”
Many observers claim that there is one critical difference between the vitality of today and the doldrums of the Wilson years. “One of the things Robert Bobb did was get rid of the sense that if you wanted to do business in Oakland, you had to grease every palm in City Hall,” says Leonhardy. But are those days really gone? Many Oaklanders say that graft and cronyism are as prevalent as ever — they’ve just gotten more sophisticated.
Two months ago, for instance, the City Council was scheduled to award a lucrative bus shelter contract, and the choice came down to two rival companies: Infinity Outdoor Inc., which offered to pay the city roughly $11 million; and Adshel, which offered to pay only $1.3 million. On the morning of the day the council was scheduled to vote, Infinity was the front-runner by five votes to three. But then Brown and De La Fuente invited rookie councilmember Moses Mayne into a closed-door meeting, and by the time he came out he had switched his vote, splitting the council evenly. Brown promptly cast the tie-breaking vote, and Adshel walked away with the contract.
Why did Adshel get the deal? According to councilmember Larry Reid, it may have had something to do with the fact that Adshel’s parent company, the billboard firm Eller Media, had provided free billboard advertising for some of the mayor’s electoral campaigns. In addition, Eller recently donated $100,000 to the Chabot Science Center, which is one of councilmember Dick Spees’ pet projects; highly placed City Hall sources claim that shortly after the donation, Spees began pressuring the city to resolve a number of ongoing lawsuits against Eller. During the council meeting, a furious Reid snapped, “We already know how you’re going to vote, Dick!”
“It’s not corruption — it’s just that the mayor was providing for one of his friends at the expense of the public,” Reid says. “But when the economy goes south, and the city starts whining that we don’t have any money, I’m going to remind them that we lost an opportunity to sign off on a deal that provided a lot more revenue.”
Is the lobbying surrounding the Adshel vote any different from Lionel Wilson holding campaign fund-raisers a month before awarding a major development contract? When Zhone Technologies donated $50,000 to Don Perata’s “Three Rs” PAC at the very time it was closing a multimillion-dollar land deal with the city, was that any different from the Lucas Dallas scandals of the early ’90s? One source claims that the real difference may boil down to the race of the people making the deals — that when white people are rigging the game, it’s perceived not as cronyism, but dynamism. “All corruption is wrong. But black corruption is so petty that it’s easy to see it as corruption, while white corruption is so big that it just looks like smart business. Tudor Saliba got the Oakland Coliseum [construction] contract just because Al Davis wanted it to. Was that cronyism, or just playing the system? Meanwhile, Joe Debro did the Alice Arts Center, he had a million dollars in change orders, and he didn’t see a dime, yet he’s in disgrace.”
According to many observers, much of the vitality coursing through Oakland’s veins today is due in no small part to the fact that it is simply no longer seen as a black city. Of the dozens of development projects that are changing the face of downtown Oakland this very moment, almost every one was actually negotiated during the administration of Elihu Harris: the Rotunda Building, the massive Shorenstein deal that will build up to four skyscrapers of new office space; the Tribune Tower project that restored the city’s signature building; the Old Town Square project that helped to inspire the 10K plan. But it is Jerry Brown who will stand before the national press while behind him thirty-story-high cranes build the Oakland of the future. To be sure, some of the blunders in the Wilson-Harris era were truly mortifying. But perhaps the perception of Oakland as a black city downplayed its successes and amplified its failures. Once again, it all comes down to salesmanship.
Not that this means much to Robert Bobb. He’ll still be the man in the trenches, fighting to make this city a better place, to clean the streets, to fight the crime, to build the housing. He doesn’t have time to wonder why there’s magic in Oakland’s air these days, because it’s his job to see that the city takes advantage of the good times while it can — and to make sure that Oakland doesn’t go down in history as the city that said no to Disneyland.