Brown in national spotlight as he readies for gubernatorial run

Legal News Line Jan. 11, 2009, 1:00am

Jerry Brown (D)

OAKLAND, Calif. (Legal Newsline) - As California Attorney General Jerry Brown prepares to launch a bid for a third term as governor of California he need not worry about getting his name in front of voters.

A combination of current events and political strategy has placed Brown front and center before the voters in recent weeks.

After his role in California's same-sex marriage ban thrust the Democratic attorney general into the national spotlight over the past month, a tragedy in his hometown has again given the attorney general a dramatic stage.

Brown held a press conference Saturday in Oakland -- the city he lives in and was mayor for six years prior to becoming attorney general -- to announce he would assign a state prosecutor from his office to oversee the district attorney's investigation of the killing of an unarmed man by a transit officer on New Year's Day.

The shooting has boiled over in this crime-filled city across the bay from San Francisco, following cell phone videos of the shooting hitting local blogs and New Media Web sites.

One Web site said the incident, in which 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot in the back while lying face down by former Bay Area Rapid Transit Officer Johannes Mehserle, 27, could escalate even more than it already had. Earlier this week a non-violent protest at BART stops turned violent as vandals ran the streets downtown.

"Every citizen should be unhappy by what they saw," Alice Huffman, state president of the NAACP, said during the press conference with Brown. "I hope that everyone that has a conscience and believes the police department is supposed to protect us and not be a predator would be upset."

Still, the killing "has the potential of touching off a repeat of the Rodney King rioting in 1992 that left much of Los Angeles in chaos for days after a jury acquitted four police officers for the videotaped beating of King," the California Beat Web site stated Sunday.

Grant was black. Mehserle is white.

Enter Brown, who had originally declined to get involved despite his close connection to the city of Oakland. During a standing-room only press conference on Saturday, Brown, flanked by community leaders and members of the NAACP said justice needed to come more swiftly in this case.

"The wheels of justice cannot grind so slowly that it appears that justice is not being served," Brown said, following a lengthy meeting with the NAACP, who have called for criminal charges to be filed against Mehserle, the officer who helped take several men into custody following a 2 a.m. fight on New Year's Day at an Oakland BART stop.

"Brown took a decidedly different stance from earlier this week when he said that he would allow the local authorities to handle the investigation," Tim Jue, a Web site staff writer, reported.

Mehserle, who exercised his right to remain silent and refused to talk to the district attorney's office, quit his job rather than be questioned by BART officials. Investigators believe Mehserle may have thought he was firing a taser when he reached for his gun instead.

Brown, who will rely heavily on his Oakland base and the black vote in what is expected to be a crowded Democratic primary for governor in 2010, said he would make sure the investigation is handled properly.

"I want to make sure we're pushing this stuff along," Brown said.

Racial tensions spilled across the bay into San Francisco, where another protest is slated to be held early next week. News reports said blacks have expressed outrage over the high-profile shooting, which many assert is part of a long-standing trend that allows authorities to frequently stop, threaten, even handcuff blacks simply because of their race, according to published reports.

Brown acknowledged the potential for further problems.

"Whenever you have the law - the badge and the gun - and someone down on the ground, it's a horrifying specter," Brown said. "As a lawyer I suspend my disbelief until I hear all the facts. But it's certainly something that is extremely disturbing. That moment has been visibly captured and transmitted to people many, many times. That is an incendiary situation that I think we cannot take lightly at all."

The victim's attorney said race was a significant factor in this shooting.

"I don't think the officer shot the gun because Oscar was black, but I think the way he approached the situation in an aggressive way was based on race," Attorney John Burris said, announcing the family's intent to file a claim against BART. "If they were white, the officer might have asked them what was going on, rather than throw them in handcuffs."

Brown is expected to announce his intention to again run for governor - he served two terms in the 1970s and 80s before the state instituted term limits - very soon. For months polls have shown him as the early leader among likely contenders.

The attorney general's profile, already the highest among likely candidates, has grown in recent weeks. Prior to the Oakland shooting, Brown's role in California's same-sex wedding ban garnered national attention.

The likes of Time Magazine profiled Brown when he changed course and asked the state Supreme Court to invalidate the results of a November election that passed a ban on same-sex weddings, following nearly six months of the practice being legal in California. More than 18,000 same-sex couples wed in 2008 before the election.

Despite a political career reaching back nearly a half century, the latest two issues could dramatically define Brown's bid to become governor, for better or worse.

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