Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA




May 4 , 2007

One of the reasons it can be so important—and valuable—to have several media outlets covering the same issue or event is that individual observers tend to have our own take on things, and it is only by reading more than one account—several, if possible—that you can get a clear idea of what’s really going on. Of course, that doesn’t happen when our good friends in the media go chasing after each other’s tails, yard-dog fashion, without trying to figure things out for themselves, but that’s another story.

Anyway, to get one take on it, Alex Gronke of Oakland’s online NovoMetro newspaper, seemed to feel that the most important news coming out of Mayor Ron Dellums’ town hall meeting at Frick Middle School in East Oakland last week was the mayor’s relationship with the media, naming his blog entry on the subject “The Mayor versus the Media.”

“He used the occasion to briefly mock the news media for obsessing on artificial timetables like the ‘First 100 Days,’ Mr. Gronke wrote, adding the lament that “everyone has a place at [Mr. Dellums’] table—everyone except local reporters. They are the one group it’s still OK to ridicule. When Mr. Dellums speaks of reporters, it’s either as a risible bunch of nudniks, who just don’t get it, or as a malicious force working against the interest of good people. The pastor who swore Mr. Dellums into office asked God to protect the new mayor from reporters.”

Some background. When reporters from the area’s two daily newspapers—the Chronicle and the Tribune—tried to contact Mr. Dellums for stories they were doing on his first 100 days in office, he refused to talk with them. Last week, at Frick, he explained why.

“A number of people in the media wanted me to talk about my accomplishments in 100 days, as if 100 days is somehow magical,” Mr. Dellums said. “Why not 98 days? Why not 105? It’s just an arbitrary timeline.” The mayor then went on to say that, “I never was a media guy. I’ve always been about doing my job, never about ‘skinning and grinning’ in front of the camera.”

But Mr. Dellums fails to give himself credit. He is, actually, the ultimate “media guy,” using the media as well as any Bay Area politician of our time, and better than most. We saw that on its best display last year in the long, masterful run-up to the announcement that he was going to be a candidate for mayor, holding the media and the public at bay for months, pretty much stopping most of the other campaigns, keeping us all in suspense until the dramatic Laney College rally which he ended by saying, “If Ron Dellums running for mayor gives you hope, then let’s get it on!” The end of that announcement was drowned out by thunderous shouting and applause, a standing, dancing, glad-handing ovation, one of the most electric political moments in modern Oakland history, and every media outlet in the area covered it. Was it political theater? Of course, it was. And done by a master of the craft, one who studied with the big boys, in Washington.

In many ways, Mr. Dellums is reminiscent of another California politician, Ronald Reagan, who also was critical of the press, but used it to his advantage. And last week’s Frick Town Hall meeting was a familiar page out of Mr. Reagan’s old playbook, in which the politician decides that rather than filtering his message through the media, he will “go over the media’s heads” and speak directly to the people.

And so, at Frick, Mr. Dellums reported to his constituents a long list of actions taken by his administration in its first four months in office: preparing the new two-year budget (presented this week to City Council); filling up long-neglected appointments to boards and commissions, including ensuring that some of those appointments are local youth; seeking money for the city from state, federal, and private sources to supplement local funds; announcing that close to a half a million dollars has already been promised by philanthropic sources, some of that to set up a “major” HIV screening and testing program in Oakland; meeting with State Senator Don Perata to try bring some of last year’s infrastructure bond measure projects—and its resultant jobs—to Oakland; setting up a Public Safety Director in the office of the mayor to coordinate disaster preparedness (that one mentioned in Mr. Gronke’s blog entry) so that Oakland in an earthquake doesn’t duplicate New Orleans and Katrina; securing agreement from the Alameda District Attorney to deputize two attorneys from the Oakland City Attorney’s Office to be able to bring criminal charges in “quality of life” issues such as problem liquor stores, abandoned cars and houses being turned into drug-dealing and drug-use centers, and graffiti; announcing that his office was close to meeting a goal of 1,000 jobs this summer for Oakland youth, including 200 within city government itself; working on the already-announced reorganization of the Oakland Police Department as a first step towards “community policing” (though we still haven't gotten a working definition of that term) and putting a dent in Oakland’s violent crime problem; saying he was trying to set up a personal meeting with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (and who doubts that he will be able to?) to both to address the issue of gang violence and ask that the governor put money into Oakland to make this a “model city” for economic advancement; announcing an economic summit being held this week in Oakland on Oakland’s economic development.

“This is not about a hundred days,” Mr. Dellums said. “Everyone in this room knows we are not going to solve these things overnight.”

Whatever one may think of Mr. Dellums or his programs, or whether they think these are attainable goals or simply “pie-in-the-sky” old-school rhetoric, this was not the speech of someone who has spent his first four months in office sleeping his time away, or with his mind on other things. The mayor spoke without notes, ticking off initiatives and accomplishments one behind the other, rarely calling on staff for details or help. I know that's what the city leader is supposed to do, but you must remember that we've just been through eight years of Jerry Brown, and the bar has been set considerably lower.

Later Mr. Dellums listened patiently to a long string of citizens coming up to the microphone to voice concerns or complaints, looking each one in the eye as they did, offering personal replies or assurances when he could. For those used to Council meetings in which some Councilmembers often seem to be drifting during the public comment sessions, it was a welcome change.

Equally impressive was the fact that much of City Hall’s top brass was also brought along to East Oakland for the meeting. There was no head table, and so department heads from the Police Department to CEDA sat amongst the crowd of East Oakland citizens or stood along the side walls when chair space ran out. And so for residents of the East Oakland neighborhood where Frick is located—who are used to seeing their Councilmember, Desley Brooks in their community, but few other city workers or officials other than the police patrols and parking enforcement officers—the gathering alone was the beginning of the fulfillment of Mr. Dellums’ campaign promise that he was going to run an inclusive administration, leaving no community out. For neighborhoods virtually ignored by former Mayor Jerry Brown while he spent most of his efforts on building a new neighborhood in the downtown area to attract non-Oakland residents, the importance of having a mayor who returns after the votes are counted and the campaign is over, not to ask for anything but simply to report on what he has been doing, cannot be overstated. Politics, theater, whatever, Mr. Dellums’ Frick meeting will long be remembered along Foothill and Bancroft and up and down Seminary and Havenscourt, and the streets in between. And that will buy the mayor a lot of good will—and time—in neighborhoods where the local media is not so favorably looked on.

And that, actually, is a good deal of the point of what the mayor is doing with the media.

Like Mr. Reagan before him, Mr. Dellums voices a low opinion of the media, in part, because it is a sentiment shared by many of his constituents, particularly in communities like Deep East Oakland, out past the High Street divide. Just as many citizens in these communities feel like that city has ignored them in the past, so, too, they believe that the media has ignored them as well, except to play up the bad things.

And so, rather than the quick and easy conclusion that Mr.-Dellums-must-not-be-doing-nothing-because-we-ain’t-seen-nothing-that-he’s-been-doing, the media should pay closer attention to what is actually going on, both within the Dellums Administration, and out in Oakland’s neighborhoods.

Does this constitute an endorsement, on my part, of all of the things Mr. Dellums has been doing or saying or not doing, or a call for my friends in the media to lay down and simply let the mayor have his way? If that’s what you think, friends, you’ve missed the point. For Oakland residents, what Mr. Dellums has provided is still mostly promises, and the proof in the pudding, as they say, is always in the eating. So we will see what comes of all of this. But, at least, in the first four months of his administration, the new mayor has already demonstrated that he has significantly raised the level of standards of the mayors’ office over what it was after Jerry Brown. If we in the media want to keep up and do more than just sit by the side of the road tossing little pebbles at the windows of the passing parade, we need to step up our own game, as well.

All of us.