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

Portrait by John W. Pearson




September 14 , 2007

This is the summer of disquiet and discontent for supporters of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and for those who may not have supported him in the last election, but still want him to succeed as mayor.

It has been many weeks since the great, singular triumph of the Dellums Administration, when reporters crowded the City Hall rotunda outside the mayor’s office to hear representatives of the Teamsters union and Waste Management, in turn, take the podium to praise Mr. Dellums for being the driving force that ended the garbage workers lockout. That bright and shining moment confirmed all the assertions made by his supporters during last year’s mayoral campaign that Mr. Dellums was willing to do the backbreaking, detailed work necessary to the mayor’s office, and that his legendary powers of persuasion and ability to forge unlikely coalitions through creative compromises would be valuable tools to work out solutions to Oakland’s deep problems.

But Mr. Dellums is not in the position of a Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State and national security advisor under Nixon, who could disappear for weeks on end without public notice or concern, and then emerge, triumphant, with a China agreement in hand. The mayor is the face of a city. When things are going badly, the citizens want to see that face on a regular basis, and be constantly reassured that the mayor is on the job, working on their problems.

And so we have people like NovoMetro editor-publisher Alex Gronke calling for Mr. Dellums to publish his daily calendar online, so we can see what the mayor is doing with his time.

“The cynical, cheap shot response” to Mr. Dellums’ failure to post an online calendar, Mr. Gronke writes in a September 8 blog entry entitled "Mayor Dellums Should Open His Calendar," “would be to say that … [this] is probably an accurate reflection of his daily doings. Rather than hiding from the public a daily schedule of back room dealing, he is concealing long afternoon naps and occasional speech making in other cities.”

My friend, Mr. Gronke is right. That is a cheap shot. Local politicians tend to dismiss the demands and concerns of the local media to the extent that we in the media are often far more interested in making an issue of the demand than we are in the actual receipt and dissemination of the information itself.
Former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown started out religiously posting his calendar online. Nobody seemed to care, to the extent that when Mr. Brown’s staff failed to update it between September of 2005 and March of 2006, and then belatedly published the December and January schedules four months late before stopping, again, altogether, no-one in the press (besides myself) raised a stir.

And when a public records request by PUEBLO of Mr. Brown’s actual calendar—not the one he was posting online—revealed that the former mayor was listing significant time during the day to do fund-raising calls in support of his two private, independent charter schools as part of his daily activities, again, this column was the only place where it was mentioned that the mayor might have been using his time-on-the-clock working on things which actually involved his duties as mayor.

Meanwhile, remember all the stink in the press about Mr. Dellums’ office allegedly hiding the results of last summer’s various task force meetings and demanding that the reports be made available to the public. Well, the mayoral task force reports have been available to the public for several weeks now, posted on the city website. Having received full access to those reports, many of my media colleagues who howled so loudly to get that information have failed to write a single article or column on what the reports contained.

A good friend of mine, a longtime political observer and sometimes-activist, often tells me she believes the differences in the way the media scrutinized Mr. Brown and Mr. Dellums amounts to a double standard that has a strain of anti-Black racism at its core. While anti-Black racism can never be fully discounted in American life—it is, after all, as much a part of the fabric of this nation, from its onset, as was all of our constitutional, capitalist, and revolutionary, principles—I think there is another dynamic at work in how Mr. Dellums and his accomplishments, or lack of accomplishments, are being currently perceived in Oakland, and that stems from both a contradictory duality within the new mayor, some significant differences between how work gets done in Washington and how work gets done in Oakland, and some misconceptions on our own part as to how Mr. Dellums was able to make his mark in the past.

Mr. Dellums won last year’s election over two tough, veteran City Councilmember opponents in large part on the strength of a soaring message of hope that Oakland was a jewel of a city with significant assets—especially among its population—and whose fortunes could be turned around. Mr. Dellums’ high rhetoric—along with his international stature—raised expectations about what his administration would accomplish far and above what would have been looked for in a De La Fuente or a Nadel administration.

That setting of high goals did not end with the casting of the votes last year. Once, when I was asking Mr. Dellums for details on his proposals to make Oakland into “a model city,” he reminded me, pointedly, was that his goal was to make Oakland “the model city.”

But the problems facing Oakland—as Mr. Dellums fully knows, and informed any of us who were actually listening in detail—are not those that can be solved with clever strokes or flying phrases. There are significant differences within this city on the three major issues before us: how to lessen the violent crime on our streets, who should live in the city and who should city government serve, and in what form should residential and commercial development proceed.

We are now hearing a rising chorus of I-told-you-so’s, presumably from supporters of Mr. De La Fuente in the late contest, who are eager to remind us that Mr. De La Fuente would have been a hands-on mayor, and if he had been elected, things would have been off and running in the city. That, however, is something like being told, after you reach the airport to find that your Southwest flight to Los Angeles is delayed, that an Alaska Airlines plane to Seattle is currently boarding and will soon to take off. Yes, the Alaska Airlines staff may be efficient and the flight on-time, but if it is not taking you where you want to go, what’s the point?

In some areas, Mr. Dellums has waited to establish the city’s direction until citizens of the city—many of whom were left out of such direction-setting decision-making in the past—get the chance to weigh in on how we want our city to want, and what we want our city to be. That was one of the purposes that led to the creation of mayoral task forces, a process that Mr. Dellums believes did not end with the publication of the various reports, but is ongoing. Members of several of the task forces, in fact, are currently identifying themselves by that membership as they participate in the various debates and struggles over Oakland policy issues, and indication that at least some of the task forces may be on the way towards institutionalizing themselves as both a citizen sounding board and vehicles for community action. That, in itself, will pay benefits to this city in years to come.

In some areas, Mr. Dellums appears to have a clear idea of where he wants to go, but cannot move there immediately until some roadblocks are moved. That is certainly the case with Oakland’s violent crime problem. OPD Chief Wayne Tucker has developed a new deployment plan that Mr. Dellums believes will help the police department make significant inroads into creating a community police presence and, in the long run, abating Oakland’s violent crime. But the Oakland Police Officers Association, the police union, is opposed to Mr. Tucker’s plan, and that debate is the subject of the ongoing city-union contract bargaining talks. One can assume that just as in the Waste Management workers lockout, Mr. Dellums is using his significant powers of persuasion to try to win concessions from OPOA and settle the contract talks. But until that is done, and some form of Mr. Tucker’s plan can be implemented, the reorganization of the police department cannot move forward.

In some areas, such as conforming the city’s zoning code to its General Plan, there are no significant roadblocks, just many months of detailed work in front of city staff. That work was neglected—some say deliberately neglected—under Jerry Brown, and resulted in the sort of hodgepodge development we currently see in Oakland, with enormous subsidies to developers in some areas that will eat up redevelopment funds for years to come, while other large sections of Oakland go to seed.

With the caveat that he has grown older—as have all of us—and can no longer put in the enormous hours himself that he once did, Mr. Dellums actually appears to be attacking Oakland’s problems in the same way he won international acclaim successfully attacked problems while in Congress, combining periodic high-rhetoric and stirring speeches to shore up morale and get supporters to work harder with the detailed, background, behind-the-scenes commitment necessary to forge compromises, agreements, and legislation.

The difference is that while nobody believed that apartheid could be toppled in a day, and saw it as a long-term fight, Oakland residents want solutions to their problems now, or at least some indication that there is significant work being done to solve their problems. That is just the nature of medium-to-big city politics. Along with Mr. Dellums’ own rhetoric, that has caused many citizens of this city to expect both immediate and sustained progress towards meeting the goal of “turning Oakland around.” When questioned about why that has not immediately happened, Mr. Dellums cannot get by with calling us “cynical,” as he so famously did to a television reporter during last month’s press conference announcing his public safety policy. Instead, the mayor must use the same patience with us that he is requesting we give to him, realize that these concerns are genuine and legitimate, and help give the public a better understanding of what is actually going on with the city and his administration, and what we can now reasonably expect.