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




January 8, 2009

Sometime in the 1920’s, the ruling Communist Party of Russia produced a silent-era film purporting to show how they won the Revolution. If you know your Russian history, there was a brief period between the reign of the last Czar and the Bolshevik takeover in which the nation was run by a Provisional Government made up in part of non-Bolshevik Socialist Revolutionaries. At one point, with the “heroic Russian working people” storming the Kremlin government gates with sickles and hayforks, the Communist Party film depicts Provisional Government Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky so overcome with fear that he dives under his office desk, trembling and cowering, in an attempt to hide. It was all political propaganda, of course. Whether he was right or wrong on the issues of his day, no historical evidence has passed down to us that Mr. Kerensky was a physical coward, and like as not he went to his government’s end cutting a far more determined and heroic figure. But that’s the nature of political propaganda, which ever seeks to assign the worst motives and characteristics to its political opponents and enemies in an effort to turn public opinion against them, and bring them down. It’s a great and wondrous tool for winning political battles, and as such, it will almost certainly never go out of style. But while political propaganda can sometimes—and the operative word here is sometimes—be relied upon to accurately reflect actions, it’s an absolutely awful resource if what you’re trying to do is find out the actual motives and character of the individuals being attacked. For that, it’s about as useful as reading Little Red Riding Hood to ascertain the nature of wolves.

One of the reasons I am so skeptical about so much of the local criticism of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums—whether it be in the blogsphere or in the opinion pieces of certain local columnists—is that far too much of it is put together for the sole purpose of political propaganda. While it often tells a great deal about the critics themselves and their attitudes, and it is sometimes useful in airing out specific actions taken by our government that might otherwise remain out of the light of day, it’s pretty useless if one is trying to ascertain the reasoning and motives underlying those actions. And understanding reasoning and motives—after all—is the absolute first step that must be taken if one’s goal is to eventually change those actions, change the government, and change the city.

That local propaganda tends to depict Mr. Dellums, not as a Kerensky cowering under his desk, but as a doddering old man snoozing at his desk, unable to complete the weary tasks of the day, and too unconcerned about the future of the city of Oakland to care. That the real Ron Dellums is far different from this cartoon-character description is beside the point—the purpose of propaganda, after all, is not to ascertain fact but to drive the political narrative towards a certain, pre-determined end.

The real damage of this propaganda chatter is that it often drowns out serious attempts at analysis and discussion and critique. Worse, it punishes the serious, thoughtful people in the political process, often driving them from office or the political profession entirely, leaving the field to the silly, the shallow, and those most adept at playing the propaganda game. I can understand this practice when it is done by some of our more conservative friends, since it is their goal to break government in half and leave it weak and defenseless to preying upon by the private sector. For those who loudly profess to care about the success of Oakland government, however, I wonder at their methodology and what ends they hope to attain. But that’s another story.

For now, let us try to figure out what Mr. Dellums is actually trying to do and why, even if we don’t (always) agree with it.

A good place to start would be the speculation that Mr. Dellums is wrangling for an appointment with the Obama administration, and will be leaving Oakland shortly either for Washington or some foreign station. The speculation is the younger cousin of the rumor last spring that Mr. Dellums endorsed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries so he could get the same kind of position in a Hillary Clinton presidential administration. Whatever the case, the speculation always has Mr. Dellums eager to bolt Oakland a year or two before his mayoral term is out. This fits into the storyline that Mr. Dellums never wanted to return to Oakland in the first place, that he did so only on a whim, and that he immediately grew weary of carrying Oakland’s heavy load.

But as for myself, I don’t think that’s what’s driving Mr. Dellums.

I think there are three overriding goals motivating Mr. Dellums in these latter days of his political career. The first is that while Mr. Dellums has served in politics for many decades, this is the first time he has actually held political office inside his own hometown (he was a City Councilmember in Berkeley in the mid 60’s, and thereafter spent all of his time as a Congressmember in Washington). Like anyone else who has achieved success and fame away, I believe that Mr. Dellums deeply wants to do the same at home. The second motivation—closely tied to the first—is that the mayor wants to protect his impressive political legacy. He does not want the last memory of him by his homefolks to be of a failure. And, finally but perhaps most importantly, I believe Mr. Dellums does not want to enact only superficial accomplishments, houses of cards that begin to collapse within weeks after he leaves office. I think his goal is a permanent, positive turnaround of Oakland’s fortunes, defining Oakland not only by its geographic space and political designation, but also by the diverse population—and all of that population—currently living within its borders.

If all those are the case, then, although I certainly believe it is possible that Mr. Dellums could receive and accept an Obama appointment and leave more than a year before his term is up, I find it most unlikely, and would be pretty surprised if it happens. An ambassadorship to South Africa, say, would certainly cap Mr. Dellums’ public career, but it’s difficult for me to see him doing so if it meant abandoning Oakland in mid-stream. For the rest of his life, the mayor would look upon that as a failure, not that he couldn’t accomplish all that he wanted, but that he gave up the attempt.

Some people actually have bad motives, of course. I always felt that former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown never much cared about what happened to Oakland’s future, and merely used his tenure as a stepping stone to vault himself back into public life. But that conclusion came after a long period of observation of Mr. Brown’s actions. I don’t think one ought to make up someone’s motives simply because one disagrees with their methods.

While I tend to find myself in general disagreement of the “critical analysis” of Mr. Dellums’ motives—not finding much analysis in it at all—I have differences with some popular opinions about the mayor’s actions, as well.

One of the most common complaints you will hear about Mr. Dellums is the belief that he is not putting in enough time carrying out his duties as mayor. The East Bay Express’ Bob Gammon—who is neither complainer nor propagandist but, rather, probably the Bay Area’s best investigative reporter—did a December 24th piece (“Oakland’s Part-Time Mayor”) in which he estimated, based upon an analysis of the mayor’s official calendar, that Mr. Dellums “officially” puts in something in the area of 28 hours a week at the job. Mr. Gammon noted that while Dellums spokespeson Paul Rose said that the mayor often works from home—a habit Mr. Gammon said that the mayor picked up from his Congressional days—“there's very little evidence of the mayor actually working from home on his official calendar,” and working from home does not appear on Mr. Dellums’ schedule.

The problem with using the time-sheet formula for judging the amount of time being put on the job—the mayor’s official schedule standing in lieu of a time sheet—is that some jobs simply do not easily lend themselves to such hour-to-hour form. It is said that Martin Luther (not the King, but the protestant) used to develop his best sermons during extended times sitting on the toilet. If that were so, should Mr. Luther have marked that time down as “working on official church business” in the equivalent of a day book to be turned in to the parish deacons at the end of the month? Public officials’ calendars are important for determining who they are meeting with and, therefore, who is influencing (or not influencing) their decisions. But I think they are not so helpful for much else.

My friend, Mr. Gammon, appears to concede as much when he notes that "the scant number of hours that Dellums appears to put in week after week wouldn't matter much if the city were running smoothly and he was an effective mayor who got things done.” In fact, that would appear to undercut the entire argument about the importance of tying down the exact amount of time being put in by the mayor, since Mr. Gammon says that it is the “effectiveness” that matters. But “effectiveness” has no objective standard. In his article, Mr. Gammon says that Mr. Dellums “has been a largely ineffective and indecisive mayor.” Others might argue that the opposite is true. That argument is still going on in and around Oakland concerning the effectiveness of the Brown Administration. Although the Brown legacy discussion has been greatly hampered by the fact that we have no access to Mr. Brown’s mayoral records—Mr. Brown having failed to turn those over to city officials on his way out the door, for whatever reason—I would imagine that we’ll be debating the same about Mr. Dellums long after he has left office as well.

For my part, I believe that Mr. Dellums’ chief problem is not that he has failed to take on enough responsibility but that he has taken on too much, or too much in certain directions, and has failed to properly delegate. But this is part of a long discussion, and so we will have to wait for another day, and another column, to complete that thought.

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