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




May 14, 2009

From time to time, when some of my blogging and columnizing friends want to dismiss my various writings about Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums without actually having to respond to my arguments, they resort to simply calling me a “Dellums defender.”

I freely admit the offense. I have sometimes come to Mr. Dellums’ defense at the times I feel such a defense is warranted. This is not so much for the sake of Mr. Dellums himself, who is able to defend his own self without my help, if he wishes, but more so because I feel it is the Dellums policies that are ultimately under attack, and I feel that the Dellums policies—if not always the Dellums practices, which I sometimes disagree with—are important for the future of Oakland and the folks who currently live here.

It should be no mystery why Mr. Dellums is under such relentless attack. For the people who had a fairly free hand in running Oakland in the years before Mr. Dellums returned, the Dellums Administration posed two specific threats. The first threat to the Old Oakland Establishment was that Mr. Dellums would stop (or significantly slow down) the economic looting of Oakland that has been going on, unchecked, since the decline of the city’s progressive movement sometime in the 1970’s. The second threat to the Old Oakland Establishment was that the Dellums Administration would spark a revival of that progressive movement, restoring it as a major player in Oakland city life, and bringing back to power the idea that Oakland ought to exist for the benefit of Oaklanders and not for the outside interests who daily carry the cities wealth and resources back to their home communities for their own enrichment.

The progressive revival has not occurred under Mr. Dellums, in large part because—while the mayor is certainly not against progressives—reviving the city’s progressive movement does not appear to have been his particular purpose or plan. He has failed to take progressives into his full confidence—despite the fact that they formed the background of the electoral support that propelled him to victory in 2008—and most Oakland progressives don’t see their particular platform and goals reflected in Mr. Dellums’ actions. That has left many Oakland progressives dispirited, and looking at the Dellums Administration either as an outright failure or as moving in a direction that is far removed from their interests. Whether that is actually true or not, that is how many progressives currently feel.

This weekend, I asked a longtime Oakland African-American progressive activist—someone who should be at the center of Mr. Dellums’ political base—if he would support Mr. Dellums if he chose to run for re-election. He shook his head, no, emphatically without even stopping to consider the question. Then I asked him if he would support Mr. Dellums if he were running against former State Senator Don Perata. My progressive friend stopped, thought for a moment with a furrowed brow, and finally said, “God, you ask some tough questions.” To my progressive friend, Mr. Perata is something akin to the devil’s spawn, but he is so disappointed in the performance of Mr. Dellums, he does not see a second Dellums term as a desirable alternative. He is not alone.

That’s a reflection on how much Mr. Dellums has neglected his base and, as a consequence, how low his political standing in that base has fallen.

But, of course, this progressive dispiritedness and lack of enthusiasm around the Dellums Administration—the first or a prospective second—has not come in a vacuum. Mr. Dellums has been under relentless media and blog attack virtually from the time the last votes were counted in the summer of 2008, and his victory was certified.

Frankly, Mr. Dellums brought on a good deal of this criticism himself.

While the mayor is one of the best communicators of our time, his time to be able to devote to public speaking and attending community meetings is understandably limited, and he has failed to develop a cadre within his staff to regularly and successfully promote the mayor’s programs and ideas when he cannot be in attendance. In fact, while there are some excellent and loyal members of Mr. Dellums’ staff, the staff as a whole has not been put together in such away to provide coherent and coordinated support for the mayor.

Need an example?

At last year’s National Night Out events, which I wrote about at the time in a column, I followed the mayor around to several block parties. A large group of staff members also accompanied the mayor in what I think I called an “entourage.” The mayor was excellent during the National Night Out events. His staff was not. I observed only two of them working while the mayor made brief speeches or walked around in the crowds to conduct one-on-one conversations—Executive Assistant Marisol Lopez, who kept by the mayor’s side to make sure he made all the rounds and spoke to everybody he was supposed to, and Re-Entry Specialist Isaac Taggart, who worked the crowd on his own away from the mayor, passing out his cards and talking to people who might be eligible for his services. The rest of the staff did little or nothing of value to the mayor or to the events, walking around aimlessly or standing and chatting with each other, picking up plates of free food, or, at one of the events, shooting basketballs at the plastic hoops set up for the kids.

Two things must be noted.

The first is that not all of the mayor’s staff members were present for the National Night Out Events (I don’t remember seeing Chief of Staff David Chai, but perhaps he was there and I missed him).

The second is that I know many of the mayor’s staff, and most of them—even the ones I tend to disagree with—are extremely hard-working, putting in long hours for mostly low pay. The problem at National Night Out last year was not that the mayor’s staff didn’t want to do anything, the problem was that there didn’t appear to be any plan for them to work on—to get contact names of individuals in attendance, for example, to hold their own talks with residents, to listen to the various discussions that occurred after the mayor moved on to assess how his message had been received, or to even to listen to the mayor’s discussions with people to write down—and later act on—any grievances that might have been brought up. In short, the mayor’s staff did not act like a staff, much less a team. They acted like an assemblage of spectators.

This has been Mr. Dellums biggest failure as mayor of Oakland, his failure to put together a staff that presents a united front to carry out the mayor’s programs. The public perception is that it is a staff at odds with itself, squabbling and fighting internally, some of them looking out more for themselves and their next job than for the mayor’s—much less the city’s—interest. Whether or not that is actually true—and I don’t sit in on staff meetings or walk through the offices during the day to know for sure—that is certainly the public perception and very different, for example, than what you encounter when dealing with the staffs of some of Mr. Dellums’ protégés, State Representative Sandré Swanson or Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, for example.

It’s the mayor’s responsibility to put together his own staff, and nothing in this commentary should be construed to imply that I am attempting to seek to excuse Mr. Dellums on that account.

But sadly, this Dellums staff disarray—and in some instances, perhaps, outright internal sabotage by people whose loyalties lie outside the Dellums camp—has made it so that much of the criticism of the Dellums program either goes poorly answered, or unanswered at all. Thus I defend the Dellums Administration from time to time because it the Dellums Administration is not doing a good enough job of defending itself.

But even though much—maybe most—of the criticism of Mr. Dellums is well-deserved and honestly derived, much of that dissent has been fueled by people, organizations, and entities that have an interest in seeing Mr. Dellums fail.

One of those individuals, of course, is former State Senator Don Perata, who has long made it plain that he would like to sit in the Oakland mayor’s seat currently occupied by Mr. Dellums, and would prefer that his 2010 mayoral race come against a weakened Mr. Dellums or against no Mr. Dellums at all. And if you don’t think that much of the Dellums media criticism has been manufactured directly out of the Perata camp—who has an extensive collection of friends in the local media—then who’s being naive now, Kay?

But there are other major interests with their own stake in Oakland’s direction. The big-pocket developers who made a killing when Jerry Brown was mayor and Mr. Perata held considerable “influence” over a majority of the votes on the Oakland City Council on key development issues. The leaders of the Oakland Police Officers Association police union who raked in considerable perks and power and millions in overtime during the same period. These interests would certainly like to return to the days when Oakland was like an International Boulevard hooker ripe for their easy plucking, and so have helped direct and fuel an enduring media blitz that has left us with the false impression that Mr. Dellums is a doddering old fool, napping at his desk during the afternoons, and neglecting the business of the city.

Like many, I assumed (and hoped) that Mr. Dellums would spark a progressive renaissance in Oakland. But of course, I also thought that Jerry Brown would spark an intellectual renaissance in the city, so I’m often mistaken. Mr. Dellums won’t block a progressive renaissance but he won’t lead one either, and if there is to be one, progressives must develop and lead it ourselves. Meanwhile, I think that the legacy of the first term of Ron Dellums is that mistakes and all, he will almost certainly leave the city infrastructure—public safety, budget and finance, and development—in better shape than when he found it and, if we choose to use it, provide a platform from which the city can rebound from its present troubles. If you think that makes me a Dellums “defender,” then I’ll just have to live with that.

Safero Home | UnderCurrents Home