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




January 7, 2010

One of the more noted Oakland political developments at the turn of the year is the scramble by journalists, columnists, and political commentators—now that the possibility has arisen in their minds that Ron Dellums might run for re-election as the city’s mayor—to publish election-year assessments of the first three years of the Dellums Administration.

Although they vary somewhat in how they view Mr. Dellums’ activities during the last half of 2009, the overall tone of most of these assessments was decidedly dismal.

In a December 22 editorial entitled “Ron Dellums Should Not Seek A Second Term,” the Oakland Tribune wrote that “for much of his 3 1/2 years in office, Dellums has been completely detached from the daily running of the city. The imperial mayor, who is never seen in public without an entourage, seems more concerned with the trappings of office than with governance. Indeed, Dellums has been rightly criticized for using his city expense account to help finance his taste for the good life.”

In a January 1st blog entry in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Happy New Year! Oakland Predictions, 2010,” Zennie62 blogger Zennie Abraham wrote that “the stage [for the Oakland mayoral race] must be appropriately set by explaining that Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums is a giant in Oakland's political history, but a disappointment as mayor. At a time when politicians are expected to act and react fast, and learn quickly, Dellums was too slow to do so. At just the time when it seems he's settled into the job, it's too late: Oaklanders want a change of leadership.”

In the December 18 version of his “Oakland Round Up” in The Oakbook, former City Council candidate and AC Transit Board member Clinton Killian wrote that “The news of [Mr. Dellums’] tax problems and the lack of response appear to have doomed any re-election campaign. However, the Mayor still has not announced that he will not run for re-election. In recent weeks, he has become more visible and engaging. But it does not look like this new surge will be enough to make him a viable candidate.”

East Bay Express reporter Bob Gammon was one of the few commentators who had any positive words for Mr. Dellums, writing in a December 23 article entitled “Time To Reassess Ron Dellums” that “Ron Dellums' first two years as mayor of Oakland were a disappointment for his supporters and a vindication for his critics. He appeared to lack passion for the job, went long periods without interacting with the public, and showed a penchant for indecisiveness by hanging on to an ineffective police chief and incompetent city administrator far longer than he should have. But in the past year, Dellums made a surprising turnaround and became the sort of mayor that many of his supporters had hoped he would be.”

One common thread in the above assessments is their subjectivity. Terms like “completely detached,” “disappointment,” “visible and engaging,” and “indecisiveness” are all entirely within the eyes of the beholder, and other observers can—as I have—look at the same set of facts and circumstances and honestly come to a somewhat different conclusion. But is there an objective standard?

Some years ago, I worked for a short time as an apprentice weaver in a middle Georgia cotton mill, with the job of keeping 24 looms running over the course of an 8 hour shift. At the end of each day, the shift supervisors would cut and inspect the bolts my machines had produced and then mark down my production on a report. The reports were entirely objective: so and so many yard feet of cloth produced at various grades of quality, and you couldn’t argue with them. What you did was what you did.

But what similar type of objective evaluation is available for judging the daily (or weekly, or year-end) output of political officeholders?

For legislators, organizations often fudge it by vote evaluations. An organization will make a list of, say, twenty-five pieces of legislation in which that organization has taken special interest in a legislative year, and then grade each legislator on the percentage of times the legislator voted the way the organization wanted them to vote.

Thus, in 2009, in only one example, the League of California Conservation Voters took positions on 22 Senate bills and 23 Assembly bills voted on by the California state legislature in 2009 and gave local Senator Lonnie Hancock and Assemblymember Nancy Skinner a 100 percent rating, Assemblymember Sandré Swanson a rating of 86 percent. These ratings were then published by the league in a report called the California Environmental Scorecard.

The California Republican Assembly (CRA), looking at a their own list of 2009 votes, gave Ms. Hancock an 11 percent rating, Mr. Swanson 6 percent, and Ms. Skinner a flat 0 (that is, the Berkeley-Oakland Assemblymember never voted the way the Republican Assembly wanted her to). The tally of the votes was published in the CRA’s 2009 Legislative Scorecard.

Within their own parameters, these scorecards are fair and objective, since they judge each legislator by their respective common, across-the-board standards.

But voting records can be fudged. Legislators can—an often do—fight to weaken a bill and then vote for it in the end, or else vote for or against a controversial piece of legislation only after they have seen whether it has already gotten enough votes to pass or fail. And these legislative scorecards have no way of taking into account the many other aspects of a legislator’s work, including knowledge of issues and constituent service.

And in the case of a mayor—an Oakland mayor—we don’t even have the benefit of a voting record as the basis of evaluation. And what, then, is available to take it’s place?

In a city like Oakland, crime is a major issue, and former mayor Jerry Brown often used crime rate statistics as a measure of his success. As part of the “career highlights” listed on the Jerry Brown 2010 (Jerry Brown for governor) website, the website reads “When Brown took office in 1998, he pledged a 20 percent reduction in crime. Oakland has exceeded that ambitious goal, with decreases of over 30% in serious crimes (Part I crimes as defined by FBI).”

By that reasoning, Mayor Ron Dellums could also be judged a “success” on crime-fighting. A January 1 Oakland Tribune article reported that “as of Dec. 22 the city had seen a 10 percent decline in serious crime compared with last year—a drop that would meet the crime-reduction goal Mayor Ron Dellums set for Oakland in his state of the city address in January 2009. Homicides investigated by Oakland police fell to 107, the fewest since 2005.” (“Data: Oakland crime down 10 percent in 2009”)

But the success rate given on the Jerry Brown 2010 website are, as one could imagined, contain something of a thumb-on-the-scale quality to them. During the Jerry Brown years, the crime rate rose and fell from year to year, so it is entirely possible that in one given period, using one set of standards, there was a 30 percent reduction.

To get a more objective standard, I went to the Uniform Crime Reports for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and looked up the crime statistics for Oakland for the year 1998, the year Mr. Brown was first elected mayor (but before he actually took office) and for 2006, the last year Mr. Brown served. I took four categories of violent crime for those two bracketing years—murder and non-negligent homicide, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault—and took the respective percentages of the totals of those four crimes for the respective Oakland population totals for the two years. By that standard, Oakland had a 1.86 percent violent crime rate in 1998, the year before Jerry Brown took office as mayor. In 2006, his last year in office, the rate was 1.91 percent.

Does that mean that Mr. Brown should be rated as unsuccessful in his goal to reduce violent crime in Oakland during his years in office? By that statistical standard, yes. But the problem is, such a statistical analysis does not take into account the changes in circumstances during the period being analyzed, and over which Mr. Brown had no control. Thus, a migration of violent gang members into Oakland would drive the crime statistics up. An increase in surveillance by probation and parole authorities (officials not controlled by the city) might tend to drive the crime statistics down. Thus, crime statistics can only be judged by deciding that another mayor in the same time period, using different policies, might have come up with a different result. But how could anyone possibly make such an analysis with any certainty?

How, then, can we fairly judge the mayoral administration of Ron Dellums, or any Oakland mayor? For a continuation of that discussion, we’ll have to wait for another column, and another time.