The Draft Ron Dellums Movement that is currently sprouting wings and flying all over town has generated the most excitement in an Oakland mayoral race since, well, let’s see...since Jerry Brown announced his plans to run some eight years ago.
For those who don’t read the news so much, a group of progressives and black political leaders recently began a campaign to convince Mr. Dellums—the former congressmember—to run in the 2006 election to succeed Mr. Brown. From all indications, Mr. Dellums is giving it serious consideration.
From a distance, the 1998 Brown candidacy and the potential 2006 Dellums candidacy have some superficial similarities, particularly the idea that a nationally known political figure would be expected to bring star-power attention to an unappreciated Oakland. Remember when Jerry Brown was going to put Oakland on the map? Has that been long enough that we can now call it a back-in-the-day thing?
Anyways, the similarities between what Mr. Brown has done and what Mr. Dellums might do pretty much end right there.
One is in the area of race, but it’s more complicated than the obvious fact that Mr. Brown is white and Mr. Dellums is black.
No one is expecting that Mr. Dellums—one of the few (if not the only) black politicians in the nation’s history to win repeated re-election from a political district that was not majority black—would suddenly reverse course in the latter stages of his life and start building a black political power bloc at the expense of all other groups.
And Mr. Brown is not accused of being an anti-black racist, if by that term we mean someone who either hates black people, or thinks they are not his equal. (Mr. Brown probably thinks that few people are his equal, but that makes him arrogant and elitist, not racist, which is another thing altogether.)
When he first ran for mayor in 1998, Mr. Brown did ride the wave of underlying feeling in some areas of Oakland that there had been enough of black rule—the Wall Street Journal reported in an August 1999 article that “in his campaign for mayor, Mr. Brown…promised to dismantle the African-American-dominated political machine that presided over much of the city’s decline since the 1970s.” And while Mr. Brown’s attacks on the black sideshow youth have not been overtly anti-black, they have often strayed very close to the edge in their appeal to anti-black stereotypes.
Still, Mr. Brown retained some of the black presence within Oakland government that was there under Mayor Elihu Harris. Mr. Brown retained the African-American Robert Bobb (for a while) as city manager, replacing him with another African-American, Deborah Edgerly, when he and Bobb could no longer get along. Mr. Brown also replaced one black police chief (Joseph Samuels) with another (the since-departed Richard Word) in one of his first actions as mayor.
Some of Mr. Brown’s black appointments or attempts at appointments have been—to say it charitably—somewhat peculiar (Harry Edwards as Park and Rec chief and the time the mayor wanted either Angela Davis or Maya Angelou to come on as head librarian—while both of them had read books and written books and even taught from books, neither of them, it appeared, had actually worked in a library. Still, it cannot be said that the mayor swept Oakland’s decks clean of black faces.
But that has not kept black political activists in Oakland from worrying.
In the years when this city had an African-American mayor and a majority African-American school board and the local assembly district was regularly sending an African-American member to Sacramento, Oakland was one of the centers of black political power, both in California and in the nation. Given the change in the city’s demographics, it is doubtful that any ethnic group will so dominate Oakland’s elective offices in the near future. (A look at the present racial composition of the Oakland City Council is a better indication of the type of racial-ethnic balance we will probably continue to see: three whites, two African-Americans, two Asian-Americans, one Latino.)
But the Draft Dellums group says that their major concern is for further down the road, and if there will be enough young and upcoming black political talent to fill the available slots. While Latinos and Asian-Americans are beginning to build strong political organizations in Oakland—and white folks, as always, are holding steady—some black insiders are concerned that the pool of gifted young black politicians is drying up.
Working for a state legislator or a congressmember is the farm system of politics, where potential young politicians gain name recognition and learn the political ropes. Former Assemblymember Dion Aroner built up her political resume by working for Tom Bates while he was in the assembly, and members of State Senator Don Perata’s team are salted in government positions throughout Oakland and Alameda County. During the time when he was in national office, Dellums did the same, and made certain that at least some of those protegés were black. At least two of them—Congressmember Barbara Lee and County Supervisor Keith Carson—continue to play important roles in Bay Area politics.
Dellums did not confine his mentorship to up-and-coming blacks, of course, but he certainly included a lot of up-and-coming blacks, probably more so than any other local politician. Members of the Draft Dellums group are hoping that if he returns to local politics, Dellums will revive that training ground for young black politicians, which has virtually dried up since Ms. Lee succeeded him.
Another area where the Draft Dellums folks think a Mayor Dellums administration would be significantly different from a Mayor Brown administration is in the area of regional cooperation.
Few of the problems of a modern California city can be solved within the city itself; they need a regional effort (that’s an issue we’ll have to explore in detail in a future column). Because of its size and its geography, Oakland should be the natural political, social, and economic leader of a regional coalition spanning the coastal East Bay, an important section that stretches from Richmond to the north, through Berkeley, Emeryville, and San Leandro down to Hayward to the south, with Piedmont to the east and Alameda to the west. But under Mr. Brown, no such coastal East Bay coalition ever materialized.
The major reason is that in a coalition, every party must get enough recognition to satisfy its own constituency. No one party can dominate, or the coalition falls apart. But Mr. Brown, who clearly only saw his time in Oakland as a stepping stone back into state or national politics, needed to get full credit for every major Oakland initiative in order to build (or rebuild) his political resumé. He wasn’t too crazy about sharing any of the credit with other Oaklanders, much less the mayors and city councilmembers of other cities.
There is hope that Mr. Dellums—who, after all, cemented his legacy long ago—would have both the stature and the ability to smooth over the political egos and head up a coalition effort to attack some of the common problems in the region, from economic development to education to transportation to health care, and beyond.
Will Ron run? I’ve got no inside track on the decision. But I do know that just the thought of a Dellums candidacy has gotten a lot of people excited in what they hope will be a new turn in Oakland politics. And that may end up having an effect on the 2006 mayoral race, whatever Mr. Dellums eventually decides to do. More on that in another column.