Leaders of the Draft Ron Dellums movement said they believe that the former Congressmember did not make a decision to run for mayor of Oakland in next year’s election until minutes before he mounted the stage at Laney College Friday to make his announcement.
In a dramatic moment, Dellums told a standing-room-only crowd of supporters in the Laney College Auditorium, as well as a battery of television cameras, “If Ron Dellums running for mayor gives you hope, then let’s get on with it.”
The audience leaped to its feet, and the roar of approval was deafening.
But leaders of the three-month-long campaign that collected 8,000 signatures on petitions asking Dellums to run say an even more dramatic moment came a half-hour before in a Laney conference room when organizers made a final pitch to convince the retired Oakland-Berkeley congressman to enter the race to become Oakland’s next mayor.
“We had about 30 people up there, and it was very emotional,” said Oakland educator Kitty Kelly Epstein, one of the draft Dellums leaders. “One by one, people got up and made their case for why Ron should run. People talked about the future of Oakland. There were tears in people’s eyes, including Ron’s.”
Epstein said that while Dellums told supporters he appreciated their support, he gave no indication of what his response to the petition campaign would be.
Both Epstein and Oakland Black Caucus Chair Geoffrey Pete, another petition campaign leader, said they had talked before the meeting with several people close to Dellums and realized that none of them was sure of Dellums’ intentions.
After the presentations, Dellums said he needed to speak with his wife, Cynthia, and the room in the administration building was cleared to allow the two of them to talk in private. From there, the two walked the short distance across the Laney campus to the auditorium, where hundreds of Oakland activists as well as a throng of local political leaders had gathered to hear his announcement, greeting the former congressman with chants of “Run, Ron, run!” and “Si, se puedes!”
Even then, at first, Dellums did not reveal his plans.
“I’m mounting this podium like a jazz musician,” he said. “I don’t know how this song will end until I get to the last note.”
Pete said he suspected that Dellums had actually prepared two separate speeches for the Laney event, one of which announced his running, but the other that explained a decision not to run.
When Dellums said, at the beginning of the speech, that “When people approached me about running, I took it very seriously,” Pete said that his heart sank. “It sounded like he was preparing to say ‘I appreciate the effort, but I can’t,’ It was an emotional rollercoaster.”
The coaster took a sharp turn moments later, when Dellums began a riff in the speech that stopped talking about whether he would run and began speculating about “what a Dellums for mayor campaign would be like.”
In the front row of the audience another pensive draft Dellums organizer, veteran Oakland political activist Gene Hazzard, flashed a grin that grew wider and wider and never left his face until the end of the speech. The raucous response from the audience became more like a tent revival than a political meeting or a press conference, with people beginning to shout “Yes!” and “Hallelujah!”
At one point, when Dellums said that he would not have run without the approval of his wife, someone shouted out, “Thank you, Cynthia!”
Shortly after the end of his speech, while followers and politicians milled around the stage, Dellums’ cell phone rang, and he held a brief conversation under the glare of the television camera lights. He explained that it had been a call from Rep. Barbara Lee, who had been his aide while he was in Congress. Lee replaced him in office in 1998.
In throwing his hat in the ring to replace outgoing, term-limited Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, Dellums tried to downplay expectations.
“Only in the comic books does someone go into a telephone booth and change their clothes and come out as Superman,” he said. “No one individual can make the kinds of changes in this community you are looking for. It can only be done as a community.”
He said that his goal as mayor would be to use Oakland as an example of the way local citizens can work to solve regional and national problems, leaving no one behind.
“Wouldn’t it be magnificent if the gateway to this community read ‘Welcome To Oakland, The Model City’?” he asked. “A city where we came together to grapple with every issue that exists that affects the human condition. We could start a dialogue about universal health care in this incredible community and work to put together a system that guarantees health care for every citizen. Win or lose, wouldn’t that be a magnificent journey?”
Taking a dig at Oakland’s developer-oriented government, he also downplayed the charges that this would be a solely African-American campaign to return a black mayor to office in Oakland.
“The strength of Oakland is in its diversity,” he said. “Development is wonderful. Development is necessary. But when the dust settles and the smoke clears, we must embrace the principle that all of Oakland’s diverse community must move forward together. That’s the principle we must embrace. No portion of this community should be standing in line saying ‘I’m waiting for my turn.’ This will be a multi-cultural and multi-racial campaign and administration.”
Even before his announcement, prospects of a Dellums campaign was already shaking up the 2006 Oakland mayor’s race.
Oakland School Advisory Board member Greg Hodge, an announced mayoral candidate, had earlier indicated that he would consider dropping out of the mayoral race if Dellums entered. Shortly after the Dellums speech he deferred an announcement, saying that “Out of respect, I need to meet, first, with the people who have been supporting my campaign.”
He also said he wanted to speak with Dellums first, if possible, before making a decision.
“It’s my personal feeling to defer to Dellums because of his stature, and because I wouldn’t want to divide the African-American community or the progressive vote in Oakland,” Hodge said. “My preference would be to work with him in areas that I am familiar with, particularly education issues.”
A second candidate, Oakland School Advisory Board member Dan Siegel, was also leaning toward dropping out in favor of Dellums.
“He will be a strong, progressive candidate,” Siegel said by telephone on Monday. “I’m inclined to think that I should support him, but before I do so, I need to talk both with him and with my supporters.”
A third candidate, Alameda County Treasurer Don White, had said when Dellums’ name first surfaced as a possible mayoral candidate that he would consider dropping out if Dellums ran. Neither White nor another candidate, Oakland City Councilmember Nancy Nadel, was available for comment.
On Monday morning, a calendar on Nadel’s website listed a series of campaign community meetings through October, and sources who had talked with her last week said that she had indicated no plans to leave the campaign.
One candidate who will almost certainly not drop out is Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. In a television interview shortly after the Dellums announcement on Friday, De La Fuente said that he was looking forward to the upcoming campaign.
“Is he the front-runner?” De La Fuente asked. “Absolutely, and that’s fine. I’ve always been the underdog and I’ve always managed to show people I can get things done.”
The first round of the Oakland mayor’s election will be held in June. If no one receives more than half the vote, the two top candidates will compete in a runoff in November.