Column: UnderCurrents: Punishing Politicians for Doing the Right Thing By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday January 20, 2006

Last week’s column ended saying that Oakland needs some straight talk and some serious, adult conversation on this recent explosion of violence in our city, where it’s coming from, and where it may be leading. 

This week, in an almost surreal reply, the president of the Oakland City Council says that perhaps we’ve already talked too much. 

In an Oakland Tribune article entitled “Gangs Tighten Grip In City—Police, Officials Acknowledge Violent Surge,” reporters Kamika Dunlap and Harry Harris write that Council President Ignacio De La Fuente “said he agreed that city officials had spent too much time talking about the [gang violence] problem rather than actually working to end it. ‘We have to get the gloves off,’ De La Fuente said.” 

(It wasn’t clear who Mr. De La Fuente was agreeing with, since no one else in the article was talking about too much talking, but perhaps that part got cut out of the article in editing.) 

In any event, if we needed any reminder that the 2006 campaign season has officially started, this was it. As they prepare to come before voters, officeholders are often sensitive to charges that they haven’t done something about the problems they were supposed to fix during the period for which we elected them the last time, and are too often quick to embrace initiatives that show that they are “taking charge” and “doing something.” While this ends up with good one-liners on a campaign brochure or a newspaper article (such as saying “we have to get the gloves off”), many times it also results in bad government as officeholders scramble to pass laws or institute policies that buck up their resumés while making the initial problem worse. 

And so last year, in order for Mayor Jerry Brown to polish up his law-and-order credentials in preparation for his run for California Attorney General, we got stuck with Mr. Brown’s arrest-the-sideshow-spectators ordinance. The ordinance got introduced so suddenly that originally it did not even have time to go through the normal channels of public discussion and hearings in the City Council Public Safety Committee. Was Mr. Brown’s arrest-the-sideshow-spectators ordinance actually needed as a police tool? What was its immediate effect? What are its long-term implications? Who knows? Since it has already served its actual purpose—to get Mr. Brown statewide headlines as being tough on crime—the actual result on Oakland’s streets has gotten lost in the bureaucratic paper shuffle. 

With Mr. De La Fuente in a race to succeed Mr. Brown as mayor of Oakland—and with the Oakland Tribune noting in its gang violence article that Mr. De La Fuente representing the district “where most of this crime takes place”—God only knows what we’ll end up with out of City Council before the June election. 

But if you think this column is an attack on Mr. De La Fuente himself, you are mistaken. Within reason, officeholders tend to respond to what we demand, and usually only deliver what we accept. In most cases, the public accepts superficiality and often punishes politicians who actually dig down, stick with it, and try to solve the problem. Since superficiality is what we almost always reward, superficiality is what we generally get. 

Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente is the best proof of that. We can show that by a quick test, but the results will probably not be what you are expecting. 

Think of the botched Oakland Raiders deal, in which the City of Oakland and Alameda County wooed Al Davis and the Raiders to come back from Los Angeles, and then got stuck with a monumental bond bill that is going to last into the generation of our grandchildren. What politician comes immediately to mind as most closely associated with that debacle? Most people will say Ignacio De La Fuente. 

But why do we identify Ignacio De La Fuente most closely with the Raiders deal and almost nobody else? 

In the early 1990s, when the City of Oakland was wooing the Raiders back from Los Angeles and the deal was being struck that we eventually got stuck with, Ignacio De La Fuente was just getting on the Oakland City Council (he was originally elected in 1992). He was not the major council power that we know today and although he certainly supported the Raider deal—practically every Oakland official did at the time—it was not a deal that Mr. De La Fuente put together. 

Actually one of the major powers behind the Raiders deal was State Senator Don Perata. But almost nobody today associates Mr. Perata with the Raiders deal, and the newspapers rarely, if ever, mention his connection. 

That wasn’t true when the deal itself went down. A 1996 news archive entry in a website run by one of the Raider Nation faithful (www.vertgame.com) gives us some interesting history and insight from a contemporary San Francisco Chronicle article: “Monday, Aug. 26, 1996—There’s yet more bad news today about [the Oakland Football Management Association], the incompetent organization responsible for selling [Personal Seat Licenses] to pay off the cost of the Coliseum renovations. Former Alameda County Supervisor Don Perata, who was instrumental in helping convince the Raiders to return to Oakland, has quit his job as a marketing consultant to OFMA in disgust. In a resignation letter dated Aug. 19, Perata wrote, ‘The lack of a discernible organizational structure and the absence of a coherent marketing plan simply make it impossible to perform effectively . . . What we have is a bureaucracy.’” 

The year date of the Chronicle article and the Vertgame website entry is significant. It was 1996, a year after the Raiders returned to Oakland. The financial structure of the botched Raider deal was all in place—including the personal seat licenses that never sold and the massive stadium renovations that the public has to pay for—but in the euphoria of the Raiders’ first couple of years back in Oakland, the full implications of how bad that deal actually was hadn’t yet sunk in with the general population. Mr. Perata “quit his job as a marketing consultant to OFMA in disgust” after putting the deal in place, thus jumping clear of the Raider mess before it hit the fan. His involvement in putting together the Raider deal has long since been forgotten, and he is rarely, if ever, mentioned when people talk these days about the Raider mess. 

In the meanwhile, Mr. De La Fuente, who was a junior councilmember in the early 1990s and only a minor player in the Raider deal, at best, spent the next decade trying to clean up the mess. Whatever you think of Mr. De La Fuente’s politics or whether he was right or wrong to support the original Raiders deal or what moves he has tried to make since then to correct the Raider deal mistake, he didn’t cut and run. The public associates Mr. De La Fuente with the Raiders mess not because he was its originator, but because he was the janitor left with the broom trying to sweep up behind others who have long since washed their hands and left the building. 

Politicians are many things, but most of them are not dumb. They get the message. In Oakland, politicians are not punished if they screw up and cut out. They are only punished if they stick around and do the work required to clean up a bad situation, whether or not they created that situation. That rewards superficiality. It leaves us with a lot of snappy campaign rhetoric during election time—“We have to get the gloves off”—but with a reluctance by officeholders to dig in and do the dirty work required to actually solve the problems. If it looks like that is what we’re now getting from officeholders like Mr. De La Fuente, we need to look to ourselves for part of the blame.