Column: Undercurrents: Hopes Soar as the Dellums Era Begins in Oakland

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday June 23, 2006

This is a time of euphoria for progressive Oakland—that small, special period between the promise and the practical reality of the Ron Dellums administration, a dizzy, giddy, magnificent time when hopes soar, the world appears as an incredible place, and all things suddenly seem possible. 

They salsa’d and danced the electric slide at the Dellums victory celebration at Kimball’s Carnival on election night, even before the first precinct count had come in, and when the former Congressmember got on the stage and said he believed “to a moral certitude” that the campaign would end with him occupying the mayor’s office at Ogawa Plaza, the faithful roared their approval and not a doubt of the ultimate outcome lurked in any corner in the club. 

Forgive me, then, my skepticism, and my words of caution in these in-between days, while the Dellums go off on a well-deserved vacation and City Hall prepares, some of the staff a little nervously, for the January inauguration and the changing of the guard. 

Mr. Dellums told us, more than once, that he was not the Man of Steel come to save Oakland. No red “S” is painted on his chest, and he will almost certainly walk up the steps to get to his desk, not fly in through an upstairs window. We should take heed, and believe him, because the time is soon coming for the governing part of this experience, and that will be far more difficult and challenging than the election ever was. 

Tucked in the middle of a Los Angeles Times article this week about the race between outgoing Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and State Senator Chuck Poochigian for California Attorney General was a predictable quote from California Democratic Party consultant and strategist Darry Sragow: Jerry Brown has “done a lot of things since 1982,” Mr. Sragow told the Times, “most recently a good job as mayor of a city that's pretty tough to govern.” 

This is what we should and have come to expect from Mr. Brown’s supporters when the current mayor is attacked on his record in Oakland; Oakland is so screwed up, they will tell everyone listening, that none of Mr. Brown’s massive failures were his fault but were only due to Oakland’s own deficiencies. We’re so bad, nobody could have done it any better, they will say, and we and the rest of the state ought to be thankful for the effort Mr. Brown put forth on our behalf. After all, who else could have done better? 

Forgive the use of the Anglo-Saxon, but that’s a bullshit excuse, smelling like the holding pens out at the Rowell Ranch. But it’s an excuse that will resonate around the state, because that’s what they think of Oakland in Bakersfield and San Bernadino and up in Tulare County, and so Mr. Brown will probably get away with it. 

Oakland would not have been so tough to govern for somebody who came to work every morning and completed the list of tasks that were set out on his desk for him to do. But Jerry Brown, the free spirit whose mind was always drifting with the breeze to other, more interesting (to him) pursuits and challenges, was never one for completion of the tasks he was supposed to be doing and for which we paid him, handsomely and regularly. 

Living the slacker life in City Hall’s upper floors will certainly not be the case with Mr. Dellums, who is legendary for his work ethic. 

But his term as mayor of Oakland is going to run into immediate difficulties for other reasons, some of them in large part because of the expectations raised by the way Mr. Dellums ran his campaign. 

This was a campaign that was heavy on inspirational talk and light-in-the-ass on the accompanying details, and that made it an exceptionally smart campaign in which Mr. Dellums was able to win decisively, without a runoff. Coming out with details on how he would redo the Oak to 9th or the Forest City deals would probably not have won Mr. Dellums a single new vote from the pro-developer crowd, but it might well have peeled away elements of that large and diverse coalition of his support—open space environmentalists or labor activists or members of the various ethnic-racial groups—who might have found, suddenly, that Mr. Dellums’ shoes didn’t fit their feet in quite the way they thought they would. But in running a campaign of vagueness, Mr. Dellums was an opaque pot into which progressive voters—immensely frustrated with the Brown years—could pour all of their long-ignored ingredients for a shining new city by the bay. What dish was rising in there, who knew, since most of Mr. Dellums’ supporters were convinced that whatever it was, it would certainly come out to their taste. 

We will soon come to the proof in this particular pudding, and find out how well Mr. Dellums can hold his campaign coalition together once it becomes an actual governing coalition. Who will get what important jobs and who will not? Will this be an administration in which one overall vision prevails, with others getting small handouts here and there to keep them satisfied and interested in the game, or will this be a mayoral office that moves by consensus between several powerful, progressive political interest groups? Watch, particularly, how Mr. Dellums satisfies the competition between his African-American and organized labor constiuencies, two immensely important Oakland groups without which Mr. Dellums would have remained a D.C. lobbyist. These two groups often find themselves on the same side of important issues, but just as often are at odds. Will Mr. Dellums be able to keep that competition friendly, or will the fight over the election spoils turn nasty? 

Another significant challenge for the incoming Dellums Administration, and for the citizens who supported him, is that many of the groups that had their way in Oakland during the Jerry Brown years were not created or even introduced by Mr. Brown—his administration simply facilitated their activities. They will not go away with Mr. Brown, because they will continue to believe that, regardless of the outcome of the election, they are entitle to certain entitlements and privileges in Oakland. 

The current mayor came to office promising that he would spur Oakland’s residential and commercial development without the nasty and embarassing public subsidies of the past. Remember when he said he was going to “put Oakland on the map?” Mr. Brown certainly did, but probably under a designation that read, like the Wayans Brothers movie, “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Money, Mo’ Money!” I haven’t done the math, but it seems like the subsidies and public land tradeoffs for Forest City, for example, are larger than anything ever offered by City Hall under Mr. Wilson or Mr. Harris. Mr. Brown managed to sell away part of the Jack London Square waterfront that belonged to the City of Oakland since—well—since there was a City of Oakland, and his suspension of CEQA protections in downtown development (thanks in large part to assistance from State Senator Donald Perata) was a developer’s dream. With so much money to be made, the developers will be pressuring City Council and the Dellums Administration for similar concessions from the moment Mr. Dellums assumes office, and even before.  

The same will be true of such groups as the national educational interests who, under the state seizure, have turned Oakland into a massive educational experimental ground.  

There will also be problems reining in the powerful Oakland Police Officers Association, which continues to believe that they are doing us such a service that we should continue to pay them massively while they ignore accountability. 

These are among the challenges that Mr. Dellums always said he could not, and would not, face by himself, but in cooperation with the rest of the Oakland citizenry. 

The Dellums election, therefore, is not so much a victory as it is an opportunity, an opening of doors for larger numbers of Oakland citizens to walk in and sit down at the table where the decisions that govern our city are made. What happens next depends to some degree on what Mr. Dellums does next. But taking him at his word on the portion of his election speech in which he was the most consistent, he can hardly do all of this on his own. What happens next in Oakland depends, in large part, on us.