Column: Undercurrents: Pressing Mayor-Elect Dellums on Press Access

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday June 30, 2006

One afternoon, some years after the election of Jerry Brown to succeed Elihu Harris as mayor of Oakland, I saw Mr. Harris walking with some friends and former aides along “government street” between City Hall and the federal and state office buildings that were the centerpiece of the Harris administration’s downtown revival after the devastation of Loma Prieta. I had once described the Harris administration as “dismal” and “drifting” in a column for the old Urban View newspaper, and I had to stop and confess to him that the more I saw of his replacement, Mr. Brown, the better Mr. Harris had come to look. 

Quite the opposite seems to have happened with some of my fellow columnists in the other area newspapers in the first days since the election of Ron Dellums. It’s not so much that the Jerry Brown years seem better than they think the Dellums administration will be, but that my good friends in the other newspapers have either minimized Mr. Brown’s record or seemingly forgotten it altogether. 

In two recent columns, Chip Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle and Will Harper of the East Bay Express have chosen to criticize what they think will be Mr. Dellums’ relation with the media and the press once Mr. Dellums assumes office next January. 

“One of the … hurdles Dellums will have to overcome will be his not-so-touchy-feely relationship with the news media, which he deftly dodged with style during nearly three decades in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Mr. Johnson writes this week. “As mayor, Dellums will receive queries from the local press on a daily basis, and his constituents are just a phone call or a 15-minute car ride from City Hall. He’s been advised by those close to him that in order to operate a truly participatory government with an open-door policy, he’s going to have to include the press in that process and put aside his inclination to dismiss news reporters—and their questions. For a man with such a long professional and public career, he has been thin-skinned when it comes to news coverage and criticism.” 

That’s about the same as you get from Mr. Harper in last week’s “Bottom Feeder” column in the Express, where he writes: “Considering the former congressman’s behavior during the mayoral campaign and his historically prickly relationship with the press, the Dellums era will probably be just as opaque as the Jerry Brown years. During the campaign,“ Mr. Harper goes on, “Dellums often proved elusive and thin-skinned when dealing with reporters. … Dellums repeatedly turned down interview requests from KNTV and wouldn’t let KTVU producers interview him at home—unlike both his main opponents, councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente and Nancy Nadel. He refused to talk to Chip Johnson, the Chronicle’s East Bay columnist, after Johnson wrote a piece on Dellums’ estranged son, Michael, who is serving a life sentence for murder. De La Fuente, by contrast, answered lots of questions about his own wayward son, who is awaiting trial on multiple rape charges. Even Dellums’ supporters share the candidate’s touchiness, condemning what they considered the negative portrayal of their man in the ‘white press’ and ‘corporate media.’” 

Mr. Harper then suggests that during his administration, Mr. Dellums should hold regular press conferences “as De La Fuente had promised to do.”  

This is going to take some sorting out, not necessarily with the pig going first, as the Supreme Being chose to do in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. 

Mr. Harper’s allusion to statements by those he calls “Dellums’ supporters” about the “white press” is so explosive that he needs to do more than just mention this in passing. Which “Dellums supporters” made such remarks, what was the context of the remarks, and were they speaking for Mr. Dellums at the time they did so? Did Mr. Dellums ever make such statements? In his column Mr. Harper refers to sharp criticisms Mr. Dellums made of the press while he was in Congress, but nothing which identified the press—or its ownership—by race. It is entirely irresponsible—and inflammatory—to include such anonymous statements by unnamed “supporters” of a candidate in an article that is supposed to be talking about the attitudes of the candidate himself, particularly from a candidate who took great pains to assure us that he was going to represent the complete diversity of our city. 

Anyways, Mr. Harper’s reference to Mr. Dellums’ refusal to talk to Mr. Johnson after Mr. Johnson wrote a column about Michael Dellums needs to be put in context as well. Michael Dellums was convicted some years ago of a murder that occurred in 1979. There has never been an allegation that the murder had any connection to his father, Ron Dellums, and from all the public information we have, the younger Dellums was raised by his mother—not Ron Dellums—after his parents divorced. The issue only came up in the mayoral campaign when Mr. De La Fuente’s son was arrested for raping Fruitvale area prostitutes, and Mr. Johnson wrote a column combining the two situations. 

What Mr. Harper fails to mention in his column is that he also wrote about Mr. Dellums’ son’s criminal troubles—once during the campaign, and in 2003, when Michael Dellums was coming up for parole. In his 2003 article, Mr. Harper also referred to a 1988 East Bay Express article which went into the subject, writing that when Mr. Dellums was asked by the Express reporter “‘Your son by your first marriage is in jail for armed robbery and murder. Do you feel that you could have done something different, as a parent, to have prevented his troubles?’ Dellums tersely replied, ‘You’re in an area that I don’t want to get into. And I did not raise him. ... I don’t want to deal with that.’” 

That Mr. Dellums might have thought it was a cheap shot both by Mr. Johnson and Mr. Harper to bring up these old matters about his son is understandable, and neither columnist have successfully answered—to my satisfaction, anyway—why they were important to the 2006 Oakland mayoral race. (Given the fact that there was never any link made between Mr. De La Fuente and the actions of his sons, I never thought Mr. De La Fuente’s son’s recent legal troubles were relevant to the campaign, either, and said so in a column that appeared during the campaign.) 

Meanwhile, it is entirely fair to request and require that the mayor of Oakland hold regular conferences with the press—the whole press—to answer questions of interest and concern to the city’s citizens. 

One only wishes that standard had been applied to the current occupant of the office, Mr. Brown. Perhaps someone will correct me if I missed an occasion, but it is my recollection that in the seven years and counting Mr. Brown served as mayor of Oakland since his election in June of 1998, he never once called all of the press together for a formal press conference in which media representatives were allowed to ask questions in front of all the other media representatives. 

In any event, let me make my position clear. A candidate has no responsibility to talk with the press, or answer any of our questions. I would certainly prefer that they be available to us, but if they can win without such exposure, so be it. Once elected, however, the mayor of a major city such as Oakland has a responsibility to meet openly and often with the press in order to give the public and unfiltered view of what is going on. I expect Mr. Dellums to meet that responsibility, even during these transition days as he prepares to enter office and decisions are being made. I just think he ought to get the chance to take the first swing, before we criticize the fact that he hasn’t yet gotten a hit.