Column: Undercurrents: The Question of Criticizing Oakland Mayor Dellums

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday May 11, 2007

How should East Bay progressives handle criticism of Mayor Ron Dellums and his administration, their own criticism, and that of others? It’s a complicated question without a quick and easy answer. 

Mr. Dellums won last summer’s election handily over two solid opponents—veteran city councilmembers, both—and it would appear that the new mayor has done little in the ensuing 11 months that would indicate a lessening of his popularity with the people who voted for him. Certainly, that would be indicated by the favorable reception he received at the recent Sixth District Town Hall meeting at Frick Middle School. The new mayor has made no major missteps—either in public statements or in policy direction—and, so far as I can tell, he has not, in the four months since he took office, been accused by any responsible observer of breaking any of the promises he made to Oakland voters in the campaign. 

Still, Mr. Dellums has not been afforded the “honeymoon” period new officeholders are generally allowed to get their feet wet and to establish the direction of their new positions. 

Some of this early criticism has come from a few of my colleagues in the media. 

Most recently, for example, we have San Francisco Chronicle political columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross combing through Mr. Dellums’ newly released 500 page, two year proposed budget to discover that, according to the columnists, “Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums is thinking big—a big $1 million-plus increase in his own office budget next year. Dellums is asking the City Council to give him seven new or redefined staff positions, including a $130,000 chief of staff, two $100,000-plus senior deputies and both a full-time bodyguard and a driver.” All in all, Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross report, this is a seven-staff increase from the 17 staff members under former Mayor Jerry Brown. “Dellums’ budget director, Dan Lindheim,” the column explains, “said about half the requested increase would be covered by redirecting money that Brown had steered toward the School for the Arts, one of his pet projects.” 

I can’t read Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross’ minds, but the column seems designed specifically to leave the impression that rather than crafting a budget to build Oakland into a “model city,” as promised in last year’s election, Mr. Dellums is instead building an entourage that would seem more appropriate for a fashion model. Long after the 500-page budget is combed through and studied and analyzed for its strengths and weaknesses and insight into Mr. Dellums’ policy directions, it will be the Matier & Ross column that will be remembered. 

If that’s the column’s purpose, it has already had its desired effect. 

Larry Livermore, a blogger who often writes about East Bay political affairs from his current Brooklyn, New York home, writes in his most recent post []: “Doddering Ron Dinkins, er, I mean Dellums, is off to a blinding start when it comes to attacking Oakland’s myriad problems. After a couple months-long disappearing act, he’s now surfaced with a million-dollar makeover on what he apparently considers the most crucial of them: his office. Oh yeah, plus a pay raise for himself and a new driver and bodyguard to accompany him through the streets of his fair city. Oh, and where’s he coming up with the money in that perennially broke city? Half of it’s being lopped off the budget of one of the new schools launched during Jerry Brown’s tenure. Let’s see: educating children or pay raise and chauffeured limo for the mayor, which is more important? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” 

Mr. Dellums’ supposed “disappearing act” for the first three months of his administration has gotten to be a general theme among some critics, by the way, with a local blogger posting at Common Sense Oakland [] that “the same benighted constituencies that pushed his candidacy … is making a concerted effort to ignore the fact that St. Ron is ignoring his job and basically drawing an increased check for sitting around is hardly surprising.” 

And on a Berkeley neighborhood e-mail forum, one resident posted, in response to the Matier & Ross column, “What I think should be focused on is WHY Mayor Dellums is acting like he’s back in Washington D.C.? Oakland does not have the coffers, the lobbyists or the structure to support requests such as private drivers and full-time bodyguards. Although I didn’t agree with Mayor Brown’s choices, at least he never requested those private services. Hell, all of us drive, why can’t Dellums learn or pay for a driver out of his private pension?” 

Some of the insinuations in the Matier & Ross column are easily refuted, but only if you have a detailed knowledge of Oakland in the Jerry Brown years. 

The money Mr. Brown allocated for the highly-subsidized Oakland School For The Arts was not a part of Oakland’s regular, departmental, line-item budget, but was part of the mayor’s discretionary funds, which was his right to funnel to any (legal) area of his choosing. To that end, Mr. Brown spent more than a million dollars for renovations to the Malonga Casquelord Center (formerly the Alice Arts Center) in order to make it the arts school’s first home, and God knows how much more was spent by the city through the mayor’s office to relocate the arts school to the still-being-renovated Fox Theater. The point is that the mayoral discretionary funds being allocated by Mr. Dellums are not being “redirected” from the Oakland School For The Arts since each mayor, coming in, has the authority to use that money for her or his own projects and purposes. That’s why they call it discretionary. 

Because Brown staff members destroyed many, if not most, of the Brown Administration records in its last days, we may never know exactly how many staff members Mr. Brown actually had at his disposal. Matier & Ross noted that according to Dellums Budget Director Dan Lindheim, Mr. Brown funded “a couple of” staff members from other departments, so that they did not show up in the mayor’s budget during his years. We have no idea whether that “couple of” staff members included such people as Deputy City Manager Simón Bryce, who at one point while still on the city manager’s staff, moved his offices out to the Oakland Army Base to act in an administrative capacity for one of Mr. Brown’s other charter school projects, the Oakland Military Institute. And that doesn’t take into account the many hours the City Manager’s staff—including former City Manager Robert Bobb himself—put into Mr. Brown’s charter school initiatives when they had other city business they should have been working on. 

Meanwhile, the early blanket criticisms of Mr. Dellums put local progressives in a difficult position. 

Except for those who stayed with Oakland Councilmember Nancy Nadel, who has her own longtime progressive credentials, Oakland progressives generally supported Mr. Dellums in last year’s election. They did so not simply out of loyalty to a man who was a national progressive icon for many years, but because they have long-term issues and interests that they wanted the mayor’s office to address and solve. And many progressives are now lobbying fiercely for those interests in areas where they don’t think the new mayor has moved swiftly or forcefully enough. 

One of those areas is State Senator Gloria Romero’s SB 1019 legislation that would overturn the recent California Supreme Court “Copley” ruling that closed most police misconduct hearings and records to the public. Some progressive groups would like to see Mr. Dellums put his considerable political weight, progressive credentials, and prestige to bear in publicly lobbying for SB 1019. 

Conversely, some progressives were disturbed to learn that a city-contracted legislative lobbyist, Jennifer Thompson of Towsend Public Affairs, spoke for the Dellums Administration earlier this spring before the State Senate Public Safety Committee in support of State Senate President Don Perata’s SB 67 sideshow car confiscation bill, which would renew the recently-expired law. They think the original law has been misused by Oakland police, and want Mr. Dellums to speak out against it, or at least withdraw his support. 

Mr. Dellums has also come under some early criticism from progressives on the economic front. Former Oakland City Councilmember Wilson Riles—who lost to Mr. Brown for Oakland Mayor when Mr. Brown ran for re-election in 2002—is concerned that Mr. Dellums’ economic task force recommendations were turned over to the Oakland Chamber of Commerce “before they were finished” and “before they were merged into a coherent plan and before there was sufficient indication of agreement from the Mayor on the individual recommendations or priority order of implementation.” 

As far as I know, none of these Oakland progressives have come out publicly with statements specifically criticizing Mr. Dellums himself, and these progressive criticisms don’t constitute a “break” with the Dellums Administration, if by that term we mean that progressives no longer support Mr. Dellums, or are in danger withdrawing their support at anytime soon. The jockeying and criticisms are part of the normal give-and-take of political advocacy, a sign of a healthy adult political dialogue in a community long known for its strong advocacy of various political positions. 

And East Bay progressives are mindful of the toxic, relentless attacks on the presidential administration of Bill Clinton—from the health care bill onward—that blunted or still-birthed Mr. Clinton’s most progressive initiatives, and eventually helped lead to the conservative, Republican takeover of Congress. There is some concern that a drumbeat of blanket criticism and attacks on the Dellums Administration might do something similar in Oakland. 

But if progressives—to counter those blanket attacks—begin a campaign of speaking and letter-writing specifically to throw support to Mr. Dellums, as well as holding off on “excess” public criticisms of their own that might add to the general clamor, there is also some concern that some of the issues progressives most care about may get unduly delayed, or completely lost in the shuffle. 

It’s not an insoluble problem, by any means. But look for area progressives to try to find creative and responsible ways to work out of the dilemma in coming weeks, trying to split the difference between focused criticism and reasoned support.