Undercurrents: Criticisms of Dellums Lack a Certain Measure of Consistency

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday October 09, 2008 - 09:30:00 AM

An African-American politician once told me that when he was newly elected to the South Carolina State Legislature in the early 1970s—making him somewhat of an oddity in a statehouse that spawned John C. Calhoun and Pitchfork Ben Tillman—a group of moderate white legislators offered to show him around the state capitol, and even to help him pick up a girlfriend. He declined the help with the girlfriend, saying he’d been doing that pretty well on his own since he’d been a sophomore in high school. 

I sometimes feel that way about some of my good friends in the media and the blogsphere and Oakland political life about criticisms of the administration of Mayor Ron Dellums. From time to time, these good friends chastise me for not joining in their particular criticisms, calling me, among other things, a “Dellums supporter” (as if that is a pejorative) or a “Dellums apologist,” or even implying that I am a “black racist” because I won’t join the mob beating up on a black man. 

My answer to these chastisements is twofold. 

The first is, as they say in my neighborhood, I’m a grown-ass man, and can come up with my own criticisms of the Dellums administration. I’ve voiced these criticisms in this column from time to time, for those who care to read the whole things, and not just go in and pick out the parts that strike them wrong. 

The second thing is, I’ve paid close attention to the frequent critics of Mr. Dellums, and don’t join with them because I found many of those criticisms to be off base—not grounded in fact but more in fancy—and have also noted a deep strain of inconsistency in many of these criticisms. 

Want examples? I’ve got a couple. 

First comes the recent odd entry by Oakland developer-politician Phil Tagami, who made news in mid-September by publicly calling on Mr. Dellums to fill out a weekly time sheet. 

A Sept. 18 story posted on the KTVU Channel 2 website reads that Mr. Tagami “wants to make certain that Mayor Ron Dellums is earning his almost $200,000 annual salary and working a full eight-hour day by requiring that the mayor to fill out a weekly timesheet. … ‘This action of improving Oakland requires daily contact and that is what the essence of this is,’ explains Tagami. ‘Washington is a little different; a little more abstract, Oakland and a city with our issues requires daily tending.’ Tagami says Dellums gets a full day’s wage even though in his eyes the mayor doesn’t put in a full day’s work. He wants to change the city charter to require timesheets for all city staff.” 

What makes this request odd? A year ago, Mr. Tagami was publicly expressing quite the opposite opinion. 

In an Aug. 10, 2007 letter to the editor to the East Bay Business Times, Mr. Tagami wrote, “Recently, many local media outlets and disgruntled individuals have attempted to cast a shadow on City Hall and any notion that good work is happening there. Having spent the past 20 years working with and volunteering for Oakland, its mayors and other elected officials, I respectfully ask those who feel obligated to promote a pessimistic view to consider taking another look. Recently, I met with Mayor Ron Dellums and his staff to discuss my company’s progress on local and minority hiring for the Fox Theater Project. I found the mayor and his staff engaged, prepared and willing to invest the time to listen and energy to lead. As I left the mayor’s office I realized how much activity was afoot to advance the Oakland agenda. I feel confident in expressing that Dellums and his staff are hard at work for Oakland.” 

Three months later, Mr. Tagami expressed similar opinions in the San Francisco Business Times. In a Nov. 23, 2007 article assessing Mr. Dellums’ first year in office, the Business Times wrote, “Ten months into his term, Dellums wins praise for his commitment to ambitious, meticulous, long-term strategies that could eventually produce sweeping change in the city. Developer Phil Tagami, who has worked closely with the last three mayors, said: ‘Elihu Harris is a policy wonk, he brought a Sacramento form of government to Oakland. Jerry Brown was a deconstructionist with the bureaucracy and he could accomplish this because of his celebrity. Ron Dellums is an icon; he freed Nelson Mandela and is a rally point for activism. Each Mayor has their strengths and weaknesses operationally.’” The article included a correction from an earlier version because the paper said that the earlier version gave the mistaken impression that Mr. Tagami was a “critic” rather than a “supporter” of Mr. Dellums. 

Certainly, people have the right to change their minds as their perceptions change or new information comes in. But when they do so, if they are to be taken seriously, they ought to provide some information as to how and why that change came about, particularly when a change is so radical. For my part, I don’t see anything different from Mr. Dellums’ work style in August or November of last year and October of this. But perhaps Mr. Tagami can enlighten us. 

We had been counting on our good friend, San Francisco Chronicle East Bay columnist Chip Johnson, to keep up the consistent attacks on Mr. Dellums, but even he has suddenly taken to waffling. 

Two weeks ago, in a column entitled “It’s Time For Oakland To Give Dellums The Boot,” Mr. Johnson concluded that the Dellums administration was a mistake, and urged Oakland voters to “step up” and support a Recall Dellums petition “to correct Oakland’s course before the city goes down.” Mr. Johnson’s Sept. 23rd conclusion comes at the end of almost two years of columns severely critical of Mr. Dellums. 

Last Friday, however, Mr. Johnson completely reversed course. 

“Oakland’s budget crisis seems to have lit a fuse under Mayor Ron Dellums, who has been present and engaged in intense negotiations in recent weeks,” he begins his column, adding that the mayor’s Tuesday evening budget speech to Oakland City Council, in which Mr. Dellums outlined detailed plans to bring the city out of its immediate and long-term financial difficulties, “was the most coherent, logical and on-point address [Mr. Dellums] has delivered since taking office nearly two years ago.” 

Actually, Mr. Dellums’ City Council presentation was not even the most comprehensive speech the mayor gave during September. It was, in fact, an abbreviated version of the speech the mayor gave the previous Friday at a City Hall press conference, in which he spoke for 35 minutes without notes or consulting with nearby aides. But Mr. Johnson didn’t make the Friday afternoon press conference—to my knowledge, the columnist doesn’t generally do press conferences—so he can be forgiven for not taking that into account. 

But back to Mr. Johnson’s Oct. 3 conversion. In that column, he writes that Mr. Dellums now “deserves some credit for rising to the challenge in the city’s fiscal crisis. In his speech to the council Tuesday, [the mayor] spoke clearly and with the authority of someone who intimately understood the details--and nuances--of the city’s budget dilemma. It was refreshing to hear him use concrete examples and solutions rather than abstractions and idealistic visions supported only by rhetoric.” 

So why has Mr. Johnson abruptly changed his opinion of the mayor? Well, it’s actually not the mayor whom Mr. Johnson is praising, as we see if we continue reading the Oct. 3 column. 

Mr. Johnson goes on to say that Mr. Dellums’ City Hall budget presentation told Mr. Johnson “two things”: “If Dellums is provided with adequate administrative support, he can deliver a factual, no-frills message to residents about the city’s most important issues. In addition, [newly hired mayoral consultant and former City Administrator Robert] Bobb and his consulting staff shaped the presentation and I have high hopes that Dellums has finally found someone whose advice he respects and is willing to consider.” 

In other words, Mr. Johnson feels that Mr. Dellums did good only because Mr. Bobb was there to prop him up. 

If you have any doubts that this is Mr. Johnson’s position, or what it is he is seeking, the columnist makes it plainer this week. In an October 7th column, he writes that “the completion of Dellums’ budget proposal last month is mostly the work of former City Manager Robert Bobb, who has served Dellums as an organizational consultant since August. Bobb and his team of professional consultants sorted out the city’s financial mess and authored the city’s recovery plan.” Mr. Johnson concludes, in case you missed the point, that “Bobb is the only proven manager Oakland has right now.” 

There are two problems with the Robert-Bobb-as-savior-of-Oakland-and-Mayor-Dellums’-ass scenario painted by Mr. Johnson. 

The first is that it implies that Mr. Dellums was incoherent and not grasping the intricacies of Oakland’s government infrastructure until the arrival of Mr. Bobb. But to attribute Mr. Dellums’ sudden coherence and clarity on Oakland’s budget to the arrival of Mr. Bobb, you have to discount the mayor’s State of the City address 10 months ago—long before Mr. Bobb came back—in which he spoke for more than an hour, also without notes, with similar clarity and organization on details of the city’s conditions and problems and his administration’s proposals to address them. Whether one agrees or disagrees with those proposals, the mayor’s State of the City address demonstrated a knowledge by the mayor of the intricacies of Oakland government that couldn’t be gained from someone slacking off four hours a day, or trying to cram all of that information in at the last minute. 

The second problem with Mr. Johnson’s no-savior-but-Robert scenario is that it ignores one of the more remarkable little municipal miracles we are currently in the midst of. At that same January State of the City address, Mr. Dellums pledged to bring Oakland’s uniformed police staff up to its full strength of 803 officers. At the time the mayor made the pledge, many observers—myself included—thought it was impossible to achieve. In fact, since Measure Y was passed in 2004, City Council and the Oakland Police Department administration had been trying to bring the department up to full strength, and couldn’t figure out a way to do it. The city is now projecting that it will meet the mayor’s goal of 803 by next month. That happened under Mr. Dellums, and the now-much-maligned former City Administrator Deborah Edgerly. This doesn’t mean that Mr. Bobb wouldn’t be a good hire for Oakland Administrator. It only means that the Dellums Administration wasn’t living in dumbness and darkness—as Mr. Johnson implies—before the mayor called upon Mr. Bobb to return and provide a little help. 

If you ever wonder why I don’t sing in the chorus of Mr. Dellums’ critics, these are some of the reasons. I’ll sing my own song, with my own criticisms. Theirs has too many strange notes.