Undercurrents: Never Too Early to Start Speculating About 2010

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday November 26, 2008 - 10:41:00 AM

One of the perks of being a newspaper columnist—as well as a newspaper reporter—is that from time to time, you get the chance to write your own fantasies. For political columnists and reporters, this often takes the place of handicapping—sometimes years in advance—political races. Like all good fantasies, political race advance handicapping needs to adhere to certain rules, such as the columnist or reporter clearly stating in advance what rules are to be used for including or excluding certain potential candidates. Without that, such political fantasy-writing provides no useful insight, except into the wishful thinking of the person doing the writing. But we’ll get to that, shortly. 

In the past couple of weeks, our friends in the East Bay bureau at the San Francisco Chronicle have begun to take a particular interest in the future of state Senate President Don Perata. Mr. Perata is facing two large changes in his life, one of them his terming out of the California State Senate as of the end of this year, the other the resolution—either dismissal or to trial—of the longstanding federal criminal investigation into his Senate dealings. 

Our Chronicle friends are more interested in Mr. Perata’s political future, however, particularly in the state senator’s longstanding desire to become mayor of the City of Oakland. 

Some months after he said that Mr. Perata would be a “good fit” as Oakland mayor, Chronicle East Bay columnist Chip Johnson expounded on the subject two weeks ago, writing in a Nov. 11 column (”Only Job Perata Ever Wanted—Oakland Mayor”) that “Oakland’s top post had been a goal for much of his political career.” 

Mr. Johnson then goes on to give several reasons why Mr. Perata would be running for mayor in 2010, and why he could win. “Politics is in my blood, public service is in my blood, and I love Oakland,” Mr. Johnson quotes Mr. Perata as saying. Mr. Johnson also writes that “when you look across the playing field at all the potential mayoral contestants, there’s no doubt that Perata, whose political skills and fundraising abilities are enormous, could mount a strong mayoral run. … Perata is a meticulous campaigner who is well-versed in canvassing homes, honing a message that strikes a public chord and sticking to the game plan. Over the years, his political organization has supported countless East Bay candidates, from city and county government to local school boards.” 

If you noticed something pointedly missing from the Perata resumé penned by Mr. Johnson, a list of public policy accomplishments on behalf of Oakland that would give Oakland voters a reason to choose Mr. Perata as our mayor—you are not by yourself. 

In fact, that seems to be the principle lacking in a Nov. 24 article on Mr. Perata’s political future (”Retiring Perata Ready To Be Outside Looking In”) by Chronicle staff writers Matthew Yi and Christopher Heredia. 

Mr. Perata “hopes his next destination is the mayor’s office in Oakland, a job that he said he’s coveted for more than a decade,” Mr. Yi and Mr. Heredia write. “In the interview, Perata stopped short of declaring his candidacy for Oakland mayor in 2010, but other East Bay power brokers and political experts say he will be a force to be reckoned with. Perata’s poll numbers are high with East Bay residents, while his negatives have risen over the past few years, said Larry Tramutola, an Oakland political consultant. … Tramutola said Perata could be the answer to what ails Oakland-high crime rate and struggling schools.” 

Mr. Yi and Mr. Heredia then quote Mr. Perata himself on his own mayoral credentials. 

“I’m a political mechanic—I like to fix things or tinker with it,” Mr. Perata tells the Chronicle reporters. “Probably fixing a pothole on Claremont Avenue would be important to more people than anything I’ve done.” 

What we are left with in the Johnson and Yi-Heredia pieces is that Mr. Perata is an ambitious, power-seeking politician—a lot of us had already guessed that—whose ambition has been to run for mayor of Oakland. Ambition is nice, and is to be commended. But what Oakland voters may be looking for in 2010 in a mayoral candidate is someone who can tell us what their vision is for Oakland—not their vision for themselves—their record on dealing with Oakland problems, and their intentions for Oakland government should they be elected. 2010 is a long time off, yet, so there is plenty of time for more Chronicle articles to address this subject. 

This, however, is not the main problem with the Johnson column and the Yi-Heredia article, and that goes back to the fantasy rules thing. One of the rules of fantasy writing is that if you are going to leave out a major fact or factor, you must at least acknowledge that you are leaving it out and—if you think it necessary—give a little explanation why. 

A somewhat major factor was left out of the column and article, as shown in the following quotes. 

From Mr. Johnson: Mr. Perata’s “name would appear near the top of the short list of potential candidates. Oakland City Council members Jane Brunner, Jean Quan and Ignacio De La Fuente could all run, along with former City Manager Robert Bobb if he returns to work in Oakland. Tony West, a prominent attorney who is well-regarded in Democratic circles, has also been mentioned for the job. … About the only serious challenge he would face would be from Bobb…” 

And from Mr. Yi and Mr. Heredia: “If Perata declares his candidacy for mayor of Oakland, he likely will find competition from some well-known locals, including City Auditor Courtney Ruby, Oakland City Councilwoman Jean Quan, former City Manager Robert Bobb and City Attorney John Russo.” 

If you cannot find the missing major factor in these two quotations, here’s a comment on the Yi-Heredia article that appeared this week on the East Bay Express blog from Express contributor Chris Thompson. “Ask yourself why the story takes for granted that Ron Dellums won’t be running for a second term!” Mr. Thompson asks. And, in fact, no mention of the fact that Mr. Dellums is eligible for a second mayoral term, and can run in the 2010 Oakland mayoral election if he chooses, appears in either of the two Chronicle articles. It is perfectly reasonable for Mr. Johnson and Mr. Yi and Mr. Heredia to write out 2010 mayoral fantasies in which Mr. Dellums is not factored in, but at the very least, they ought to tell us that they aren’t factoring the mayor in, and, if possible, why. Do the Chronicle writers have some special insight that Mr. Dellums will not run, or is this simply a part of their fantasy? 

If you have to be corrected on local affairs by Mr. Thompson—the Express bloggist who comments on East Bay affairs while not necessarily living in or near the East Bay—you’re in trouble. 

Mr. Thompson, in fact, goes on to write that Dellums would (thoroughly) get his ass handed to him if he did” run for a second term.” Why Mr. Thompson believes that is not explained, although his many criticisms of Mr. Dellums are well documented on the East Bay Express blog where he writes. 

Myself, I have a slightly different view of things. 

I have no special insight into whether or not Mr. Dellums will run for a second term as Oakland mayor. I know of no one who does other than Mr. Dellums and his wife, Cynthia, and neither of them appears to be sharing those insights at the present time. And while I’m not in the predicting business, I suspect that the outcome might not be the ass-handing that Mr. Thompson believes it will. 

The things that get politicians in the most trouble are not the things that they’ve failed to do, but the things that they’ve done. Mr. Perata, for example, will be remembered by at least some Oakland voters as the chief architect and promoter of the Raiders deal, the ill-fated, disastrous arrangement that brought the Oakland Raiders football team back from Los Angeles and left Oakland residents in debt for decades to come. Nothing that Mr. Perata can now do can undo the Raiders deal, and it will be a burden on his candidacy when and if he actually runs for mayor of Oakland. 

While Mr. Dellums’ poll numbers and approval rating are currently down from his status when he ran for mayor in 2007 in a triumphant homecoming, the disaffection with the mayor appears to be with things that Mr. Dellums has not done—or, in some cases, appears to have not done. In those cases, there is still enough time between now and 2010 to do those things—or show people that he’s already done those things—if the mayor indeed decides to stand for re-election. 

The two “undone” things that encompass the most criticism about Mr. Dellums is that he has accomplished little in his first two years as mayor, and he has been noticeably absent from most of Oakland’s neighborhoods during his tenure. 

I believe that Mr. Dellums has done far more than most Oakland residents know in the last two years. His Oakland police reforms in particular have been major, most especially his ambitious promise last January to bring the department up to full uniform strength by the end of the year. In fact, Oakland now has more police on the beat than at any time in its history, an accomplishment directly attributable to Mayor Dellums. The mayor has also—as promised—brought millions of extra public and private dollars into Oakland, something which has helped keep city programs afloat in these bad economic times. Mr. Dellums’ biggest problem in this area is that he has failed to keep city residents informed of these accomplishments. I don’t want to minimize this problem, but at the same time, it’s a problem that is easily rectified. 

The criticism that Mr. Dellums has not been visible in the community is also easily corrected, if the mayor chooses to. He can do so simply by spending 2009 accomplishing an ambitious community outreach agenda, speaking at meetings and attending neighborhood functions. If he were to do so, by next December, about the time the 2010 mayoral election was heating up, the issue of lack of mayoral visibility in the community would be, well, no longer an issue. 

There are other Oakland problems not as easily solved, and they may become factors in the 2010 election. While we can anticipate, no one can see exactly that far in the future. My point is that Ron Dellums remains the most formidable politician in Oakland, one of the best public speakers of our time and a man with enormous political talents and savvy, and the idea that his political enemies are advancing that the mayor does not have the energy—or is somehow too senile—to run for a second term is a little like whistling past a graveyard in the hopes that the bad old ghost won’t come soaring out. As I said, I have no special insight as to whether Mr. Dellums will run again in 2010. I just believe that anyone who automatically counts the mayor out—before he makes that decision or barring other, unforeseen events—is sadly lacking in the basics of arithmetic.