Undercurrents: A Beginning Analysis of the Dellums Administration

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday December 17, 2008 - 06:53:00 PM

I have long believed that in the first term of a two-term, four-year administration, the second year is the one to watch if you’re trying to figure out where the administration is going. The first year can be spent getting oriented, hiring staff, learning the situation, and beginning the first policy initiatives. Unless the mistakes are spectacularly bad, there is plenty of time left in the term to make up for first-year mistakes. The fourth year is an election year, and the administrator—president, governor, or mayor—is either deeply involved in running for re-election or have decided to settle for one term. The record upon which a four-year administration is running for re-election, therefore, must be firmly established by the third year. Because most government policies take a long time to actually bear fruit, things which an administration wants to make manifest in the third year must have already been planted at least a year in advance. Thus, it’s at the end of the second year that you can start making judgments of possible success or failure. 

Because the administration of first-term Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums is moving towards the end of its second year in office, we’ve now reached the proper time to start making those long-term judgments. 

Let me suggest a beginning framework for analysis by posing three questions regarding, so far, the success or failure of the Dellums administration. Has the Dellums administration fulfilled the enormous hope and promise generated by the Dellums candidacy? Has the mayor carried out his core responsibility of running the city? And, finally, how have the mayor’s record and actions, so far, affected his chances for possible re-election? 

The quick answer to the first question—has the Dellums administration fulfilled the enormous hope and promise generated by the Dellums candidacy—is easy: no. But that answer, of course, demands some clarification. 

Ron Dellums was elected mayor of Oakland, in part, on a wave of expectation and belief that his election would spark a progressive overhaul of Oakland’s government and institutions. After a barren eight years under Jerry Brown in which Oakland progressives essentially wandered in the wilderness—shut out of most important City Hall decision-making and relegated to a sideline of letter-writing and press-conference protesting and two-minute speaking at public comment time before the City Council—there was a feeling of euphoria in the spring and summer of 2006 that under Mr. Dellums, Oakland would experience a sort of South African-type overhaul in which the bottom rail would replace the top and a wind of change would blow open the doors of Oakland’s halls of decisions. How all of this would actually work was never specifically spelled out—and it was certainly never specifically promised by Mr. Dellums himself—but that feeling that we were at the beginning of a new era of progressive-and-popular overturn and involvement reached its peak with the creation of the Dellums community task forces in the summer and fall of 2006, months before the mayor even took office. 

But in his first two years in office, we have not seen what you would describe as progressive, open-style government in Oakland. The mayor has governed with a close hand, less like the shade tree mechanic who sips a beer and shares jokes and stories and invites everybody to stand around and offer comments and suggestions or hand him tools while he works under the hood of your car, more like the standard repair shop that puts up signs reading “employees only allowed in here,” and asks customers to either wait in the lobby or come back only when they get a call that their vehicle has been repaired. It is not a bad style of government. But it is not what a lot of people expected.  

The loudest and most persistent criticisms of Mr. Dellums have come from those people who confess that they never supported the mayor in the first place, and did not vote for him. But the bitterest disappointment has come from progressives who supported the initial Draft Dellums petition campaign and worked for the mayor’s election, but now feel that the administration has not lived up to its expectations. Many of those progressives feel that they are still being ignored and are still standing on the sidelines, but the pain of it is worse, because now they feel that they are being ignored by someone they considered their champion and a progressive icon. Most of Mr. Dellums’ progressive detractors can be brought back into his fold, I believe, because he does not appear to have lost their core respect. But like once-burned lovers, they will be far more cautious and circumspect, the second time around, and the wild progressive enthusiasm for Mr. Dellums that marked 2006 is probably forever lost. 

But has the mayor carried out his core responsibility of running the city? If you’re looking for the definitive answer to that question, you’re going to be disappointed. The answer depends upon the criteria put forth by the person posing the question, and those criteria have a wide variance. 

The criteria I use for judging an administration, as an example, are the same as I’d use for judging a cardplayer. You must consider the way the cards are played, of course, but you must also consider what hand was dealt. The success or failure of Jerry Brown—whose eight-year administration encompassed the boom in the real estate market—must understandably be judged by a different yardstick than the one used for judging Ron Dellums, who came into office as we were entering the greatest national economic downturn since the Depression and, to make matters worse, was also tasked with cleaning up the mess Mr. Brown had left behind. That is not to make excuses for Mr. Dellums. That is only to set fair criteria for judgment. 

And while we ought not to set our bar of expectations too low, we ought to set it at a level that is reasonable to achieve. Some see the success or failure of the Dellums administration falling, for example, on whether or not the mayor is able to “solve” Oakland’s problems of crime and violence, that is, to bring crime and violence down to some “acceptable” level. Even allowing for a variance in the differences in what one considers “acceptable,” that would seem out of step with the realities of Oakland in 2008. 

Instead, I believe it is more reasonable to look at Dellums Term One (there is no implication that there will be a Term Two…this is only to keep things straight) as a transition administration. If one believes that during the Jerry Brown years, for example, Oakland floundered around with no well-defined plan that could reasonably be expected to lead to a significant reduction in crime and violence in the city and a public safety infrastructure ill-equipped to carry out such a plan even if it existed, then the reasonable goal for the Dellums administration would be the development of such a plan, the putting in place of that infrastructure, and the first steps in carrying the plan out. Reaching the end of the tunnel would be nice but at this point, it is important to determine that we are on the right track. 

In its first two years, the Dellums administration has put in place significant reforms in the police department, including moving to geographic division of the command and implementation structure, strengthening the ability of the chief to manage the department, and bringing the department up to its full authorized strength. Are these good reforms, and can they be expected to lead us in the direction of a safer city? Those are the questions to be asked. Meanwhile, the administration has one inherited police scandal on its hands to clean up-the aftermath of the “Oakland Rider” lawsuit and settlement—as well as a new one developed under its watch—the fallout from the Chauncey Bailey murder and the Your Black Muslim Bakery raid. There is the continuing problem—continued over from the Brown administration—of the charge of indiscriminate targeting of African-American and Latino youth by Oakland police, which raises the broader issue of how well the Dellums administration is managing the balance of police-oriented public safety with the protection of citizen rights. And, finally, there are the Dellums initiatives in the area of non-police crime and violence prevention, the social programs aimed at the causes of the problem. Are these the right initiatives, how seriously are they being worked on, how well are they working? These are all factors which ought to be included in the mix when formulating a judgment of the Dellums administration. 

And that is only in the area of public safety. 

The final question that ought to be posed is how poised is Mr. Dellums for a possible run for re-election? For me, that’s another easy answer. The mayor is well-poised, if running for re-election is what he chooses to do. 

Late in October, USA News released a poll which showed dismal numbers for the mayor. Mr. Dellums’ approval ratings were listed at 27 percent, his disapproval ratings at 55 percent. The mayor was not doing well in what ought to be one of his twin bases—the African-American community, where his approval-disapproval numbers were polled at 37-49. Mr. Dellums’ other political base—listed in the poll as “liberal” but which we will interpret as people who usually define themselves as “progressive”—where the numbers at bottom at 27-57 approval-disapproval. 

But even if the polling numbers are accurate (and they are often skewed), they reflect what can reasonably be expected to be the low point in the mayor’s popularity, with two years spent largely out of the public eye, with the results of his administrative and political reforms not yet made manifest, under relentless critical attack in several areas of the major media and the blogsphere to which his administration has largely offered a weak—and often inept—response.  

Given Mr. Dellums’ enormous political abilities as well as the large reserve of unpolled but easily observed support that exists for the mayor throughout Oakland, I would not put much faith that those polling numbers are automatically going to remain so dismal for the mayor. But this is not intended to be the conclusion of an analysis of the mayor’s administration, only the middle. And so we will leave the vast bulk of this to be chewed over, ongoing. Just wanted to give you something different to think about.