UnderCurrents: Despite Batts Appointment, Dellums Still Has Fences to Mend

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday August 20, 2009 - 11:09:00 AM

Incoming Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts won over the crowd at his coming-out press conference Monday afternoon with a bit of hometown theatrics. Asking himself the rhetorical question of why he chose to transfer to Oakland from a similar position in Long Beach, Mr. Batts reached down under the table, pulled out a Raiders cap, pulled it on his head, pronounced himself a lifelong Raiders fan, and began to name off all the old-school silver-and-black stars from the glory days, throwing in a couple of ‘7os Oakland Athletics for good measure. The collection of newsfolk and camerapeople and assorted curious and powerfuls and interesteds at Mayor Ron Dellums’ City Hall conference room roared with laughter and approval, and though he got a couple of pointed questions along the way, Mr. Batts had cemented himself then and there as a legitimate Oaktowner, a member of the club. 

Are we really still such suckers for the Raiders? 

For me, the funniest moment at the press conference came at another point, when Mr. Batts declared that he was not a politician. The newly appointed chief touched all the bases and hit all the right notes, voicing enthusiasm at being able to work alongside the “iconic” Mr. Dellums, twice giving props and praise to Deputy Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan—who Mr. Batts beat out for the chief’s job—at one point even making the visibly disappointed Mr. Jordan break out in a smile, acknowledging that he understood and empathized with the “pain” of “both sides” in the Lovelle Mixon police killings (while tactfully not going into detail on what might have pained the community side), reciting the obligatory mantra that police must work in cooperation with the community to bring down Oakland’s crime and violence epidemic, confessing he still did not know what has caused the city’s crime rate to remain so naggingly high, promising to listen and not simply come in imposing “his” program on the department on the city, promising to reach out to the city’s neglected youth population, etc., etc., etc. 

Mr. Batts handled the most difficult of the questions like a pro when he was asked by a reporter where he planned to live. Had he said “I don’t know yet,” he would have found himself immersed in a controversy, or had he said “I’m buying a house in Brentwood,” he would have immediately turned off a significant portion of Oakland’s activist population. Instead, Mr. Batts hesitated for the briefest of moments, laughed as if he could not understand the import of the question, and answered “Oakland,” with an implied “of course; why wouldn’t I?” at the end. Whether he thought this was merely an Oakland-pride issue or already knew of the controversy surrounding so many of Oakland’s police officers living far away from the city, across the hills, Mr. Batts found the only possible way out of this briar patch. If that’s not the mark of a good politician, it’s certainly a damn good imitation of one. 

I’m a skeptic both by nature and by profession and so I believe—as the old folks on the front porch used to say—that the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it, not in how delicious it appears on the front of the package on the shelf in the store. The job of chief of the Oakland Police Department is an enormously difficult one, with fiercely opposing constituencies to placate and minefields set to blow on all sides and at every step, and we will have to wait to see how Mr. Batts does in—to put it as simply as possible—the doing of it. 

Still, there was something of a poignancy in this week’s introductory press conference, a sad reminder of what many in the city had expected to be the regular state of affairs in Oakland with the 2006 election of Ron Dellums as mayor. It was assumed that the best and the brightest would flock to Oakland to work in a Dellums administration, and the most significant problem would be finding enough room at City Hall and within the city’s boundaries and budget to harness and use all the expected incoming talent. 

That, of course, has not happened. While there has been talent within the Dellums administration, and some dedicated staff members who have labored well in the trenches, the only bright star that has shone in the administration has been Mr. Dellums himself. It is hard to see a Barbara Lee or a Keith Carson or a Sandré Swanson emerging from the Dellums mayoral staff as such political powerhouses emerged from the Dellums Congressional staff. While unfair claims about Mr. Dellums lagging on the job have dominated criticism of this administration—unfair because Mr. Dellums remains an exceptionally hard worker and will leave the city in better shape than he found it—it is the failure to attract major talent to the city that has been the administration’s biggest single and actual disappointment. Until the Batts appointment, in fact, the Dellums administration was best-known for the chance that got away, the failure to put a star quality player in the post of city administrator. 

(This is no knock, by the way, on the abilities of the actual city administrator, Dan Lindheim. It’s a political criticism. If Mr. Lindheim was to be city administrator, he should have been appointed immediately upon the firing of former administrator Deborah Edgerly. By building up expectations of an appointment of national stature, and then getting played by former Oakland City Manager/Administrator Robert Bobb, it was Mr. Dellums who ended up undervaluing the public worth of Mr. Lindheim.) 

Meanwhile, to show how much of a boost the Batts appointment made in the public perception of the Dellums Aaministration, it even caused an abrupt change in the opinions expressed by East Bay Express journalist and blogger Bob Gammon, who has been one of Mr. Dellums’ most vocal critics since the mayor’s 2007 swearing-in ceremonies. 

In an Aug. 19 column entitled “Dellums Gets His Mojo Back,” Mr. Gammon concludes: “According to sources, the Batts hire ... has helped stir a buzz in City Hall about Dellums possibly running for re-election. Sure, it took a while for the former Congressman to hit his stride, but after the past few months, it’s hard to see his main rival, former state Sen. Don Perata, being a better mayor. If Dellums were to seek re-election, both men would be formidable candidates.” 

(As an aside, I think my good friend Mr. Gammon erred in not listing a third individual as a formidable candidate for Oakland mayor: City Councilmember Jean Quan. Ms. Quan is a relentless campaigner, knows Oakland city issues, has the credentials to run Oakland government, has a strong base of popular support, will probably have access to the same vast Asian-American financial base that poured money into Wilma Chan’s campaign for state Senate last year, and has piled up considerable political credits over the years, including one with former Dellums staffer and now state Assemblymember Sandré Swanson, for whom Ms. Quan tirelessly campaigned in Mr. Swanson’s original Assembly race. While this should not be construed as an endorsement of Ms. Quan—I don’t do endorsements—I think counting Ms. Quan out of the top tier of mayoral candidates is a mistake.) 

Meanwhile, Mr. Gammon’s sudden burst of sunshine over the Dellums camp is of note not only because it is among the only positive words Mr. Gammon has made about Mr. Dellums in the past two and a half years, but because it has been widely assumed that Mr. Dellums is not going to run for re-election next year. 

I’m not one of the ones who has made that assumption and my guess is that Mr. Dellums has not yet made the decision, and has been carefully preserving the option either to run again or retire, depending. He has a deep residue of support within many of Oakland’s communities, and with all the batterings he has taken, can still one-on-one rally and inspire Oaklanders better than any other politician in the city, without exception. 

However, if the mayor does decide to run for re-election, he has some significant fence-mending to do within his own camp. 

Particularly during the first year of the Dellums administration, public attention focused on the fierce criticism of the mayor coming from people who did not support him in the 2006 election. What went largely unreported—and therefore largely unnoticed—was the slow but steady level of disappointment with Mr. Dellums developing within the original African-American/progressive coalition that started and fueled the massive petition campaign that convinced Mr. Dellums to return to Oakland and run for mayor. This has been building over a long period, and amongst many people, and for many reasons, but the general feeling I have heard within this original coalition is a grumbling and growing discontent, a feeling that their specific concerns have been overlooked by the mayor. But in part because they were the ones who induced Mr. Dellums to run, and in part because of the perceived unfairness of the criticism of Mr. Dellums’ enemies, almost all of this original Dellums coalition was reluctant to speak out publicly, although many of them reportedly attempted to make their views known to Mr. Dellums on a private basis. 

Unfortunately, this lack of public discussion and airing of grievances, combined with the failure of Mr. Dellums to address the concerns to the satisfaction of the grievants, allowed those grievances to fester and grow. Earlier this year, in a series of private over-drinks discussion at a public reception concerning alternatives to the mayoral candidacy of former state Sen. Don Perata, I was somewhat surprised to learn how angry some former Dellums supporters were with the mayor, and how unwilling they were to commit to signing back on to another Dellums candidacy. 

At least as far as a Dellums re-election candidacy is concerned, that is not the worst of it. 

This summer, members of the old Dellums African-American/progressive coalition felt they got three distinct snubs from the mayor’s office. The first was in the selection of Phil Tagami as the developer of both the city and port portions of the old Oakland Army Base—Mr. Tagami is considered a political enemy of the old Dellums coalition. While that decision was ultimately made by the Oakland City Council, coalition members felt, rightly or wrongly, that Mr. Dellums helped tip the scales in favor of Mr. Tagami. The second perceived grievance was Mr. Dellums’ selection of Gilda Gonzales, a former aide to City Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente, to the Port of Oakland Commission (Mr. De La Fuente is another coalition opponent, and it was their opposition to him that sparked the original search for an alternate candidate that ended with the Dellums petition drive). And finally, after coalition members lobbied hard for the mayor to appoint East Palo Alto Police Chief Ron Davis to the vacant Oakland chief’s position, Mr. Dellums appointed Mr. Batts instead. 

Following the Batts press conference, several members of the old Dellums coalition were very favorably impressed by the new chief’s initial performance, and therefore mollified, and that was undoubtedly part of Mr. Dellums’ calculations in the appointment. But if the mayor wants to run for re-election—or even if he believes he will need that old coalition to help carry his water in some of the political fights remaining in his current term—it would be a mistake for Mr. Dellums to assume that the wounds within his own camp have been healed.  

But, then, that’s only my opinion as a sideline observer in a game Mr. Dellums long ago showed he was a grandmaster of.