Ron Dellums teased his adoring crowd. In October 2005, he stood before a packed house of supporters and said he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be mayor. Thousands of citizens had begged the East Bay icon to lead their troubled city, but he told the throng he didn’t know if he was ready to give up private life and return to public service. “I’m just a guy,” he told his delirious followers. “I’m not Superman.” But the rapt audience wasn’t listening. They brushed off his obvious reticence to abandon the comfortable life of his lucrative Washington lobbying practice. Instead, they sat on the edge of their seats, hoping he would accept their plea to run. The white-haired politician finally did, but not before making it clear that he wouldn’t be giving it his all. “If Ron Dellums running for mayor gives you hope, then let’s get on with it,” he said. The audience erupted.
But at least one person wasn’t whooping it up — the person closest to the former congressman. Cynthia Dellums had listened intently to her husband’s speech, and then wept openly when he agreed to run for mayor. It could have been tears of joy, but to at least one observer, she didn’t look at all happy. She may have been alone in realizing just how candidly her husband was telling the truth. His heart really wasn’t sold on the idea of being Oakland’s mayor.
As the wife of Ronald V. Dellums, Cynthia Dellums would have known that her husband is a man who prefers to stay above the fray. Always dressed exquisitely, his hair coiffed perfectly for any occasion, Dellums would not be the kind of mayor who would roll up his sleeves and dirty himself with the gritty details of running an aging American city — one plagued by high crime, poor schools, and a culture of corruption. He was statesman, a legend who helped topple apartheid in South Africa from thousands of miles away. He was used to pomp and circumstance after nearly thirty years on Capitol Hill, a man accustomed to referring to even his right-wing adversaries as “The Gentlemen from” so and so.
Cynthia may also have wept because she knew that her husband would call upon her to help him run Oakland. But then she dried her tears and set out to help him create the “model city” that became the theme of his mayoral campaign. Knowledgeable insiders are understandably hesitant to discuss the working relationship between the mayor and his wife, but according to a half dozen sources both inside and outside City Hall, she became his partner and his gatekeeper, the person who decided who talks to Ron Dellums — and who doesn’t.
The only problem, these sources said, is that Cynthia has neither the experience nor the temperament for the job. In fact, their mayoral partnership, along with her fierce loyalty to her husband and protectiveness of him, has driven away or scared off intelligent, accomplished people who could have helped Oakland.
It’s not unusual for politicians’ wives or husbands to play key roles in their spouses’ administration. Anne Gust, the wife of former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, is one of his top advisors in the Attorney General’s Office. But Gust is an experienced lawyer who brings a wealth of knowledge to the job. By contrast, Cynthia Dellums has no experience in public office — let alone running a city. Nor did she play a role in her husband’s political career in Washington D.C.
The two were not married until after the congressman retired in 1998. Ron and his second wife Leola “Roscoe” Dellums divorced that same year, and he married Cynthia two years later. The UC Berkeley graduate is eighteen years younger than her husband; he’ll be 73 in November and she turns 55 a month later. Before their marriage, her public service experience consisted of working for the Democratic National Committee. After they wed, she became the chief executive of her husband’s Beltway lobbying firm, Dellums and Associates.
According to several sources, Cynthia Dellums played a major behind-the-scenes role during the 2006 mayoral campaign and his subsequent transition into City Hall. And her influence has grown substantially ever since. Officially, her title is “senior advisor of public-private partnerships.” It’s an unpaid position and she has no office of her own inside city hall, but according to five sources, her responsibility and authority are far-reaching — to the point of crossing the line from being an advisor to a quasi second mayor. “She directs city staff” beyond the mayor’s office, said one city hall insider. “Her role is way out of bounds.”
She regularly sits in on meetings with top city staffers and council members. And she can be formidable. “She’s a terror,” said one city hall source. “She scares people in the mayor’s office.” Sources said she acts as her husband’s gatekeeper, honing his message, filtering what information he sees, and deciding who gets to see and talk with him. “She reviews every press release that goes out,” the source said. “She reviews his calendar.”
Cynthia also is jealously protective of her husband. She won’t tolerate, let alone heed, criticism of the mayor’s performance in office, according to two knowledgeable sources. Her protectiveness is so pervasive that staffers are afraid to tell the mayor how poorly he’s doing or how badly he’s being perceived by the press and the community at large. Two city hall insiders also said that people who wish to help the mayor are often unsure whether Cynthia Dellums has passed along their input to her husband. They’re frustrated that they never receive feedback about their recommendations.
As a result, sources agreed, Dellums operates in a kind of bubble, surrounded by aides who tell him that he’s making the right choices and doing a great job. And the number one cheerleader is Cynthia Dellums. She’s particularly adept at playing on her husband’s vanity — just as many of his close friends have done over the years. After a speech, for example, she’ll heap praise on him, said one city hall insider. “She’ll say, ‘You really are The One, Ron; you really wowed them.'”
Ron and Cynthia Dellums declined a request to be interviewed for this story. But according to spokesman Paul Rose, they take issue with the assertion that they have a mayoral partnership. “There’s no question that she’s his top advisor,” Rose said. “But as far as running the city, the mayor makes every decision — though he does consult with his top advisors before making them.”
In the fall of 2006, after Dellums trounced City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente in the mayoral race, there was widespread speculation that Tony West would be the new mayor’s top advisor. To many observers, West looked like a perfect chief of staff for a detached mayor unwilling to do the heavy lifting that comes with running a rough and tumble city. He was pro-business, which comforted economic leaders who worried that a liberal Dellums administration would be hostile to them. He also had reputation for being a smart, tough, hands-on kind of guy.
And as a former federal prosecutor, West would have been expected to focus squarely on the city’s most pressing problem — crime. After all, by the time Dellums walked into City Hall, crime had spiraled out of control in Oakland. In particular, violent crime had spiked dramatically during his predecessor’s last year in office. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Statistics, the number of violent crimes jumped an astounding 34 percent in Oakland from 2005 to 2006, the last twelve months of Brown’s administration. And the murder rate was even worse. The number of homicides jumped from 93 in 2005 to 145 in 2006, an incredible 56 percent increase.
West helped spearhead Dellums’ transition team in the fall of 2006, and was the mayor-elect’s most visible advisor before the inauguration. Indeed, many people thought that he would be groomed to become mayor himself in 2010. But when Dellums took over as Oakland’s mayor in January 2007, West was nowhere to be found.
The former federal prosecutor declined to comment at the time about why he did not become Dellums’ chief of staff. Some speculated that he was not prepared to take a significant pay cut from his private law practice. Reached recently, West again did not want to discuss what happened. But according to one knowledgeable source, making less money had nothing to do with his decision. After all, West would have known all along that being the mayor’s chief of staff would pay considerably less than his job as a partner at the powerhouse law firm of Morrison & Foerster.
According to this source, there were many reasons why West bowed out of the running for chief of staff. But among his key concerns was the planned mayoral partnership of Ron and Cynthia Dellums. Under such an arrangement, it was unclear how the lines of communication would function between the mayor, his top aide, and the city bureaucracy. Where would the mayor’s wife fit into the picture? After all, noted another city hall insider, “She’s the only one that the mayor trusts.”
With West out of the picture, Dellums selected his old friend Dan Boggan as his chief of staff. Boggan was an accomplished, experienced administrator, a former Berkeley City Manager, but he lasted only six months in the Oakland Mayor’s Office. Dellums eventually settled on David Chai to be his chief of staff. Chai is an energetic man with good intentions, but his youthful tentativeness would never be confused with the steady hand of the former federal prosecutor, West.
The Dellums administration has enjoyed a few modest successes during its first twenty months in office. They include the negotiated end to last year’s debilitating garbage lockout, the reorganization of the police department to geographic policing, and the fulfillment of the mayor’s promise to fully staff the police department before the year’s end — an achievement his predecessor never attained. Cynthia Dellums, meanwhile, deserves credit in helping secure $15 million in funding from Kaiser Permanente and Atlantic Philanthropies to establish health clinics in the city’s public middle schools.
But there’s no escaping the fact that the Dellums’ reign has been marked by more disappointment than accomplishment. Crime remains as high as it was when Brown left office, and now the city is facing a deficit of at least $50 million. Dellums also was slow to act on the corruption and nepotism scandal involving ex-City Administrator Deborah Edgerly. It now seems clear that Brown should have never promoted Edgerly to the job in 2003, and that Dellums should have replaced her when he got into office. But confronting problems head-on is just not the mayor’s style. Confidants say that Edgerly may have been only the second person Dellums has fired in his entire public career.
The dysfunction in the mayor’s office has led to a brain drain on the third floor of city hall. Not only did West never join the team and Boggan quickly leave, but so did another of the mayor’s experienced friends, Bob Brauer. Earlier this year, Lenore Anderson, the mayor’s former director of public safety and an intelligent, effective policymaker who help spearhead some of his few successes in office, left after less than year on the job. It’s little wonder then that the mayor’s office has repeatedly failed to come up with viable solutions to the city’s most vexing issues.
Nonetheless, there are still some signs of hope. Dellums’ recent decision to bring in ex-City Administrator Robert Bobb to perform a thorough review of City Hall appears to have been a good one. Brown was wrong to fire Bobb, a competent, respected leader who steered the city through prosperous times and presided over one of the lowest crime rates in Oakland’s recent history. Bobb also is examining the functioning of the mayor’s office. If Dellums takes Bobb’s recommendations to heart and then hires a topnotch new city administrator, his second two years in office could be a vast improvement over the first two.
But then again, hiring a skilled city administrator might not matter if Dellums won’t break out of his bubble and surround himself with bright creative people who are willing to tell him things he doesn’t want to hear. It also won’t make a difference if his head and heart aren’t in the game.
Last month, for example, sources said the mayor couldn’t decide whether to attend the funeral of a well-liked Oakland police officer who had taken his own life. Finally, Dellums showed up at the Scottish Rite Temple to deliver a eulogy at the memorial service for Lieutenant Derrick Norfleet. The mayor then proceeded to repeatedly mispronounce Norfleet’s name and misidentify his rank, eyewitnesses said. “Police officers were embarrassed,” said one eyewitness. “Some police said: ‘Don’t even send him to one of these things again,'” said another source.
A first-rate staff would have prepared Dellums better and helped him avoid such an embarrassment. But some things depend on the mayor himself. Indeed, a truly engaged one wouldn’t have made a blunder like that.