The stage, as they say, was set. Hundreds of people dressed to the nines glided into downtown Oakland’s Paramount Theater, ready to fete Ron Dellums, the new mayor of Oakland and the man who would return progressive values – or at least an old political machine – to City Hall. But what was billed as a simple coronation quickly turned into a bloody, vicious, partisan fight, perhaps spoiling any chance of goodwill in the next two years.
Television cameras and national reporters assembled stage right under the glare of overprotective ushers; the orchestra tuned up in the pit as a slideshow of artsy civic images flashed on a screen overhead. Incoming chief of staff Dan Boggan loomed over empty seats reserved for Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Sheila Jackson Lee, when state Assemblyman Sandre Swanson walked past. “How you doin’, man?” Swanson asked Boggan. “Whatever you need, okay? Let’s do this!”
J. Alfred Smith Sr., the leader of the once-mighty Allen Temple Baptist Church and Dellums’ “spiritual advisor,” stood silently amid the handshakes and backslaps, clutching a green folder to his chest, his right hand caressing his gray-and-white beard. Smith muttered a few lines of prayer, then sat down and flipped open his cell phone. All around him, partygoers clutched special editions of the Oakland Post, which outdid its own tradition of fawning obsequiousness with headlines such as “Dellums: Decades of Public Service,” “Ron Loves the Kids,” and “Dellums Delivers.”
As one, the members of the school board and the city council walked onto the stage and took their seats, but when the crowd saw Dellums take his place in the center, they went wild with cheers. Kids in uniform marched around the stage, banging drums as members of the Oakland Police Department waved the flags of the United States, California, and Oakland. After “The Star-Spangled Banner” was given the gospel treatment, everyone rose for the Pledge of Allegiance. At the conclusion, someone in the back tweaked the final line to “and liberty and justice for some,” prompting a few scandalized twitters.
Dan Ashley, anchor of the Channel 7 evening news, walked to the podium and abandoned any pretense of being a reporter. “I am very honored to serve as the master of ceremonies,” he said. “Today represents new ideas, new leadership for a new and wonderful city.”
After a few obligatory remarks about the city’s remarkable diversity, Ashley introduced the city’s leaders. Progressive City Councilwomen Desley Brooks and Nancy Nadel got the biggest cheers, but when Ashley called out Ignacio De La Fuente, a few scattered boos echoed from the rear of the hall. As Ashley gave shout-outs to former city officials like Elihu Harris – butchering a few of their names in the process – he neglected to mention Dick Spees, prompting De La Fuente to grab his mike and point Spees out to a silent audience.
Ashley then turned over the proceedings to the school board, which officially accepted new and reelected members into its ranks. Director Gary Yee, obviously still seething at the state takeover, used his time at the podium to take a pointed swipe at state administrator Kimberly Statham, who sat just a few yards from him. “I have struggled with the very limited authority and information that has been given to us,” he snarled.
But the real fireworks started when the city council convened to elect the new president. For years, De La Fuente has used his position as president to muscle through development deals and stymie leftist legislation, as well as locking out the city’s dying black political machine on behalf of uberboss Don Perata. Now, with the ascent of Dellums, politicos in the theater were determined to snatch power away from him – but he was just as determined to keep it. As the inscrutable mayor looked on from his seat high above the audience, hundreds of people screamed for De La Fuente’s head, turning what he must have hoped would be a dignified ceremony into an angry bloodbath. Dellums’ “model city” proceded to tear itself apart.
Nineteen people spoke at the public comment section, alternately singing De La Fuente’s praises or calling for his ouster. “In this new era of leadership that we’re experiencing here today,” tenant activist James Vann said, “I don’t think we should just stop there. I rise to make a nomination. I propose by acclamation the nomination for president of the city council: Nancy Nadel!” Turning to the audience, he shouted, “Does anyone second the motion?” The crowd erupted in cheers.
Frank Tucker of the organization 100 Black Men of the Bay Area spoke shortly afterwards. “We’re ready for Oakland to change,” said Tucker, who happens to be Brooks’ boyfriend. “Ron Dellums won because people wanted to see change. We’re gonna get change, we have to demand change! … We respect what you’ve done, President De La Fuente. But we also know that we have talent in the rest of the city council.”
One man grabbed the mike and began darkly hinting at leaders who only “work for one ethnic group.” City officials tried to take the mike from him, and hundreds of people started shouting, “Let him speak!”
“I thought there was freedom of speech in America,” he retorted. More cheers.
Finally, it was time to vote. Desley Brooks moved to make Larry Reid president. At first, it seemed a sure thing; for weeks, the City Hall rumor mill had whispered that if De La Fuente couldn’t hold onto the leadership, he’d make sure Reid would get it. But then the count turned against him: No. No. No … With the vote at 4-3 against Reid, it was De La Fuente’s turn. In a move that apparently stunned and infuriated Reid, De La Fuente killed Reid’s chance to lead the council.
Then it was De La Fuente’s turn, and when Reid was asked how he voted, he snapped, “Definitely not!” But the fix was in. Everyone knew De La Fuente would spare no favors, wield any threat, to keep power, and in the end, he won 6-2. Even progressive Nancy Nadel voted for him. The crowd howled with rage, and a man stood in the back and screamed, “You don’t represent Oakland!”
Councilwoman Pat Kernighan tried to calm everyone down. “Um, I think there are some assumptions that Councilmember De La Fuente is an enemy …”
“That’s what he is! That’s what he is!”
The great, grand theater exploded. De La Fuente kept his poker face riveted to his skull. Finally, the mayor had to intervene. Stepping down from his seat, Dellums walked to the podium, and the howls turned to cheers. “Someone wiser than Ron Dellums once said that democracy is a messy business,” he said. “But it’s all we have. We have to go forward in a civil manner, creating civil discourse. And we must begin to deal with each other with respect and with dignity. Finally, whether we agree or disagree with our distinguished colleagues, let them speak, and let us be respectful. Because we must signal to our children that if we’re asking them to solve problems short of madness and insanity and war, we must do likewise.”
But a livid Larry Reid wasn’t ready to make nice. “No one should assume that the president is a lifetime position,” he said. “Mr. De La Fuente is someone I have the utmost respect for. I demonstrated that when he decided to run for mayor. I had wanted to run for mayor of this city, and Mr. De La Fuente stepped out front. … And so I think I have been a loyal, faithful supporter of Mr. De La Fuente. And I certainly was hoping that he would reciprocate his support for me.”
Once again, the crowd began to shout, and Reid served notice that his days as a loyal member of the Perata machine were over. “So let me just close. I am committed to working with the mayor of this great city of ours and moving this city forward. Mr. Dellums, you have my utmost support for whatever you want to do in this city. And to my colleagues on the council, I think you are going to see a different Larry Reid. … I’m-a tell you: Larry Reid got a different attitude.”
Just like that, Ron Dellums got himself another ally. But Ignacio De La Fuente also made it clear that there’s more than one big dog in the yard. Oakland had gotten its first taste of the Ron Dellums era. And it learned that power and politics will still trump high-minded rhetoric every time.