Dan Dillman is one of San Leandro’s most charismatic businessmen. In recent years, he has reinvigorated the crumbling Bal Theater on East 14th Street with live shows and quirky film festivals. R&B headliner Bobby Brown played the Bal last New Year’s Eve, and comedians George Lopez and Dana Carvey have performed at the theater as well. Dillman, however, is also interested in politics, and is running for the open mayor’s seat in San Leandro this fall. Yet despite his entertainment business successes, he faces an uphill battle: While his opponents were readying their mayoral campaigns this summer, Dillman was serving 69 days in Santa Rita Jail for assaulting two plain-clothed Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies in front of his theater in 2010.
Although Dillman is considered a long shot this November, he nonetheless may become an important player in the mayor’s race because of ranked-choice voting. Dillman’s supporters could end up deciding San Leandro’s next mayor, depending on whom they list second and third on their ballots. “It is going to have an effect on the race,” said Pauline Cutter, a San Leandro councilmember, who is also a candidate for mayor. “Dan is going to get those who are dissatisfied with how things are going in San Leandro.”
Two years ago, Dillman ran for city council on a fix-City-Hall platform, winning 19 percent of the first-place votes, good enough for third place. A large percentage of voters who put him first on their ballots listed candidate Morgan Mack-Rose second, nearly giving her enough votes to pass Councilmember Ursula Reed. Reed eventually won re-election, but only by a mere 186 votes. The same sort of scenario could play out this fall in the mayor’s race — that is, if voters are willing to overlook Dillman’s misdemeanor charge and recent incarceration.
Dillman said in a recent interview that, in hindsight, he should have reacted differently four years ago when he confronted two plainclothes sheriff’s deputies in front of his theater. Dillman maintains that he initially believed the men were impersonating police officers. In the weeks preceding the incident, there was a spate of crimes in San Leandro involving robbers posing as cops, including one in front of the Bal. When the deputies arrived looking to speak to a young man contracted to install signage at the theater, Dillman stopped them. The crux of the court case involved whether the deputies had properly identified themselves before a tussle ensued. Dillman said they did not; the judge disagreed. However, Dillman now believes his lawyer did not fight hard enough to include certain evidence in his defense. For instance, Dillman’s wife told a 911 operator that two men were assaulting her husband. But Alameda County Superior Court Judge Michael Gaffey refused to allow the jury to listen to the 911 call, and also blocked Dillman’s lawyer from showing the jury medical records that showed Dillman had sustained injuries the day of the tussle with police. “It was really a big misunderstanding,” said Dillman.
“The way I look at it now,” he continued, “is God was giving me 100-percent forgiveness in my heart. It doesn’t matter if I was wrong or the officers were wrong. I could have acted differently, even though, at that time I felt I was defending my family and my property. After I realized they were really cops and they realized I was really the owner, and if all of us would have humbled our hearts more that day, it wouldn’t have gone further.”
Following an unsuccessful appeal of his sentence, Dillman entered jail in June. Two weeks into his stay at Santa Rita, he crossed paths with one of the deputies involved in the incident that put him behinds bars. Dillman said that while incarcerated he had nothing to read until someone gave him a Bible. “I walked to the door with tears in my eyes and the Spirit just told me to tell him I was sorry,” Dillman said of his encounter with the sheriff’s deputy. “Dillman said the deputy told him “it wasn’t personal” and recommended the jail’s chapel services.
For years, Dillman had clashed with the city’s Community Development Department over various disputes involving the number of performances permitted at the Bal Theater and other regulatory issues. Dillman became a fixture at city council meetings and often butted heads with the mayor. Once, perturbed by Mayor Stephen Cassidy’s insistence that he provide his address for the record during a public meeting, Dillman petulantly answered, “Planet Earth. Milky Way.” Eventually, the city hired a new city manager, the community development director quit, and the city’s stance toward the Bal softened. Last year, the city approved an increase in the number of events held at the theater and even allowed Dillman to sell alcohol. “I took over the Bal, which many considered blight and turned it into one of the premiere live entertainment venues in the East Bay,” said Dillman, whose work in the community, including helping bring back the popular Cherry Festival this year, has been noticed in City Hall. During sentencing, Cassidy even wrote the judge a letter on Dillman’s behalf.
Dillman’s foray into politics also could be viewed as just another stage in an eventful life. The connections he uses to attract pop acts — such as Tony! Toni! Tone!, El De Barge, Tevin Campbell, and Bobby Brown — to the Bal are the result of the years he spent managing former New Edition singer Ralph Tresvant. Dillman also often describes himself as a “third-generation treasure hunter.” Last February, he appeared with his uncle on the popular History Channel program Ancient Aliens.
Dillman said his run for mayor will be far more organized that his campaign for council two years ago. “My plan is just to get out there and knock on doors, meet with people, and find out what they want and what they are hoping for.” Dillman’s platform also includes expanding the city’s limited entertainment options, including a theater district along East 14th Street. “We’re not dreaming big enough in San Leandro.”