Ignacio De La Fuente is driving 75 miles per hour in the fast lane on the Nimitz freeway, ignoring the warning beep telling him to put on his seat belt. The passenger presses his hands against the dashboard, bracing for impact as De La Fuente’s new black Buick careens dangerously close to the concrete highway divider. The driver looks over and mutters with disgust in his gravelly Mexican accent, “You’re the nervous type, aren’t you?”
For a politician, De La Fuente, president of the Oakland City Council, is remarkably punctual. Driving like a lunatic from one meeting to the next probably has a lot to do with that. Right now he’s returning to City Hall after an hour-long jaw session at the Coliseum with A’s owner Lew Wolff, who has been threatening to move the club to Fremont. The 57-year-old politician admits he hasn’t spent a lot of time recently thinking about the A’s. “I’m busy right now,” he says.
The man does have a lot on his mind. His son, Ignacio Jr., is on trial on multiple rape charges. His closest political ally is the target of an FBI corruption investigation. And, of course, he’s working seven days a week in his quest — which many political insiders consider an exercise in futility — to become Oakland’s next mayor.
Candidate De La Fuente pulls up in front of City Hall in plenty of time for his next meeting. The click-clack of his trademark cowboy boots, which he wears with an assortment of suits, echoes in the hallway as he heads to his second-floor office, strutting as if he owns the place — which, in a way, he has for the past seven years.
At 5:30 p.m. — right on time — he heads to the conference room for a powwow with parents upset about the lack of fields where their kids can play soccer. He makes a quick detour to the kitchen and sticks his hand down a box of Cocoa Pebbles for a little snack. Now he’s ready. He welcomes the parents — some with their elementary-school-age kids in tow — then patiently listens to their gripes for the next hour.
It’s hard to imagine ex-Congressman Ron Dellums, the double-digit frontrunner in the mayor’s race, concerning himself with something so seemingly trivial. Dellums, after all, is a man who has engaged in international politics, a man who once shared the stage with Nelson Mandela. But De La Fuente is in his element. He knows this is just the kind of dull but important municipal issue a mayor, even a big city mayor, must deal with. It’s the kind of problem a mayor can really fix as opposed to, say, pontificating about the need for universal health care — a topic Dellums raised when he announced his candidacy.
Everything is peachy until the end of the meeting, when De La Fuente demonstrates why he’s such a tough sell among likely Oakland voters. One parent mentions how parks and rec officials are giving preference to UC Berkeley groups over Oakland residents for use of some sports fields because the Cal groups pay more money. “That’s a bunch of bullshit,” the politician sneers. It’s typical De La Fuente, calling things as he sees them. And he’s right; it’s indeed a bunch of bullshit. One small problem, though: The politician just cussed in a roomful of parents, in front of their kids.
In an era of blow-dried politicians fearful of offending anyone, Ignacio De La Fuente is a refreshing, if profane, change of pace. His tell-it-like-it-is swagger is key to his charm. On the downside, it contributes to his image as a machine politician always ready to cut a backroom deal or kneecap an opponent. “His tough-guy manner is offensive to a lot of people,” says Dan Siegel, an Oakland school board member who is backing Dellums.
Here’s a classic De La Fuente story, one he himself likes to recount: When the Oakland Raiders deposed the council president during the team’s lawsuit against the city, a Raiders lawyer asked De La Fuente if he was a United States citizen. At the time, false rumors had been circulating that the councilman was not. De La Fuente’s response, as recorded for posterity by a court reporter: “Go fuck yourself.”
De La Fuente’s blunt style is in marked contrast to that of Ron Dellums and Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, his other main rival in the mayor’s race. While De La Fuente blows off steam riding his Harley, the earnest, idealistic Nadel gets around on an oversize tricycle.
Nadel has positioned herself as a practical progressive. While she shares Dellums’ liberal politics, the third-term councilwoman, unlike the frontrunner, boasts municipal experience. A campaign flier even describes her as the “Conscience of the City Council” — a slogan that plays off Dellums’ old catchphrase “Conscience of the Congress.” During a recent debate in Chinatown, Nadel invoked the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, saying she was “unbossed and unbought,” a not-so-subtle jab at De La Fuente. She also noted that her surname means “needle.” “I consider myself a political acupuncturist … applying pressure in just the right spots,” she told the Chinatown crowd.
The gray-haired Dellums, meanwhile, comes across as wise, elegant, eloquent, and regal. While De La Fuente more accurately reflects Oakland’s true face — tough, gritty, roguishly charming — Dellums represents how Oakland would prefer to see itself. So far during the campaign, the elder statesman has offered few specifics of what he would do as mayor, relying instead upon his personal charisma and famous name to help propel him to office.
One of the few specific proposals Dellums has offered — inclusionary zoning — is an idea he swiped from Nadel, who has been pushing for an affordable housing requirement on new development for years. (Last month De La Fuente, who’d resisted the idea in the past, teamed up with other council members and revealed his own inclusionary proposal, devised with input from developers the council president won’t identify.)
Dellums tends to speak grandiosely — and not just about universal health care. He has pooh-poohed one of the centerpieces of Jerry Brown’s administration, his so-called 10K plan to lure ten thousand new downtown residents. Dellums says the city needs to think even bigger: He proposes to bring in a hundred thousand new downtown residents and workers.
Anyone familiar with the development process knows this is crazy talk. Brown’s critics complain that, in order to fulfill his 10K campaign promise in eight years, Brown and his lieutenant, De La Fuente, have ram-rodded massive building projects through the process without community input. The only way to build enough housing to lure a hundred thousand people downtown would be to make the mayor a dictator who could ignore regulatory niceties. That’s certainly not Dellums. A product of the flower-power generation, he’s the kind of politician who talks about building consensus before condos. Yet reaching a consensus on development in a place like Oakland is impossible. One local real-estate attorney who is active in the Democratic Party believes Dellums’ 100K idea is downright silly: “He goes from visionary to goofy,” the lawyer says.
For Dellums loyalists, though, it’s not what the man says — it’s how he says it. De La Fuente tells you how he’s gonna fix Oakland. Dellums inspires you to join him so we can fix Oakland. The frontrunner’s vague-if-inspiring proclamations understandably drive De La Fuente bonkers. “I mean, his whole pie-in-the-sky ideas — the reality is you cannot resolve those problems [as mayor],” he says. “We can do our share, but who’s gonna pay for all that? I think the average citizen understands we can’t say yes to everything.”
No politician, of course, is immune to that syndrome. Although the mayor has no power over school district administrators, De La Fuente has campaigned on his intention to improve Oakland schools. Still, Dellums has spent the past three decades in Washington, the last few years as a corporate lobbyist, while De La Fuente has been here in town doing deals, making things happen, and taking heat in the process.
Some of the councilman’s efforts have gone sour, most famously his role in the deal that brought the Raiders back to Oakland. Everyone remembers that one, an expensive misfire by city officials that De La Fuente acknowledges was a well-intentioned mistake. What they don’t remember is when, say, he took on local preservationists and an out-of-town developer to get the Cesar Chavez Education Center built at the old Montgomery Ward site in the Fruitvale District. The politician boasts that it is one of only two new schools built in Oakland in the past 32 years.
De La Fuente’s long list of endorsers include some people he’s been at odds with in the past, such as Oakland attorney David Stein, who ran for city council in 2002 against Jean Quan. De La Fuente backed Quan, who won the seat, but Stein says he and De La Fuente have remained friendly. The lawyer says he respects Dellums and Nadel, but believes De La Fuente best knows how the city works. “At the end of the day, decisions have to be made and a lot of them are hard ones. I thinks he’s the one who’s going to be able to make them,” Stein says.
North Oakland Councilwoman Jane Brunner describes her longtime ally as a hard worker whose heart is in the right place. “He is an amazing, loyal friend,” she says of De La Fuente. “He has a style that if you don’t know him can look a little brazen. Once you get to know him, and once you’re in a room and are working with him, he listens — you can change his mind. He really cares. I don’t think the public sees that side all the time, but it’s there and I’ve seen it for nine years.”
Until last fall, political prognosticators considered the councilman a mayoral shoo-in. He’d raised the most cash and had the endorsements of most of his council colleagues, the blessing of outgoing Mayor Jerry Brown, and backing from the Chamber of Commerce. Then Dellums appeared — or, more precisely, was recruited by De La Fuente’s enemies. It was déjà vu: De La Fuente had been one of the early mayoral frontrunners seven years earlier when Brown, another political celebrity, came out of nowhere to win the post outright in the primary.
One former De La Fuente supporter says the big question on everyone’s mind isn’t whether Dellums will win, but whether he can get the 50 percent-plus-one-vote he’ll need to avoid a runoff. And given a runoff between Dellums and De La Fuente, Nadel voters are expected to lean toward Dellums. “No fuckin’ runoff,” De La Fuente growls, seemingly repeating the conventional wisdom, until you realize what he’s really saying.
He’s going to win without a runoff.
One day in late March, Carlos Plazola, De La Fuente’s top aide, entered his boss’ City Hall office bearing a copy of a press release from a news conference Dellums had held earlier in the day. The frontrunner was attacking a deal De La Fuente had brokered between the city and the police union. The politician gave it the once-over: “Typical Dellums,” he snorted. “No specifics.”
Crime has shaped up as a key issue in the campaign: In the first two months of 2006, the city chalked up nineteen murders — more than double the comparable 2005 figure. In response to complaints, Police Chief Wayne Tucker proposed to double the number of officers on patrol by tweaking schedules and shunting desk cops to street duty. But the powerful police union fought back, saying the plan would wreak havoc on cops’ personal lives.
Councilwoman Desley Brooks — De La Fuente’s biggest foe on the council save Nadel — urged her colleagues to declare a state of emergency that would enable the chief to sidestep the union. Her politically clever move put De La Fuente in a bind. He’d been talking tough about police scheduling on the campaign trail, noting that the current system works better for cops than for citizens. But he also had the union’s endorsement, which meant delivering on his message would alienate a key supporter. Ultimately, De La Fuente resisted the proposed state of emergency and negotiated a compromise instead.
Smelling blood, Dellums blasted Ignacio’s deal as a “Band-Aid” solution. He accused the union of holding the public’s safety hostage and blamed city officials for letting it happen. Although he never mentioned his rival by name, it wasn’t hard to read between the lines. De La Fuente shrugs it off. The compromise with the police union might not have pleased everyone, he says, but at least now there will be more cops out there.
Dellums also criticized city leaders for not making quicker use of funds from Measure Y, a parcel tax that raised money to hire 63 more cops. This irks De La Fuente, who campaigned hard for the measure. While the money is available, the Oakland Police Department, like departments across the nation, has faced a lack of solid recruits. Besides, it takes time to create a police officer. “We cannot just go down to Costco and buy them; they have to be trained,” De La Fuente says.
The two men weren’t always at odds. Among the mementos that hang on De La Fuente’s office walls, telling the story of his career, is a photo in which a lanky Dellums towers over the jockey-sized De La Fuente. It’s obviously an old picture. De La Fuente likes to point out that Dellums backed him in 1992 when he won his Fruitvale District council seat. That was back when De La Fuente was viewed as a progressive, before he became the darling of developers and business.
In those days, De La Fuente was best known for his leadership in the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics, and Allied Workers International Union. Starting out as a foundry worker who poured hot metal into molds to make big machine parts, he later become a union boss and a strike leader who in 1981 laid in front of a truck — okay, it was stationary, he admits — at the Pacific Steel Casting Company in Berkeley to stop scabs from working.
His memento wall includes an old resolution from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors lauding him as a swell labor leader. One of the signers was Don Perata, then a county supervisor, now president of the state Senate and De La Fuente’s closest political ally. De La Fuente says he met Perata in the early ’80s during a strike against a TransAmerica-owned manufacturing plant that planned to shut down even though it was still profitable. The candidate says he called the county offices asking to speak to the supervisor who represented 85th Avenue. Perata “came down to the picket line, and from that day on we’ve been friends,” De La Fuente says.
That friendship may cost him votes on June 6. Two months ago, FBI agents came to Oakland City Hall to ask council members about De La Fuente’s pal as part of an ongoing corruption probe of the state senator. For nineteen months, the feds have sought information as to whether Perata got illegal kickbacks from Oakland lobbyist Lily Hu, another close friend of De La Fuente’s. Over the years, Hu has represented developers who happen to be campaign donors to both men. Among her clients are Forest City, which is building the heavily subsidized Uptown mixed-use project; and Signature Properties, which wants to put 3,100 condos along the Oakland waterfront on port-owned property.
As of this week, the FBI still hadn’t interviewed Perata’s main man at City Hall. De La Fuente insists he isn’t worried. “In my heart, I have nothing to hide,” he says. He also refuses to distance himself from his political mentor. Perata hosted a $600-a-head De La Fuente fund-raiser at the Waterfront Plaza Hotel earlier this year, and Perata’s name appears on De La Fuente’s ballot statement. De La Fuente has chosen to stand by his longtime friend who, he points out, hasn’t been convicted or even indicted. “When shit gets tough is when you know who your friends really are,” he says. “If you’re not loyal to your friends, you’re not loyal to anyone.”
Just before noon on an overcast day in late March, De La Fuente looks out his office window and watches as dozens of teenage Latinos, some carrying Mexican flags, descend the front steps of City Hall. This is the second straight day that high-school kids protesting proposed changes to the country’s immigration laws have cut class and come here. The politician is visibly irritated. The first time made sense, he says. That was a national day of protest — De La Fuente himself would participate in the national “Day Without an Immigrant” demonstrations a month later — but this seems more like an excuse to get out of school.
Councilwoman Jean Quan, a De La Fuente ally who is more liberal than her friend, comes in to check out the commotion. He shoots her a look and grumbles, “They’re taking off from school, Jean. They’re not in the classroom, for God’s sake. Do it at three o’clock — what’s the difference? Now we’re going to get this every day?”
“This is an opportunity for them to understand how democracy works,” says Quan, who, the day before, had invited the protesters inside City Hall to talk.
“So do it after school,” De La Fuente shoots back.
If someone didn’t know better, they might have mistaken him for a conservative commentator. But De La Fuente also came to this country as an immigrant and achieved the American dream — rising from a dishwashing job to become Oakland’s second in command.
The candidate tells his story this way: In 1971, at age 21, he arrived in California from Mexico City on a tourist visa, broke and unable to speak English. One week later he met Elvia, his US-born wife-to-be, whom he married after a three-month courtship — a bond that made him eligible for citizenship. The couple, who went on to have two children, are still married after 34 years, although the candidate’s campaign literature — which makes much of his family’s closeness — doesn’t mention a four-year marital separation during which he had a serious girlfriend.
The young immigrant was first hired as busboy and dishwasher. He then spent a year as a steakhouse cook before landing an industrial job in a Berkeley foundry that made metal castings. That experience, De La Fuente recalls, would shape his destiny. The pay was good, but he resented that the higher-paying jobs always went to whites. Meanwhile, Latinos and blacks always got the most dangerous tasks — pouring hot lead into the moldings. When the combative De La Fuente asked his supervisor why minorities got stuck with the pouring, the clueless boss replied that they could stand the heat better.
Such experiences compelled the young man to run, successfully, to be union shop steward. A couple of years later, not long before taking his citizenship oath, De La Fuente, then 28, became the union’s business manager. He soon set his sights even higher: He wanted to be the first elected Latino on Oakland’s City Council.
In 1991, then-Oakland Councilman Wilson Riles announced that he wouldn’t run for re-election the following year. Riles, who is African American, made it known that he thought the council needed Latino representation, and he figured it should come from his district, which included the heavily Latino Fruitvale neighborhood.
Riles ended up supporting De La Fuente, the candidate put forward by the Unity Council, a Latino advocacy group in Fruitvale. The labor leader had lost a prior bid to unseat Frank Ogawa from his at-large council post in 1988. Riles says he and De La Fuente had crossed paths working on peace and justice issues, and the ex-councilman, now a Green Party member, says he, like most people in town, considered De La Fuente a progressive: “I was comfortable with him.”
With Riles’ help, De La Fuente defeated two opponents — one white, one black —and quickly developed a reputation as a man who got things done. Within his first few months on the council, he got the city to adopt a “Hire Oakland” policy that encouraged businesses to hire locals. The idea had been around for years — Riles himself had talked about it — but De La Fuente was the one who got it enacted.
Then, of course, came his central role in the deal to bring the Raiders back to Oakland in 1995, an accomplishment that came back to bite him. In 1998, he pushed through a living-wage ordinance that required companies with twenty or more employees to pay their workers at least $9.25 an hour, or $8 if they provided health benefits — at least if they wanted to keep doing business with the city.
De La Fuente ran for mayor the same year. At first, he looked hard to beat. He had the backing of the city’s biggest labor unions, which considered him one of their own. Then along came former Governor Jerry Brown with his formidable name recognition. Brown got more votes than the nine other candidates combined. De La Fuente didn’t even finish second — he came in fourth.
The councilman quickly bounced back. The Strong Mayor initiative — which Brown got passed in November 1998 — created a power vacuum on the council that De La Fuente deftly filled. Under Strong Mayor, the mayor acted as an executive and no longer had to chair, or even attend, council meetings. This necessitated a new position — city council president. De La Fuente is the first, and, so far, only person to hold that title in Oakland.
Following the election, De La Fuente became the new mayor’s go-to guy on the council. Hitching his cart to Brown’s wagon meant moving politically to the right along with the mayor — transforming himself into a tough-on-crime, pro-business politician who championed private market-rate development downtown. Brown’s State of the City speech earlier this year mentioned De La Fuente by name and described him as someone who can get things done.
To Ignacio’s critics, that means cutting backroom deals. Councilman Larry Reid, who is endorsing De La Fuente, says opponents exaggerate his colleague’s horse-trading image. “This city now has started to realize its potential for greatness, and it’s because of the leadership in the city right now — it’s because of the leadership of the council president,” he says. “So, yeah, folks can say Ignacio does backroom deals, but you tell me what mayor or official in a municipality isn’t meeting with developers?”
Even so, De La Fuente’s evolution into a Chamber of Commerce-friendly politician hasn’t sat well with some of his old supporters. School board member Siegel, who was once friendly with De La Fuente, now calls him a “quasi-Republican” — an insult in an overwhelmingly Democratic town. He recalls meeting De La Fuente in the ’70s and considering him a radical labor activist. “He’s moved on to become Mr. Law and Order, and someone who’s tough on city workers,” whom De La Fuente regularly criticizes as lazy, Siegel complains.
Although De La Fuente is still active as a union leader, he’s no longer popular within the larger labor community. The falling-out took place in 2001, according to Larry Hendel, staff director for the powerful Service Employees International Union Local 790, which represents two thousand city maintenance and clerical workers. At the time, local labor leaders were pushing Oakland to create a living-wage ordinance for the port, which oversees the airport, and its various other businesses.
In the weeks leading up to a council vote on the living-wage policy, Hendel recalls that De La Fuente had privately assured labor leaders he was with them all along. At the council meeting, however, Hendel and others were stunned when then-Councilman Danny Wan, a close ally of De La Fuente’s, began reading a motion that totally gutted the unions’ original proposal. The new proposal exempted all Jack London Square commercial properties — including restaurants, retailers, and hotels — from the port’s living-wage requirements. When Wan finished reading, Hendel knew De La Fuente had sold them out. The watered-down proposal passed five to three.
“People felt totally betrayed,” Hendel says. “It’s one thing to have an elected official who totally disagrees with you — you can agree to disagree and move on. But in this situation his duplicity and betrayal was just unforgivable. Especially because of his labor background.” Both Local 790 and the Alameda County Central Labor Council are now backing Ron Dellums.
De La Fuente says Hendel doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and is simply sore because the politician threatens to make SEIU members work hard.
The councilman also has made enemies within the black business community. When first elected, De La Fuente came on as a reformer who challenged the cronyism of the Lionel Wilson years. Back then, many a city department head owed his job to the blessing of the Reverend J. Alfred Smith of Allen Temple Baptist Church, the city’s most powerful black congregation.
Within months, Riles recalls, he began hearing complaints that Councilman De La Fuente didn’t care about affirmative action in city contracting. That wasn’t exactly true: In fact, the complainants were angry because De La Fuente and others had begun pressuring city administrators to give contracts to Latino firms, says Riles, who is now backing Dellums.
Indeed, it was De La Fuente’s tense relationship with African-American business leaders that led to Dellums’ recruitment. Several business heavyweights — Geoffrey Pete in particular — led the charge to persuade Dellums to move out from Washington and run for mayor. For years, Pete and his group, the Oakland Black Caucus, have complained loudly about black businesses being brushed aside during the Brown/De La Fuente era.
Councilman Larry Reid, an African-American leader who backs De La Fuente, argues that sore feelings are inevitable in city government. “You can’t make everybody happy,” he says. “When you don’t do what people want, you piss people off.”
It’s hard to argue with that. In recent years, cash-strapped city officials statewide have had to make unpleasant choices to close down libraries and recreation centers, and order layoffs to balance budgets as required under state law. It’s easier for someone like Dellums, who spent the last thirty years working in a town where deficit spending is a way of life, to maintain a comfortable distance from his constituents. “Here you can’t run, you can’t hide,” Reid says. “People will be upset at you and waiting for you outside City Hall, waiting for you to come out. … It’s rough.”
Alex Pedersen, one of De La Fuente’s aides, is driving the boss to the First Presbyterian Church on Broadway, prepping him for a candidate forum with Dellums and Nadel. It’s 7:15 p.m. and it’s been a long day for De La Fuente, who has spent the past eleven hours meeting with, among others, school principals, skateboarders, and Latino merchants. The ease with which the candidate adapts to any situation is impressive. At one point in the day he listened to complaints from immigrant tenants angry that their slumlord/landlord let their building get overrun by rats and cockroaches. Immediately afterward, he delivered the keynote speech at a suit-and-tie affair hosted by the Chamber of Commerce at Jack London Square. “I can relate to anyone: tacos one day, caviar the other,” the politician brags.
De La Fuente yawns as he reads over the forum rules while Pedersen drives. He knows he’ll be on Dellums’ turf. The event is hosted by the Oakland Coalition of Congregations, which consists of the city’s religious leaders. De La Fuente puts down the list. “Piece of cake,” he says.
“There’s only one thing you have to remember to do,” Pedersen says.
De La Fuente laughs — he knows what’s coming.
“Smile,” the aide lectures.
In small or informal settings, De La Fuente is engaging, funny, vulgar yet charming, a good storyteller — a guy you wouldn’t mind shooting the breeze with over a drink. Even his council nemesis, Desley Brooks, concedes that De La Fuente “has the most personality” of all her colleagues and would probably be fun to hang out with.
But put a microphone or a camera in front of him and he tightens up. It’s partly the language — he still struggles with English sometimes, he says. In Ignacio-speak, one-syllable words gain an extra syllable so: “school” becomes “eh-school.” In general, he admits, he’s just not a great public speaker. During the candidate forums, he adopts a serious intensity and doesn’t smile. “I just go into this mode,” he says.
To combat the public-speaking problem, his campaign advisers have tried to play to his strengths, scheduling more than 180 house parties where De La Fuente meets voters and answers their questions in a more informal, relaxed setting. The parties have averaged about 25 attendees, says a campaign spokeswoman. It’s hard to say how effective this retail politicking has been, but anecdotally, those who attend walk away viewing the candidate as a straight shooter. During a December house party, for instance, when he was asked about the future of the A’s in Oakland, De La Fuente volunteered his embarrassing role in the Raiders deal.
Emily Weinstein, who used to work for developer Forest City but also is a Democratic Party activist, went to a De La Fuente house party near Oakland Tech as an undecided voter. She came away deciding to back him. Weinstein thinks he has a better handle on city government than Dellums, whom she heard during an endorsement interview with the California Young Democrats, which has endorsed the ex-congressman. While she liked Dellums’ idea to bring a hundred thousand new residents and workers downtown, she wanted to know how he would do it, given the high cost of development. Dellums didn’t offer any details, she says.
De La Fuente, on the other hand, got so specific as to name problematic people in certain departments, Weinstein says. The only question that stumped him, she notes with a laugh, was how he planned to clean up the goose poop at Lake Merritt. Apart from city issues, people at the party were impressed with De La Fuente’s accessibility. “He showed up early and hung out with us,” she recalls. “He answered questions for literally hours. And then he stayed afterward for a while.”
Emily Baker, a 33-year-old researcher for a management consulting firm, attended a De La Fuente house party in her Glenview neighborhood in March. While she didn’t leave a total convert, she said she would probably vote for him. “That man works his ass off,” she says. “I know that he will work hard and be accountable for what happens on his watch.”
Former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, who hasn’t endorsed any candidate in the race, says it will be critical for De La Fuente to do well in the wealthy hills neighborhood where everyone votes — and where he didn’t fare well in 1998. Harris says it appears that De La Fuente has made a calculated risk to win over hills voters by moving to the right, by running as the business candidate and as Jerry Brown’s anointed successor. “I think that’s why he’s doing so many house parties, signs, and campaigning up in the hills,” he says. Larry Tramutola, De La Fuente’s political consultant, doesn’t exactly deny the hills-centric strategy: “We’re not ignoring the flats … but you’ve got to look at the voter-rich areas,” he says.
De La Fuente, of course, can’t meet and persuade every voter before the June election. So for the rest of the masses Tramutola has tried to humanize the candidate and, well, make him seem nicer. Exhibit A: De La Fuente’s walk piece, a 32-page autobiographical booklet that tells his story.
The booklet is amazingly forthright at times. For example, De La Fuente directly addresses the legal troubles of 28-year-old Ignacio Jr. “I want to believe my son is innocent, and could not have harmed anyone,” he writes. “But he has to take responsibility for whatever he did. He has to be accountable for his actions, and justice must run its course. And while it’s difficult to talk about this, I will say that there are nights I lie awake asking myself whether there’s anything I could have done better as a father.”
The booklet also contains more cynical makeover moments. Take the ridiculous picture of the candidate — smiling, of course — with a golden retriever. De La Fuente doesn’t own a dog; the one in the picture belongs to an acquaintance. When asked about the photo after it had appeared in a precampaign brochure back in April 2005, De La Fuente barked “I don’t have time for pets.” He then jokingly corrected himself: “Actually, I have eight pets,” he said, making reference to the mayor and his seven council colleagues.
Say what you will about the man, but De La Fuente, unlike most politicians, is not afraid to make enemies. One day while the Express followed him around for this story, he lamented what he considers the worst thing about politics and politicians nowadays: the chickenshit factor (not his exact words, but something he might say). Too many politicians are scared of offending anyone, scared of their own shadows, he grumbled.
His campaign advisers, however, clearly worry what their candidate might do or say to alienate voters. Thus the emphasis on smiling, and the packaging of De La Fuente as a guy you’d want to invite over for dinner as opposed to the street fighter political insiders know him to be. As much as the candidate may loathe political chickenshits, he has had to let his campaign gurus neuter his macho image. “Elvia is fond of telling people my other secrets, like that I love to cook, clean our house, and iron,” he professes in his booklet. The kinder, gentler Ignacio is even apparent on flower-shaped Summer of Love-style campaign signs that have popped up around town.
Yet it’s clear De La Fuente doesn’t always want to take part in his repackaging. To his credit, he ignored his strategists’ warnings and let a reporter follow him around for two days. But there was only so much they would let their man do. The candidate initially had agreed to be photographed on one of his beloved Harley-Davidsons for the cover of this publication, but his handlers prevailed and canceled the shoot at the last minute.
Asked why he chickened out, the candidate offers this explanation: “One thing I learned from my last [mayoral] campaign is that if you’ve hired the best people to run your campaign, you’ve got to listen to them. Last time I hired one of the best consultants in Sacramento and I didn’t listen to shit.”
Consultants aside, few in the local political establishment expect De La Fuente will earn that victory lap on his Harley. Eight years ago he ran as the labor candidate and got trounced. Now, he’s running as the business candidate — and will likely get trounced again, many insiders say. A January professional poll commissioned by a medical-marijuana group showed Dellums with 40 percent of the vote, De La Fuente 21 percent, and Nadel 16 percent.
De La Fuente acts unfazed by the numbers. He insists this is different than in 1998, when Brown clobbered him. By the last month of that campaign he knew he was toast but kept going through the motions. Yep, this time is different, no matter what the numbers say. It’s a gut thing — and Ignacio’s gut tells him things are good.
Perhaps it’s optimism, perhaps simply denial. If Dellums wins, after all, De La Fuente will lose much of his political juice on the city council. He certainly won’t remain council president. Yet walking around Oakland’s downtown one recent afternoon, you almost start to believe he can really pull it off. Every few seconds, someone recognizes him. He crosses the intersection at 14th Street and Broadway and is immediately greeted by a woman he’s never met.
“De La Fuente, right?” she asks. He nods and shakes her hand.
“Can I count on your vote?” he asks.
“I don’t vote,” she replies, “but I’ll support you.”
It would have been a perfect stroll except for what happens next: A disheveled guy with dreadlocks yells mockingly at De La Fuente, “How’s your son doing, sir?”
De La Fuente turns around to face his antagonist, who continues to goad him, “I hear he’s up on rape charges.”
It’s a tense moment that harks back to Larry Reid’s comment about people getting right up in your face when you’re an elected city official. Not only can they be angry, they can be downright cruel. The arrest of his son is clearly painful for De La Fuente — the one thing that really gets to him. Last month while attending a short pre-trial hearing, a lawyer told De La Fuente he could leave since this was a procedural affair and his son would appear only briefly. De La Fuente, however, insisted on staying put. Afterward, he said, “If it wasn’t for this, I’d be flying high.”
De La Fuente sizes up the heckler. Then, with a comment along the lines of “Things happen,” he strolls away. Asked whether the experience bothered him, he shrugs and reasons like a gangster on HBO’s The Wire: “It’s part of the game.”
Turning the corner, things become pleasant again. A man eyes him and says, “I know you, Mr. De La Fuente.” The man searches his brain for his next words. “Buenos tardes,” he tells the candidate.
De La Fuente walks away pleased. “I tell you,” he boasts, “I’m going to win this thing.”
And with that, the candidate finally does something that would please his campaign gurus: He smiles.