.The Wiz

Don't expect radical changes in Oakland under Dellums; after all, he's a bold orator, but a cautious politician.

There’s nowhere to go but down for Ron Dellums. What retired superstar has made a comeback worth remembering? Michael Jordan? He left the NBA in the ultimate way — hitting the winning jump shot in the championship game. Then he unwisely came back, leaving us with a different final image, a slower, fatter one in a Washington Wizards uniform.

When Dellums quit Congress in 1998, he left politics at the top of his game. He was admired and respected — even by conservatives like Newt Gingrich. Dellums’ constituents loved him as much as ever, and they didn’t give him too much grief for leaving midterm to run a managed-health-care company. He left Congress after 27 years as a legend, the man who helped topple apartheid in South Africa. Afterward, there were no tell-all books to ruin it. In fact, Dellums got the final word in his memoir, Lying Down with the Lions, which ignored his more embarrassing moments in office, such as when he topped the list of check-bouncers in the House. It doesn’t get any better than that for a politician: to be adored in office and then write the only book about what a great guy you were.

But then local progressives and black business leaders begged Dellums to come out of retirement. Now he’s mayor of Oakland, which, while better than playing for the Washington Wizards, still poses plenty of challenges to a great man’s legacy.

As the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and Dellums’ constituents loved him when he was in Congress, fighting the good fight three thousand miles away on a national and global stage. Now he’s just a BART stop away, running the organization you complain to when you’re having a problem with your trash pickup. With Dellums so close, will the locals love him just as much, or will they start getting sick of him?

I predict the next four years will be like slowly pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. We’re going to see that Citizen Dellums isn’t the mythical “conscience of the Congress,” but just another politician, albeit a smart, eloquent, well-dressed one. And we’ll see that he’s like a lot of other politicians who talk out of both sides of their mouths.

We’ve already seen this doubletalk in action. In a fund-raising letter sent out in September to developers and other businesses, Dellums writes about changing the “pay-to-play” environment in City Hall. That same letter, however, asks for donations to sponsor inaugural week festivities. Those giving $50,000 (the “visionary” level) will get exclusive access to Dellums at a private reception preceding the swearing-in ceremony.

Dellums also has vowed to increase transparency in city government, but media access to his advisory task forces has been restricted. His transition office wouldn’t even produce a list of all the forty-plus task forces for this newspaper, despite repeated requests. Maybe if I slipped a $50,000 check in the mail, I would have gotten a response (and valet parking!).

There are big hopes for this mayor to make good on his promise to transform Oakland into a model city. What exactly that means isn’t clear, but during the campaign Dellums dreamed of universal health care and bringing a hundred thousand new residents downtown (one-upping Jerry Brown’s ten thousand). We’ll see if his actions match his words. As one longtime East Bay political fixture aptly observed, Dellums is a bold orator, but a cautious politician.

City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who lost to Dellums in June, says the new mayor is in for a rude awakening. “With all due respect,” De La Fuente says, “he’s going to have the same shock Jerry Brown had. It’s very difficult to move this bureaucracy and very difficult to make things happen.”

De La Fuente and his seven council colleagues will have a lot to do with Dellums’ ability to get things done. The mayor proposes a budget, but the council controls the purse strings. The mayor makes commission appointments, but the council can shoot them down.

After the election, Dellums floated the idea of increasing the mayor’s executive powers and, by implication, improving his chances to get around an uncooperative council. But creating a stronger-mayor form of government must be approved by the voters. And guess who decides whether such a measure could go on the ballot? That’s right, the city council, and they sure as hell ain’t gonna sign on to something diminishing their own power. (That means Dellums would have to do it through the initiative process, gathering signatures to put it on the ballot.) Of course, Dellums might have encountered a more friendly council if he’d lifted a finger to elect Aimee Allison, but, ever the cautious pol, he stayed neutral and she lost to Pat Kernighan, a De La Fuente ally.

Under the current system, the greatest executive authority the mayor has is to hire and fire department heads. Yet City Hall sources don’t expect a major staff shakeup. Oakland gadfly Sanjiv Handa, who has enjoyed a friendly rapport with Dellums, expects City Administrator Deborah Edgerly and department heads will be given twelve to eighteen months to prove themselves. “If he [Dellums] waits eighteen months to make the changes,” Handa says, “he’s already got one foot in the grave, so to speak.” That’s because nearly half of Dellums’ term will be over by then. And many observers — including supporters such as school
board member Dan Siegel — believe Dellums, who is 71, will
choose to serve for only one term.

Like his predecessors, Oakland’s new mayor will no doubt find himself consumed by the city’s crime problem. Say what you will about Jerry Brown — you can’t blame the guy for not trying to do something about crime. He launched more than a dozen anticrime initiatives as mayor, according to the Chronicle. His reward? The highest homicide rate in thirteen years. The reality is that there’s not a lot a mayor can do to stop crime. “Five years from now, we’ll still be having this conversation in relation to the number of homicides,” says Councilman Larry Reid, head of the public safety committee. Reid says Dellums has talked to him about meeting with gang leaders and asking them to put down their guns. Reid says he’ll do whatever the new mayor wants, but notes that former Mayor Elihu Harris tried the same thing in the ’90s, to no avail.

No, there’s little upside to being mayor of Oakland, which is why we, at the very least, know that Dellums’ intentions are genuine. After all, the man left a lucrative lobbying career to come back and perform what can only be a humbling service.

The upshot: Don’t expect radical changes in Oakland over the next four years, at least not anything initiated by the mayor’s office. Four years from now, Dellums will probably ride off into the sunset. Many will call him a good mayor, while others will say he failed to live up to expectations. In other words, he’ll go out with mixed reviews. Just like our last celebrity mayor.


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