It is a rare moment when a beleaguered city gets an opportunity to elect a statesman. Ron Dellums, a practical visionary, is one of the most respected Congresspersons in the world. Remembered for his role in helping to end apartheid in South Africa, for stopping production of the heinous MX missile, he is returning home to Oakland, a city he served for over thirty years. Parishioners are singing an African-American spiritual, “Let Not This Harpist Pass.”
The former Congressman is running for mayor of Oakland at a time when the people of Oakland are desperate for a change in leadership. The Board of Education has lost control of its own schools. Under Ignacio De La Fuente (Dellums’ main adversary), Oakland has one of the highest murder rates of any city in the U.S., triple the national average. The Oakland City Council cannot even protect the safety of its own citizens. Fifty-four residents have been murdered in four months. Yet, in a moment of political cowardice, the City Council refused to declare a state of emergency.
The significance of Oakland’s mayoral election goes far beyond
the city itself. Election of Dellums could change the ugly tone of politics in the Bay Area. It could even set a national example. Like the election of progressive Dennis Kucinich in Cleveland in 1976, the Oakland election is a test of urban populism, the growing movement for public empowerment.
Nevertheless, the election of Ron Dellums, whose programs offer hope for change, is by no means certain. De La Fuente, backed by developers and the press, has already built a political machine.
Hostile to Dellums, opposed to any talk of empowerment, the press may well determine the outcome of Oakland’s mayoral race.
In the Bay Area, the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune and East Bay Express (alternative in name only) are waging a caricature campaign against the former Congressman. The Oakland Tribune describes Dellums as a kind of outsider who lacks practical skills to run a city. “Being mayor isn’t like being a congressman. Oakland needs a mayor who can solve problems,” writes the Tribune in its endorsement of Ignacio De La Fuente. (De La Fuente is one of the architects of the infamous Raiders deal, a financial fiasco that cost Oakland $200 million dollars). In a cover story full of sneers and caricatures, the East Bay Express Portrays Dellums as a mere dreamer with his head in the clouds. Dave Newhouse, Oakland Tribune sports writer, says Dellums “rode into Oakland on a white horse.” In a column reprinted and distributed en masse throughout Oakland, the S.F. Chronicle claims that Dellums is not grounded in city affairs. He’s too grandiose, too idealistic, too big for Oakland.
Too Big for Oakland
It is the Chronicle position that, because Dellums served Oakland for 27 years in Congress, he is now incapable of running a city in distress. He wants fundamental change, and a mayor is supposed to tinker, not alter the status quo.
Here is the Chronicle argument: “There is a world of difference between legislating on the Hill…and trying as a mayor to persuade developers and businesses who have many options to bring their jobs and projects to a distressed city.There are myriad jobs for which Ron Dellums would be eminently more qualified than Ignacio De La Fuente: college president, secretary of state, Washington lobbyist-to name three. Mayor of Oakland is not one of them.”
There is a kind of hypocrisy in the way the Chronicle turns Dellums’ virtues, his brilliant record of service, against him. The attempt to disqualify a Congressman is especially galling in a state where third-rate actors (Reagan and Schwartenegger) become Governors. Is Hollywood better preparation for the nuts-and-bolts of public service than Congress? And if there really is a “world of difference” between Congress and municipal leadership, why are so many former mayors, with press encouragement, working in Congress? It works both ways.
The too-big-for-Oakland argument is disingenuous. Chronicle editors know very well that congressional experience can actually benefit Oakland.
Oakland has ties to China. It hosts an international Port. It depends on international business, philanthropy, and federal funding. Why should Oakland deprive itself of Dellums’ skills, experience, and contacts? There is no wall between local and national politics.
Nor is Dellums an outsider from Mars. He attended Oakland Tech and McClymonds High schools when he was a youth. Working at Hunters Point Bay View Community Center, he gained invaluable experience mentoring at-risk kids in the hood, an experience that enables him to understand the roots of crime. Dellums served on the Berkeley City Council for four years. He knows about zoning regulations, city finances, community planning agencies, potholes, and day-to-day issues that arise in local government. It was because of his down-to-earth achievements in local politics that Bay Area voters sent Dellums to Congress.
Another argument, that Dellums is too idealistic, comes in the form of ridicule. The Chronicle rejects the very idea of a model city with a trade center and multi-cultural complex. The editors write:
“Dellums is pushing a utopian vision in which developers are so desperate to do business in Oakland that the city could easily extract concessions for the social good. If only that were so. He also offers the promise of bringing universal health care for his ‘model city,’ as if philanthropists and the private sector will flock to fulfill his vision.”
How defeatist and cynical! Why shouldn’t the people of Oakland extract concessions from corporations that make billions from our Port, our climate, and vibrant labor force? And why shouldn’t corporations take social responsibility for the privileges and consequences of their projects? And what is wrong with health care for the poor?
While the Chronicle seems to say that Dellums is overqualified-he could become a Secretary of State, not mayor of Oakland-the Chronicle is really saying something else: that Oakland is under-qualified. Oakland is not mature enough for trade centers and big ideas. In the Chronicle picture, Oakland is a beggar, totally dependent on the good will of developers. The entire approach denigrates the people across the Bay.
Oakland is a predominantly Black-Latino city, and there is a taint of racism in the white press, that lectures Oakland about the futility of change. “How come trade-centers and international multi-cultural complexes are all right for Seattle, not Oakland?” one voter asked.
It is the role of an effective mayor to leverage the power of the people to improve the quality of life. Oakland has vast resources. It hosts the fourth largest Port in the U.S. (It is only because of a lack of courage and political will on the City Council that the wealthy Port pays no taxes.) World commerce depends on Oakland’s unique waterway. Dellums intends to change the submissive relationship. He wants partnership with business, not serfdom.
The Chronicle does not restrict its antipathy to progressive change to anti-Dellums articles. Its recent endorsement of Jerry Brown for Attorney General of California applauds Brown for his “maturity.” In an article full of ugly, unintended irony, the Chronicle praises Brown for selling out.
Years ago, Brown was a genuine environmentalist. He described redwood trees as cathedrals. At times he moved among the poor, and he became famous for his opposition to big-money politics. Then Brown changed. He went from a scathing critic of political bribery to a political hack, a mayor who sold Oakland to developers.
How does the Chronicle interpret his transformation? Here is what the Chronicle writes about Brown’s turn-around: Brown “has tempered his once-excessive brashness and idealism with a cut-to-the-chase sensibility.’I’m excited to be the mature voice in Sacramento.’ said Brown, now 68 years old. Some longtime Jerry Brown watchers might be apprehensive about a man who was a Jesuit seminarian in his youth-then studied Zen Buddhism and tended to the sick with Mother Theresa during a sabbatical from politics…”
For me this passage, which includes a slur on Jesuits and Buddhism, is disgusting. What is so sinful about tending to the sick? Why is a relationship with Mother Theresa politically immature? The Chronicle argument is unmistakable: Brown no longer cares about the poor. He repents his past. So now he is safe. NOW we can vote for him. Unlike Brown, however, Dellums has not repented.
The view that massive poverty in is inevitable, that power relations between the poor and powerful cannot be altered, that the status quo is preferable to fundamental change -these are the reactionary motifs of Chronicle electoral coverage in 2006.
PAUL ROCKWELL is a writer in Oakland. He can be reached at: email@example.com