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.
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 San Francisco Chronicle claims that Dellums is not
grounded in city affairs. He's too grandiose, too idealistic, too big
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 a myriad of 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 Schwarzenegger) 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
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
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
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 regressive motifs of
Chronicle electoral coverage in 2006.
Paul Rockwell is a columnist for In Motion Magazine. Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org