Oakland mayor’s low profile obscures achievements

Mayor Ron Dellums spent his childhood in West Oakland watching the Oakland Acorns play ball. So when the planned move to Fremont, Calif., by the now- Oakland A’s fell through in early 2009, Dellums kicked into high gear.

He recruited City Council President Jane Brunner, and they jointly appealed to Major League Baseball’s commissioner, launching talks with league officials on a new stadium as part of an aggressive campaign to keep the team in Oakland.

“Ron was phenomenal,” Brunner said of the former congressman’s role in nearly two years of ongoing discussions.

There was only one problem: Most residents had no idea that Dellums, a revered progressive who was swept into office here four years ago amid great expectations, was even involved.

“It would have been easy for me to go, ‘Hey, folks, look what we’re doing.’ That’s not who I am,” Dellums, 75, said recently in a rare and emotional interview. “The joy that I feel is not in the chest thumping, but it’s in trying to get it done.”


As Dellums prepares to step down Monday, he is plagued by a problem rare for most politicians. Although he managed solid achievements, his deep-seated difficulties with the media and ambivalence about public life left him derided by many as a do-nothing.

Dellums has won high marks from some observers for improving public safety, promoting green jobs, putting in place plans to enhance Port of Oakland operations and collaborating with schools to hire local teachers and deliver healthcare to kids. His political savvy from decades in Washington helped him secure about $200 million in federal stimulus funds for this city of 400,000.

" History is going to show that the work that he did, the seeds that he planted, will really provide for a more vibrant and economically sustainable community,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who counts Dellums as her political mentor.

But Dellums’ silence earned him the damning moniker “The Quiet Mayor” from one Bay Area columnist and criticism from residents who craved a more visible leader. Unexplained missteps — such as reneging on a promise to take a pay cut — also led to piercing criticism from former backers.

“It was one of the most disappointing executive experiences at any level that I’ve ever seen,” said San Francisco State political scientist Robert Smith, who once volunteered for Dellums. “Personally, I’m very sad about it.”

When Dellums was a congressman, his reluctance to engage with the public rarely hurt him. But in a city known for nuts-and-bolts politics, it has cast a shadow on his legacy.

“An essential part of governing is communicating,” said Jakada Imani, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which crafted the green jobs program. “It’s a tragedy in the sense that he was such a lionized figure in Bay Area politics.... But in summing up the story, there was stuff he did that would not have happened but for him.”

‘Bell-bottomed dude’

Dellums began his public life in 1967 as a self-described “commie pinko Afro-topped bell-bottomed dude.” A stint on Berkeley’s City Council was followed by 27 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he chaired the Armed Services Committee, earned the respect of conservative colleagues, battled apartheid and fought for global AIDS eradication.

He was working as a Washington lobbyist when nearly 10,000 Oakland backers pleaded with him to come home and run for mayor in 2006.

Once a city of strong black leadership, Oakland had splintered into a crime-torn collection of communities with no ethnic majority. Many lower-income and minority residents felt closed out of the eight years of booming development fostered by outgoing Mayor Jerry Brown. Dellums, they believed, would reopen doors.

Lanky and fit with ramrod posture and a manicured halo of white hair, Dellums has swapped his bell bottoms for tailored suits. He is prone to flights of the heart, his demeanor shifting quickly from playfulness to indignation to tearfulness.

The mayoral job didn’t interest him. He had lost one marriage on the “altar of politics,” he told supporters gathered at a local college, and wasn’t willing to put his wife, Cynthia, through similar strain. But when Dellums saw some audience members in tears, he impulsively said yes.

His soaring rhetoric for a unified “model city” of engaged citizens quickly energized voters.

Once elected, Dellums formed dozens of citizen task forces to craft recommendations on economic development, public safety, healthcare and other issues. Some complained that their ideas languished, but a number of suggestions became the basis of key city policies.

For instance, Dellums hired a reentry specialist to coordinate resources for job training and to help parolees, 3,000 of whom return to Oakland annually from state prison, through the transition process.

On a recent day, Shawn Vasquez, 39, wept as he told other reentry program participants gathered in a City Hall hearing room that he now has a job at a nonprofit and his own housing. “It really, truly matters … to hear and see that there are individuals who care about us and will give us a chance,” said Vazquez, who left school in the sixth grade to help his mother feed her drug habit.

The Oakland program has drawn interest from other jurisdictions, as has a citywide HIV-testing program. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also modeled a statewide initiative after the green jobs corps, which trains and helps employ low-income residents.

On crime, Oakland’s Achilles heel, Dellums paired policing with prevention efforts such as street outreach. He freed up funds to fully staff the Police Department for the first time in years and secured the largest federal community policing grant in the nation, $19.8 million.

In 2009, he hired former Long Beach Police Chief Anthony Batts, who has been widely lauded.

By mid-November 2010, violent crime had dropped 14% over 2009, according to a city report, and murders by 28% — part of a three-year trend that has outpaced national declines.

But a severe deficit this year led to the layoff of 80 officers. And Batts has noted that Oakland still tops all large California cities in violent crime. Still, safety gains have improved quality of life, dovetailing with downtown development.

“It’s a very different Oakland than it was in 2006,” said Chinyere Tutashinda, 27, whose neighborhood saw three killings then. “I can walk down to several new clubs and establishments now and feel safe doing that.”

Public perceptions

Still, Dellums’ reluctance to maintain a high profile spelled trouble.

Politicians from his era “did not go into politics to be media people, to say, ‘Oh, here’s the ribbon that I’m cutting; let me tell you what I did for you lately,’” he says in his defense. “We went into politics to change the world.”

Yet even former supporters are at a loss to list his achievements.

“I don’t think anybody has a sense of what he was doing,” said Gus Newport, 75, a community development specialist who served as Berkeley’s mayor in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. “You are the face of public office. You have to give information and engage instead of saying, ‘I’m above this.’ … I expected more.”

In the vacuum, Dellums’ stumbles came to define him. Although he sought and received a substantial raise, he was often absent from City Hall. And a 2008 investigation by TV station KTVU revealed he had spent taxpayer funds on five-star Washington hotels and limousines.

A week after a young black man, Oscar Grant, was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer on New Year’s Day 2009, the city erupted in protest. Dellums walked the streets alone calling for calm and engaging with constituents. But he was heckled by residents enraged that he had not spoken up publicly.

Because the shooting was committed by a BART officer, he deferred to that agency for comment.

“He’s not a political opportunist,” said Margaretta Lin, a deputy city administrator, noting that Dellums worked with the county district attorney behind the scenes to push for prosecution.

A few months later, four police officers were slain. The mayor was privately devastated. But while other officials spent time with the families, Dellums appeared only at one brief news conference.

His allies found it increasingly difficult to offer feedback.

“There was this moment we experienced where we had to be tough with him to push him along and hold him accountable,” Imani said. “He felt attacked.... He never figured out how to be comfortable being pushed, and we never figured out how to be comfortable pushing him.”

Then, reports broke of an IRS lien on the Dellumses’ property for $239,000 in back taxes. With furloughs straining city workers, Dellums earned further disdain when he agreed to take a 10% pay cut along with other officials and then reneged.

Dellums found the barbs over his finances cruel. But his reputation suffered.

“To go out as a sinking balloon like this is really unfortunate,” said North Oakland community activist Don Link.

Dellums is philosophical.

“It’s not something that I wanted to do,” he said of his mayoral stint. “It has been painful. It has been perhaps the most difficult thing that I’ve ever done in my life.... But that notwithstanding, I’ve been honored to serve this community. You pay a price.”