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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / OAKLAND MAYOR : African American Political Dynasty Is Threatened : Chinese American challenger Ted Dang has incumbent Elihu Harris in a tight race. Many voters voice frustration over the slow pace of economic revitalization.

October 31, 1994|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — On a recent sun-drenched Saturday morning, mayoral contender Ted Dang, his 7-year-old son and a campaign volunteer hopped into the candidate's Lexus and drove to a predominantly black neighborhood in one of this city's poorer sections.

The Chinese American real estate developer knocked on doors and introduced himself as the election opponent of Mayor Elihu Harris, the African American incumbent who has alienated some voters with a personal style often described as abrasive and short-tempered.

"Do you have any concerns you would like me to address?" Dang asked the residents, who beheld him wonderingly from behind security screen doors.

The son of Chinese immigrants and a newcomer to politics, Dang has emerged as a surprisingly formidable challenger in a city that for nearly 18 years has elected African American mayors, a city of great wealth and extreme poverty that is still reeling from the shocks of a major earthquake in 1989 and a deadly fire in 1991.

Dang's strong appeal is telling, a reflection of Oakland's frustration over the slow pace of promised economic revitalization, the growing clout of the city's Asian American community and lingering bitterness over the way Oakland responded to the fire that killed 25 people and destroyed nearly 3,000 homes.

For many, Dang represents desired change.

"Oakland is like L.A.," said Edward Blakely, dean of USC's school of urban and regional planning. "L.A. had its riots and earthquake, Oakland had its earthquake and its fire. The kind of spirit that was in Oakland was so shaken and then kind of crushed by those two events."

The possibility that an Asian American could topple a black mayor in the state's largest city with an African American plurality is viewed by some Oaklanders as a sign of just how multicultural their city has become.

Although Oakland is widely perceived as a black city, no racial group has a majority. No single census tract is made up entirely of one race. Blacks make up about 44% of the population, followed by whites (33%), Asians (15%) and other races. About 14% of the city's population have Spanish surnames, some of whom may also be included in the black, white or other categories.

Dang's inroads into the African American community, particularly its well-to-do segment, prompted former Mayor Lionel Wilson to warn that blacks would face an irreversible erosion of their hard-won political power should Dang win on Nov. 8. Wilson's brother, attorney Warren Wilson, is co-chairman of Dang's campaign.

"When I see black folks tell me they are going to vote for a Chinese man," the city's first black mayor was quoted as telling an NAACP gathering in August, "it makes me angry. . . . If Ted Dang wins, the white folks will be standing in line to take it (power) away from us."

Dang, 43, and Harris, 47, are running neck and neck among voters most likely to go to the polls. Harris, however, holds a comfortable lead among all registered voters and remains the front-runner. Each is expected to spend $200,000, the ceiling for a general election campaign in Oakland.

Both Harris and Dang are Democrats, but Harris has the support of the party establishment. A former three-term assemblyman, he is known as a savvy, energetic mayor who brought federal money to Oakland, reached out to the neighborhoods and secured the promise of a state office building that will be named after him.

But the mayor also has offended many constituents with an impatient and at times condescending manner in public. A city councilwoman who is now supporting him once wore a sling on her arm after she claimed he twisted it at a council meeting.

Dang, who had almost no name recognition before the June primary, is a prosperous developer who has modeled his campaign after that of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, passing out booklets containing his "action plan" for Oakland.

Slender and slightly hunched at the shoulders, the cleanshaven, clean-cut Dang is polite and articulate, but far from dynamic.

A former chamber of commerce leader, he was born in west Oakland, grew up in Chinatown and speaks with a trace of an accent. He bills himself as a businessman who will cure the city's ills by trimming government, working with business and adding police.

Dang's appeal, however, appears to stem less from any of his positions than from a general sense of frustration that Oakland has not taken off economically after two decades of promises of an economic revival.

At Jack London Square, one of the most scenic parts of the city, luxury boats are moored alongside restaurants, a new, super-sized bookstore is open for business and a jazz club is scheduled to open late next year.

But the aura of progress in this bay-front setting is deceiving. Dozens of shops built at the direction of the city's port are empty, their window displays of fine clothing and glassware merely a sham. The doors are locked, the interiors unoccupied.

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