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Dellums Aims to Lead Oakland

The civil rights crusader and ex-congressman becomes a candidate to succeed Jerry Brown as mayor. His native son status is a big advantage.

October 08, 2005|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — Exit one political heavyweight: former California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Enter another: longtime Bay Area congressman and civil rights crusader Ron Dellums.

For a city plagued with failing schools, high crime and nagging poverty, Oakland has managed to attract two consecutive political icons willing to serve as mayor.

Brown, 67, will be termed out of office at the end of next year and has announced a run for state attorney general. Dellums, who retired from Congress in 1998 after 13 terms, declared his mayoral candidacy Friday during an emotional rally at Oakland's Laney College.

Insisting that he had not yet made up his mind about running when he arrived at the packed college theater, the trim and silver-haired Dellums teased the crowd for nearly an hour before finally announcing: "If Ron Dellums' running for mayor gives you hope, then let's get on with it."

The audience, peppered with nearly equal numbers of young and old, roared and broke into chants of "Run, Ron, Run!"

Dellums, 69, then called on his supporters to make a statement by turning out in force for June's mayoral election.

"Let's make the turnout for the Oakland election more powerful than the turnout for the presidential election," Dellums said. "Let's make Oakland a model city."

A Marine veteran and former Berkeley city councilman first elected to Congress in 1971 as an anti-Vietnam War candidate, Dellums enters a crowded field of contenders.

Ignacio De La Fuente, 56, the Oakland City Council president who until now was considered the front-runner among seven candidates, said he planned to stay in the race.

"Actually," De La Fuente said, "I am very excited about it. It will create more excitement for Oakland."

He predicted that the campaign would turn on the fact that Dellums has spent much of the last 34 years in Washington, first as a congressman and for the last seven years as a lobbyist representing such clients as AT&T, Rolls-Royce and the Jean-Bertrand Aristide government of Haiti.

"I've been in Oakland with my sleeves rolled up," said De La Fuente, who seeks to become the city's first Latino mayor.

But Oakland-born Dellums' hometown credentials are considered impeccable. His grandfather, C.L. Dellums, was Bay Area leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. Dellums lists his mother's address in Oakland on his voter registration. He tells stories of playing football in the then-safe city streets.

"He's really like the prodigal son," said Brown University historian Robert O. Self, author of a 2003 book on race and politics in Oakland.

Democratic Party political strategist Darry Sragow agrees that Dellums will be hard to beat.

"This is Jerry Brown redux," Sragow said, "the case of a well-known, well-respected and, in many ways, a larger-than-life political leader who presumably is going to become mayor of Oakland. That is a very good thing mainly because Oakland has always suffered in comparison with San Francisco."

If elected, Dellums would be the third African American to hold the post. The first, Lionel J. Wilson, was elected in 1977, ending more than a century of downtown business-oriented white rule in the city. Wilson was succeeded in 1991 by another African American, Elihu Harris, who was termed out of office in 1999, leaving the door open for Brown.

Partly as a result of changing demographics, the last 20 years have been marked by a steady decline in black political representation in Northern California. Currently, there are no black politicians north of Los Angeles serving in either house of the Legislature.

Concerned that the decline has eroded decades of political organization by the East Bay Democratic Club and other once-influential groups, some may be looking to the Dellums candidacy as a revival of African American political fortunes.

"All the black legislators are from south of the Tehachapis," Sragow said. "Dellums' reemergence politically could offer some real opportunity for more African American involvement."

But for Dellums to govern successfully in Oakland, he must deal with one of the country's most diverse populations. The city is about 35% black, 24% white, 22% Latino and 15% Asian. Supporters point to his bipartisan respect and popularity in Congress, where he served as chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, as an example of Dellums' ability to work with various constituencies.

In his speech Friday, Dellums was quick to cast himself as a candidate of all the people.

"This should not be about race or gender or age," he said. "This should not be about whose turn it is. This should not be about symbolism, but about substance."

At least one opponent, Oakland School Board member Greg Hodge, was in the audience.

Hodge, 45, said he was concerned about the pattern of "celebrity politics" in Oakland represented by Brown and now Dellums.

"I want to hear something beyond Mr. Dellums' legendary status," said Hodge, who said that as a college student in Chicago he was inspired by Dellums' strong opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa. It was the anti-apartheid stand that won Dellums national recognition and of which, in his writings, Dellums says he is most proud.

But by the end of the speech, Hodge said he was ready to drop his own candidacy to help the older man get elected.

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