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In Oakland, Dellums vows to be inclusive

January 09, 2007|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — Thousands of residents welcomed native son and former U.S. Rep. Ronald V. Dellums to power as this city's 48th mayor Monday in a populist and embittered rebuke of the former administration.

Dellums -- the anti-apartheid, no-nuke former social worker who in 1971 became the first African American to represent a largely white congressional district and then shattered stereotypes to lead the House Armed Services Committee -- received roaring applause as he promised a more inclusive style of government.

A multiracial band of supporters had lured the septuagenarian from Washington, D.C., to his home city, which struggles with such core urban ills as a soaring murder rate, a public school system in state receivership and a housing market that has squeezed out many of its poorest residents.

But what resonated most in this wound-weary city of 400,000 during the heated mayoral campaign was Dellums' proud focus on the potential in Oakland's diversity, its concentration of artists and the ideas of its residents, many of whom say they have been frozen out of civic dialogue for years.

"In the new Oakland, your status is not negotiable, debatable or discussable," the white-haired orator known for his sartorial elegance told the crowd, describing his vision of Oakland as a "model city" for urban America. "Your status is real. You have a right to be here, and you will be at the table."

The inaugural ceremony launched a week of festivities (with a largely donation-financed price tag of more than $500,000). It was held on the stage of Oakland's Paramount Theatre, a regal Art Deco gem in the city's long-moribund center.

Oakland's downtown was resuscitated over the last eight years by the developer-friendly policies of former Mayor Jerry Brown, who was sworn in Monday as the state's attorney general.

But Dellums' victory in June over City Council President Ignacio de la Fuente -- Brown's close ally -- marked a rejection of those policies, perceived by many as tainted by backroom dealing and a disregard for the fate and opinion of regular citizens.

Those sentiments were on display Monday, as the City Council convened on the Paramount stage before a crowd of about 2,000 to elect its next president. Though De la Fuente squeaked to victory again, he faced brutal jeers -- and a smattering of more respectful calls for his ouster -- from an audience itching for new beginnings.

So unruly and demeaning was the crowd in its heckling that the 71-year-old Dellums had to intervene, gently chastising his followers and demanding respect for the political process.

"Democracy is a messy business, but it's all we have," he said. "We have to move forward in a civil manner."

Longtime civic activists were not surprised, saying the crowd's behavior was emblematic of a deep thirst for involvement.

"You can tell there is a lot of pent-up frustration that erupted, and that's not necessarily a bad thing," said Gay Plair Cobb, an Alameda County Board of Education member who also heads the city's Private Industry Council and with her husband owns the Oakland Post.

While race did not clearly divide supporters of Dellums and De la Fuente -- who would have become Oakland's first Latino mayor -- it nevertheless played a role in the campaign.

In what was once a city of strong black leadership, African American power has eroded, contributing to a sense of disenfranchisement. Black flight also has altered the city's demographic landscape.

On the national and international stage, Dellums was known for his forceful stance against the Vietnam War and apartheid, his attention to Africa's AIDS epidemic and his ability to reach out to Republicans as a peace activist well-versed in military technology and policy.

For the former congressman and lobbyist, the inauguration marks an unexpected prodigal son's return to political life in what were meant to be his sunset years.

An emotional Dellums has talked often of the defining moment -- when he climbed the stage at a local college prepared to decline entreaties that he enter the race but saw such need in the faces before him that he changed his mind.

Since his June victory with 50.1% of the vote to De la Fuente's 32.9%, Dellums has already followed through with his core campaign promise to listen to the "brilliance" of Oakland's people -- old, young, rich or poor.

In recent months, more than 800 city residents have voluntarily toiled on 41 separate task forces to answer specific questions on a range of issues, including immigration, youth crime, parking regulations and their burdensome effect on the poor. No one who wanted to serve was rejected.

Dellums is now reviewing the recommendations, contained in 41 identical black binders, and has vowed to keep the task forces alive as some of the ideas are implemented.

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