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Oakland mayor's low profile obscures achievements

Ron Dellums is credited with improving public safety, promoting green jobs and securing $200 million in stimulus funds. But his media problems and ambivalence about public life left him derided by many as a do-nothing.

January 02, 2011|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • It would have been easy for me to go, Hey, folks, look what were doing. Thats not who I am, says Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, who steps down Monday. The joy that I feel is not in the chest thumping, but its in trying to get it done.
It would have been easy for me to go, Hey, folks, look what were doing. Thats… (Robert Durell, For the Los…)

Reporting from Oakland — 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.

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