The legend came to Laney College on Friday. For 28 years, Ron Dellums denounced apartheid and the Vietnam War in the House of Representatives. He embodied the passion of the New Left and presided over the East Bay's Rainbow machine with the stature of a distant god. And now his people needed him once again. Thousands of citizens had begged Dellums to come out of retirement and run for mayor, to end the developer's paradise Oakland had become and restore progressive values throughout the city. Last week, Dellums arrived at a packed house at Laney's theater, ready to give his answer.
Black politicians wore their Sunday best and paced the lobby. Union members taped Dellums posters to the windows and collected phone numbers from future campaign workers, just in case. Mayoral hopeful Greg Hodge pressed the flesh and willed himself to be calm; if Dellums decided to run, Hodge knew he'd have to abandon his own bid. "Let's see what happens," he said. "I don't know what he's gonna say."
Linda Handy, vice president of the Peralta Community College District, could barely contain herself. "Him stepping back into Oakland right now would just be an incredible piece," she exclaimed. "Oakland needs change, desperately. ... Oakland has just gotten away from the people. We've gotten away from our social causes."
Then the man himself appeared at the top of the stairs, surrounded by a retinue of muscle in suits. Photographers snapped shots over the security team, and the crowd chanted, "Run, Ron, run!" Dellums stepped slowly onto the stage, dressed in a black shirt and sports jacket, his white Afro and beard gleaming like a halo. Hundreds of people jumped to their feet and cheered. "Si se puede!" "We're ready to work!"
Dellums stood at the podium and gazed down, lost in thought. "In 1967 I was on my way to Brandeis University to work on a Ph.D in public policy, when a group of people came together and said, 'Ron, you gotta run for the Berkeley City Council,'" he began. "I laid down my hopes and dreams and aspirations of being a young African-American intellectual, and I went into public life."
Time and again, Dellums said, his friends asked him to sacrifice his dreams for the good of his community. Now, Oakland had asked for him again, and this time, he didn't know if he had it in him. Even now, he said, he didn't know if he would run. "It's sort of like I was a jazz musician," he said of his speech. "I don't know how this thing is gonna end till the last word."
But then he thought of all the problems that confront Oakland, and its potential to be a "model city." He spoke of poverty, diversity, education, hope. Still, three decades of politics have taken a toll on his private life. "I paid the price," he recalled. "My family paid the price. It was a very high price. I left politics to regain my personal life."
The crowd could sense Dellums was building toward something. "I walked into a room an hour or so ago, and what I was confronted with was pain," he continued. "A desire for hope. To be inspired. And I said, 'But I'm just a guy; I'm not Superman. I never tried to be. I just tried to be honest about who I was, and what I am.' I want to say that if Ron Dellums running for mayor gives you hope, then let's get on with it!"
The room exploded, and men and women cried together. Former Green Party City Council candidate Aimee Allison burst into tears and fell into the arms of the nearest person. "Yes!" she sobbed. "We did it!"
It was undeniably moving, a perfect piece of theater. And it was all a big fat lie.
No one organizes a campaign rally to tell the world he isn't going to run for mayor. When Dellums first agreed to appear at the Laney campus, he knew full well he would throw his hat in the ring. But he walked everyone through this elaborate psychodrama, all this claptrap about agonizing over his decision, because it made for a good story. And everyone in the room willed themselves to fall for it. The reluctant messiah persuading himself to run even while we all listened to his speech is just too good a hook; noticing what a load of crap it was would just ruin the moment.
But suppose, just for a second, that Ron Dellums really didn't know he was going to run for mayor until he said the words. Then we're really in trouble. Oakland's a tough town, and it needs a tough mayor, a kneecapper who would sell his mother's organs on the black market, if that's what it takes to get the job done. Dellums ain't that guy. During his speech, he laid out his first priority as mayor: universal health care. "Is it possible," he asked, "that in this incredible community, that we can come together, all of our resources, public and private, and put together a system that guarantees health care for every citizen?" The answer, Ron, is no. In fact, it's sheer folly to ask in the first place.
Oakland has been down this road before, rolling the dice on a celebrity politician who spends his time gathering wool while the ghettos rot. At least Jerry Brown actually wanted the job. Dellums, on the other hand, has already warned his audience that if elected, he won't work very hard. "I want balance in my life," he said. "I don't want you to think that I have to go 24/7." And the crowd actually cheered this. Was anyone even listening?
After his speech, Dellums took a few questions from the crowd, almost all of which were variations on "How can I help your campaign?" The only serious question came from a reporter in the back. "There are those who would say being a mayor of a large city also involves many small things like potholes and getting playgrounds to run and those kinds of issues," he said. "Are you prepared to deal with that?"
Dellums' response indicated that he was not. "Making sure that a city operates efficiently and effectively and compassionately is fundamental," he said. "And so, street lights and power, all those things matter. But that's not why people asked me to run for mayor. ... My sense of it is that those matters will get worked out. ... All cities deal with that, but how many cities have the audacity to rise up as a multiracial coalition, to try to become a model city?"
Apparently, under the Dellums regime, the potholes will magically fix themselves. So will the homicide rate, urban blight, and broken traffic lights. City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente has a few more specific ideas about fixing the city, some of which involve firing lazy bureaucrats. Dellums' most enthusiastic volunteers belong to the union that represents city employees. No wonder they cheered when he promised to ignore the city's worst problems -- after all, they are one of them.
Dellums' candidacy has been granted an air of inevitability, as if he'll just walk into city hall in between bouts of turning water into wine. But if you vote for him, you might as well change the city's name to Berkeley right now and get it over with. The crime rate will be as bad as ever, and the city bureaucracy as dysfunctional, but at least Oakland will finally get to be Havana's sister city.
On the other hand, Oakland has another man who wants to be mayor, a nasty little power broker tainted by his role as an arm-twister in state Senator Don Perata's political machine. He's mean, foul-mouthed, and ruthless, and he'd do more for Oakland in a week than Ron Dellums would in four years.
Run, Nacho, run.
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