Ron Dellums passed on a chance to seize control of city hall just hours before he was sworn in as Oakland's mayor. It marked the third time in the past six months that he has turned his back on an opportunity to consolidate his political power.
On the morning of his January 8 inauguration, Dellums was approached by Councilman Larry Reid, a longtime soldier in the political machine run by City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. Reid had a plan for how Dellums could win council support for his agenda.
For years, Reid has been the ranking African American in Oakland government. But over the past eighteen months, his popularity in the black community has plummeted. His staunch support of De La Fuente's mayoral bid sparked withering attacks from black leaders. They also were upset that Reid did not support Aimee Allison, an African-American candidate who tried to unseat De La Fuente ally Pat Kernighan in November.
Reid said some black leaders had even threatened to run a candidate against him in 2008 if he did not distance himself from De La Fuente. "I've really taken a lot of heat," Reid said. "I really stuck my neck out when I endorsed Ignacio and Pat."
But then Councilwoman Desley Brooks called Reid with an idea. Brooks, who is a foe of De La Fuente and a strong backer of Dellums, told Reid that she would support him if he decided to run for council president himself. She explained that even though Reid had been a De La Fuente loyalist, she believed he was ready to join her and progressive Councilwoman Nancy Nadel in a new voting bloc. "The council majority was not going to vote for Nancy for president and they weren't going to vote for me," Brooks said. "So he was the logical choice."
Reid believed there was a good chance that Councilwoman Jane Brunner would also back him. Earlier, Brunner had made noises about running for the presidency herself. With Brunner on board, then the eight-member council would be evenly divided with Brooks, Nadel, and Brunner voting for Reid, and Kernighan, Henry Chang, and Jean Quan supporting De La Fuente. Reid then hoped Dellums would cast the deciding vote for him.
Reid was taking a risk. He had already promised to nominate his longtime friend De La Fuente for his ninth and tenth years as president, and had kept his plan secret until the morning of the inauguration. He knew De La Fuente would be livid, but he figured Dellums would jump at the chance to have a supportive council majority.
On the morning of the inauguration ceremony, Brooks pigeonholed De La Fuente and asked him to step aside for Reid, telling him it was time for new leadership. An angry De La Fuente refused. Reid then approached Dellums and asked if he would cast the deciding vote for him if there were a four-four tie. But the incoming mayor stunned Reid with his refusal. According to Reid, Dellums said that if there were a tie vote, he would ask the council to reach a consensus of its own. "Ron did not want to interfere in council politics," explained Dellums spokesman Mike Healy, who confirmed Reid's version of events. "I think he felt that he could work with whoever is elected."
If that sounds familiar, it's because it's the same reason the progressive mayor did not support Allison in her campaign against the moderate Kernighan. There, too, Dellums was faced with an opportunity to break up De La Fuente's hold on City Hall. Yet Dellums stayed on the sidelines, and Kernighan defeated Allison 53 percent to 47 percent. Similarly, last June, even as Dellums lamented the system of government that leaves most decision-making powers in the hands of Oakland's council, he decided not to sponsor a ballot measure to change the structure.
Without Dellums' endorsement, Reid's bid for the presidency fell two votes short. Brunner did not return a phone call seeking comment on her decision. But she had to know that if she voted against De La Fuente and he ended up winning anyway, she risked his wrath. After Nadel voted against him in a previous election for council president, he removed her from the council's most coveted committee - the Community and Economic Development Agency.
Brooks and Reid said they respect Dellums' decision to steer clear of council business. But there's no question that the new mayor's repeated refusal to grab the reins of power is radically different from how politics have traditionally worked in Oakland. "The typical political move is to do your best to put together a team that is going to enact your legislation," said Robert Smith, professor of political science at San Francisco State University, adding that Dellums is anything but typical. "It reflects his style of governance," said Smith, who has followed Dellums' career. "He wants to remain above factions and divisiveness."
Smith said Dellums "might live to regret" his decision not to back Reid and Allison, but he thinks the new mayor may be trying to disarm De La Fuente and his supporters with kindness and conciliation. That way, they may be more reluctant to oppose him in the future. If true, it's a gamble; De La Fuente is a hard-nosed politician who doesn't back away from a fight. Then again, he chose not to punish either Reid or Brooks with committee demotions following their bid to unseat him.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story contained several errors that have been fixed in the version above. Councilwoman Brooks says she called Larry Reid with her idea on the Friday before the inauguration not during the December holidays as Reid had asserted, and we originally reported. Brooks also noted that her decision to nominate Reid had nothing to do with his problems in the black community, nor had she speculated as to whether Brunner would support Reid for the council president position. Finally, although Reid was indeed surprised by Dellums' decision to stay out of the council president vote, Brooks says she was not.
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