Ron Dellums teased his adoring crowd. In October 2005, he stood before a packed house of supporters and said he wasn't sure if he wanted to be mayor. Thousands of citizens had begged the East Bay icon to lead their troubled city, but he told the throng he didn't know if he was ready to give up private life and return to public service. "I'm just a guy," he told his delirious followers. "I'm not Superman." But the rapt audience wasn't listening. They brushed off his obvious reticence to abandon the comfortable life of his lucrative Washington lobbying practice. Instead, they sat on the edge of their seats, hoping he would accept their plea to run. The white-haired politician finally did, but not before making it clear that he wouldn't be giving it his all. "If Ron Dellums running for mayor gives you hope, then let's get on with it," he said. The audience erupted.
But at least one person wasn't whooping it up — the person closest to the former congressman. Cynthia Dellums had listened intently to her husband's speech, and then wept openly when he agreed to run for mayor. It could have been tears of joy, but to at least one observer, she didn't look at all happy. She may have been alone in realizing just how candidly her husband was telling the truth. His heart really wasn't sold on the idea of being Oakland's mayor.
As the wife of Ronald V. Dellums, Cynthia Dellums would have known that her husband is a man who prefers to stay above the fray. Always dressed exquisitely, his hair coiffed perfectly for any occasion, Dellums would not be the kind of mayor who would roll up his sleeves and dirty himself with the gritty details of running an aging American city — one plagued by high crime, poor schools, and a culture of corruption. He was statesman, a legend who helped topple apartheid in South Africa from thousands of miles away. He was used to pomp and circumstance after nearly thirty years on Capitol Hill, a man accustomed to referring to even his right-wing adversaries as "The Gentlemen from" so and so.
Cynthia may also have wept because she knew that her husband would call upon her to help him run Oakland. But then she dried her tears and set out to help him create the "model city" that became the theme of his mayoral campaign. Knowledgeable insiders are understandably hesitant to discuss the working relationship between the mayor and his wife, but according to a half dozen sources both inside and outside City Hall, she became his partner and his gatekeeper, the person who decided who talks to Ron Dellums — and who doesn't.
The only problem, these sources said, is that Cynthia has neither the experience nor the temperament for the job. In fact, their mayoral partnership, along with her fierce loyalty to her husband and protectiveness of him, has driven away or scared off intelligent, accomplished people who could have helped Oakland.
It's not unusual for politicians' wives or husbands to play key roles in their spouses' administration. Anne Gust, the wife of former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, is one of his top advisors in the Attorney General's Office. But Gust is an experienced lawyer who brings a wealth of knowledge to the job. By contrast, Cynthia Dellums has no experience in public office — let alone running a city. Nor did she play a role in her husband's political career in Washington D.C.
The two were not married until after the congressman retired in 1998. Ron and his second wife Leola "Roscoe" Dellums divorced that same year, and he married Cynthia two years later. The UC Berkeley graduate is eighteen years younger than her husband; he'll be 73 in November and she turns 55 a month later. Before their marriage, her public service experience consisted of working for the Democratic National Committee. After they wed, she became the chief executive of her husband's Beltway lobbying firm, Dellums and Associates.
According to several sources, Cynthia Dellums played a major behind-the-scenes role during the 2006 mayoral campaign and his subsequent transition into City Hall. And her influence has grown substantially ever since. Officially, her title is "senior advisor of public-private partnerships." It's an unpaid position and she has no office of her own inside city hall, but according to five sources, her responsibility and authority are far-reaching — to the point of crossing the line from being an advisor to a quasi second mayor. "She directs city staff" beyond the mayor's office, said one city hall insider. "Her role is way out of bounds."
She regularly sits in on meetings with top city staffers and council members. And she can be formidable. "She's a terror," said one city hall source. "She scares people in the mayor's office." Sources said she acts as her husband's gatekeeper, honing his message, filtering what information he sees, and deciding who gets to see and talk with him. "She reviews every press release that goes out," the source said. "She reviews his calendar."
Cynthia also is jealously protective of her husband. She won't tolerate, let alone heed, criticism of the mayor's performance in office, according to two knowledgeable sources. Her protectiveness is so pervasive that staffers are afraid to tell the mayor how poorly he's doing or how badly he's being perceived by the press and the community at large. Two city hall insiders also said that people who wish to help the mayor are often unsure whether Cynthia Dellums has passed along their input to her husband. They're frustrated that they never receive feedback about their recommendations.
As a result, sources agreed, Dellums operates in a kind of bubble, surrounded by aides who tell him that he's making the right choices and doing a great job. And the number one cheerleader is Cynthia Dellums. She's particularly adept at playing on her husband's vanity — just as many of his close friends have done over the years. After a speech, for example, she'll heap praise on him, said one city hall insider. "She'll say, 'You really are The One, Ron; you really wowed them.'"
Ron and Cynthia Dellums declined a request to be interviewed for this story. But according to spokesman Paul Rose, they take issue with the assertion that they have a mayoral partnership. "There's no question that she's his top advisor," Rose said. "But as far as running the city, the mayor makes every decision — though he does consult with his top advisors before making them."
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