Ignacio De La Fuente is driving 75 miles per hour in the fast lane on the Nimitz freeway, ignoring the warning beep telling him to put on his seat belt. The passenger presses his hands against the dashboard, bracing for impact as De La Fuente's new black Buick careens dangerously close to the concrete highway divider. The driver looks over and mutters with disgust in his gravelly Mexican accent, "You're the nervous type, aren't you?"
For a politician, De La Fuente, president of the Oakland City Council, is remarkably punctual. Driving like a lunatic from one meeting to the next probably has a lot to do with that. Right now he's returning to City Hall after an hour-long jaw session at the Coliseum with A's owner Lew Wolff, who has been threatening to move the club to Fremont. The 57-year-old politician admits he hasn't spent a lot of time recently thinking about the A's. "I'm busy right now," he says.
The man does have a lot on his mind. His son, Ignacio Jr., is on trial on multiple rape charges. His closest political ally is the target of an FBI corruption investigation. And, of course, he's working seven days a week in his quest which many political insiders consider an exercise in futility to become Oakland's next mayor.
Candidate De La Fuente pulls up in front of City Hall in plenty of time for his next meeting. The click-clack of his trademark cowboy boots, which he wears with an assortment of suits, echoes in the hallway as he heads to his second-floor office, strutting as if he owns the place which, in a way, he has for the past seven years.
At 5:30 p.m. right on time he heads to the conference room for a powwow with parents upset about the lack of fields where their kids can play soccer. He makes a quick detour to the kitchen and sticks his hand down a box of Cocoa Pebbles for a little snack. Now he's ready. He welcomes the parents some with their elementary-school-age kids in tow then patiently listens to their gripes for the next hour.
It's hard to imagine ex-Congressman Ron Dellums, the double-digit frontrunner in the mayor's race, concerning himself with something so seemingly trivial. Dellums, after all, is a man who has engaged in international politics, a man who once shared the stage with Nelson Mandela. But De La Fuente is in his element. He knows this is just the kind of dull but important municipal issue a mayor, even a big city mayor, must deal with. It's the kind of problem a mayor can really fix as opposed to, say, pontificating about the need for universal health care a topic Dellums raised when he announced his candidacy.
Everything is peachy until the end of the meeting, when De La Fuente demonstrates why he's such a tough sell among likely Oakland voters. One parent mentions how parks and rec officials are giving preference to UC Berkeley groups over Oakland residents for use of some sports fields because the Cal groups pay more money. "That's a bunch of bullshit," the politician sneers. It's typical De La Fuente, calling things as he sees them. And he's right; it's indeed a bunch of bullshit. One small problem, though: The politician just cussed in a roomful of parents, in front of their kids.
In an era of blow-dried politicians fearful of offending anyone, Ignacio De La Fuente is a refreshing, if profane, change of pace. His tell-it-like-it-is swagger is key to his charm. On the downside, it contributes to his image as a machine politician always ready to cut a backroom deal or kneecap an opponent. "His tough-guy manner is offensive to a lot of people," says Dan Siegel, an Oakland school board member who is backing Dellums.
Here's a classic De La Fuente story, one he himself likes to recount: When the Oakland Raiders deposed the council president during the team's lawsuit against the city, a Raiders lawyer asked De La Fuente if he was a United States citizen. At the time, false rumors had been circulating that the councilman was not. De La Fuente's response, as recorded for posterity by a court reporter: "Go fuck yourself."
De La Fuente's blunt style is in marked contrast to that of Ron Dellums and Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, his other main rival in the mayor's race. While De La Fuente blows off steam riding his Harley, the earnest, idealistic Nadel gets around on an oversize tricycle.
Nadel has positioned herself as a practical progressive. While she shares Dellums' liberal politics, the third-term councilwoman, unlike the frontrunner, boasts municipal experience. A campaign flier even describes her as the "Conscience of the City Council" a slogan that plays off Dellums' old catchphrase "Conscience of the Congress." During a recent debate in Chinatown, Nadel invoked the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, saying she was "unbossed and unbought," a not-so-subtle jab at De La Fuente. She also noted that her surname means "needle." "I consider myself a political acupuncturist ... applying pressure in just the right spots," she told the Chinatown crowd.
The gray-haired Dellums, meanwhile, comes across as wise, elegant, eloquent, and regal. While De La Fuente more accurately reflects Oakland's true face tough, gritty, roguishly charming Dellums represents how Oakland would prefer to see itself. So far during the campaign, the elder statesman has offered few specifics of what he would do as mayor, relying instead upon his personal charisma and famous name to help propel him to office.
One of the few specific proposals Dellums has offered inclusionary zoning is an idea he swiped from Nadel, who has been pushing for an affordable housing requirement on new development for years. (Last month De La Fuente, who'd resisted the idea in the past, teamed up with other council members and revealed his own inclusionary proposal, devised with input from developers the council president won't identify.)
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