New Boss, Same as the Old Boss 

Ron Dellums says his vision is to transform Oakland into a model city. Trouble is, he's done nothing to ensure the necessary political clout.

Ron Dellums' victory in the Oakland mayoral election was supposed to represent the dawn of a new era. It had been nearly a year since the city's black leadership came together with union leaders and progressives to draft the former congressman into the race. Since 1998, these three groups had been little more than spectators as development deals and lucrative public contracts went to friends and campaign donors of Mayor Jerry Brown, state Senator Don Perata, and City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. Presumably, all that was going to change when Dellums trounced De La Fuente by 17 percentage points on June 6.

But if the past seven weeks are any indication, the next few years look to be more of the same at City Hall. Dellums has already made two bewildering decisions that raise serious doubts over whether he understands how Oakland's government works or whether he can alter the way business is conducted there.

Just after winning election eight years ago, Brown convinced voters to adopt a "strong mayor" system of government. But despite its name, the new system afforded him precious few powers. Mayors do have the ability to appoint or remove the city administrator, but that's about it. In 2003, the mayor sought — but failed to receive — direct control over all city department heads. So while Brown may have seemed to reign supreme over Oakland during his two terms in office, in reality much of his authority stems from the alliance he forged with De La Fuente. Since 1999, De La Fuente consistently has commanded at least six votes on the eight-member city council.

Dellums appeared to grasp these political realities when he indicated at his post-election press conference that he would seek stronger mayoral veto power over the council. Under Oakland's charter, the mayor's existing veto powers are basically nonexistent. He can veto only council ordinances that receive just five votes, and even then the council can override his veto with the same five votes that approved the ordinance in the first place.

This veto is so restrictive that Brown exercised it only once, in 2001, when he vetoed a council decision involving the city's utility users' tax. But in truth, he hasn't needed it. Since taking office, he almost always has agreed with De La Fuente and the council majority's pro-development decisions.

Dellums, on the other hand, has suggested that he'll take the city in a different direction. Toward that end, the ex-congressman spoke of wanting veto powers similar to those of the president. In that scenario, he could overturn any council decision, and it would take at least a two-thirds majority to override him.

Yet, strangely, Dellums has no plan to sponsor a veto measure for the November ballot, his campaign spokesman Mike Healy said. And according to the city clerk's office, it's already too late for his supporters to launch a petition drive.

De La Fuente and the council aren't about to put such a measure on the ballot. De La Fuente adamantly opposes any attempt to strengthen the mayor's power now that he won't be mayor. Moreover, there are no elections scheduled for next year, so the earliest Dellums could put a veto measure before voters is June 2008. In other words, De La Fuente and the current council majority likely will continue to dominate Oakland politics for two more years.

One of the few hopes Dellums has of loosening De La Fuente's tight grip on City Hall is November's runoff election in District Two, which includes Grand Lake, Chinatown, and Eastlake. Incumbent Pat Kernighan, a close De La Fuente ally, is squaring off against progressive newcomer Aimee Allison. It could be a close one: In the primary, Kernighan took 46.1 percent of the vote to Allison's 39.3 percent.

Right now, only Nancy Nadel and Desley Brooks regularly vote against the council president, but if Allison wins, De La Fuente's majority shrinks from six to five. Were one of his allies — Jane Brunner, Jean Quan, Larry Reid, or Henry Chang — to swing toward Dellums, the new mayor could suddenly find himself in the desirable role of tiebreaker.

An endorsement from a popularly elected mayor could be all Allison needs to eclipse Kernighan. Yet, inexplicably, Dellums says he has no plans to support her. Indeed, in the June primary he didn't back any of the district's three candidates. "He decided to stay out of it," Healy said, declining to elaborate further.

The mayor-elect's choice to not back Allison has some of his supporters wondering about his motives. "I'm just speculating," said Oakland school board member Greg Hodge, "but he may be reluctant to endorse Aimee because he may feel that he has to work with either one of them, no matter who's elected."

For her part, Allison has not given up on gaining Dellums' support. She clearly talks the progressive talk and appears committed to standing up to De La Fuente and the council majority. "From Don Perata to Ignacio De La Fuente to Pat Kernighan — this whole machine has got to stop," she said in a recent interview. "Too many of our resources are going to developers who don't have the best interests of Oakland at heart."

Unlike Dellums, De La Fuente clearly understands what's at stake. His top priority this fall is to re-elect Kernighan, he said. He plans to hold campaign fund-raisers for her and encourage his best donors to start writing checks. "I have a lot of time now," he said. "So, I'm definitely going to go to work on her behalf."

Dellums' supporters point to one more weapon the new mayor will have to blunt De La Fuente's power. Once in office, he can nominate members of the port and city planning commissions, which have considerable influence. The port commission oversees the entire Port of Oakland, which includes the nation's fourth largest seaport, Oakland International Airport, and all public property along Oakland's waterfront. In fact, it originally approved the controversial plan to sell 64 acres of waterfront property, known as Oak to Ninth, to a private developer with close ties to Senator Perata.

But unfortunately for Dellums, there will be only a handful of vacancies on the port and planning commissions in the next few years. Port Commissioner Frank Kiang's term expired last year, and he is serving day to day. And according to Port Secretary John Betterton, the terms of two others, David Kramer and John Protopappas, expire in July 2007. But even if Dellums gets three slots, the majority of the seven-member panel will still be beholden to Brown.

Moreover, both commissions ultimately are subservient to the council. De La Fuente and his majority can overrule any planning commission decision, and any waterfront development decision by the port. It's also the council that appoints — or removes — commission members; the mayor merely makes the nominations. In other words, any Dellums nominee also will have to pass muster with De La Fuente.

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