Pity the Rapists 

Oakland's new mayor-elect may have talked about transparent government, but if his past is any indication, he'll be about as press-friendly as Dick Cheney.

Like all politicians, Oakland Mayor-elect Ron Dellums made plenty of promises on the campaign trail, including ones that sounded good but that he's unlikely to keep. Take his promise to usher in a new era of openness and transparency in Oakland city government. Considering the former congressman's behavior during the mayoral campaign and his historically prickly relationship with the press, the Dellums era will probably be just as opaque as the Jerry Brown years.

During the campaign, Dellums often proved elusive and thin-skinned when dealing with reporters. On more than one occasion, he snapped at scribes and called their questions "silly." One of those questions, posed during a tour of low-income housing, wasn't silly at all — an East Bay Business Times reporter was merely trying to get the candidate on record as being for or against the controversial Oak to Ninth development.

Dellums repeatedly turned down interview requests from KNTV and wouldn't let KTVU producers interview him at home — unlike both his main opponents, councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente and Nancy Nadel. He refused to talk to Chip Johnson, the Chronicle's East Bay columnist, after Johnson wrote a piece on Dellums' estranged son, Michael, who is serving a life sentence for murder. De La Fuente, by contrast, answered lots of questions about his own wayward son, who is awaiting trial on multiple rape charges. Even Dellums' supporters share the candidate's touchiness, condemning what they considered the negative portrayal of their man in the "white press" and "corporate media."

Those who have followed Dellums' career know that he's never had a good relationship with the press. Just look at the index of his 2000 memoir, Lying Down with the Lions, to get a flavor of his antipathy. Accompanying the book's references to the media are phrases like "hostility of" and "demonization by."

A sensitive man, Dellums has understandably chafed in the past at being reduced to a media caricature — the "radical congressman from Berserkeley," for instance. He has often said that he's just a guy who hurts when you hit him. And yet Dellums has rarely let reporters get to know that guy. While in Congress, he developed a reputation as a prima donna who never returned media phone calls and flipped out over any kind of negative coverage, no matter how benign.

Roland De Wolk, a KTVU producer who used to write for the Oakland Tribune when Dellums was in Congress, says getting access to Dellums or even his staff was a challenge. In the early '80s, De Wolk wrote a front-page Tribune story about an AIDS summit at Alta Bates that was attended by the entire Bay Area congressional delegation. The paper's photo of the delegation, however, didn't include Dellums, who had shown up late and left early. De Wolk recalls receiving angry calls from Dellums' aides, one of whom snarled, "You guys are always complaining that we're not available to you. ... This is why!" The calls surprised the reporter, who had nothing to do with the photos — they were taken by a Trib photographer who arrived at the meeting before Dellums did.

The incident that perhaps forever poisoned Dellums' view of the media came in 1983, during one of the only scandals of his tenure. In March of that year, CBS News reported that he was under investigation for allegedly using cocaine — an accusation leveled by a former House doorkeeper of dubious credibility. The story sparked a media frenzy like none Dellums had experienced.

The congressman, who was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, loudly protested his innocence. That was completely understandable. It was just that the terms he used to defend himself were, well, hella weird, and revealed a deep dislike of the media. He complained about being "cannibalized" by the press and likened himself to the victim of a grisly New England gang rape that recently had captivated the nation. "I have been raped as publicly, as dramatically, as violently, and as hostilely as the woman was raped in Massachusetts," the SF Examiner quoted Dellums as saying. Another paper quoted him telling supporters during a trip back to his district, "They will only rape me once. Feminism has taught me to engage in self-defense and to not allow yourself to be defined by the rapist."

Now, I'm not saying the new mayor should have to invite Bottom Feeder to witness his cabinet meetings. After all the things I've written about the guy — well, let's just say veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas will be invited to George Bush's Crawford ranch before I'll get a one-on-one with Dellums. But the new administration shouldn't be so discriminating against my fellow rapists in the corporate media, who, believe it or not, do care about being neutral and accurate. He could, for instance, hold regular press conferences, as De La Fuente had promised to do.

Of course, Dellums' "press conference" earlier this week — which was more like a campaign rally — didn't bode well for news scribes. Surrounded by more supporters than media, he began the event by immediately attacking, you guessed it, the press. "Notwithstanding the blows we took, notwithstanding the unfair press" — you get the idea: He won in spite of those media bastards. After his speech, he fielded questions from the assembled press corps and apparent well-wishers. At least, they better have been well-wishers, because no reporter worth her salt would start a question proclaiming she was "honored" just to be in Dellums' presence.

Still, there's a glimmer of hope for the media in Dellums' hiring as his campaign spokesman Mike Healy, a respected public-relations guy who worked at BART for years. The question is whether Dellums will hire a pro like Healy as press secretary, or bring on a political loyalist who is likely to circle the wagons before a single salvo has been fired. Healy, who is heading back to retirement, says, "I'm going to strongly recommend to Ron that he have an open-door policy and that he doesn't circle the wagons."

So, here's hoping for the best — but expecting the worst.


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