When Ron Dellums announced last fall that he had decided to run for mayor of Oakland, California, some of the older people in his audience felt like they were re-living the past. There was Dellums, once the silver-tongued voice of Bay Area leftism in Congress, once again inspiring a crowd to whoops and chants. Except this time, there was a difference: The passion in the room all belonged to the crowd. Dellums, a few months from his 70th birthday, had grown reflective and mellow.
As campaign announcements go, this one was oddly ambivalent. "It's sort of like I'm a jazz musician," Dellums said, insisting that he hadn't actually made up his mind whether to run. "I don't know how this thing's going to end." Whether this was true or not, Dellums went on to tell the crowd that while he was ready to run for mayor, he was not ready to pour his entire being into the task. "The question that I came down to is, am I prepared to pay the price?" he said. "What I'm asking you is to help me minimize the price."
That was in October. Since then, Dellums has made a few public appearances in the city he would like to govern, but he has spent most of his time in Washington, where he runs a lobbying firm and where he has lived ever since he left Congress in 1998. Even so, as the campaign to replace incumbent mayor Jerry Brown finally gets underway, the contest is still widely believed to be Dellums's to lose. "He's got a romantic appeal," says Chris Thompson, a writer for the East Bay Express alternative newsweekly, "and Oakland is one of the few cities in America where that kind of rhetoric stirs people's souls."
For three decades, that is exactly what Dellums was known for. Beginning on the Berkeley City Council in 1967 and moving to Congress in 1971, Dellums was one of the country's most consistent and vocal standard-bearers for progressive causes, from cutting military spending to divesting from South Africa. Even when he became chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, he seemed less comfortable within the establishment than agitating against it.
So it is a little ironic that Dellums is now running for mayor as the candidate of an African-American political establishment that is losing its grip on a city growing more white, Latino, Asian and middle-class. His two opponents, City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who is Hispanic, and council-member Nancy Nadel, who is white, both have strong constituencies and years in the city's trenches.
If nothing else, the election will test whether, even in Oakland, inspirational rhetoric is enough these days. "There's a whole generation of people," says political scientist Larry Gerston, "who don't even know Ron Dellums. So he's going to have to do more than just rely on who he was and provide platitudes. He may have to roll up his sleeves and address law enforcement, bringing in business, crime, the abysmal education record of the Oakland school district--these are the day-to-day issues that citizens go home and talk about."