It took nearly two weeks of counting paper ballots, but this weekend it became official. Legendary, retired Bay Area congressman Ron Dellums is the new Mayor of Oakland. Dellums squeaked out his victory and avoided a run-off when he crossed the 50% mark by a razor-thin 155 votes out of more than 80,000 cast.
His nearest challenger, Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente conceded the victory on Saturday. Dellums served for nearly three decades in congress, and before retiring in 1999, firmly established a reputation as one of the most liberal representatives in the House. He was active in opposition to the war in Vietnam, to Reagan administration foreign policy and to U.S. nuclear policy. He also led campaigning against South African apartheid.
The 70-year-old former congressman made the decision to come out of political retirement last year as the Oakland Mayoral seat was set to become vacant. Twice-elected Mayor Jerry Brown was being termed out and Dellums began a vigorous campaign on a progressive platform. Though the election was hard-fought, his main rival De La Fuente is also a liberal Democrat. Mexican-born, and a former union official, De La Fuente had won the endorsement of former Mayor Brown as well as the majority of the City Council.
Dellums’ re-emergence galvanized much of Oakland’s sizeable progressive community and gave them a living icon around which to rally. But since his retirement from Congress, Dellums’ latest career –as a lobbyist–was hardly as romantic as his tenure on the Hill. Some controversy was raised by Dellums’ firm having represented a local nuclear lab, one of the country’s major drug firms, and by helping Rolls Royce acquire contracts for the engines made for transport planes that carry troops to Iraq.
Oakland, which has long lived in the shadow of neighboring San Francisco, will confront Dellums with some serious challenges. It’s a city that suffers a high crime rate, an extraordinarily large population of former convicts, and deep economic and social divides. Managing a city as a progressive chief executive will be a very different job than being a liberal legislator among scores of others. And no doubt Dellums will be closely scrutinized by many of the constituencies who have invested their hopes in him.
Mayor Brown had come to office under similar circumstances in 1998, promising progressive reform but he wound up emphasizing programs of crime control and downtown development. Some of Brown’s liberal supporters were deeply disappointed by his tenure, though the former California governor leaves office with high favorability ratings. In the election of two weeks ago, Brown handily won the Democratic primary for state Attorney General getting more votes than any other statewide Democratic candidate.
Dellums takes office and replaces Brown on January 1. One of his first tasks will be to mend fences with De La Fuente who remains at the helm of the City Council and whose political cooperation will be key in providing a governing majority.