OAKLAND — Ron Dellums has the tendency as Oakland's mayor to suggest the best days of his administration are just around the corner.

The 73-year-old former congressman is entering the second half of his four-year term without a permanent city administrator, with crime running high and facing a budget deficit projected at $108 million for the two-year period beginning July 1.

Lately, he has turned to a football analogy in trying to strike a tone of optimism.

"The team that comes out of the locker room in the second half with an altered game plan and a new lineup, with energy prepared to play the third quarter all out (wins)," he said.

Dellums believes pending developments — changes to the structure of Oakland's strong-mayor form of government, hiring a permanent city administrator, launching a city-state program to revitalize 470 city blocks and getting the chance to work with a Democratic administration in Washington, D.C. — all bode well for Oakland in 2009.

But people are looking for more than talk from their mayor. A poll taken in June on behalf of Oakland's Safe Streets Committee and the Jobs and Housing Coalition found Dellums' job-approval rating was 35 percent. A CBS 5 poll taken in October found the rating had dropped to 27 percent.


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And some of the questions that have dogged Dellums since Day One persist: How much time does he put into the job? Why don't people see more of their mayor in their neighborhoods? Why isn't he a more decisive leader?

In a time when the city faces a budget meltdown, some say the mayor fails to focus on the basics of service delivery and managing the city's bureaucracy.

City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who lost to Dellums in the 2006 mayoral race, meets with Dellums more often than any other council member. And while Dellums has focused on issues ranging from HIV/AIDS to education to public safety as part of his idea to make Oakland a "model city," De La Fuente questions whether the mayor has ever really defined for himself what the job is all about.

"I don't think he has been able to decipher it," De La Fuente said. "What is (his) job? What are the basic responsibilities? I don't think he's figured it out yet. And that's the mildest way I can put it."

Dellums extended the football metaphor in a recent interview, saying that despite criticism he believes he and his staff played the first half "as cleanly and strongly as we could."

Another city source, asked what the halftime score was, blithely responded, "49-0" — with Oakland losing.

Defending the mayor

Supporters believe much of the criticism Dellums has received is unfair. Dellums led a successful push last year to fully staff the police department above its authorized 803-officer level for the first time in history.

He also pushed for more management rights for Police Chief Wayne Tucker. A new geographic-based policing model is having a positive effect on Oakland's crime rate, the mayor said. Overall crime dipped by about 3 percent in 2008, police data show.

The big-picture view Dellums espouses has its supporters, too.

"He's accomplished a lot," said Henry Hitz, executive director of Oakland Parents Together, an organization that works on behalf of education in Oakland. "He's got a dialogue going with the (school) district and that has not been the case for many years."

Hitz commended Dellums for his efforts to increase the number of Oakland teachers who live in the city as well as his more recent focus to bring children who've dropped out of school back into the classroom.

During Dellums' two years, the mayor's office said, Oakland has brought in $189 million for school-based health clinics, HIV/AIDS testing, gang reduction and transit-oriented development and other local projects.

"I think it's a phenomenal sacrifice for a man who has such phenomenal cachet to be our mayor," said Geoffrey Pete, owner of Geoffrey's Inner Circle, a downtown club. "He's not a sound-bite person and he's not an expedient type. But the groundwork and foundation he's laying will benefit the city for decades."

Rashidah Grinage, executive director of People United for a Better Oakland, said Dellums' "rocky relationship with the media" has obscured some of his accomplishments, particularly in education and public safety.

Grinage did add, however, that instability on Dellums' staff — most notably the departure of Lenore Anderson as the mayor's top public safety adviser after less than a year on the job — has made it difficult to implement a plan to have civilians, rather than uniformed police, investigate complaints against officers.

Where Dellums is often prickly and combative with the media, he can be charming and convincing at community events or town-hall meetings. And to Geoff Collins, a longtime Oakland resident who has met recently with the mayor on police issues, it does not make sense that Dellums isn't more visible.

Collins supported De La Fuente in the mayoral race, but was invited to participate in one of Dellums' task forces early in his administration. He found it a positive experience.

But like the sentiments of others, he said, "I am disappointed. My disappointment doesn't stem from the fact he didn't achieve his 'model city' goal. I thought that was admirable. My disappointment stems from the fact that he's just not out in the community that much. And that's where his great strength lies."

Reluctant leader?

Dellums ran for mayor after a grass-roots "Draft Dellums" movement, telling a crowd of supporters, "If Ron Dellums running for mayor gives you hope, then let's get on with it."

The mayor often reminds people he "came home" to be mayor at the request of Oakland residents. The routine has grown tiresome to Alex Gronke, the co-founder of The OakBook magazine, who said the city needs bolder leadership from both the mayor and City Council.

Discussing his disappointment with Dellums, he said, "It's the same story. He's this reluctant politician. He's only doing it because we the people need him so much. And that's not what Oakland needs. "... I think that's what it is — the lack of appetite for the job."

Speculation is growing that Dellums could be offered a State Department job in the coming months. He endorsed Secretary of State nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton's bid for president and was named national chairman of her campaign's Urban Policy Committee. Dellums also has a close relationship with Bill Clinton. He stumped for Barack Obama days before Obama won the Nov. 4 election.

For now, attention will be on key moves Dellums makes in early 2009 in Oakland, including who he will appoint as city administrator. Dellums offered no clues about who that person might be, saying only that people will know at the "appropriate time," which, he said will be "very soon."

It's been more than six months since he fired former City Administrator Deborah Edgerly after she came under suspicion of interfering with a police investigation on behalf of a nephew. He placed his former aide, Dan Lindheim, in the position in an acting capacity, but the delay in finding a permanent replacement has opened up Dellums to a fresh round of criticism that he moves too slowly in making key decisions.

Some argue the budget problems, brought on by a catastrophic national economy, make it all but impossible for Dellums to continue to think about extensive "model city" programs at the expense of the basics.

Dellums doesn't see it as an either-or trade-off, however, and said the city-state revitalization program and having a Democrat in the White House makes it the right time to build on existing partnerships with other government agencies and philanthropic groups.

"At this point in my life, I didn't come home to dance on the whims of expediency," he said. "I didn't come home to enhance mediocrity. If you're going to fail, fail trying to do something."

Reach Kelly Rayburn at 510-208-6435.

  • Jan. 14, 2008 -- Pledges in State of the City address to fully staff Police Department by end of year.
  • March 4 -- Wins City Council
    approval of request for $7.7 million to recruit and train police officers.
  • July 1 -- Fires Deborah Edgerly as city administrator after she came under suspicion of interfering with a police investigation on behalf of a nephew.
  • July 23 -- Taps former City Manager Robert Bobb to lead top-to-bottom review of city government.
  • Sept. 26 -- Announces that city has $42 million deficit and calls for drastic action. On Oct. 21, the council approves layoffs, City Hall closures, other measures to fill gap.
  • Oct. 30 -- Asks state Attorney General Jerry Brown to conduct independent investigation of city Police Department's handling of journalist Chauncey Bailey's August 2007 slaying.
  • Nov. 4 -- Voters reject Dellums-backed Measure NN, to add additional police officers over three-year period.
  • Nov. 14 -- Graduation of 165th police academy brings department to 837 officers, highest in its history.
  • Dec. 5 -- Tells business leaders state of California will work with city to revitalize 470 city blocks.
  • Dec. 23 -- Says city faces budget deficit of $108 million for two-year period beginning July 1, 2009.