Oakland Mayor Faces Tough Challenges
Associated Press Writer
At a high school in a struggling neighborhood in this violence-scarred city, Mayor Ron Dellums stood on tiptoe and congratulated a basketball player who led his team to a state championship.
"In a community where we find ourselves more often than not mourning, we are rejoicing," the former congressman told the grinning teenager and hundreds of other screaming students.
Such celebrations have been rare during Dellums' 15 months in office.
In recent months, a 10-year-old boy was paralyzed by a bullet that struck him during a piano lesson, a powerful state politician was carjacked by a masked man, a popular community journalist was gunned down in broad daylight, and a 13-year-old was shot in the foot outside a rosary service for another teen who was killed by police after allegedly drawing a gun.
In the past three months alone, the city of 400,000 people across the Bay from San Francisco has logged 34 homicides, more than double than during the same period last year.
"It's very frustrating," the mayor said in a rare sit-down interview. "I get up every morning praying that I don't open the newspaper and there's somebody dead."
The Democrat, 72, was swept into office after a stint on the Berkeley City Council in the 1960s and nearly three decades on Capitol Hill, including chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee. He had been ready to retire when residents and local politicians recruited him to run for mayor.
No one denied he faced a bumpy road. Oakland's mix of guns, poverty, pollution and crime had undermined the administrations of previous mayors, including Dellums' immediate predecessor, former California Gov. Jerry Brown.
"Anyone attempting to take this challenge on would run into extreme difficulties," said Terry Jones, a professor of sociology and social work at California State University, East Bay. "As storied as his career has been, I think Jesus would catch hell in Oakland."
Dellums is realistic about what lies ahead.
"We work diligently here, constantly, trying to deal with these issues. You get on a plane, you go to Washington, you beg for money. You go to foundations and you beg for money. You say 'Give us the resources to help us do the job every day.'
"I think people in our community need to understand what we're up against, and that's not simplistic," the mayor said.
Dellums and his staff have made progress toward getting Oakland's police force up to full strength, a step that previous mayors had failed to achieve. The department is currently more than 70 officers short and losing five more each month to retirement.
He oversaw an agreement between the officers union and the city that will return authority for deploying officers to Police Chief Wayne Tucker. Before the agreement, that power resided with the union.
Brown, who is now California's attorney general, cautions that the police department has many more hurdles to overcome: "The crime rate is extremely high and it's dangerous work, and in Oakland you have a number of individuals who are not sympathetic to police."
Dellums, a staunch liberal who successfully ushered anti-apartheid legislation through Congress that helped free political prisoners, isn't so naive to think progress will be made overnight.
"I think we're putting in place the pieces that I think will ultimately create a better community for everybody," he said.
While the mayor has been portrayed as aloof and criticized for leaving the city to campaign for Hillary Rodham Clinton in her bid to become the Democratic nominee for president, he gets support from people like Richard Rodriguez, whose son is the one paralyzed by a stray bullet that struck him during a piano lesson.
Rodriguez said the city has given the family constant access to a liaison who helped them obtain city services.
"We like the mayor. We like what he stands for," he said. "I think he gets a bad deal because I think he inherited this problem of crime, he didn't create this problem. This has been going on for decades."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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