Close Race to Be Oakland's Next Mayor

Shifting racial demographics, illegal immigration and a soaring homicide rate are some of the factors in the mayoral race of Oakland, Calif. As outgoing Mayor Jerry Brown focuses on running for state attorney general, most voters will choose between an icon of the African-American community and a well-known Latino city councilman.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Oakland, California, a liberal icon is caught in the fight of his political life. Former congressman Ron Dellums, best known as an anti-war crusader, leads the field of six candidates to succeed Jerry Brown as mayor of Oakland.

But as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, Dellums's bid for City Hall hasn't been the cakewalk many had predicted.

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

No one has ever lost money betting on the ability of Ron Dellums to fire up a hometown crowd.

Mr. RON DELLUMS (Candidate, Oakland Mayoral Race): My vision is Oakland as a model city where we embrace the strength of Oakland, which lies in the diversity of its people, where we have the audacity and the courage and the will to turn around and address all of our problems.

GONZALES: The event, a candidate's debate. The audience, multi-ethnic, interfaith, working class and starving for action on their troubled schools, rising homicide rate and lack of affordable housing.

Mr. DELLUMS: Let's collaborate, coordinate and communicate across public lines. Oakland is a magnificent city. We can go forward, we can solve the problems. I'm absolutely confident that we can.

Unidentified Moderator: Thank you, Mr. Dellums.

GONZALES: Dellums was a reluctant candidate. He had to be lured back to Oakland from Washington where he had spent the past several years as a lobbyist. Some suggested that Dellums was coming home to a coronation. Instead he faces a stiff challenge from two city council members, who stress that they are more familiar with Oakland's present day problems.

One is council president Ignacio De La Fuente.

Mr. IGNATIO DE LA FUENTE (City Council President, Oakland): I understand the challenges that we have and it's easy to talk about everything and we'll do everything.

GONZALES: De La Fuente is a Mexican immigrant who started as a dishwasher and rose to the second most powerful position in the city. He moonlights as a labor leader, enjoys the endorsement of the Chamber of Commerce and has the reputation for getting things done.

Mr. DE LA FUENTE: The fact is that the mayor of the city is responsible for the basics. We have to make every school a good school, we have to make sure that you're safe in the cities that you live in, the street that you live in, the neighborhood that you live in, that you are able to walk the streets, go to the store, enjoy what Oakland is all about.

GONZALES: Dellums's other main challenger is Nancy Nadel, a white city councilwoman who represents mostly black West Oakland.

Ms. NANCY NADEL (Councilwoman, Oakland): My name, Nadel, means needle. I consider myself a political acupuncturist. My job is to put that needle in a stuck system and get the energy flowing in this city. We can all do that together and I look forward to being your first woman mayor.

Unidentified Moderator: Thank you very much. Thank you.

GONZALES: The fact that polls suggest a runoff between Dellums and one of the two challengers has cast the former congressman in an odd position. He is, after all, a local legend as a civil rights figure and his name even graces the city's federal building.

During Oakland's day as a bastion of black political power, Dellums might have walked away with the mayor's race. But Michael Semler, who teaches government at Sacramento State University, says the community that Dellums left years ago is not the community that exists today and African-Americans are no longer the dominant political power.

Mr. MICHAEL SEMLER (Sacramento State University): Oakland has a growing Latino population. It has a significantly growing Asian population. It has a large number of upwardly mobile young families that are migrated into the community that want some change and want better schools.

GONZALES: Some voters, such as Sue Tialdi(ph), an accountant, says Dellums has been away from Oakland for too long.

Ms. SUE TIALDI (Oakland resident): I kind of resent that Dellums has come here and thinks that he can walk in and provide answers to problems that he has little knowledge about.

GONZALES: But Dellums still has a very deep reservoir or support from voters such as Naomi Applebaum(ph).

Ms. NAOMI APPLEBAUM (Oakland resident): I like what he's done in the past. I've watched his record. He's good. You know, he understands people, he cares about what goes on, social welfare of people. I appreciate that in him.

GONZALES: The irony is that after having been drafted into this mayor's race, Ron Dellums now faces possibly the toughest campaign of his career.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland.

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