07/20/2006 12:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hope On The Homefront: Ron Dellums' Oakland Breakthrough Could Re-Invent Urban Politics

" The question must never be: 'What is Ron Dellums going to do for Oakland?' The question must always be: "What can we - the people of Oakland - achieve for ourselves and the nation, with a man like Ron Dellums by our side?' "


It began as a near-hopeless effort to draft a political legend to run for mayor in Oakland. But that lonely, long-shot crusade has set in motion a process that could eventually reshape the nation's urban agenda - and reinvent progressive politics in the United States.

To be sure: tough obstacles remain. But with Ron Dellums' election this summer to Oakland's top job, there is reason for hope - here and across the country.

Of course, nothing is guaranteed. On the one hand, the original "Draft Dellums" effort did meet its first challenge: wooing the candidate. And then it met its second: transforming an all-volunteer cause into a professional electoral effort.

But the third challenge is by far the most difficult. The pro-Dellums forces must now evolve from a short-term, candidate-focused campaign into a sustainable, agenda-based political movement. Can the forces around Dellums develop clear policy goals, build a sustainable political apparatus, attract national support and win real change?

That is a tall order. And it may prove impossible, at least without divine intervention. But we should never forget: something magical has brought us this far.

It was less than a year ago - with violence spiraling up and hope spiraling down - that the people of Oakland cried out in desperation.

Our sidewalks were sprouting memorials for slain children. Our bankrupt schools were a disgrace - with students increasingly dropping out and teachers possibly walking out. Meanwhile, our missing-in-action mayor fixated on one solution: get more yuppies to replace the existing population.

We were in deep despair - and deepening crisis. Some called out for a hero.

And a hero answered the call.


On a bright autumn day, one retired U.S. Congressman walked into a crowded college auditorium. The arena was filled with hurting people. They were tired of the funerals, starving for inspiration and praying for some kind of miracle.

The leader looked out on that sea of suffering faces and told them: "I'm not superman. Never tried to be. ... [But if] Ron Dellums running for mayor gives you hope, let's get on with it."

And thus began our community's long and difficult journey, striving toward a miracle in Oakland. Miles remain before we reach that destination.

But we should never forget that joyous beginning. Here was Ron Dellums, the legislative stalwart who put a brake on the arm's race by scuttling Reagan's MX missiles and B2 bombers.

Here was the legendary congressman who pushed through the economic sanctions that helped unlock Nelson Mandela's prison door, who personally helped speed apartheid's demise. Here was the nuts-and-bolts politician who helped revitalize Oakland's port, build the Chabot Space Center and mentor progressive champions like Congresswoman Barbara Lee.


In short: here was the living legend - the man for whom our downtown federal building is named - coming home, to help save a city. He offered himself as a "vessel," to help transform our town into a "21st Century Model City." In a crowded field, he won a slim majority on the first ballot. And in January, he will take the oath of office.

Of course, Team Dellums did not run a perfect campaign; there's no such thing. And going forward, there will be stumbles and omissions. But we should never lose sight of this fact: Dellums' return offers a rare chance to show the world that progressives have what it takes to solve our toughest domestic problems.

For the first time, one U.S. city will be able to gather together all the most innovative solutions to urban woes - and implement them. Dellums has promised to pursue the most cutting-edge approaches to education reform, health care, violence prevention, job creation and eco-friendly economics. For those who have longed for a comprehensive vision and positive agenda, this is the chance of a lifetime.

Big success would have impact far beyond Oakland. It would light a national beacon of hope, opening the path to new urban policy. Aimee Allison, a pro-Dellums candidate for city council, has a slogan that best captures the high hopes of many: "A better world begins in Oakland."


Now, this may all sound far-fetched to some. But history encourages us. In 1954, Montgomery, Alabama, was just a small, peripheral town - much like Oakland. But people there stood up, determined to break out of old patterns. They won the respect and support of far-flung allies. And today, the entire world is still reaping the benefits of that one community's determination.

A miracle in Oakland could have the same impact.

But just as the Montgomery Miracle required a mass effort, Ron Dellums cannot create a "Model City" by himself. That burden falls on the shoulders of all Oaklanders - supported by people of conscience across the country. A local movement - buoyed by thinkers, activists and philanthropists everywhere - could punch a big hole in the despair that has blanketed America.

Which means we must never let the question become: "What is Ron Dellums going to do for Oakland?" The question must always be: "What can we - the people of Oakland - achieve for ourselves and the nation, with a man like Ron Dellums by our side?"

In other words: Dellums' triumphant return gave this saga a magical, story-book beginning. For that, U.S. progressives should be forever grateful. But the final miracle will lie in the people's hands. The happy ending is up to us.

Let's get on with it.