Only on KTVU: ‘Catching Up’ with Ron Dellums

Only on Infospigot today, new revelations of a local TV news story that was broadcast as an exclusive without any apparent reporting. That’s right. You’ll only read this exclusive coverage of that pseudo-exclusive right here on this blog you’re looking at now. Only on Infospigot, your exclusive source today of these previously unreported revelations.

What’s up here?

Well, last night, after I got home from the public radio news factory where I work, Kate wanted me to see a story that KTVU, a once-proud purveyor of Bay Area news, had aired at 10 p.m. It was about Ron Dellums, our former congressman (meaning: he was really liberal) and former mayor of Oakland. He exited that second job with his reputation in tatters and about a quarter-million dollars in debt to the Internal Revenue Service. He left office in January, and it was a little surprising though not entirely shocking when the news broke in March that he was taking a job with a Washington, D.C., consulting firm founded and run by J.C. Watts, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma. The surprising part was that Watts is a Republican and was once promoted by the party as one of its leading African-American voices. The not-shocking part was that Dellums, who was in the House for decades and served as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is connected and no doubt needs the money. And it’s also significant that the Watts firm touts itself as “the largest African-American-owned lobbying company in Washington.” Watts and Dellums (who is also African-American, for you non-Bay Area readers) might seem like strange bedfellows in the Republican-Democratic sense, but they clearly may have other interests in common.

Anyway–why is Dellums’s position with J.C. Watts, made public seven and a half months ago, news now? Because KTVU-Channel 2 made it the subject of an exclusive “Only on 2” report last night. The version of the story posted on the station’s website–“Longtime Democrat Dellums working for Republicans“– follows the script pretty closely. The piece led the hourlong broadcast in what is now the familiar and very tired KTVU formula for its “excloos”:

A surprising revelation about Ron Dellums. Only on Two, we discover what he’s been up to since leaving office.

Good evening everyone. I’m Frank Somerville.

And I’m Julie Haener. He is a lifelong Democrat, but now he’s working with Republicans. A stunning change of allegiance for Ron Dellums that has one supporter telling us the former mayor and congressman has quote “sold his soul.” Only on Two tonight, KTVU’s Ken Wayne is live at the Dellms Federal Building in Oakland with the likely reason for Dellums’ new job. Ken …

Julie, during his three decades in Congress, Dellums was so far to the left he described himself as a socialist. So it’s raising eyebrows to learn he’s now working as a lobbyist for an influential Republican firm.

From there, the report “discovers” what everyone who might have been interested knew months ago–the “stunning” news that Dellums was rubbing elbows with actual Republicans and trying to earn a living doing it. A couple of “Democratic party activists” are brought on camera to denounce Dellums as a turncoat. (The story manages to misspell the name of one of the activists, Nancy Sidebotham, both on screen and online.) Dellums’s tax problems, first reported nearly two years ago, are rehashed. The story doesn’t say a word about who J.C. Watts might represent and on what issues or what Dellums’s role in the outfit might be.

It’s hard to tell which is worse: the utter disingenuousness of passing this off as an exclusive report or the manufactured outrage at the phony disclosures. It’s as if the people reporting the story had never heard of lobbyists before or that people from different parties actually work together occasionally. But I’m guessing all that stuff–looking at what Dellums actually does for J.C. Watts, for instance, and who he might be representing and lobbying–was beside the point for KTVU. What seems to have really driven the story was a piece of video the station got when a producer and cameraperson “caught up with” Dellums outside a San Jose courtroom, where he was dealing with some of the wreckage of his mayoral administration.

Dellums has never been particularly patient with reporters, and he loses his composure on camera. The video captures him sitting down on a bench and muttering, “Oh, man. when am I ever going to get out from under this? I hate this. I hate this shit, man. I don’t like it.” The “shit” was bleeped out on the air. The KTVU report said Dellums “almost seemed despondent when a KTVU producer asked him to talk.”

Don’t get me wrong. I think there might well be a story in what’s become of Dellums’s career. There’s something bordering on tragic in his situation. He’s pushing 76 years old, and he still needs to be out there hustling. And there is a good story, probably, in finding out how the Watts firm is using Dellums’s connections both in Congress and with industry. Watts lists the “ACLU Voting Rights Coalition” as a current or past client; that certainly doesn’t seem to fit the conservative Republican mold. Other clients range from the University of Arkansas to AT&T to the Bowl Championship Series. Looking at what the specifics of what Dellums is doing might shed some light on how lobbying works and, incidentally, whether he’s betraying his former liberal constituents.

But of course, a story like that is beyond the scope of an embarrassing–to both sides–hit-and-run interview. Always mindful of suggesting ways a story could be made better, my advice here would have been to have never done this one at all if this is all you’re capable of or aspire to.

Candidate on a Hill

Ron Dellums, who used to represent Berkeley and parts of Oakland and other East Bay locales in Congress, announced last month he’s coming out of political retirement to run for mayor of Oakland. Dellums says the decision surprised even him: He arrived at the event where he declared his candidacy uncertain whether he would run. He said he made up his mind when he took the podium and saw the yearning in the audience’s eyes. “If Ron Dellums running for mayor gives you hope, then let’s get on with it,” he said. The Chronicle quoted a supporter as saying that Oakland was “finally getting the progressive leadership it deserves.”

The campaign issues Dellums talked about in his announcement sermon were universal health care, ending poverty, and inspiring young people. About more mundane problems — the kind a mayor might actually be expected to do something about — he told reporters later: “Potholes are important, but that’s not why people asked Ron Dellums to run.”

Leaving aside the question of why he referred to himself in the third person — maybe it’s just important to keep repeating the brand name — I don’t fault him for reaching above the gritty concerns of urban life to project a lofty vision for his followers. But at some point, governing a city comes back to potholes, or at least what’s happening on the streets.

Yesterday, Dellums gave another talk, to Oakland’s African American Chamber of Commerce. He spent some time ridiculing suggestions that his experience in Congress has not prepared him to lead a city. He talked some more about universal health care, but mentioned that as mayor he’d also be concerned with education, public safety and economic matters. “We can become a model city and grapple with every problem,” Dellums said. And: “I come not to tinker at the margins, but to ask you to join me in an effort to do big things — great things.”

From the stories and TV pictures, the crowd loved what they were hearing (with the possible exception of Ignacio De La Fuente, a City Council member who was the front-runner in the mayor’s race until Dellums’ experienced his podium impulse). And what’s not to like. He’s an extraordiinary speaker. Still, the specifics?

One of the local TV stations, KTVU, ran a clip in which one of its reporters asked Dellums what distinguishes him from the other candidates in the race. Dellums called the question “grossly premature.”

OK, maybe a guy just needs time to think. But five weeks after he declared his candidacy, and just seven months before the election, it’s fair to wonder what Dellums has in mind for the city he wants to lead. Oakland’s a real place with real needs and problems, not a city on a hill. It’s wonderful to expound on ideals and possibilities, but no amount of impassioned oratory will fix them without a plan that grapples with the city as it is.

I’ve never been a big fan of Jerry Brown during his tenure in Oakland. I’ve always felt that his approach to governing the city was a little imperious and arrogant. He took office as a major leaguer who came to show the bushers a thing or two about how to get things done; he was a big thinker who was going to broaden the horizons of poor, petty Oakland; and if the locals didn’t understand how smart and wise his vision was, he’d just run over them until they got it.

But if you listen to Brown now, he at least suggests he’s learned something about the real nature of leading a city. Last month, he described being mayor as a “much more in-your-face, concrete, down-to-earth reality than what you’re faced with at the level of governor or congressman, where you’re dealing with the great issues of the day, but dealing with them at a high level of abstraction. … Instead of an omnibus crime bill, you have to deal with shootings in Ghosttown in West Oakland and sideshows in East Oakland.”

So maybe Dellums can start out by learning something from his fellow superstar and talk about what he’d actually try to do, aside from being a symbol of uplifting ideals, if he becomes mayor. In fact, the most inspirational thing he could do for the city would be to lay out a pragmatic plan for turning his progressive faith into on-the-street reality.