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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

Dem icon warns the party to use its power wisely

Duluth News Tribune, Nov. 15, 2006

PALO ALTO, Calif. - Ronald Dellums stole my thunder. And lightning. And 100-mph winds.

In casual discussions at a gathering of the Trotter Group, an association of the nation's African-American columnists, I offer my theory for the Democratic electoral victories:

Hurricane Katrina.

More than the war or scandals or the deficit, I argue, it sent a message to America that our government could not or would not take care of us when we needed it.

Enter Dellums, the keynote speaker at the Stanford-hosted meeting and a retired 27-year congressman, now mayor-elect of Oakland, with his far more informed analysis:


"It exposed the stark reality of the vulnerability of urban life," he said of the message transmitted into the brain of every living American last year, confirming suspicions that the Bush administration didn't know what it was doing. "Every city in America is a potential Katrina."

Dellums should know. Oakland, long troubled by urban ills and sitting on a fault line at least as potentially destructive as any winds blowing in the Gulf Coast, is a Richter scale reading away from becoming the next New Orleans. Only forget about the Mardi Gras beads.

At 71 and retired eight years ago, Dellums, arguably the most liberal member of Congress during his years in the House, should have been moving into the left wing of the elder statesmen's home. Instead, he answered a "Draft Dellums" call to replace outgoing Mayor Jerry Brown, who was just elected attorney general of California. Brown's newest job will help him hit for the political cycle after having served as governor eons ago and run a few times for president. Also elected last week to serve a full term (or is it terminator?) was Republican Gov. Ahnold Schwarzenegger, cementing California's political status as certifiably weirder than Minnesota's.

How well Dellums will make the transition from legislator to administrator is anybody's guess. He still speaks in billions of dollars, which is a distinctly Washingtonian dialect. And when the way-left mayor sits down for his first contract negotiations with police and fire unions, well ... know what they call a liberal who's just been mugged? He might even want Herb Bergson's number and the retiree health-care file.

Nonetheless, Dellums gave the impression his beloved Oakland has nowhere to go but up, and he was lucky to escape being asked how well Brown, a fellow Earthy-crunchy Democrat, fared as mayor. But he did have a warning for his former colleagues on the left side of Congress not to get too drunk with power, or even attach too much significance to the booting of Donald Rumsfeld.

"Rumsfeld is a personality," Dellums said. "The secretary of defense is a member of a team. Changing personnel is not a substitute for changing policy."

Astute observation, even if Poppy Bush's minions are swooping in to clean up W's mess. But if personalities aren't the issue, aren't Dellums' former colleagues wasting time and political capital threatening a confirmation fight over interim U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton?

"That doesn't strike me as the most important issue," Dellums said. "On a scale of 1,2,3,4,5," -- he gestured, stretching his arm out to eye level, then dropping it to his knee -- "it's down here."

Again, as with his assessment of the political fallout from Katrina, I couldn't agree more. Bolton, bogeyman or not, has far less influence on policy than Rumsfeld. Just ask onetime U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, fired by President Carter for engaging in unauthorized freelance diplomacy.

More important, giving Bush a victory on the confirmation would serve as a sign of goodwill by Democrats and offer the beleaguered president a shred of dignity, something the country needs.

"This is a powerful moment in American history," Dellums said.

Agreed again. Don't blow it.

ROBIN WASHINGTON is editorial page editor of the News Tribune and a commentator on National Public Radio's "News & Notes."

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