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Crowded Ring

With two weeks left before election day, it's time for armchair prognostication, primarily in the Democratic primaries, all around our beloved East Bay.

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Oakland Mayor

A funny thing happened on the way to the Ron Dellums' Oakland coronation: A campaign broke out.

You get the sense watching Dellums on the campaign trail that he's not used to being challenged. That's because he seldom has been. He hasn't been in a competitive race since he first won election to Congress in 1970. As the Chronicle put it, Dellums has been selective about where he makes his appearances, preferring "to address largely adoring crowds." And he has chafed at doing candidate debates, tame as they may be.

Still, despite a couple of hiccups, the man is the clear frontrunner in this six-way race. Polling numbers are hard to come by, although a couple of insiders whisper that Dellums is holding steady in the high forties while his two main rivals, Nancy Nadel and Ignacio De La Fuente, are in the teens and twenties. Last month KPIX tested the candidates' name recognition and favorability ratings with the public, an exercise that supported what most people suspected: Voters think Dellums is swell; they either love or hate De La Fuente (his negatives outpolled his positives); and a lot of them don't know who Nadel is.

The big question is whether Dellums wins outright — à la Jerry Brown in 1998 — or whether he will have to face the second-place finisher in a November runoff. Conventional wisdom says voters in the wealthy hills neighborhoods will decide. De La Fuente has campaigned extensively in the hills, but will the white folks go for a Mexican tough guy in the privacy of the voting booth?

Prediction: Dellums and De La Fuente will go head to head in a November runoff.

U.S. House of Representatives, District 11

This is one of the swing districts Democrats need to reclaim control over the House. Currently, the gerrymandered turf — which traverses four counties — is represented by Republican Richard Pombo, whom the Dems deem vulnerable due to various alleged ethical lapses. The problem for them is that the district has more Republicans than Dems (44 to 37 percent).

Hoping to field a candidate with crossover appeal, the Democratic leadership has lined up behind airline pilot Steve Filson, a recovering Republican. But the party's grass roots — union members, enviros, and Deaniacs — have gotten behind the more liberal Jerry McNerney. J-Mac won the state party endorsement at the Democratic convention last month thanks to denim-wearing delegates who ignored Filson's warning that McNerney was unelectable in this conservative-leaning district.

Prediction: McNerney wins the primary, then loses to Pombo in November.

State Assembly, District 16

Oakland City Attorney John Russo and ex-Congressional staffer Sandré Swanson are the two top horses in this four-way race, although Piedmont school board member Ronnie Caplane is an intriguing wild card, since Democrats like to vote for the ladies. And the fourth candidate, Alameda Councilman Tony Daysog, hasn't raised enough dough to put up a fight. Caplane was the first candidate to take off the gloves in a mailer that went out last week. The piece points out that Russo draws a higher public salary than the governor and alleges that Swanson missed more than $7,000 in property tax payments — a charge Swanson adamantly denies. (County records show that he has indeed paid his property taxes.)

Swanson is a former aide to Ron Dellums, and insiders have debated whether he can ride on his mentor's coattails. Don't count on it. In the '80s, Swanson lost bids for supervisor despite the backing of his former boss. The best thing he has going for him is the endorsement of the Democratic Party, which should help him win undecided voters who know little about any of the candidates. Still, this one is Russo's to lose. The Oaktown city attorney has local name recognition and the biggest war chest.

Prediction: Russo wins.

State Senate, District 10

Man, the way traditional Democratic special interests are going after John Dutra, you'd think the guy was George Bush. Dutra, a millionaire real-estate developer and former assemblyman, has been pounded repeatedly in the last couple of weeks by hit piece after hit piece. Most of the mailers were paid for by a soft-money committee — funded by trial lawyers, the nurses' union, and enviros — that has dumped more than $280,000 into the race so far.

Dutra is up against two other qualified contenders, former Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett and Assemblyman Johan Klehs, who currently occupies Corbett's old seat. With his private fortune, though, Dutra is the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in this race, and that's why the trial lawyers et al. are going after the business-friendly Dem with such gusto. The hit pieces have focused on his habit of missing votes — called "taking a walk" in Capitol parlance — on controversial issues. Dutra insists he won't go negative on either of his opponents, although he's clearly sore about the attacks. He says he missed one of the votes cited because he was at his wife's bedside in the hospital after she fell off a ladder. Bottom line is it's the nastiest race in the East Bay.

Prediction: Corbett — as proof that negative campaigning works. Oakland City Council, District 6

The best thing incumbent Desley Brooks has going for her now is Marcie Hodge — her main opponent. Hodge, a first-term trustee on the Peralta Community College District board, is a lightweight puppet candidate, albeit one with heavyweight puppetmasters in Ignacio De La Fuente and the Oakland Police Officers' Association. Hodge's colleagues on the Peralta board so despise her that they censured her. She claims they don't like her because of her public dissing of the district's high-flying international student program. But the censure cited other concerns, like her "uncivil verbal outbursts" and constantly flaking out on committee meetings. Hodge also has a weird habit of letting her brother, Jason, do the talking for her, even letting him sit in for her at debates — including the National Women's Political Caucus endorsement meeting.

With all that said, make no mistake: Brooks is vulnerable. She's made the news time and time again in the last month for diverting tens of thousands of dollars earmarked for staff to black civic organizations with ties to her beau, Frank Tucker. Then, of course, there's the little scandal about hiring Tucker's daughter, Christen, to staff her council office when Christen was enrolled in classes at Syracuse. Brooks does have a lot of support in the local black press, and has wisely cozied up to Dellums, but will it be enough?

Prediction: Pick 'em.

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