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Thanks for Nothing

Long before the Oakland mayor's race next June, Nancy Nadel will have to decide on her political future.

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Nancy Nadel got stiffed. The West Oakland activist and environmentalist fought the progressive good fight for nearly a decade, oftentimes by herself. She pushed for affordable housing, police accountability, campaign-finance reform, and more jobs for locals in city contracts. She was often the lone member of the council to speak out against the pro-development agenda of Mayor Jerry Brown and City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente.

Nadel hoped to finally be rewarded in June. She was running for mayor, and seemed to have a chance of winning. Oakland progressives had grown disgruntled with Brown and unhappy about being shut out of the city's power structure. Several planned to run for mayor, including school-board members Dan Siegel and Greg Hodge, but an early poll suggested that Nadel had the best shot at beating De La Fuente, the presumed front-runner.

Still, many progressives quietly questioned whether Nadel had the juice to win. So when they heard about a campaign to persuade former Congressman Ron Dellums to come out of retirement, they pushed Nadel aside for the granddaddy of East Bay progressives. For Nadel, it was as if her compatriots had knifed her in the back. "It was very painful," she said during a recent interview.

With the popular Dellums in the race, Nadel went from progressive front-runner to afterthought. But she could still play a substantial role in the city's political future. If she were to bow out and strike an alliance with Dellums, as some friends are now suggesting, she might be able to ensure that progressives not only occupied the mayor's office, but also had more influence over the council. But if Nadel stays in the race, as she says she plans to do, she runs the risk of becoming the campaign's Ralph Nader, siphoning off enough progressive votes from Dellums to force him into a runoff against De La Fuente.

Like Nader, Nadel is loath to pursue political deals. Since joining the council in 1996 after eight years on the board of the East Bay Municipal Utility District, she has steadfastly refused to compromise her beliefs. As a result, she often is viewed by centrists as an ineffective ideologue. But over the years Nadel has quietly developed a pragmatic streak. She has sought to win small compromises when it's obvious she cannot win big. For example, she helped ensure that local nonprofits had more influence over affordable housing in the massive Forest City development in uptown Oakland. She also has backed controversial projects in other districts to ensure support for some of her West Oakland plans.

But even though her district is slowly revitalizing, Nadel has not been able to shake her antibusiness reputation. "I think she has as bad a reputation in the business community as I have," said progressive former Councilman Wilson Riles Jr., who was beaten soundly by Brown in the 2002 mayoral race.

Nadel is smart, thoughtful, and painstakingly progressive. Her mayoral platform is fifteen pages long, single-spaced, and addresses every conceivable governmental issue from workforce training to pets. Her biggest weakness is charisma. Like fellow policy wonk Al Gore, she has an earnest but wooden speaking style.

De La Fuente is her antithesis in almost every way. He's a fast-talking wheeler-dealer who is brash, foulmouthed, and disarmingly candid. Consequently, he is well liked by the news media. And even though some private polls show that he has the highest negative-approval ratings of any elected leader in the city, he has more charisma than Nadel.

He also is unabashedly pro-development. Oakland is currently undergoing the biggest home-building boom of any city in Alameda County and De La Fuente wants more, arguing that the city's past emphasis on affordable housing was a grave mistake.

While Nadel talks about "inspiring" city workers to do a better job, De La Fuente would prefer to clean house. "They know I mean business," he said when asked why city employee unions oppose him. "One of the biggest problems in this city is the inefficient bureaucracy. To be frank, people don't work."

Despite his sometimes severe style, De La Fuente has a reputation as a consensus builder, working with fellow councilmembers to get things done. But it's also true that he has prospered partly because of his close relationships to Mayor Brown and Don Perata, president pro tem of the state Senate. His council colleagues know that if they oppose him, they run the risk of having their campaign funds dry up and of facing a Brown- or Perata-backed candidate in the next election. "Some of my colleagues say they can't be bought with a $600 campaign contribution, but I think a whole bunch of $600 contributions does influence people," Nadel said.

Nadel and De La Fuente appeared to be running neck-and-neck before Dellums jumped into the race. She points to a poll that showed De La Fuente with 20.3 percent of the vote and her with 17.9 percent. That boded well for Nadel, who would have been expected in a runoff to pick up most of the 13 percent of people who favored Hodge or Siegel.

Now it seems to be the congressman's race to lose. "Dellums is the clear favorite," said Bruce Cain, veteran East Bay political observer and political science professor at UC Berkeley. "It's bad news for Nancy Nadel, and it's an uphill struggle for Ignacio."

One recent poll that has been generating buzz in the Dellums and Nadel camps appears to back up that assessment. According to sources familiar with it, the private poll shows that Dellums' favorability rating is in the mid-fifties, compared to De La Fuente's, which is in the low thirties, and Nadel's, which is in the mid-twenties. Dellums has far more name recognition, and De La Fuente has a far higher negative rating than the other two. Nonetheless, De La Fuente is unlikely to drop out of the race. Far more than Nadel, he provides voters with a clear choice against Dellums. He isn't a progressive; his platform is to attract more business to the city, build more market-rate housing, and force the city bureaucracy to be more efficient.

De La Fuente also is a political street brawler who rarely gives up. In the mid-1990s, his reputation was severely tarnished by his role in the bad financial deal that brought the Raiders back to Oakland. Yet he was the only politician who didn't run from the scandal. Instead, he continued to battle the Raiders, fought them in court, and then ultimately brokered a deal that settled many of the team's issues with the city and county.

Nadel, on the other hand, will be courting many of the same voters as Dellums, even while lacking his stature. De La Fuente concedes it would be better for him if she stays in the race, because she would likely take votes from Dellums. For this reason, other progressives are now calling for her to drop out like Siegel and Hodge have. Siegel and Riles say Nadel should strike a deal to become Dellums' point person on the council. Hodge thinks Nadel could even have a shot at De La Fuente's job as council president. "Nancy should work with Dellums to create a more progressive city council, in a leadership position, in a partnership that will move the city forward," Hodge said. "If she stays in the race, she runs the risk of alienating Ron, she runs the risk of alienating up-and-coming progressives, and she runs the risk of alienating her own base."

Although Nadel says she's still committed to running for mayor, it's clear she's disappointed about Dellums' sudden surge. It's also clear that she covets the council presidency if she cannot become mayor. Dellums camp spokeswoman Kitty Kelley Epstein would not comment on the prospect of such a deal.

Although the mayor does not choose who runs the council, the endorsement of a popularly elected mayor carries weight. It could be argued that councilmembers who ignore a mayor's endorsement are ignoring the will of the public. It's also true that it would be a boon to Dellums if he and the council leadership were working hand-in-hand. Otherwise, Oakland could face four years of political gridlock with De La Fuente and Dellums battling over what direction the city should take.

Council allies of De La Fuente, however, are sure to fight any effort to replace him with Nadel. "It's not the mayor's prerogative," CouncilmanLarry Reid said flatly. "He doesn't get to pick and choose who should lead the council." De La Fuente said simply: "Councilmembers would be very stupid to let the mayor choose the council president."

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