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DESERT CITY LEADER: FUELED BY COFFEE, SENSE OF HUMOR AND AN EFFICIENT ASSISTANT – A JOLT OF RON ODEN – Spend a day with Palm Springs’ high-energy mayor May 27, 2006

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DESERT CITY LEADER: FUELED BY COFFEE, SENSE OF HUMOR AND AN EFFICIENT ASSISTANT // A JOLT OF RON ODEN // Spend a day with Palm Springs’ high-energy mayor
March 19, 2006

By MARK MUCKENFUSS THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE

PALM SPRINGS

In 1989, a car pulled to the side of the road on Highway 111 at the western edge of this desert city. A man bolted from the passenger door of the car and raced up the hillside toward towering spurs of San Jacinto Peak. Seconds later, the driver got out and gave chase.

Ron Oden says he still can’t explain the impulse that took hold of him that day as he and his brother, George, were driving into the desert city for a weekend visit. He just had to run. But it wasn’t simply an expenditure of energy; it was a kind of physical embrace.

He ran until he was exhausted. George was not happy when he finally caught up with him.

“He approached me and was using very strong language,” Oden says, with a chuckle. “I turned to him with tears streaming down my face and I said, `This is my home!'”

“I thought he was nuts,” George says. “It was all kind of surreal and strange. But the good Lord obviously had a plan for him and it has become increasingly clear over the years.”

After his epiphany, Ron moved to Palm Springs. He taught at the local colleges, became a community activist, discovered his homosexuality, was elected to the city council and, 2 1/2 years ago, became not only the first openly gay black mayor of Palm Springs, but the first such elected mayor of any large city in the country. Two weeks ago, he announced his candidacy for the California State Assembly.

Once a Seventh-day Adventist minister, Oden, 55, starts his day with a shot of caffeine – a white chocolate mocha – and has no qualms about ordering steak for dinner.

He was married for 12 years. Until last summer, his two daughters and his ex-wife lived in New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed their homes, Oden took them in. Since then, his oldest daughter and her husband have found a place in Upland. His 17-year-old daughter, who is expecting a child in May, and his ex-wife, continue to live in his home. Each morning, he drives his daughter to high school. Then he gets to begin his own day as the city’s mayor.

“This is a part-time job,” he says with a sly grin. “Ha!”

9 A.M.

Oden is passing through the city offices with a box of doughnuts, offering employees a morning sugar rush.

He snags one for himself before retiring to his office for a weekly meeting with City Manager David Ready. On the table this morning are such topics as the city budget, public hearings on the Tahquitz Plaza retail center, a three-year capital improvement project and the city’s multispecies plan.

The 20-minute meeting is intense. Afterward, Oden’s assistant, Martha Edgmon, briefs him on his schedule for the day.

It’s the first of many times Oden will check with her. He admits to having an attention-deficit problem. Despite keeping several full-page pads in his car swirled with large hand-scrawled notes as well as a Blackberry, Oden simply can’t keep up with his calendar. During his day he will rely on Edgmon to remind him, sometimes, several times, on upcoming appointments.

“I show up,” he says. “Martha points me in the right direction and pushes me.”

10 A.M.

After a quick stop at Koffi, a coffee shop on Palm Springs’ main drag where everyone, including the customers, seem to know Oden, and vice versa, the mayor snags his custom coffee and arrives at the entrance to O’Donnell Golf Club.

A local television crew is waiting to interview him on perhaps his most controversial proposition since taking office in 2003. In his State of the City address in February, Oden suggested it was time to turn the once-restricted club over to the city for all of its residents to enjoy. The city already owns the property, but the club has a 99-year lease that doesn’t run out until 2043.

It’s not right, he says, for the club’s 200 members to enjoy privileges on city-owned land while Palm Springs’ other 45,000 residents don’t have access to it

“I’m just asking them to do the right thing,” Oden says.

In doing so, he has touched a big nerve.

City Councilman Chris Mills says he and Oden vote the same way on city issues more than 90 percent of the time. But the O’Donnell Golf Club is an exception.

“We definitely don’t see eye to eye on that,” Mills says. “I should mention I’m a member of the club.”

A five-year veteran of the council, Mills says working with Oden is never dull.

“He’s an extremely passionate guy,” he says. “He’s emotional and very excitable and certainly has a high energy level for everything he feels strongly about. When he speaks, he certainly gets you enthused with his passion and I think that rubs off on the citizenry.”

Mills says Oden has also brought additional attention to the city.

“Palm Springs is a worldwide-known name anyway,” he says. “But the fact that Ron is the first elected black/gay mayor, I certainly know he has brought an exposure to Palm Springs in a light that we haven’t had before and that’s been positive.”

Even with that attention, Oden says his appearance sometimes startles people.

“They introduce the mayor of Palm Springs,” he says. “I’ll start walking up and they’re still looking around for the mayor. I get up to the podium and they’re still looking around. People will say, `I didn’t know they had any black people in Palm Springs.'”

If he hasn’t grabbed the attention of the room by his entrance, once he begins to speak he’s in command. His delivery has a familiarity to it, almost like listening to Bill Cosby if the comedian were hopped up on caffeine.

“He’s a showman,” says fellow Councilman Mike McCulloch. “He brings a certain element to events that everyone enjoys. When I was mayor pro-tem a year ago, I would fill in for Ron. I would do my Ron Oden impersonation. I throw my arms around and I say `Welcome to Palm Springs!’ and just sort of be flamboyant. He has a certain pizazz that he brings to the office.”

1 P.M.

Oden has just finished an hour-long lunch meeting with Doug Sanders. The former pro-golfer is pitching the idea of a massive charity golf tournament.

“Everybody always has the best program possible for the city,” Oden says as he drives to his next appointment. “I try to cut through to the chase. `What is it you want from me? How can I help?'”

Speeding along Ramon Road, he checks his notes and makes an entry in his Blackberry. He is on his way to the taping of the local television show “922You,” where he will be given a few minutes to talk about his city.

On the set, co-host David Ryan laughs about what he is about to do.

“This is like lighting a firecracker and throwing in the air,” he says, “Ron Oden promoting Palm Springs.”

2:30 P.M.

Tamarisk trees and desert scrub fly by as Oden takes the freeway back to his office and talks about his unique status.

“I don’t feel like a trailblazer,” he says. “I didn’t set out to make any inroads. What I do is not about my sexual orientation, nor is it about my race. I’m not limited to those facets of my life, but I carry those facets into all aspects of my life. I’m sensitive and aware of the needs of lots of groups of people.”

As if on cue, his phone rings with a call from Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, a gay rights group. Kors is in Florida and is updating Oden on some issues. He says, like it or not, Oden’s mayorship is groundbreaking.

“I think the impact is enormous,” Kors says. “I am at a conference in Miami and his name comes up a lot. He’s been able to build bridges to other communities. He’s really changed the dynamic.”

Thoughts about that kind of impact don’t take up much of his time, Oden says. But there are personal moments that have affected him.

Shortly after his election, he says, he was at a public event for young people when a woman came up and gave him a hug.

“She pointed across the room and said, `That’s my son.'” he says, recalling a biracial young man of about 12. “She said, `He’s gay. He doesn’t know it yet. But in the next few years, as he is struggling, I will be able to point to you and say to him, “You can make it, because Ron Oden made it.”‘

“There are levels (at which) you affect people that you never anticipate,” he adds. “It certainly is heartwarming, but there are moments when you feel a weight of responsibility that you never signed up for.”

4:30 P.M.

Oden has entered the Palm Springs Follies from the backstage area, negotiating a narrow arched corridor in the historic theater. He’s here to deliver a proclamation on the 15th anniversary of the Vaudeville-style show. First, however, after taking the stage amid a presidential fanfare, he must endure a little ribbing by master of ceremonies Riff Markowitz.

“Can I see your legs?” Markowitz teases. “When the mayor came on I couldn’t decide whether to play `Hail to the Chief’ or `God Save the Queen.'”

Oden laughs along with the audience, delivers his proclamation and then poses for photographs with the show’s principals and other dignitaries. Outside the theater, while he schmoozes with the public, Greg Purdy, the publicist for the Follies, makes a call for the mayor. It’s to Edgmon.

“Where’s Ron’s next stop?”

6 P.M.

As it turns out, there’s enough of a break in Oden’s schedule to allow him to enjoy dinner. Over a rib-eye steak, he talks about growing up in the San Fernando Valley while feeling the strong influence of his extended family in Alabama. He spent summers on his grandfather’s farm there and vividly remembers hiding with the family under the kitchen table when the Ku Klux Klan was in the neighborhood. He was 5.

“That was the first time in my life I realized that there were people that wanted to hurt other people for something they had no control over. I realized then that there were two Americas. And my parents taught us how to live in both, while they were hoping for one.”

His family, he says, continues to be a source of strength. They have supported him through his gradual awakening to his homosexuality that took place after he moved to Palm Springs. Currently, he says, he is not in a relationship.

“It’s me that they love,” he says. “It’s so empowering to have that unconditional acceptance. Whether people like me or not doesn’t matter. The decisions I make, I make because I believe they’re the right decisions for the city and its future.”

7:30 P.M.

The day isn’t over. Oden still has to visit the Convention Center to give a welcome to a teachers convention, followed by a presentation at a fundraising dinner. He won’t reach home before 9 p.m.

If he is fatigued, there is little sign of it. His desire to touch people’s lives, he says, energizes him. He attributes that, in part, to his grandfather’s influence.

“He died officially at 103, but by family accounts, he was at least 107,” Oden says of the farmer who was also a minister. “He always said, `As long as you have the gift of life, make the world a better place.'”

Art: PHOTOS

Caption: RODRIGO PEÑA/THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE / (1) Mayor Ron Oden is Palm Springs’ first black and openly gay mayor. He recently announced he is running for the 80th District of the California State Assembly. (2) Oden gets a quick touchup before a TV appearance. (3) “This is my home!” MAYOR RON ODEN, DESCRIBING HIS REACTION THE FIRST TIME HE DROVE THROUGH PALM SPRINGS IN 1989 (4) Mayor Ron Oden talks to the California Association for the Gifted at the Palm Springs Convention Center. It was just one of several stops in Oden’s 12-hour day that also included TV interviews and meetings. (5) Oden credits executive secretary Martha Edgmon with keeping him on time to his appointments. (6) Oden talks to KMIR 6 television reporter Gloria Margarita. (7) Oden laughs as Riff Markowitz pokes fun at him during an appearance at the Palm Springs Follies.

Zone: ALL ZONES

Edition:
Section: YOUR LIFE
Page#: E01

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