For years, Oakland political incumbents have enjoyed a free ride. They've often run unopposed or faced token opposition as fears about big campaign war chests, name recognition, and angry political bosses have kept serious challengers on the sidelines. But those days may be over, because the next few months promise to produce some of the most hotly contested local political campaigns in years.
In fact, several new challengers, many of whom have to be considered formidable candidates, likely will step up in the next few weeks to take on five sitting City Council members who have all been in office since the 1990s. One of the tightest races looks to be in District 3, which includes downtown, West Oakland, Adams Point, and Jack London Square, where longtime progressive Councilwoman Nancy Nadel likely will face school board member Greg Hodge.
In 2005, Hodge, who has represented District 3 on the Oakland school board since 2000, was a leading candidate for mayor until he pulled out of the race when Ron Dellums launched his campaign. Also a progressive, Hodge said last week that West Oakland needs more balanced development, and should focus on building and attracting green businesses. He will be Nadel's toughest foe since joining the council in 1996.
Ignacio De La Fuente, the city's longest serving councilmember and generally regarded as its most powerful, also may face a serious competitor for the first time since 1992 for his District 5 seat, representing Fruitvale and Glenview. Local real estate broker Mario Juarez, said he has already hired political operative Kathy Neal, ex-wife of former Mayor Elihu Harris, to run his campaign. Juarez believes De La Fuente has neglected his constituency, especially along crime-ridden International Boulevard. "Ignacio has done a magnificent job alienating people and pissing them off," Juarez said.
But the most competitive race may turn out to be for the at-large council seat held by Henry Chang, who has decided to seek reelection, according to several sources. He may face three or more serious challengers, including AC Transit Board member Rebecca Kaplan, anti-crime activist Charlie Pine, and former city Planning Commissioner Clinton Killian.
The District 1 North Oakland race, meanwhile, looks like it will be a referendum on crime. Jane Brunner, who has been on the council since 1996, is being challenged by Patrick McCullough, who gained notoriety in 2005 when he shot a street thug who was terrorizing his 59th Street neighborhood. Finally, Larry Reid, who represents District 7 East Oakland, likely will face the easiest road among all the council races, as he goes up against little-known challenger, Clifford Gilmore.
Meanwhile, now that Proposition 93 is history and state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata is being termed out of office at the end of the year, the fight for his seat will likely produce the closest and most expensive political race in the East Bay this year. Two heavyweights will square off against each other — Assemblywoman and former Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock and former Assemblywoman and onetime Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan. Hancock figures to dominate in Richmond, Berkeley, and North Oakland, while Chan's base is Alameda, the Oakland hills, and Castro Valley. Who wins the race, in other words, may come down to who does the best in Livermore and Dublin.
A half-dozen candidates or more may vie for Hancock's Assembly seat. But the early leader, at least in terms of name recognition, has to be Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington. Even more progressive than Hancock, Worthington will be tough to beat in the liberal 14th District, which includes Richmond, San Pablo, El Cerrito, Albany, Berkeley, North Oakland, Orinda, Moraga, Lafayette, and Pleasant Hill.
Finally, speculation is rampant about Perata's future. He could take on Sandre Swanson for his Assembly seat. Under term limits, Perata can serve four more years in the lower house. Or, he could run for the Board of Equalization. Three years ago, he set up a campaign account for that office, but since then he has drained it, using most of the money he raised to pay his legal bills stemming from the federal corruption probe.
Last week, Perata told a MediaNews reporter that he may run for mayor of Oakland, according to a story in the Oakland Tribune. It's no secret that he has coveted the Oakland mayor's office for years. But what will he do to bide his time until 2010 when Dellums' first term expires? Maybe he won't have to wait.
Inside City Hall, there is speculation that if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination and the presidency, she will offer Dellums a high-level position in her administration when she takes office in January 2009. After all, he has campaigned heavily for her so far, and he serves as her chief advisor of urban policy. But Dellums spokesman Paul Rose attempted to shoot down those rumors, saying "a White House appointment is the farthest thing" from Dellums' mind. "He's extremely focused on being the mayor of Oakland," Rose added. "He takes great pride in that."
But if Clinton were to offer the longtime congressman a plum position, say secretary of Housing and Urban Development? Under Oakland city law, if he were to accept the job and leave the mayor's office more than a year before his term expires, the city would hold a special election. In such a scenario, Perata, with his unmatched fund-raising prowess, might be impossible to beat.
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