Greetings from Alameda 

Where the election has turned mean, forcing residents to confront their city's dark racial legacy and attitude toward change.

Politics have come to Alameda, and they ain't pretty. In a season in which most East Bay races are somnolent affairs, it has fallen to this quiet island of playgrounds and Victorians to produce all the poison and ruthlessness we usually expect at this time of year. Rival factions have traded body blows, organized anonymous smear campaigns, and accused one another of everything from racism to pimping for big developers. Haunting this campaign are nothing less than the city's legacy of distrust for the African Americans across the estuary in Oakland, and the fear that Alameda's beloved Mayberry atmosphere may be smothered by traffic, big box stores, and, as one resident put it, "gangsters, shoplifters, and general rabble from neighboring cities."

When incumbent Mayor Beverly Johnson was elected in 2002, she won with considerable help from state Senator Don Perata, the Alameda native and swaggering leader of the East Bay's political machine. Just weeks before the election, a political action committee called Californians for Neighborhood Preservation spent more than $15,000 blanketing the island with mailers promoting Johnson's candidacy. Its chairman, Perata crony Joe Camicia, tried to keep the donors secret, but Oakland Tribune reporters finally forced him to reveal the names, which included big-shot developers and Perata associates Ron Cowan, Phil Tagami, Ed De Silva, and Signature Properties. In addition, Centex Homes, a group negotiating for the rights to develop waterfront property at the old Navy base on Alameda Point, donated $25,000. Johnson denied any knowledge of the group's activities, but the scandal left a bad taste with residents, especially those who jealously guarded Alameda's modest scale.

Late last year, those same residents began raising hell. The city council proposed renovating the grand, crumbling Alameda Theater by spending $23.7 million in mostly public funds to build a multistory parking garage and seven-screen multiplex. Opponents claimed the project's scale would overwhelm the homespun character of downtown and bring crime, vandalism, and unsavory elements into the city; one critic told the Berkeley Daily Planet that the makeover would amount to "raping the downtown." More than three thousand people signed a petition opposing the project, but the council voted to proceed, angering Councilman Doug DeHaan. "The council just ignored the community input, and that became a real concerning factor," he says.

Several months later, the owner of the Alameda Towne Centre, an old retail area that had fallen on hard times, announced a plan to renovate the strip mall by bringing in a 145,000-square-foot Target store. For residents already worried about the new multiplex, as well as the plan to build 1,700 units of housing at the old Naval Air Station, this was the last straw. Alameda Island has only five points of entry, and all this new development, they worried, would jam traffic at the Webster Street Tube. Eugenie Thomson, an Alameda resident and traffic engineer, claims that the proposed new growth would cause gridlock. "I looked at the total growth that is approved, and the additional trips generated is 150,000 cars per day," she says. "That is overwhelming, much too large for the island. My question is, why has the council not looked at that?"

Fed up with their leaders, Thomson, DeHaan, and longtime resident Pat Bail decided to shake things up. They formed a new "reform" slate, Action Alameda, and vowed to unseat Johnson and incumbent Councilman Frank Matarrese; DeHaan challenged Beverly Johnson for the mayor's seat, while Thomson and Bail ran for city council. The three candidates rather pointedly promised not to take any campaign donations from land developers, and vowed to hold sacred the tenets of Measure A, an old Alameda law that limited the construction of new housing to single-family homes or duplexes. "We all had the same battle cry, which was 'Let's take a close look at it and build growth that fits,'" DeHaan says.

The challengers have clearly exasperated Johnson, who has lately taken great pains to present herself as someone who shares voter concerns about overdevelopment, even going so far as to demand that the Navy scale back the plans for Alameda Point. But the city should be proud of its new construction, Johnson says, pointing to the new main library, which at least one of her opponents opposed. She accuses the Action Alameda slate of whipping residents into a frenzy with hysterical stories of runaway growth. "I don't think people are against redevelopment of blighted areas, which is what we've been doing," the mayor says. "Our population has declined a little more than 15,000 people since 1990, so this fear tactic they're using with people just isn't true."

Her argument hasn't worked with everyone. The Alameda Times-Star endorsed her opponent two weeks ago. "By declaring that almost everyone is happy about the direction Alameda is heading and dismissing criticism as the product of a vocal minority," its editors wrote, "Mayor Beverly Johnson fuels the arguments of opponents who suggest City Hall isn't always accessible or listening."

But then someone with a lot of money stepped forward to help out Johnson's campaign. Several Alameda residents have received calls from people ostensibly conducting an election poll but framing the questions to smear Pat Bail, one of the Action candidates. The pollsters mentioned that Bail had spent more than $100,000 of her own money in a previous run for city council and suggested that she might try the same thing again.

So far, the accusation hasn't hit its mark, as the Action slate has promised to spend only campaign donations from friends and supporters. But Johnson recently made a more potent suggestion: that some of the Action slate's supporters may be motivated by their city's old racist prejudices. In a council meeting last year, she noted, her opponent Doug DeHaan casually referred to a problem the city was facing as a "tar baby," not slurring black residents per se, but employing an idiom offensive to some. DeHaan has since apologized for the remark.

Johnson also called attention to interviews in which Bail makes some dubious remarks. "You probably oughta see it," the mayor says of the interviews, which were distributed on YouTube and on a blog hostile to the Action slate. "It's Pat Bail in her own words. And it's a pretty offensive discussion."

The video is distributed anonymously and edited so heavily that Bail speaks only one or two sentences at a time, with no context. In the most damaging clip, Bail says, "I have a problem with low-cost housing and homeless housing; I have a serious problem. Now, moderate-cost housing is one thing. Homeless, and the dregs of society coming from every portion of the Bay Area, is quite another issue. ... You don't want to have to arm yourself or put barbed wire around your backyard because the parolees are in town, or the drug addicts are here."

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