Ignacio De La Fuente's Big Gamble 

The longtime Oakland councilman is giving up sure reelection in order to take on Rebecca Kaplan, the most popular elected official in the city.

Two years ago, Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan came close to winning the Oakland mayor's race. Before being eliminated in the next-to-last round of ranked-choice balloting, Kaplan trailed Jean Quan by just 2,314 votes — or 2 percentage points. And if Kaplan had finished ahead of Quan, there's reason to believe she would have rocketed past ex-state Senator Don Perata in the last round of balloting on the strength of second- and third-place votes — just as Quan ended up doing.

Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, who has long coveted the Oakland mayor's office, chose to sit out the 2010 campaign, saying he did not want to run against Perata, his longtime close friend and political ally. It's also doubtful whether De La Fuente would have fared well had he run. In the 2006 mayor's race, De La Fuente was soundly defeated by Ron Dellums, and in 1998, he was pummeled by Jerry Brown.

De La Fuente, in fact, has never won a citywide election in Oakland. The political moderate is popular in his own Fruitvale district, but his tough-talking, rough-and-tumble style failed to gain traction with voters in his two mayoral campaigns. By contrast, a poll earlier this year by De La Fuente's own campaign manager showed that Kaplan is the most popular elected official in Oakland. And not only did she come close to winning the 2010 mayor's race, she defeated another Perata disciple, Oakland school board member Kerry Hamill, in a landslide, winning by 34,000 votes — or 25 percentage points — in the 2008 contest for the At-Large council seat. The 84,531 votes that Kaplan received in that election might be the most ever recorded by a local candidate in Oakland history.

Nonetheless, De La Fuente decided this summer to give up the security of his District 5 council seat, and take Kaplan on in a citywide campaign for her At-Large spot. If he loses, De La Fuente will be out of Oakland politics for the first time in twenty years. He's the longest-serving member of the council, having been first elected in 1992.

So why is he taking the big gamble? Kaplan and other city officials are convinced that if De La Fuente defeats Kaplan, he'll be able to finally establish citywide appeal, and thus lay the groundwork for another mayoral run two years from now. "He wants to run against Jean in 2014," Kaplan asserted in a recent interview. De La Fuente, after all, was poised to run against Quan this year if there had been a recall election.

De La Fuente said he would agree to an interview for this report, but then did not return two phone calls. However, before a recent debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Oakland at the Rockridge library, I asked De La Fuente why he was giving up sure reelection in District 5 (Fruitvale-Glenview) to take on Kaplan. He responded that, if he wins, he will be able to "build a coalition" on the council so that he can enact what he considers to be tough-on-crime policies.

De La Fuente has long advocated for more gang injunctions in Oakland and the creation of a nighttime youth curfew. He has repeatedly failed, however, to garner the necessary support on the council for the two highly controversial proposals. De La Fuente also has been extremely critical of Kaplan and Quan for not embracing his plans, accusing them of "coddling criminals," while consistently ignoring studies that show that curfews don't reduce youth crime and city reports that show the two current gang injunctions in the city — in North Oakland and in De La Fuente's own Fruitvale district — have proved to be very expensive and have failed to impact violent crime.

A recent report by Police Chief Howard Jordan also noted that neither OPD nor the city has the resources to establish a youth curfew. "There is serious concern regarding the lack of resources ... available to officers in relation to the detention of minors," Jordan noted in his September 11 report. De La Fuente has yet to propose a way to pay for more gang injunctions and a youth curfew. In an interview, Kaplan said she agrees with Chief Jordan's assessment.

Kaplan and some city officials, meanwhile, believe that if De La Fuente beats Kaplan, and that council candidates he has endorsed in other races also win, he'll attempt to regain control of the council as its president — a post he previously held for eight years. De La Fuente implied as much during a brief interview before the recent debate. Regaining the presidency would be a significant turnaround for De La Fuente; over the past few years, his influence on the council has eroded. But if the progressive Kaplan loses her seat, and candidates with ties to De La Fuente also win, the balance of power could shift back to him.

If that were to happen, Kaplan and several City Hall insiders interviewed for this story believe De La Fuente not only would push for gang injunctions and a youth curfew, but also would put the council squarely at odds with the mayor and seek to stymie her at every turn. Since Quan defeated his good friend Perata two years ago, De La Fuente has become the mayor's most vocal critic and repeatedly sought to derail her proposals. "He wants to be the John Boehner of the city council," Kaplan said, referencing the GOP House speaker who has consistently blocked President Obama's agenda. "He wants to create strife so that people will blame that strife on the mayor," and thus help him beat Quan in 2014.

In fact, De La Fuente has acted at times as if he's running against Quan in this year's election, seeking to equate Kaplan with the mayor and referring to them both as "citywide leadership." On the stump, he also has strongly criticized Quan for her handling of Occupy Oakland, contending that she should have cracked down harder and sooner. "I would have removed the first tent on the first day so as to not allow that camp to happen," he said forcefully at the Rockridge library candidate's forum.

Although De La Fuente is portraying himself as the tough-on-crime candidate, he arguably did more to increase crime in Oakland than any other public official in the city. In 2010, he was the primary backer of the plan to lay off eighty cops, because the police union at the time was refusing to contribute to its pension plan without a promise that there'd be no layoffs. "He lobbied me harder on the police layoffs than he has lobbied me on anything else" in the past four years, Kaplan said.

Kaplan ultimately voted against the police layoffs, but De La Fuente convinced a majority of the council to approve them. Since then, violent crime has increased in Oakland — and now most candidates running for office in the city contend that OPD is understaffed and overwhelmed. Last year, De La Fuente also helped torpedo a plan backed by Kaplan that sought to rehire all the officers who had been laid off and were still looking for jobs. "On every single, contestable vote, I've voted for more cops, and he's voted for fewer cops," Kaplan noted.

Kaplan, meanwhile, is a strong supporter of community policing and of Operation Ceasefire, a crime-prevention program that has been successful in other cities and promises to not drain the city of precious financial resources. Chief Jordan recently announced that OPD has decided to fully embrace the program. "It has a track record of working," Kaplan noted.

In terms of economic issues, Kaplan and De La Fuente are not that far apart. Both embrace smart-growth, also known as transit-oriented development, and want to attract more retail to the city. Kaplan, however, has become a much bigger booster than De La Fuente of keeping Oakland's sports teams in town. Kaplan was one of the first politicians to back the so-called Coliseum City project. That proposal, which is also supported by the mayor and other councilmembers, envisions new privately financed facilities for the Raiders, the Warriors, and, possibly, the A's, on Oakland Coliseum property, surrounded by restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and retail stores. Kaplan also supports a proposal for a privately financed ballpark for the A's at the Port of Oakland on the city's waterfront — if Major League Baseball and the A's prefer that site to the Coliseum.

As for De La Fuente, he has cast himself as the candidate who will be toughest on public-employee pensions and will push for tighter fiscal accountability. He argued against the council's decision earlier this year to float more bonds and delay funding of the city's old police and fire retirement plan until the Great Recession is over and Oakland's finances rebound. However, De La Fuente's call to immediately start funding the old plan, which was closed decades ago to new retirees, would have forced the city to make more deep cuts in its general fund, slash services again, and possibly prompt another round of police layoffs. On the campaign trail, De La Fuente has said that the unfunded pension liability is a looming disaster for the city, and portrayed Oakland's finances as dire. Kaplan noted, however, that the city's budget is in much better shape today than it was two years ago, and that the council was able to avoid steep cuts this year. She also pointed out that tax revenues are also higher in 2012 than expected as the economy continues to improve.

The At-Large race also features three lesser-known candidates: Mick Storm, a software engineer; Carol Lee Tolbert, a former school board member and longtime nonprofit executive; and Theresa Anderson, a Green Party member who has missed several of the debates so far.

Storm, who has lived in Oakland for ten years and is not accepting campaign donations, also opposes gang injunctions and curfews because they're ineffective. However, he is also skeptical of Operation Ceasefire. He proposes hiring more cops and contends that the city can afford it, noting that a recent audit showed that OPD wasted $18 million on technology it didn't need, and that the city has been forced to pay out $58 million in lawsuit settlements over the past decade for police misconduct. Storm also advocates for more transparency in city government, and noted that the city's website is woefully out of date. "It's something that might have been good back in the late Nineties," he said.

As for Tolbert, she said her crime plan depends on a much a closer relationship between the city and the school district in order to keep kids out of trouble. She also backs a youth curfew. "I support any strategy that keeps our kids safe," she said.

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