Riles Agrees to Fall on Sword 

Someone needed to take on Jerry Brown, and Wilson Riles stepped up.

The February 14 KTOP taping of the League of Women Voters mayoral debate was reasonably professional, at least by the standards of public access channels. Techies at KTOP managed to keep the show running smoothly for most of the hour-long broadcast before everything went balls-up in snafus during the last five minutes.

Unfortunately, the gremlins happened to strike just as incumbent mayor Jerry Brown was delivering his closing speech. "I'd like to thank the League for putting on this event," he began, "and I'd like to thank the people of Oakland for ..."

"CUT!" yelled a technician who stormed into the studio. The mayor's mike was dead, and he'd have to start over. The moderator leaned pleasantly against the podium while the sound guys fiddled with a few cables, but the mayor stood ramrod-straight, a slight flush creeping on his cheeks. Three failed soundchecks later, you could almost feel Brown's blood pressure spiking; eventually, the techies sheepishly asked challenger Wilson Riles, Jr. if he would mind giving the mayor his microphone; Riles obediently peeled black strips of wiring off his lapel, leaned across the gap between the podiums, and handed the whole mess to the mayor. Time for another soundcheck. As Brown counted up to ten, his voice had taken on the tone of a father rocking a colicky infant, and his face had achieved an admirably crimson hue.

Despite the mayor's obvious distress, his aide, Erica Harrold, confessed to being relieved. In his closing statement Riles had baited Brown, calling him a "lightweight celebrity." The technical delay, Harrold hoped, would give the mayor time to cool off and refocus. Stick to the high road: that's the incumbent's ticket to another four years.

Moments like this may represent the only lasting significance of the Wilson Riles mayoral campaign: he will have succeeded in irritating the mayor all the way to Election Day. Few people have any illusions about Riles' chances of getting more than thirty-five percent of the electorate; although Brown has failed to reach almost any of the benchmarks he promised in 1998, Oaklanders still seem to have a vague sense that the city is moving in the right direction, even during a mild recession. The crime rate has continued to fall (although violent crimes have been on the upsurge in recent months) and while "For Lease" signs still litter the display windows of stores throughout downtown areas, the city's center feels safer and more prosperous. Jerry Brown has found an optimistic tone -- his mantra these days is that Oakland is "a city on the move" -- and discovered that it sells.

The fact is that Riles was always the sacrificial lamb who heroically agreed to fall on his sword on behalf of Dan Siegel, Nancy Nadel, and other progressives who have more miles left on their political odometers. Someone had to run an issue-based, if futile, campaign against the well-funded incumbent mayor and lose, and Riles had plenty of experience: he'd already done the same thing twice before. But there's more to Wilson Riles than a quixotic shot in the dark; in a way, Riles simultaneously embodies both Oakland's past and its future.

As an Oakland City Councilmember from 1979 to 1992, Riles represented the principal opposition to Lionel Wilson's grand schemes to revitalize downtown with government buildings and sweet development deals, but Riles never possessed the magnetism to build coalitions and advocate a workable alternative vision of the city. His platform, neatly encapsulated by the slogan "A mayor for all of us," describes both the strengths and the limitations of the North Oakland white progressive left. Riles emphasizes affordable housing and nonprofit developers over the market rate condos of the mayor's 10K plan, supports Just Cause eviction protection laws, calls for the city's energies to be focused on neighborhood development and turning back gentrification, and unequivocally backs community policing and the reforms of school superintendent Dennis Chaconas.

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