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.

It's an admirable program, a clear moral counterpoint to Brown, whose opposition to eviction protection, for instance, is just a hair shy of inexcusably callous. But Oakland has always had more problems than capital, and none of Riles' ideas will attract desperately needed development money to a city struggling with a bad rep that goes back more than thirty years. The future of the city requires it to negotiate a delicate balance: it must increase prosperity while providing safeguards for the poor and working class who inhabit the city's neighborhoods. If Brown cares little for working stiffs, Riles will guarantee that the Shorensteins of this world will spend their money somewhere else. It may well be more a question of style than substance, but that's irrelevant; if Jerry Brown's Oakland is a resurgent town ready to do business, Riles seems trapped by a progressivism that somehow seems unable to cope with the grim reality of life in the big city. Rudy Giuliani's career taught us that when faced with urban decay, voters will always choose a man who will do something for the worst of reasons over a man who will do nothing for the best of reasons.

That said, the Riles campaign has drawn a precise blueprint for the future of black politics in Oakland. Jerry Brown's 1998 victory obliterated a field of half a dozen African-American candidates, bringing to an end the era of black political dominance. It was a moment foreshadowed by twenty years of demographic erosion, but that did little to ease the anguish of the city's African-American bourgeoisie, who struggled to rule this city at a time when money and business were draining out, and crack and violence were pouring in. History may well remember the Lionel Wilson-Elihu Harris years as a time when black leaders fiddled while the city burned, but that's entirely unfair to a whole generation of statesmen who did all they could to save the city from disasters not of its own making. And for all Brown's triumphs, his eight years in power will hardly undo the stamp that twenty years of multicultural politics put on this city. The first white mayor in twenty years does not mean that white power has returned to Oakland, or indeed that any kind of politics can be exclusively about race and win.

In the years to come, the city's African-American leadership must find a new way to power. No longer can a black mayoral candidate carry the day largely by appealing to black voters; there aren't as many black voters as there used to be, and they don't vote along racial lines anymore. Black politicians must find a way to become active stakeholders in a multiracial coalition, a new, egalitarian family based on ideas and shared interests. As an African American with clear ties to white progressives, Riles has come closest to embodying this formula. The 1998 San Francisco candidacy of Tom Ammiano demonstrated precisely what proportion of that city hewed to the classic progressive line, but Ammiano and his cohorts used his campaign's momentum to build a new machine and snatch control of the Board of Supervisors from Willie Brown. Whether Riles and his allies can do the same will be an intriguing question over the next few years.

Jerry Brown's ascendance marked the end of black political power in City Hall, and the departure of one of the city's most venerable leaders marks the end of an even more distant era. Dick Spees has served on the Oakland City Council since 1980, and his day job as a senior executive with Kaiser was typical of the white Republican establishment that once dominated Oakland. Spees is a throwback to the days when the Kaiser, Clorox, and Bill Knowland's Oakland Tribune ran the town like their own private club (wags used to joke that Spees' responsibilities as Kaiser's Vice President of Community Relations consisted of his service on the City Council). But, arriving on the council after Lionel Wilson's coalition put an end to the dominance of the Chamber of Commerce, Spees' role was always to be a principled opposition councilmember, specializing in fiscal matters, fighting for his district, and, as one observer put it, "losing honorably."

Leading the race to replace Spees are school board member Jean Quan and David Stein, an attorney and president of the Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation. Quan has a twelve-year history in the Oakland schools, which has earned her plenty of administrative experience and the enduring enmity of the Oakland teachers' union, whose members recall her conduct during the 1996 teachers' strike. She is known for her abundant supply of both competence and impatience; her brusque style on the board is both resented and admired. Stein has plenty of volunteer credentials to back up his promise to improve park maintenance and fix the potholes, although his ties to developers trouble some critics. His law firm represents the De Silva group, which is the driving force behind the city's controversial plan to build six hundred units of housing at Leona Quarry; Stein would have to recuse himself from any votes on that project, but conflict of interest extends beyond just one vote.

Interestingly, this election is yet another reprise of the endless rivalry between Jerry Brown and state Senator Don Perata. The latter has endorsed Quan -- indeed, her position as the latest up-and-coming Peratista may cost her more than a few votes -- while the former has endorsed Stein. Some observers suggest that Brown tapped Stein because he doesn't have a single reliable ally on the council these days, and he needs a friend.

Speaking of the Leona Quarry, guess who's running for reelection? East Oakland councilmember Moses Mayne may have once been the anointed successor to Nate Miley, but few people bothered to consult the voters of his district. In fact, Desley Brooks, an aide to county supervisor Keith Carson, has launched a challenge to Mayne's left, and her campaign is gaining momentum. Mayne has taken a hit on the Leona Quarry issue, due more to his ineffectual leadership than his actual position, and the sense that Ignacio De La Fuente and Don Perata practically handed him his seat may work against him. On the other hand, his labor union roots will give him a sizable array of campaign volunteers, and the marginal candidacy of community activist Nancy Sidebotham may split the opposition and hand him another four years in office.

As Quan departs to run for the City Council, two candidates have stepped forward to claim her seat on the school board. Gary Yee has been an elementary school teacher, principal of Hillcrest Elementary, and currently chairs the education department at Holy Names, while Susanne Lea is a longtime volunteer and chair of the Oakland Coalition of Congregations' Education Task Force. It's tempting to dub this the technocrat vs. the parent activist, but the fact is that both are solid candidates who bring skills and experience to the table. Meanwhile, incumbent school board member Bruce Kariya faces a strong challenge from David Kakishiba, the executive director of the East Bay Asian Youth Center and leader of the Kids First initiative in 1996. Kariya enjoys the support of superintendent Dennis Chaconas and Don Perata, while Brown is backing his opponent, possibly as payback for Kariya's pointed criticism of the mayor's board appointees. In fact, some observers wonder why Brown didn't find someone to challenge board member Dan Siegel, who is running unopposed. It's no secret that Siegel is Brown's most persistent critic, and as long as he gets a walk in this election, he can dedicate himself to the Riles campaign full time. Perhaps Brown is still smarting from the 2000 election, when he embarrassingly backed council gadfly Hugh Bassette's utter failure of a campaign to unseat councilmember Nancy Nadel.

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