Riles Agrees to Fall on Sword 

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

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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.

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