The Machine 

Must Oakland always be saddled with a political boss?

It's Don Perata's world -- we just live in it. He and Mayor Jerry Brown tower over Oakland like tinpot gods, collecting votes, money, and publicity by the bushel. The state senator's defining attribute is power -- or the perception of power, which amounts to the same thing. But the Don is not the first power broker to cast his shadow over the city; in fact, the numbers of years that Oakland has been unmolested by such men is woefully small. The means by which power is accumulated and dispensed have changed over the years, but the Hobbesian reality of what is crudely called "machine politics" endures. Will Oakland ever be free of it?

Thanks to civil service protections, Oakland has never been cursed with machine politics in the classic sense, in which a Tammany-style boss hands out municipal jobs to ward heelers who get immigrant voters to the polls. But the city historically has been bifurcated into two distinct entities: the political class of elected officials, bureaucrats, union leaders, and moneyed interests who run the town; and the great mass of disinterested residents -- mostly immigrants chasing industrial jobs -- who rarely vote, demand better government, or even pay attention to city hall. For most of the 20th century, Oakland was ruled by an iron alliance of Kaiser Aluminum, the Clorox company, port interests, and the downtown department stores. Standing atop the food chain was Joseph Knowland, the man who turned the Oakland Tribune into what was once the state's most prominent newspaper.

It's hard to understand, in an age of media decentralization, the importance of the newspaper in the aggregation of power. But in its day, Knowland's Tribune played an almost exclusive role in the shaping of public opinion. According to Gayle Montgomery, the former political editor of the Tribune who later wrote a biography of Senator Bill Knowland, the Knowlands handpicked candidates for elected office and boosted their stature in the pages of the paper. Meanwhile, a highly disciplined Republican Party organization got out the vote on election day. "Inside the club in Oakland, you pretty much had to have the approval of the Knowlands if you wanted to run for office," Montgomery says. "You had people coming in with great hope, hoping that the Knowlands would give them, first, the go-ahead, and second, their support. ... In the '50s, you had two newspapers in town, the Hearst paper and the Knowland paper, but the Knowland paper was the power. And they joined statewide with the LA Times to elect people."

The rise of Earl Warren perfectly illustrates how the system worked. In 1925, Knowland tapped Warren to run for district attorney of Alameda County, and his paper's support was crucial to Warren's campaigns to become California's attorney general in 1938 and governor in 1942. Upon the death of Senator Hiram Johnson in 1945, Knowland asked Warren to appoint his 37-year-old son Bill Knowland as Johnson's replacement. By 1953, Bill Knowland had become majority leader and, when a vacancy appeared on the Supreme Court, successfully pressured Dwight Eisenhower to put Warren on the highest court in the land.

The Knowland machine began to fall apart in the '60s, as sweeping social and demographic upheavals changed the calculus of power. Thousands of white Republican residents moved into the burgeoning suburbs, and the department stores followed, taking their advertising revenue -- the mainstay of the Tribune's bottom line -- with them. In 1974, Bill Knowland, beset with gambling debts and facing his second divorce, shot himself on the bank of the Russian River. Back in Oakland, black power was rising, and a new machine was assembling. Black Panther Bobby Seale fired the first shot across the bow with his mayoral run in 1973, and in 1977, Superior Court Judge Lionel Wilson pieced together a coalition of Panthers, African-American churches, and white liberals to become the first black mayor in Oakland's history.

The old guard soon discovered that Wilson was a man they could work with, especially after he helped kill a strong rent-control proposal in 1980. Soon, Wilson was cashing the same campaign checks that once had flowed exclusively into Republican coffers. And thanks to his close ties to the Carter administration, Wilson controlled millions of dollars in poverty programs. By playing both sides of the field, he was able to build a new coalition of moderate, urban Democrats and big business. Much of his power was concentrated at the three-thousand-strong Allen Temple Baptist Church, which boasted City Manager Henry Gardner and Councilman Leo Bazile among its members.

But despite Wilson's liberal use of the gavel on the city council, his machine never achieved the discipline of Knowland's. For one thing, African-American Democrats had never governed before and had to learn how. For another, Montgomery says, Democratic politics are sloppy by definition. "The Democrats have never been organized; they always go in several different directions at once," he says. "Their goals were to give 'power to the people,' as the Panthers put it, and that didn't fit in with running City Hall from the Tribune Tower. And while there was a loose-knit loyalty to the Democratic Party, there was certainly nothing lockstep about it. They were younger, they were ambitious, and they wanted to make their own marks without anyone telling them what to do."

In the '80s, Oakland suffered a series of social and economic catastrophes that Wilson was utterly unprepared to deal with. Already crippled by disastrous raze-and-build downtown redevelopment schemes, the slow collapse of Kaiser Aluminum's fortunes, and the continuing exodus of manufacturing, the city was devastated by crack cocaine and an unprecedented wave of murders. But Wilson barely noticed as he offered a $15 million subsidy to keep the A's from skipping town, spent millions in a fruitless lawsuit to keep the Raiders around, and chased the same big-ticket downtown office and retail deals that almost never materialized (and were often plagued by corruption scandals, as a new black patronage regime tried to assert itself). "I think he fell into what was the remnants of the Knowland machine," says Wilson Riles Jr., who served on the city council and often was Wilson's lone dissenter. "He didn't come in with his own particular strategy for development or being the mayor, so he fell into the camp of those who were already in the camp of downtown."

In neighborhoods around the city, the slow growth of grassroots organizations that helped bring Wilson to power now conspired to remove him. Now that African-American voters were fully enfranchised, they began to demand more of their leaders -- voting them out if they didn't deliver. Thousands of white middle-class professionals moved into North Oakland and brought with them a sense of entitlement that potholes should be filled promptly. A new unit of power -- the neighborhood association -- arrived on the scene, and reformers like Sheila Jordan, Elihu Harris, and Ignacio De La Fuente were swept into office.


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