Where Did Oakland's Runoff Go? 

Reforms designed to make Oakland elections more democratic may actually end up doing just the opposite.

Over the past few months, the balance of power in Oakland looked as if it might finally be shifting away from the political machine that has dominated city politics for the past seven years. During that time, the eight-member Oakland City Council has not once opposed a deal backed by the city's power brokers -- state Senator Don Perata, Mayor Jerry Brown, and City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente -- no matter how questionable it might have been or how deeply residents opposed it. Two cases in point: The council's decision to hand over a $60 million public subsidy to a developer friend of Brown's to build eight hundred apartments in uptown and the decision to allow Perata's biggest campaign contributor to build four hundred homes in the steep, flood-prone Leona Quarry.

But then, early this year, a crack seemed to appear in the machine. One of its most important cogs, Danny Wan, suddenly resigned from his District Two council seat representing the Grand Lake area, along with the Eastlake, San Antonio, and Chinatown neighborhoods. Wan was perhaps De La Fuente's most reliable ally; veteran council observers are hard pressed to name a time when they didn't vote in lockstep. This was not surprising, given that a majority of councilmembers appointed Wan to join the council in 2000 after John Russo was elected city attorney.

Wan's appointment had struck some voters as undemocratic, and helped spur electoral reform that stripped the council's power to appoint new members and instead required special elections. So when Wan announced that he was stepping down two years into his second term, critics of the existing order had reason to hope. That hope swelled further when nine candidates, several of them progressives, jumped into the special election. If one of them were to win, the city's political bosses could no longer count on a solid 6-2 majority. A slimmer 5-3 majority, some progressives believe, may not be strong enough to guarantee smooth sailing for every deal pushed by Perata, Brown, and De La Fuente.

Then a council decision in the wake of Wan's resignation appeared to benefit progressives even more. Citing a need to save money, the council decided that the race should be a mail-in election that would take place over one month ending May 17. The monthlong election is expected to increase voter turnout, and has allowed candidates more time to get out in the community and actually talk to voters while they were making up their minds. "I don't think I've ever seen so much going on in an Oakland election before," longtime Oakland resident Kevin Rockwell said. "And as a resident of the district, it's flattering that so many people are interested in running."

But as the election winds down, some of that original excitement is waning. In recent weeks, what had been an issues-oriented campaign turned negative when candidate Pat Kernighan -- who was Wan and Russo's chief of staff and who is backed by Brown and funded by Perata's allies -- put out a glossy hit piece attacking her main rivals.

More significant is the strong fear that the mail-in election could backfire on progressives. There's a good chance they may cancel each other out in the election, and because there will be no runoff, Kernighan could take office with as little as 20 to 25 percent of the vote. In other words, the electoral reform Oaklanders embraced three years ago may turn out to be no more democratic than what they had before.

But it didn't necessarily have to be that way.

The District Two race started out looking as if it would be one of the most interesting Oakland elections in years. Nine candidates vying for an open seat provided a stark contrast to the usual incumbent running unopposed, or the machine-backed candidate simply outraising and outspending a rival. The large number of candidates (now down to eight because one dropped out) coupled with the mail-in ballot fostered a real competition. Plus, the Alameda County Registrar of Voters expects turnout for the mail-in campaign to top 30 percent, compared to the usual 20 to 25 percent in special elections.

"You'd be amazed at how many times people have told me that I'm the first Oakland City Council candidate they've ever met," said Aimee Allison of the Green Party as she was about to head into an apartment building in the San Antonio district to knock on doors of registered voters. Allison has made a name for herself as one of the election's hardest-working candidates; she has been going door-to-door since late January. "I'm finding that even registered Republicans say they'll vote for me -- just because they've never had a candidate show up at their door before."

But some voters, especially those who have already mailed in their ballots in the upscale Lakeshore and Crocker Highlands neighborhoods, say all the attention is too much of a good thing. They're weary of the mailers, the prerecorded phone calls, and the dinnertime visits. "It's too much," said Jan, a Grand Lake area resident who declined to share her last name. "I already made my decision, so all of the phone messages and mailers are a waste of my time."

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