Oakland mayoral candidate Terence Candell isn’t an easy man to ignore. The school director swaggered onto the stage at an October mayoral forum at Humanist Hall in downtown Oakland, his bright yellow and black three-piece suit glowing amidst the more demure outfits of his opponents, smirking and scoffing his way through their responses to debate questions. When it came time for Candell to address the crowd, he pushed away the offered microphone. “I don’t need this,” he said, leaping onto his feet and leaning forward over the table. “Can everybody hear me?” he bellowed at the audience, smiling at their shocked expressions. “Good! Glad I woke everyone up!”
For Candell, shocking people is nothing new—in fact, he believes it is one of the keys to being elected mayor of Oakland. “What do I say to the people who think that I’m going to scare people away? I say good!” he said one week later, sitting behind his desk at Candell’s College Preparatory Academy, the private school in East Oakland that he founded and runs. “Its about time that they met a real black man who doesn’t back down when someone gets scared,” he said, slamming his hand on the table for emphasis. “I represent my constituents,” he continued, “and they don’t want me to speak softly.”
And he doesn’t speak softly. Candell’s loud and often controversial behavior has become something of a trademark throughout his campaign. The African American candidate has made allegations of racism throughout the election season, and has made a few bold gestures to expose these perceived inequalities to voters.
In August, Candell interrupted a press conference in front of City Hall, using a megaphone to announce that he’d been excluded from the event and citing racism as the cause. (Event organizers said he’d been excluded by accident.) His campaign has sent heated complaints to the press as well as to organizers of political forums who invited only the best-known candidates to participate in their debates—many of them using guidelines from the League of Women Voters defining what makes a candidate “viable.” In September, Candell organized his own town hall meeting the same evening as another forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, arriving at his event wearing a traditional West African dashiki. “They are trying to say I should exclude anything that shows I’m black and educated,” he said at the town hall meeting. “I went the other direction and I’m wearing a dashiki. They need to know that I have a history, and I’m very proud of my heritage.”
For some voters, Candell’s ways are off-putting. “I go to a lot of these election events and I find myself trying my best to tune Candell’s crazy talk out,” said Oakland voter Margaret Laury, after the debate at Humanist Hall, adding that she was supporting Jean Quan. But among his students, at least, Candell seems to have a winning strategy.
Although many of the 35 students currently enrolled at Candell’s K-12 school are considered “at risk” kids with behavioral and developmental challenges, these issues seemed to disappear as they sat in rapt silence during a recent Tuesday morning English class. Candell is one of only two teachers at Candell Prep—the other one is his wife, Dyra—and the only one in charge of the older, high school aged students. His distinct booming voice echoed off the chipped black cinder block classroom walls, festooned with peeling maps and posters of President Obama, as the class discussed their assigned reading; James Hime’s The Night of Dance, a murder mystery featuring an African American protagonist. Candell asked his students to come up with a theme for the novel, and gave a standing ovation to what he considered the most succinct answer—“What’s done in the dark will come to light.”
“That’s right,” Candell said. “What’s done in the dark will always come to light.”
Candell, or “Coach” as he is affectionately known to his students because of his alternating roles as a teacher, mentor, and basketball coach, switched between joking with his kids and sternly guiding them through the lessons. “That looked like yesterday!” he said as one of his students, a school basketball player, launched a wad of paper towards the trash, missing the shot. “A man stands up and does his own work, do you hear me?” he hollered at another student caught peeking at a classmate’s paper during an exercise.
According to Candell, his understanding of the best ways to communicate with his students and his community, combined with his deep-rooted desire to help and nurture their development, make him a shoo-in for mayor, despite the misgivings of what he calls “the politicos on the other side of the freeway”—the affluent, predominantly Caucasian communities whom he considers out of touch with the needs of Oakland’s black and Latino residents.
“The people who live in ‘real’ Oakland are going to vote for me on all three lines,” he joked, referring to the ranked choice voting method voters will use this year, in which voters rank their top three choices. “I’m from Oakland, I grew up with these folks, I know them, I love them and they know I will fight for them.”
Fighting has been a common theme in the Oakland native’s life. Candell was the seventh of ten children raised in a home in North Oakland on the corner of 58th Street and Adeline. His parents divorced when Candell was three years old, leaving his mother to raise and support the large family, mostly on her own.
“I grew up fighting,” Candell says, describing the bullies who made fun of him because his mother worked at his elementary school’s snack bar. “It was a nightmare, the butt end of every joke.” As Candell tells it, eventually the time came to put the bullies in their place. “Lets just put it this way,” he says. School administrators, he says, “were considering kicking me out.”
As an adolescent, Candell says he established himself as something of a vigilante in his neighborhood. “I was considered the hero of my neighborhood back in the day,” he says. “There were people who would come into my neighborhood from other parts of Oakland who would try to harass the kids on my block and I wouldn’t allow it.”
Dyra Candell, his wife and campaign manager, who grew up on his block and has known him all her life, offers a gentler perspective. “He was also the fair one,” she says, “the one always making sure everyone in the neighborhood was included in the games we would play.”
Candell says he was kicked out of the house by his mother when he was 16 years old. “I had a flaw. I reminded my mother of my father,” he says, but declines to disclose further details. According to Candell, he lived on the streets for six months. “I used to sleep in the park, underneath park benches,” he says.
Throughout his period of homelessness, Candell says he continued to attend school, working as a laborer for the public works department in Emeryville and as a cashier at Wendy’s, and eventually saving enough money to rent a nearby apartment from his aunt. “I woke up at 6, went to Wendy’s in the morning, then rode my bike to school in time for my first class at 9,” he says. “Then I went back to Wendy’s after school to finish my shift, and then went back to work for the city of Emeryville during the summers.”
Candell enrolled at UC Santa Cruz in 1980, and says he worked there to recruit African-American and Latino students, served as a counselor for at-risk junior high school students, and pursued his passion for basketball, playing point guard for the university’s team during his first two years. According to Candell, he was even invited to try out for the Golden State Warriors in 1982, but collapsed from stress during a practice before the tryout and seriously injured his back. “I didn’t walk for a year,” Candell says. “See the problem with not having a dad growing up is that there is no one to tell you ‘Yes you can, but no you shouldn’t.’” He says he continues to suffer lingering effects from the injury, and frequently shifts in his seat to take pressure off of his sciatic nerve. “It’s part of the reason I can’t sit still,” he says.
Candell says that after his injury, he took a leave from college and returned to Oakland where he reconnected with his childhood friend Dyra, who was then in 10th grade. “We started dating and ever since then, I was just all he wrote,” she says, smiling shyly.
Determined to finish his degree on time, Candell says that after a year out of commission he returned to UC Santa Cruz and graduated with a major in political science and a minor in psychology. He says he later earned his masters degree and PhD in Education from the Western Institute for Social Research, an individualized study institution in Berkeley, and the University of Bedford, an online university in the UK, respectively.
The Candells say they eloped to Reno, Nevada, when Dyra was 18, against the wishes of her parents. “They were Jehovah’s Witnesses—they believe in marriage within the religion,” Dyra says.
The two bought a house in West Oakland, and had two children. Their daughter, Dyra II, was born premature and with cerebral palsy. Despite her disability, Dyra says that her daughter, now 17, has flourished under the patient watch of her father, who took charge over much of her education. “He took over the role of father and teacher,” Dyra says, “just like he does with the kids at his school now.”
Their second child, Terence Candell Jr., or “TC,” developed at lightening speed. “He is the replica of his dad,” Dyra says. “He was ready to go at all times, just non-stop.” The Candells say that TC, now 15, graduated high school at age 10 from Candell’s College Prep and became the youngest African American to graduate from college, obtaining his BA in mass communication from Cal State East Bay at age 14.
Candell has spent most of his career working at educational institutions, including working as a community outreach organizer for Big Brothers of America, a 6th grade math teacher, and as an administrator at several colleges.
Candell says it was during his time working in the admissions office at the Hayward branch of Heald College in 2000 that the idea of creating what is now Candell’s College Prep came to him. Candell described going through a stack of pre-selected admissions applications and encountering a troublesome racial divide. “In the accepted stack, I saw Asians and Caucasians,” he says. “In the other stack I saw African Americans and Latinos. And at that point I realized this isn’t what I signed up for.”
Candell left Heald, sold his car and January, 2001, started his school in the basement of his home, before moving it to various churches and finally setting up a permanent location on 73rd Avenue in East Oakland. “I left all the money and the perks because I felt people were being disenfranchised,” he says. “And you know how I feel about injustice. I don’t stand for it.”
His wife is in charge of the younger students, while Candell teaches a full curriculum of history, math, drama, music, computer skills, art, science and social studies to the high school aged students. According to Candell, the state-accredited school boasts 100 percent graduation and college acceptance rates.
Though Candell says he kept the school going by moonlighting as a realtor, he abandoned the profession during the real estate crash of 2008 and now relies on donations from community members and parents to keep the doors open. The official tuition at the school is $5,000 per year, but most of the school’s students are on partial to full scholarships, provided by Candell and the local Guardsmen scholarship program, which provides aid to underprivileged Bay Area students.
“This place isn’t the Ritz,” said Dyra Candell, gesturing at the worn furniture in the school lobby, “but it’s something that we sacrificed for so that these kids would have an alternative educational option.”
During a recent mid-morning English class, Candell’s students snacked on chips and Twizzlers from the school store as they took turns performing dramatic readings from their book, assuming different voices and tones for each character. “It helps them get into the book and actually care about what they are reading,” explained Candell as he stepped out of the class to greet Carnel Gabourel, the father of one of Candell’s former students. Gabourel considers Candell a close friend, and is so pleased with the education that his son received that he drops in from time to time. “He just understands these kids,” Gabourel says of Candell. “He knows what makes them tick.”
While he caught up with Gabourel in the hallway, Candell’s ears seemed to perk up imperceptibly. He stopped mid-speech to turn back and open the doors to his class. “Please don’t read ahead,” he told one teenaged student, who stared guiltily back at Candell. “Do not read ahead.”
He left the room again, closed the glass doors and turned his back to the class, arms crossed against his chest. “Watch he is going to move, just watch,” Candell said as the offending student hiked up his low riding basketball shorts and, almost on cue, stealthily crossed the room to talk to a female classmate. “I just know these things,” Candell said confidently before whipping around and demanding that the student return to his desk.
If elected, Candell says, he hopes his influence might sway Oakland Unified School District superintendant Tony Smith to adopt what he dubs the “Candell Method,” or what he considers to be some of Candell College Prep’s successful teaching techniques. “Step one,” he said. “Stop sitting my African American, and Latino and Samoan males behind other people in the classroom,” referencing the common practice of seating students in rows. “You don’t sit kings behind people,” he continued. At Candell Prep, the students sit along the walls in a semi-circle as Candell addresses them from the front of the room.
Candell’s method also includes dramatic reading to engage students in subject material, addressing misbehavior through essay writing, and holding “circle time” in the mornings, a ritual that allows students to talk through any personal challenges they may be facing with their fellow students.
“His secret,” said 13-year-old student Marshana Taylor, “is that he doesn’t let me fail.”
During the students’ lunch break, Candell retreated his office, littered with campaign materials and drawings that students have made for him, and explained his campaign platform. Candell’s main plan is to take money from those who come into Oakland from different cities to work and put that money back into the city coffers. “Its time to take back our city!” said Candell, rubbing his hands together.
Through his proposed “commuter tax,” non-Oaklanders who work in the city, but do not operate businesses here, would be required to contribute 1 percent of their paychecks into the city’s general fund. “They’re not going to come here and use my city and take every dime we have, and then go back to their little cubbyholes in San Ramon and Pleasanton and look down their nose at us,” said Candell. “How dare you! Oh no, you’re going to pay.”
He also envisions a toll tax for non-Oaklanders, with tollbooths placed at the exits across popular commuter routes into Oakland—the 550, 880 and the 13, right behind the Caldecott tunnel. All visiting vehicles would pay $1 at the tolls while vehicles owned by Oakland residents would be issued a FasTrack type of pass allowing them to cross for free. Candell believes that the toll could bring in close to $330 million for the city per year. He said he would use the funds to establish 20 extended-hour youth centers around the city, fund police services and provide the financial backing for a $100 million jobs program.
Candell slipped back into teacher mode as he meticulously explained his proposed jobs program, sketching small diagrams to drive his points home. Through the program, the mayor’s office would select worthy Oakland candidates deemed “disenfranchised”—which could include ex-felons and recent immigrants—and put them to work at small businesses. The city would pay their salaries while the small businesses would train them, essentially receiving free labor. In return, the businesses would be required to donate $1,000 per year to shelters and non-profits in the city. Using this method, Candell hopes that some 14,000 Oaklanders could be employed within two years.
Candell dismissed concerns that the toll tax might dissuade people from visiting the city or cause trouble for the city’s port and shipping industries that rely on trucking companies being able to pass through Oakland. “One dollar a day isn’t going to kill anyone,” he said. “You have to pay to go into San Francisco but that isn’t stopping people from doing business there and shopping there.”
Candell also rejected the argument that adding tollbooths would increase traffic, saying that the freeways are already so congested that it would be hard to tell the difference. “I challenge anyone with less than a PhD to question the viability of my plans,” he said. “I have little bloggers who haven’t graduated from high school telling me what’s viable and what’s not. That’s funny.”
Candell has expressed deep disdain for several other mayoral candidates, including Jean Quan and Don Perata. Both of them, like Candell, have a background in education, Quan as the former Oakland school board member and Perata as a former teacher. But according to Candell, the similarities stop there. He accuses them both of not doing enough for the children they represented, and suggests that their intentions were financial rather than altruistic. “They make my skin crawl, to be honest with you,” he said, grimacing and squirming for effect.
Candell’s “us vs. them” mentality may not be winning him many fans on what he affectionately refers to as “the other side of the freeway,” but in East Oakland, Candell is confident that he has all the support he needs from the people he wants it from. One afternoon as Candell loaded his students into a bus for basketball practice after school, he was greeted by passersby offering their support. “Yeah, boy!” one man hooted from across the street while passing drivers slowed down to get a better look at the candidate, waving at him through their windows. “What can I say, these are my people and they love me,” Candell said, shrugging his shoulders. “But I love them, and if people know that you love them so much that you will fight for them until the bitter end, they will do anything for you.”
Candell is aware that “anything” might not translate into votes. Though his campaign posters adorn the long stretch of clapboard houses along 73rd Avenue in East Oakland as well as the nearby Coliseum BART station, he says getting his supporters to the polling stations is the real challenge. “I would love for these people to show up, but history has shown me that this is unrealistic,” he said, referring to historically low turnout numbers among African American voters. “These people in our city don’t show up and Perata, Quan and Kaplan’s people on the other side of the freeway do.”
Candell said he has enlisted a team of 1,000 volunteers to register voters in his area and transport them to the polling stations. But in case things don’t work out, Candell has a backup plan. “I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing,” he said, “being here for my kids and my people, the way I have been my whole life. I’ll keep fighting for them. And I’m always going to be me.”
Evan Wagstaff contributed to this story.