Walking down 47th Street in the Golden Gate neighborhood, District 1 Councilmember candidate Craig Brandt surveyed the houses as he prepared to knock on yet another door. The 55-year-old lawyer, who has lived in North Oakland for 28 years, has grey hair and wore a neatly pressed dark suit with a light blue shirt and a grey tie. He clutched a folder full of fliers touting his plan for hiring more police officers, should he be elected to the city council.
Walking precincts is nothing new for Brandt. He volunteered for Ron Dellums during his run for mayor in 2006 and for Wilson Riles, Jr. when he ran for city council in 1979. Brandt is also an active member in the PTA at Claremont Middle School, which both his daughters, ages 11 and 13, currently attend.
But this is Brandt’s first time running his own campaign, and he is paying for nearly all of it out of his own pocket. He chose not to solicit funds. “I made that choice very consciously, that OK, I could spend a lot of time trying to raise money and set up fundraisers,” he said. “Or I could just start walking the precincts. And it was a lot easier to walk the precincts, quite frankly.”
He also said he will not accept donations from any union or business that is currently involved with the city of Oakland, or has done business with the city in the past. “It’s not illegal, but in my mind it’s a conflict of interest,” he said. Brandt said half of all the personal donations he receives will go to a charity, but said he would not disclose which one.
So far Brandt has received just one campaign donation—for $40. (Campaign finance records show he loaned his campaign $2,500 earlier this year.) Brandt believes his limited fundraising has affected his visibility in the race. For example, he doesn’t have yard signs, not to mention billboards, he said, because he can’t afford them. In fact, Brandt said, his strategy is not be a first choice for voters, but their second—he is hoping that ranked choice voting will secure him a seat on the council. Ranked choice allows voters to choose a first, second and third candidate in order of preference. After the ballots are cast, if no one receives 50 percent or more of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is then eliminated from the race. Voters who chose that candidate have their second choice pick tallied instead. The process continues until one candidate takes a majority.
Brandt believes ranked choice voting was responsible for Jean Quan’s 2010 victory. “Mayor Quan slips in because of everyone’s second choice vote,” he said. Similarly, he believes voters will see him as a strong second choice, and said it could help him win the race.
As he continued his rounds, the candidate knocked on the door of a run-down, second floor apartment. “Hi there, is anyone in your household a voter?” he said to Charles Carr, the young man who stood behind a metal mesh door. Though Carr said he is not a voter, Brandt still wanted to know what he thought the biggest issue was in the city.
“Crime,” Carr said.
“How should the city deal with that?” Brandt asked.
By “taking the criminals to jail. And leave people who ain’t criminals, alone,” Carr said. Referring to the police, he said, “They racial profile a lot.”
Carr had unwittingly touched on a central issue of Brandt’s campaign: hiring more police officers. If elected, Brandt has said, he would work to convince voters and the city to implement an $80 a year parcel tax for four years, which would raise approximately $80 million dollars a year to hire police officers, he said. “You know, I’m a lawyer. I deal with facts,” he said of why the city would need to raise taxes to hire more officers. “And [if] you don’t have a budget behind it then you’re just talking.”
Brandt said he would work to pass such a measure by convincing council members to put it on the ballot. He said he would avoid a special off-season election “because that costs roughly $1 million.” Instead, he would push to include his measure on the ballot during the next election cycle.
Brandt said his parcel tax plan mirrors Measure I—voted down in 2010—which would have raised funds to hire police officers. Brandt has argued that the measure did not pass because the presentation of it was flawed, leaving voters confused about how the funds would be used. By the time it was made clear that the tax would be used to hire police officers, “most people had already made up their mind” to vote against it, Brandt said. He said his plan would make it clear from the beginning that the tax would go directly towards hiring police officers.
And, he said, the tax would be tiered. “Homeowners would pay $80, renters would pay a certain percentage, and property owners that have businesses would pay a certain percentage, based upon how much frontage road they had,” he said of his proposed tax idea.
As he stood that afternoon on Carr’s doorstep, the candidate nodded as the young man spoke about being harassed by the police. “Thanks for sharing,” Brandt said as he walked back down the steps.
Later, while driving back to Rockridge, where he lives, the candidate spoke about the possibility that the Oakland Police Department could go into federal receivership, which would mean that it would be overseen by the federal government instead of the City of Oakland. The potential takeover stems from the “Riders” case that began in the year 2000, in which four police officers were charged with planting evidence and beating people they arrested.
A Negotiated Settlement Agreement in 2003 ordered the OPD to enact reforms addressing police misconduct, but according to a report released by the federal monitor earlier this month, the department is still not in compliance with all of the reforms.
“There is hope that now, with the threat of receivership,” that the police department will “train police officers to actually honor the Constitution—meaning they won’t do racial profiling,” Brandt said.
Earlier that week, Brandt sat on the edge of a couch at the Hudson Bay Café on College Avenue, just a few blocks from his home. (On the roof of the small coffee shop was a billboard promoting one of Brandt’s opponents, Len Raphael.) Brandt leaned forward as he talked about his career and the experiences that he believes could make him an effective politician.
Of his 24 years as a lawyer, Brandt spent the first 12 in criminal law. He started out as a public defender in Oakland and said he recalls working with young African American men, defendants in criminal cases, noting that many came to him bearing visible scars and bruises. Brandt said they would tell him stories of how police officers beat them, sometimes for running away from the officers.
“I started picking police misconduct cases” when deciding which clients to take on, Brandt said. He hoped his work would lead to new city policies. At one point in the 1980s, he chose to defend a man who was protesting an alleged shipment of weapons from the US government to Nicaraguan rebels fighting to overthrow the Sandinista government in what was known as the Contra War. Brandt said his client had refused to leave the train tracks at Contra Costa County’s former Port of Chicago in order to block the transport of weapons, and that a police officer jammed a wooden dowel into the protester’s ear to force him to move. Ultimately, the “cops dragged him off the road and beat him up,” Brandt said.
Brandt filed a lawsuit against the Contra Costa County Sherriff’s Department, and the California Highway Patrol, claiming that his client’s civil rights had been violated. As part of the suit, which went to trial in 1986, Brandt requested an injunction against the California Highway Patrol to make them stop using the dowel rods. Though the injunction was not upheld directly, the judge requested that the CHP review their training. Brandt saw that as a partial victory.
Although over the years Brandt has taken on cases criticizing police departments, he said the level of violence in Oakland today warrants hiring more police officers. Brandt believes that Oakland is in an “emergency” as a result of its high crime rate, particularly in East Oakland. “Just a couple days ago we had five people killed in Oakland,” he said. “And a couple weeks ago we had a child – 11 years old—shot with a bullet in his liver.”
But hiring police officers is not Brandt’s only focus. He also believes he can help the small business sector grow in Oakland. For the past 12 years, he said, he has worked to help small businesses get started and get proper permits through his law practice, which focuses on civil cases. His plan to increase business includes a plan to pass a measure that would exempt any new businesses that make less than $100,000 from paying taxes in Oakland during their first year. He believes the measure would help remove barriers for new businesses, and that the ensuing new jobs would counter the city’s loss in taxes.
“You can look at it like a short term loss of revenue on that first $100,000,” he said, “but I look at it like it’s an investment.”
The idea is to invite them in, he said. “After the first year you hope that they stay and grow in Oakland,” Brandt said.
In addition to cutting taxes for new businesses, Brandt said, he would also propose mixed-use housing for now-vacant lots along San Pablo Avenue, as a way of improving the economy in the Golden Gate neighborhood. He said such housing—with commercial stores on the first floor and residential units on the second—would not only alleviate the need for more housing, but would bring business to the area as well. Brandt said he would personally go to local banks and encourage them to invest in housing projects along San Pablo Avenue. While he doesn’t have relationships with potential funders, Brandt believes he could make them quickly. “All you have to do is ask,” he said.
Another way to improve business along San Pablo Avenue, in Brandt’s opinion, is to remove prostitutes from the streets. This would make the avenue more appealing to shoppers, he said. This is also where having more police officers comes in, he said— they should be patrolling San Pablo Avenue, where streetwalkers are prevalent, when business is at its peak. Ideally, he said, the city would organize an undercover police unit that would pose as prostitutes and then arrest the johns—and vice versa. But in the absence of a special unit, he said, police officers should be patrolling San Pablo Avenue more often. Brandt gestured towards an idling police car just across the street from the café. “Why isn’t that car cruising, at 5:00 pm, up and down when the johns are out looking for their score?” he asked.
Community members can help as well, he said. Brandt believes that until there are more police officers, community members should stand on a street and film sex workers and their potential customers, then post those clips on the web. “There are communities that do their own—they’ll go and they’ll stand there and they’ll take out their camera and just video what’s going on on that corner,” he said. ”They’ll stand there until it embarrasses everyone, and scares them away,”
He said this approach is a “non-violent” solution to reducing prostitution, allowing residents to take matters into their own hands. Though he acknowledged that potential legal complications for those filming people in these settings, he said there were ways to address this—for instance, signs could be posted notifying passersby that the area is under camera surveillance.
“My philosophy is this: The Golden Gate neighborhood. They have to get together and they have to make it happen,” he said. “It has to come from them.”
Brandt believes that a “do-it-yourself” model should be expanded to attracting business. He mentioned the First Friday Art Murmur as an example of the community taking initiative to improve Oakland. “In the beginning, it was quite small and then it grew and grew into what it is today. But the city basically just stayed hands-off,” he said. “Sometimes that’s the best thing the city can do.”
With the vote for city council just a few weeks away, Brandt said his campaign is on track, and that he believes he has a good shot at becoming a councilmember. He hopes voters will recognize his dedication to avoiding conflicts of interest, and said his love for Oakland fuels his optimism.
“The best part about Oakland and the one thing that everybody has in common is that they’re trying,” he said. “We’re not going to give up.”
This series is profiling all seven candidates for North Oakland’s District 1 city council seat.