He stationed himself at the door and greeted both voters and his own competitors as they arrived at the candidate’s forum at St. Columba Church on San Pablo Avenue earlier this month.
As the event got underway, his wife walked over to him, their baby in her arms, and gave him a kiss. “Good luck,” Marisa Raya said, placing her hand on his shoulder.
In a dark blue suit, looking relaxed, the 42 year-old newcomer to the political arena stood and took the microphone from the moderator. “I’m running for office because I love Oakland,” said Richard Raya (pronounced–Riya), one of the seven candidates competing for the District 1 city council seat. “Really and truly, I know that sounds corny, but that’s at the root of why I am running. Oakland is on the verge of greatness. We have so much potential, but as long as we have 100 murders a year, I don’t think we’ll ever be great.”
Raya spent the next hour, as he has all over District 1 in recent months, explaining his goals for creating what he likes to call a more “collaborative and transparent” Oakland–one that addresses the concerns of all its residents. He would like to start with crime and work through the budget, he said, while identifying ways to bring new jobs to Oakland and lower taxes for small business owners.
“There is something bigger,” Raya said. “The election is about unifying the city around a common vision for public safety, such as Ceasefire, as well as a common vision for our own economic prosperity. That’s what I want to bring to the table.”
Almost two months ago, Raya took a leave of absence from his position as a director at California Forward, a local nonprofit interested in changing government policies, to campaign for a seat on the city council. He is a numbers guy and a problem-solver, he tells voters—the candidate who knows how to balance a large budget.
Serving the Oakland community is the natural extension for him, Raya likes to say, a way to give back to the community that embraced him when he first arrived in the Bay Area to attend school as a young adult. It was a life-changing transition after a tough childhood, and an experience that inspires the expression he uses often: “Love this town.” After friends and business associates told him they thought his work experience made him a good fit for the job, he decided to run for city council.
Although this is Raya’s first time running for a political office, he has an extensive list of endorsements—from several local government organizations and unions, as well as elected officials and leaders in education and public health.
“It’s my duty, it’s my duty,” Raya said in a conversation before the St. Columba forum. “I just feel like our city has been languishing. The biggest symptom of that is the loss of life.”
The eldest of five brothers and sisters, Raya grew up in East San Jose. He has made his tough childhood a centerpiece of his campaign; he was homeless for a period of his childhood, he says, and had to drop out of school. “It was hard to do well, so I gave up in high school because I thought it was too late for me,” Raya says. He learned how important it was to further his education when he applied for a job at Taco Bell and they never called him back. “I was sitting at home and I thought, ‘Man, I am going to have to go and pitch myself for this job?’” he says. “I was 17 years old, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m going to go pitch myself for a job at Taco Bell?’” He realized, he recalls, that something in his life had to change.
One of the best teachers he ever had, Raya says, was his own mother, Minnie Barba, a single parent who brought him the idea of a community college program when she went to enroll in classes for herself. They attended different community colleges, but both earned the credits required to transfer to a four-year university. Raya moved to Oakland and began living on his own. He attended UC Berkeley and earned a B.S. in English and later a masters degree in public policy; his mother, he says, transferred to UC Santa Cruz. His mother began working in the public sector. “Her life began to stabilize,” he said. “And mine took off.”
When Raya answered his door one late afternoon in October, he was smiling, wearing a suit and tie, and holding a baby carrier in his hand. The dark wood- framed building on North Oakland’s Genoa Street, where Raya lives with his family, has a wide front porch; a Raya for City Council banner stretches across the overhang. It was almost time for Raya to begin his evening routine, and the first stop was the daycare center, where he would pick up his eight-month-old son, Chicahua.
The minute Raya walked through the center’s gate, Chicahua started to cry when he saw his father, and quieted as soon as Raya reached down and picked him up. Baby strapped into the back of his black Chevy Cruze , Raya headed toward Miles Avenue to meet his wife. They sometimes campaign together; other times they separate to cover more of the area. Today they met, conferred briefly on Chicahua’s day in daycare, and then split up to cover the block in opposite directions.
Up and down front porch stairs, Raya worked Miles. To one woman who answered his knock on the door: “I am running for city council. One thing you should know about me is that I am the only candidate with experience balancing a large government budget.”
If no one was home, he wrote a personal note on his flyer, including the voter’s name before tucking the flyer into a doorframe: “I’m sorry I missed you. I hope to earn your vote. Thanks!”
“At this point it must sound kind of cliché,” Raya said, stepping off the porch at a house near the end of the street. “But it is why I am running, I want make the city better by bringing the community together.”
One of the things Raya is proudest of is his 15 years of work in public health. Former Alameda County public health director Arnold Perkins worked with Raya for more than half a decade, when Raya was a departmental chief administrative analyst. Then Raya left the county to work at PolicyLink, an organization that advocates for low-income families, as well as communities of color. But Perkins successfully recruited him back, as chief financial officer for the public health department.
“When you work with someone and you want to work with them again, because of their competence, it says a lot,” Perkins said. “It doesn’t happen with everyone.”
The department budget was $106 million by the time Perkins retired in 2006, and it continued to grow—evidence, Perkins said, that Raya knew how to manage a substantial budget well. “When Raya took over, there was a lot of animosity in the department among co-workers,” Perkins says. But Raya changed that atmosphere, Perkins says. “He caused people to work together,” Perkins says. “He used talent that was within his division that was not used before. He brought a sense of belonging and teamwork.”
When Raya worked with Perkins’ successor, current public health director Anita Siegel, Raya managed all the administrative services, which meant he was in charge of facilities, information systems, and working with the general service agency. A big chunk of his work included managing the budget, which grew to about $130 million, Siegel says.
“He can come up with creative ways of managing tough situations,” Siegel says. “In a political sense, though, I don’t know. I’m not sure if the ability to be nimble in a political fashion is the same as the ability to be nimble in a government bureaucracy.”
Raya believed strongly in accountability, Siegel says; he and members of the health department started an initiative called “Results-Based Accountability.” “He felt that the government had to be responsible for the money they had, and that the money we were investing was actually making a difference,” Siegel says.
In public appearances Raya pushes his budget-handling background, but also says he is concerned about crime. He speaks of personal experience with gang violence—he says one of his own brothers was wounded in a drive-by shooting, and that he himself, has been racially profiled by police officers. But he is not a supporter of gang injunctions or curfews for young adults. He does support Ceasefire, the police initiative targeting certain known violent offenders for either rehabilitation support or intensive law enforcement crackdown, and says he is confident it offers a program that will work as well in Oakland as it has in other cities—especially because its implementation does not require hiring new police officers.
“Ceasefire focuses on the small percentage of guys who are committing the crimes,” Raya says. “It asks the police to collaborate with the probation and parole and with the district attorney’s office as well as families and clergy and community and job training and drug and alcohol treatment. So it is a whole spectrum of our community.”
A representatives at one of the unions endorsing Raya, Local 3 of the Operating Engineers, says union members were impressed with Raya’s position on crime. Brian Lester is the business representative for the union. “We see Richard as having some fresh, new, dynamic ideas for Oakland,” said Brian Lester, a business representative for the 40,000-member union, which Lester said conducted interviews with many candidates asking for support. “We were taken with Richard, just his own personal history, where he comes from and what he has been through,” Lester said. “We see Oakland as needing some change within the city council. He’s intelligent and intuitive. We saw him as being the best candidate for that district.”
So why go this route, Raya was asked—why the Oakland City Council? “It’s the first time in a long time that we have a chance for a new council member,” Raya said, as he was driving home from yet another voter forum, this one in the sanctuary of a church near Lake Merritt. “I feel like I can help the city rally around a common vision.” When asked who he believes his strongest competitor to be, he chuckled before answering. “From what people are saying, it seems like it’s Amy Lemley,” he said. “I agree with what people are telling me. She’s a smart, accomplished person.”
It was the end of the day. The baby was home in bed, no doubt asleep by now, but Raya might be able to spend some time with his wife, he said. He looked tired. It had been a good event; he’d given his campaign speech lines about the budget, and the audience members asked smart questions. He had spoken about growing up poor, and making it as an educated adult in Berkeley and Oakland.
Asked about that part of his story—about why he sometimes speaks of being homeless, and whether there was more detail he was willing to offer about that—Raya was quiet for a minute. Then he said, “I’m just trying to be respectful to my mom.”
There were things at that time that were life-changing for him, he said. “I was always the oldest son, trying to figure out how to do it playing by the rules,” he said.
Recently he has talked at length with his mother and his siblings about the past, Raya said, and about the work he wants to do for the city. “This campaign has made me examine my life and how I got here, how it’s relevant to the city counci,l and what I would bring to the city council,” he said. “It’s been really good for that self-awareness and family awareness.”
Raya turned left onto Telegraph. The hills were up ahead. What happens next for him, Raya was asked, if he doesn’t win?
“I feel in my heart we are going to win, there is so much good energy around this,” Raya said. “If we don’t win, my wife and I say our lives will never be the same because we have met so many amazing people. We’re just more a part of the fabric of the community now, and we are going to continue to be that. We’re going to be at restaurants, and we’re going to see people that we met as we were canvassing, and folks that we met at forums. And we just feel blessed.”
correction: An earlier version of this story misreported the street on which St. Columba Church is located. Oakland North regrets the error.