One afternoon in 2005, a metal car jack crashed through the bedroom window of a home on East 33rd Street in Oakland and landed next to the crib of a one-year old baby.
“She could have been killed,” says the baby’s mother, Amy Lemley, who with her husband had been living in that home for five years and believed she knew exactly why the jack had been hurled. Her neighbors then were trouble, an extended family group whose late-night activities made Lemley suspect drug dealing, and she had called their landlord to report her concerns.
The neighbors found out who had alerted the landlord, Lemley says. “They started screaming obscenities at us, and then picked up a car jack from beside their house,” she says. The police showed up, she says, but only hours later. “Their response was, ‘What can we really do?’” Lemley says. “I felt frightened, helpless, frustrated–just angry, you know? Just feeling stuck. Feeling like, ‘Why can’t we live in a city that has more public safety?’”
Six years later, Lemley is running hard for the Oakland City Council. She is the only woman among seven candidates competing for the District 1 seat being vacated by Councilwoman Jane Brunner. Lemley, now 41 and a policy director at John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, is also the District 1 candidate who has received the most endorsements from city officials. “I don’t think it’s because we agree on positions,” she said. “I think I received the support of a number of city officials because they respect my work.”
Lemley’s list of supporters includes council members Libby Schaaf, Pat Kernighan and Larry Reid. While the candidate has not received a formal endorsement from outgoing member Jane Brunner, who has declined to name any of the candidates as her preferred successor, there are political connections between the two women. Lemley’s husband, Justin Horner, is Brunner’s former chief of staff.
Citing safety, economy and education as some of her campaign’s top priorities, Lemley has also earned the support of public organizations that include Oakland Police Officers Association (which donated $1,300 to her campaign), the Chamber of Commerce ($1,300), and the firefighters’ union ($700).
This can be a mixed blessing, as Lemley has found out while campaigning. During one recent meeting, a voter spoke up, sounding apprehensive: “You have the endorsement of three of the city council members. How do I trust your independence? How do I know you are not already part of a faction of the city council?”
Amy Lemley, whose campaign has raised just over $78,000 to this date, says she doesn’t see any problem with endorsements from a variety of sources.
“The key to getting things done is building relationships,” she likes to say. Former State Senator John Burton was both her mentor, when it came to learning the importance of building relationships, and also the founder of the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, where Lemley currently works as a policy director. Burton has supported and donated to Lemley’s city council effort. “He will stand up to any interest,” Lemley says. “He’s taught me how to get things done.”
If the key to getting things done is building relationships, the road to city council requires a lot of walking, at least for Amy Lemley. She walks her precinct five days per week, three to four hours each day. “I actually suspended my gym membership,” she said, laughing, while walking one day through the Temescal neighborhood. She had a list of 75 voters’ residences to visit that day. “I have been walking so much!”
Dressed in a simple purple dress and black comfortable shoes, Lemley walked along Aileen Street, near Market and Adeline. She knocked on a door, after scanning her list of District 1’s frequent voters. A dog barked from within, but nobody answered. From inside her red campaign bag, the candidate pulled a black pen and a flyer. “Sorry, I missed you. Amy Lemley.” she wrote. “Please call me if you have questions.” Then she added her phone number. “I get a lot of calls,” she said.
More walking, more knocking. She was grabbing another flyer to stuff in a doorway when a young woman approached.
“Hey,” Lemley said amiably. “Do you live here?”
“My grandparents live here. They aren’t home now.”
Then the candidate introduced herself. “I’m running for Oakland City Council,” she said. “I just stopped by to meet your grandparents. Do you live here as well?”
Not any more, the woman said. “However, we all still vote and everything,” she said.
“I bet I have your name… Don’t tell me!” Lemley joked. She scanned her frequent voter list and guessed. “Ashley!”
Both candidate and voter laughed out loud. “I can’t believe you are 29!” Lemley cried. “You must hear that all the time.” The conversation deepened; Ashley told Lemley about her 10 year-old son, about her “frustrating experience” while applying for affordable housing, about the bureaucracy she faced when she tried to gain eligibility into the program.
“Have you ever heard about Bay Area Legal Aid?” Lemley asked. She wrote a phone number on a campaign flyer and reminded the young woman to consider voting for her.
“And tell your grandparents that I stopped by,” she said. She pressed on.
The campaign volunteer with her, Laurie Kappe, was working the other street, repeating Lemley’s story to anybody who would open the door long enough to listen: “Ten years ago she started this organization called First Place for Youth, which helps youths who are emancipated from foster care, many of whom would end up homeless or incarcerated.”
This has become one of the ongoing themes of Lemley’s campaign: that of all the candidates, she has special and measurable experience at getting things done. (“I grew First Place from an idea into an organization that serves over 500 youth annually,” Lemley often says, while introducing herself in public forums.) Kappe repeated the story numerous times as she knocked on almost 50 doors that day. “If you tell voters who Amy is, and what she’s done – especially in this community, where a lot of people probably know somebody who might have been in the foster care system – they will be impressed,” she said as she tried to catch sight of Lemley, who was down the street working somebody else. “We have a lot of problems to solve, and need leadership that can make the difference in everybody’s day-to-day life. I think Amy offers that.”
A torn Barack Obama sticker was plastered on one of the pillars facing a house near Piedmont Avenue, in North Oakland. Among the front yard roses, a single sign read “Amy Lemley for City Council.”
The home belonged to Kerry Hamill, a former District 1 school board member, who had organized a house party to introduce Lemley to Hamill’s acquaintances. “She’s dealt with a lot of complex policy issues and has found solutions,” Hamill said. “That’s impressive to me.”
Seated in front of a fireplace, Lemley told her story to a living room full of guests: how she came to California from Iowa, and started First Place for Youth in 1998. “Young people who are raised in poverty will be impacted by that poverty their entire life,” Lemley said. “They will die earlier. They will be less educated, underemployed, won’t have the quality of life that my children will have.”
She looked around the room, and her short dark hair called attention to the sharp angles of her black-framed glasses. “These children are black and brown, and they do not live in District 1,” Lemley said. “So for me, District 1 can be a leader in bridging this issue and solving this problem.”
Her long-term strategy for public safety, she told the guests, is job creation. Short-term, she said, it’s vital to increase the police force.
A skeptical man asked how Lemley planned to pay for more officers. “The economic growth is not happening in six months, but we need more police officers on the streets in six days,” he said. “How do you see the city council’s role in generating revenue to pay for that?”
Lemley sat quietly while the man finished his thoughts. He had formulated a complex question involving two of Oakland’s main issues, economy and safety. “The way we begin to fund these officers is, we say, ‘New revenue goes to police academies,’” Lemley said. “It should not go to the fifteen other interests that come to us. And there are many other interests that want that revenue.”
If elected, Lemley likes to say in her campaigning, she wants to increase the police force numbers from 1.4 officers per 1,000 residents to 2.5 per 1,000. To fund this, she tells voters, she plans to raise business licenses and sales taxes. “I’m of the opinion that the general fund is too small for a city like Oakland,” Lemley says. “We need to dramatically expand our economy.”
For economic stimulus, she hopes to attract businesses by emphasizing such Oakland advantages as “superior access to transit, and abundant low-cost commercial real estate,” she says. “We need to take the initiative to go out and approach employers, make the case for Oakland.”
Another revenue-generating alternative might be a new parcel tax, Lemley says, but that–like making sure new business owners are satisfied with the city–would require some organizational improvements within city government and the city council. “The last two parcel taxes have been rejected, overwhelmingly,” she says. “The chamber of commerce and another group recently did a poll to show that there is not the support in the electorate for a parcel tax, because they do not trust the city council.”
The economy boost, says Lemley, is crucial for easing unemployment; more businesses in Oakland mean more jobs. But more importantly, she says, job creation can tackle the problem that most concerns residents now, which is violence. Those are “two sides of the same coin,” Lemley likes to say. If Oakland can provide enough jobs, she says, it will become a safer place in the long-term—a city whose government pays proper attention to residents, taxpayers, businesspeople, workers and victims of crime.
“When somebody threw a car jack into my baby’s nursery, I think I deserved to have someone come out and take that, and hear about that,” said the candidate on a recent Saturday morning at her house in Rockridge. “And not just to be told I can find the report in the web and fax it.”
The garage of Lemley’ house has been transformed into her campaign headquarters. Maps of Oakland’s neighborhoods are fixed to the garage’s wall. A sign on the floor reads, “Every child deserves a safe place,” and on another wall are handwritten messages to the candidate.
“I support Amy because…She is dedicated and a great neighbor!”
“She has demonstrated vision, leadership and training.”
“I support Amy because…” This particular one is in a child’s penmanship cursive. “…She is my mom!”
Lemley is a mother of two girls: Violet, 7, and one-year-old Rita. The candidate tries to balance her busy life among parenting, working full-time at the Burton foundation, and campaigning. With election day approaching, she only has a little free time to spend with her daughters and husband, Justin Horner.
“Honestly, we spend a lot of our time at Cactus Taqueria, which is a block away,” she said, meaning the popular Mexican restaurant on College Avenue. ”That’s a pretty good night for us.”
A longtime youth and homelessness advocate, Lemley is the daughter of a veterinarian and a hospice nurse. In her small Iowa hometown, Cherokee, she joined the high school debate team, which gave her unique opportunities to travel around the country for tournaments. “For a little girl from Iowa, getting to participate in these debates all around the country, meet people and learn new things–It was great,” she said. “It was all about learning how to become a good public speaker.”
At 14, Lemley had her first job—as a corn detasseler. ”It’s hard work,” she said. “It was something that everyone does there. In a small town like Cherokee, there aren’t the very rich and there aren’t the very poor.”
She left at 18, to study public policy at the University of Chicago, and the experience of living in a bigger city made her acutely aware of social issues, she said. “I saw what a big city was like and how people are allowed to sleep out in the street. It was a big shock for me, coming from a place where those things didn’t happen. It seemed really wrong, immoral.”
Lemley spent three post-graduate years in Boston, working as a group home counselor teaching parenting techniques and helping pregnant young women (“That’s where I got the whole idea for First Place,” she said), and in 1996 she came to California for a UC Berkeley public policy degree. It was during graduate school that she met her friend Deanne Pearn, who later helped her develop First Place. “We had a common interest in working with young people,” Pearn says, “and she had an idea for starting a non- profit, which was focused on the kids who were aging out of the foster-care system.”
Pearn, who now works as First Places’s policy vice president, had a lot to say about her work with Lemley. “She wrote a proposal and got a grant for an eco and green foundation in the spring before we were going to graduate,” Pearn says. “Amy is incredibly smart, very good in getting to the heart of a matter. She really understands systems, how they work, where the pressure points are, and where we can make the change. She is very tenacious, and doesn’t give up.”
Lemley ran First Place for seven years, providing affordable housing to over 500 foster youth annually and working with a staff of 35. As she gained experience, she says, she realized how complex the homelessness problem is. “I became frustrated with the fact that, no matter how many young adults we served, there were always 300 more who were homeless, abused neglected exploited, marginalized,” she said. “I realized that what was needed was a way to find a policy solution for this.”
A friend introduced her to John Burton, who had recently been termed out of the California State Senate and had created a foundation for homeless children and youth. Burton, now chair of the California Democratic Party, hired Lemley as a policy director. “I was impressed how smart she was, and how determined she was to work to improve the lives of young people, especially people in the foster care system,” Burton says. “I just think she’s got great integrity, she’s got a lot of energy and enthusiasm and she really knows how to get things done.”
At the Burton foundation Lemley works on state and federal legislation to benefit homeless, abused and neglected children. Some of her most significant accomplishments there include expanding access to safe, affordable housing for former foster youth from 165 youths annually in California to 2,200 youth. She also helped lead a statewide coalition to increase the age until which the foster-care system will assist a young person–from age 18, the previous limit, up to the new cutoff at 21.
“It’s very satisfying to get to work to pass legislation that directly affects homeless abused and neglected kids,” she said. “It’s really exciting, very gratifying to make that change.”
So why disrupt her satisfying life to try becoming a city council member for Oakland?
“I want to make families economically sustainable, our communities safe, and our schools better,” she said, and looked around the table before her. It was covered with campaign materials: “Amy Lemley, Oakland City Council.” “Safer neighborhoods.” “High quality public schools.” One of her volunteers nudged her to get back to campaigning: time was running short, he said, and there was lots more to accomplish. “I’d like to do work that really contributes to making our city healthier as a whole,” Lemley said.