With just a week to go before the election, the five candidates vying for Oakland’s at-large seat on the City Council are revving up their campaigning, making their cases for how to tackle what they all agree is the city’s number one issue: crime. But with the city’s annual homicide tally surpassing 100 recently—a five-year high—the council hopefuls have different ideas with how to deal with the problem.
By Oakland standards, it’s an especially high-stakes race. At least one of the race’s two perceived frontrunners—incumbent Rebecca Kaplan or longtime District 5 representative Ignacio De La Fuente—will no longer be serving on the council after election day. This may be why each side is precinct walking, recruiting volunteers and fundraising at breakneck speed. A candidate needs to take 50 percent of the vote, plus one, in order to win on November 6 under the city’s ranked-choice voting system.
Oakland’s unique at-large seat, created in 1968, is the eighth position on the council. The seven other councilmembers are charged with representing the constituents in the geographic district that elected them. The at-large representative is meant to take the entire city’s needs into account, and balance each neighborhood’s viewpoints, when making a decision.
“The at-large seat on the city council is in a better position to kind of broker an agreement amongst the other councilmembers, since they don’t have a little empire that they have to answer to,” said Katherine Gavzy, president of Oakland’s League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan political organization which advocates for informed participation in government. “If anybody is in a position to try to get the council to work together, it’s the at-large councilmember.”
The four challengers to incumbent Rebecca Kaplan, who won the seat in November 2008 with 62 percent of the vote, include 20-year council veteran De La Fuente, who is 63; Carol Lee Tolbert, 62, an educator, entrepreneur and activist; software engineer Mick Storm, 40; and Theresa Anderson, 50, a community organizer who worked for a time with civil rights attorney John Burris.
Kaplan, 42, who is the city’s first openly-gay elected official, got her start in politics in 1994, when she helped to run the Senate election campaign of Ted Kennedy against then-newcomer Mitt Romney. She called the experience one of her “most formative.”
“That’s when I really started thinking about elective office, as opposed to just working on policy,” Kaplan said on a recent day outside of Oakland’s City Hall.
Kaplan got her law degree from Stanford University after gaining a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master’s in Urban and Environmental Policy from Tufts University. She got her start in electoral politics in Oakland on the Alameda County Transit Board of Directors, where she served as the at-large representative from 2002 to 2009. She’s been on the city council since 2008.
While serving on the transit board, Kaplan said, she “led the creation of the new all-night transit service,” and she noted that she’s still committed to improving biking, walking and public transportation opportunities for Oakland. While on the city council, one of her first achievements was the development of the free Broadway shuttle, a bus that runs from Jack London Square to Broadway and 27th Streets. “It’s great,” Kaplan said. “It’s helping customers get to our businesses and helping employees get to work.”
Kaplan said that if she’s if re-elected, her major priorities will be getting illegal guns off the streets, restoring trust in City Hall and the police department, and creating jobs. “I want to continue the work I’ve done, focusing on improving the economy, public safety and the trustworthiness of local government,” she said.
Kaplan, whose endorsements include the Alameda County Democratic Party and California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, said working on projects to boost the city’s economy is tied to public safety. “The at-large seat allows for me to focus on larger citywide issues,” Kaplan said. “Economic attraction and supporting our local businesses are tied to the big picture of public safety, because no one will want to open or expand their business here if it’s not safe.”
Jason Overman, Kaplan’s spokesperson and campaign manager, said creating a business-friendly environment in Oakland is vital, so more companies want to move to Oakland and expand here, creating jobs and enlarging the city’s tax base. “We lose more than $10 million a year in sales tax revenues that could be going to Oakland to cities like Emeryville, San Francisco and Walnut Creek,” Overman said. “When we talk about public resources and how much money we have to allocate to them—whether that’s police or potholes—we can’t just talk about where to cut. We have to talk about growing the pot.”
Overman pointed to several development projects underway that Kaplan supports, including the 170-acre Oakland Army Base project that would create a manufacturing and distribution center and is projected to create thousands of new jobs. “It’s also things like Coliseum City, the Lake Merritt BART station project and the Broadway free shuttle that are helping economic growth here,” Overman added. “By working regionally on large-scale projects, like Coliseum City and Lake Merritt BART, the whole city will benefit from new retail, restaurants and housing.”
Kaplan said her platform is focused on getting new public policies for zoning to allow restaurants and other local businesses to open up, and finding funding from state and federal agencies to fund programs locally—for “everything from potholes to police.”
Kaplan’s platform also focuses on getting illegal guns off the streets by developing programs with state and federal elected officials. According to Overman, Kaplan is currently working with state lawmakers to draft legislation that would divert a portion of the proceeds from ammunition sales in California to the city of Oakland for violence prevention programs.
Kaplan said it’s also crucial to invest in new police academies, or classes of police recruits, who are hired by the city and go through a rigorous testing and field training course. According to the mayor’s office, each academy costs about $6.5 million, and there are academies planned for the next five years. “Future academies will have a significant impact on the number of personnel needed to accomplish tasks,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan has said repeatedly that she doesn’t support gang injunctions, and that she voted against laying off some 80 Oakland police officers in 2010 to save nearly $8 million in the face of a budget shortfall that swelled to $40 million that year. “Councilmember Kaplan was one of the three councilmembers to vote no,” Overman said. “It’s devastating that those layoffs passed. We saw, almost instantaneously, crime go up.”
Challenger Ignacio De La Fuente agrees that public safety is the most important issue in this election. “We’re in a public safety crisis—we can’t afford not to use all the tools in the toolbox available to us,” De La Fuente said, noting that the city should aggressively pursue other crime prevention programs such as youth Operation Ceasefire, a violence prevention program. (Kaplan also supports the program, which was recently adopted by Police Chief Howard Jordan.)
De La Fuente, who emigrated to the United States at age 21 from Mexico, began his life in politics in 1987 when he ran an unsuccessful bid for Oakland’s at-large seat. He won District 5 five years later, in 1992, and has kept it ever since. In addition to sitting on the City Council, De La Fuente has been the vice president for the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers International Union Local 164, which is based in Oakland, for nearly four decades, where he helps negotiate on workers’ behalf for health insurance and pension benefits.
Now, with backing from big name endorsers including California Governor Jerry Brown and the Oakland Police Officers Association, De La Fuente said he’s running for the at-large position again because he’s “fed up” with the city’s crime problem, and because he feels that representing the city as a whole will give his vote more weight on the council.
“I think Oakland is at a crossroads,” De La Fuente said. “We’re facing things we haven’t faced before, with more than 103 homicides so far this year and a 41 percent increase in crime in recent years. This is a problem that requires citywide leadership, and that’s why I’m running for the at-large seat.”
De La Fuente has been vocal about hotly contested public policies aimed at reducing violence citywide. He supports both gang injunctions and youth curfews, an idea that Chief Jordan has said he is exploring. The city currently has two gang injunctions in effect in North Oakland and De La Fuente’s Fruitvale neighborhood. These court orders restrict known gang members from associating with one another and carrying firearms. They also enforce curfews and prohibit gang recruitment.
“I’ve been very vocal about the fact that I’ve proposed gang injunctions and curfews,” De La Fuente said. “If we disagree about those tools as a city council, we should have that debate. My position is we can’t afford not to do anything that could reduce crime.”
De La Fuente and Kaplan have often butted heads about whether or not safety in Oakland hinges on the number of police officers on the streets. De La Fuente voted to impose police layoffs two years ago, but he said that the department should deploy other tactics, like injunctions, to fight crime too. The council, he said, needs to worry about how much extra police officers are costing the city. The solution is not just about staffing, he said.
“I know we’re talking about the police officers that were laid off, but more officers does not always mean better,” De La Fuente said. “At some point we need to have a conversation about how much money this is costing us.”
De La Fuente said that from the beginning of his career in politics, his platform has been “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Like Kaplan, he believes that jobs are tied to public safety. He said he helped lead big companies to to open up shops in Oakland, including 24 Hour Fitness and Home Depot. De La Fuente is also campaigning on the need for more jobs in Oakland, and said he’s fighting for the 1,400 new jobs expected to come with the Oakland Army Base to be filled by hiring locals.
He also trumpeted successes he’s achieved in his district, including the development of Fruitvale Shopping Center—a 14-acre site that was previously a Del Monte cannery—into a mixed-use retail and housing development. “I led the revitalization of Fruitvale’s business district, which resulted in a 45 percent vacancy rate drop—from 50 percent before I took office, to less than five percent today,” De La Fuente said.
He emphasized the importance of developing market rate and affordable housing programs in his district. In addition to the Fruitvale Shopping District, other projects include the East 27th Street project, Sausal Creek Townhomes and the Altenheim Senior Housing facility.
At-large candidate Carol Lee Tolbert is an Oakland native and was an Oakland school board member from 1992 to 1997. She also ran a nonprofit called the North Oakland Parish, through which she started youth after-school programs, outreach programs for the elderly and disabled and one that was aimed at getting parents more involved in their children’s lives. The nonprofit is now closed.
Tolbert said she’s running because she’s seen safety net programs fall apart in Oakland. “This is a critical election,” Tolbert said. “We have the opportunity to bring real change to the city council, and I bring leadership, knowledge and expertise, so I am able to reach across the aisle to solve problems this great city faces.”
Tolbert said Frank Ogawa, who was Oakland’s first Japanese-American councilman and served from 1966 until his death in 1994, is a hero of hers, in part because he always made himself available to his constituents. “He is one of my role models, because he made it a priority to be responsive to the people of Oakland,” Tolbert said.
Tolbert also said that to her, crime is the most important problem in Oakland. “I call it a tale of two cities,” she said. “We’re fifth in the world in terms of our arts and restaurant scene, and the fourth most dangerous city. I believe I can bring leadership to make sure we can accomplish our goals.”
Candidate Mick Storm, a first-time elected office candiate who earned his degree in forestry conservation at Humboldt State University, has spent his career working for technology firms and startups.
Storm said the cornerstone of his platform is public safety. “There has been a serious lack of leadership when it comes to public safety,” Storm said. “We need to get more police officers on the streets right away, and we need to hold them accountable to reforms that are underway.”
He said most important is funding the police staffing levels mandated by Measure Y, passed by Oakland voters in 2004, a roughly $19 million, ten-year plan that allocates money to violence prevention programs and adding “problem-solving” officers to the force. Currently, the complete plan set forth by Measure Y has been stalled due to lack of funding. “We have an obligation to the voters of Oakland to continue to fund the community policing program required by Measure Y,” Storm said.
Storm said one thing that sets him apart from Kaplan and De La Fuente is that he’s not taking any campaign contributions, noting that he’s relying on grassroots campaigning—knocking on doors and meeting people face-to-face.
Storm’s campaign issues also include economic development, and the need to develop “green” and high-tech industries as a part of Oakland’s job base. He also wants to do something about the lack of grocery stores and fresh produce in some neighborhoods in East and West Oakland.
“The lack of quality schools, safe places for recreational activities, reliable public transportation and local jobs has created a cycle of poverty that is nearly impossible to escape,” Storm said. “I do not have all the answers to these problems, but I believe that everyone deserves an equal opportunity.”
Candidate Theresa Anderson-Downs, who is retired, is running on behalf of Oakland’s local Green Party. She said the number one issue that got her to put her name on the ballot is crime. “When I moved to North Oakland ten years ago, the crime rate was very high, but through unconventional work, I’ve been working on getting it down, and it’s worked,” she said, saying she has done things like hosting neighborhood water fights to keep kids busy during hot summer months, and basketball tournaments in which young people from different neighborhoods play each other.
“I do believe that crime is the biggest problem, but we do not need to hire more police officers to fix this problem,” she said. Instead, she said, “We need to invest in our youth. Taking away all the programs for them and closing schools is only contributing to the problem.”
Anderson-Downs said she has experience in violence prevention. “I have this formula I use to get youth involved in community activities,” she said. “Those alone, if implemented across Oakland, could decrease the crime rate overall. If we invest our time and funds in our youth, to get them into school and training programs—as opposed to hiring more police officers—they’ll be less likely to offend.”
The five-way race has garnered extra attention from Oakland political watchers because it means that by November 7, one—or even two—of Oakland’s councilmembers will be out of a job.
“This election makes for a very interesting narrative,” said Joe Tuman, who teaches political science at San Francisco State University and ran for Oakland mayor in 2010 but lost to Jean Quan. (The candidate field that year also included Kaplan.) “Here you have a very likable and well-educated politician, Rebecca Kaplan, who has only been on the city council for four years, up against someone who has been on the city council four times as long as she, and is giving up his seat in District 5 to run for hers.”
Tuman said the at-large race is one to watch on election night, mostly because there is no clear frontrunner. “This is a very very competitive race,” Tuman said.
Both De La Fuente and Kaplan said they’re focusing on running strong campaigns, and that they are paying more attention to the possibility of winning rather than the thought that they might lose.
“I do not just want to talk about the problem, I’m running to do something about it. I’m not afraid to make those hard decisions,” De La Fuente said. “For me, it’s not a gamble. I have lots of options because I’m a person who has built a reputation of getting things done.”
Kaplan said she hasn’t had time to think about the possibility of losing—she’d rather focus on city policy. “One way to look at it is, if I wasn’t doing the work to actually improve the economy or the trustworthiness of our government and public safety, then I might be sitting home screaming at the television, which wouldn’t do anyone any good,” she said.