Election brings mixed results for Oakland police union

OPOA president Barry Donelan (left) looks at former president Dom Arotzarena at a press conference last year.

OPOA president Barry Donelan (left) looks at former president Dom Arotzarena at a press conference last year.

A bright yellow and blue sticker slapped on the front of the Oct. 26 Oakland Tribune depicts a burly police officer, arms folded.

“Oakland Police Endores Jane Brunner for City Attorney,” the sticker reads, and in fine white lettering at the bottom states, “Paid for by the Oakland Police Officers’ Association PAC.”

Eleven days later, Brunner lost her bid for city attorney. Three other council members endorsed by the OPOA also lost. In total, four out of the six city races — including the District 1 race — went to candidates who did not have OPOA’s support.

While it was not the desired outcome for the union, the voters made their decision, said OPOA President Barry Donelan.

“It’s the citizens’ choice,” he said.

The Oakland Police Officer’s Association — the police union, a nonprofit organization representing the city’s police officers — has for years dabbled in the political scene, endorsing candidates and spending thousands of dollars each election cycle advocating for candidates OPOA leaders believe will best address public safety and police concerns.

This election, the union endorsed candidates in the six city races, supporting Amy Lemley for the District 1 council race, Sean Sullivan for District 3, Noel Gallo for District 5, Larry Reid for District 7, Ignacio De La Fuente for the at-large seat, and Brunner for city attorney. Of all those candidates, only Gallo and Reid were elected.

The defeat of most of union’s picks — most prominently Brunner and De La Fuente — raise questions as to whether the police endorsement helped at all, or perhaps even hurt.

“I don’t know if there’s any way to try to explain it,” said De La Fuente, who will now be leaving his long-held District 5 seat and said he was surprised by the results of the election.

Most of the candidates made the city’s escalating crime rate a centerpiece of their campaign, pointing out Oakland’s 109 homicides already this year. The alarming crime rate — which includes rising numbers of robberies and burglaries — has put increasing pressure on city leadership to turn things around in Oakland.

“For people concerned with law and order, people concerned with the crime situation, and safety in general, the OPOA would normally be a positive,” said Don Link, who ran for a District 1 seat without OPOA’s support and has been tracking local politics and crime for years. “I don’t think it had that effect this year.”

The OPOA spent nearly $18,000 supporting Brunner, who declined to comment for this article, and opposing Barbara Parker, the acting city attorney running against Brunner, according to campaign finance filings filed this month with the city clerk. In some cases, the support came in the form of a sticker on the Tribune newspapers. In other cases, the union sent out emails.

In the at-large race, the police union’s filings show that the union spent close to $11,000 on ads and mailers against Rebecca Kaplan, who ran against De La Fuente.

But the thousands spent was not enough to sway voters.

The OPOA’s Donelan said the homicide and crime statistics trouble police officers as well as the public; the association’s endorsement was aimed at the candidates’ proposals, he said, rather than some certainty as to who would win.  “We endorse the candidates that we feel will make public safety the number one issue—who’s going to change these numbers, and send them in a different direction,” Donelan said.  “That doesn’t mean we’re going to continue to pick people who are going to win.”

Some observers suggested that negative press–about the potential federal takeover of the police department, the police response to the Occupy protests, and the public battle over pensions–might have helped steer voters away from police endorsed candidates. Donelan said he does not know if any of these factors might have hurt police-supported candidates.

“All of these things conspired, I think, to really somewhat emasculate the OPOA’s political power,” Link said.

District 1 candidate Len Raphael said he believes other factors, like the Occupy protests, overshadowed the OPOA endorsement. But Raphael – whose campaign platform included a call for cutting salary packages of police and firefighters – still said he believed the OPOA endorsement was beneficial for city candidates.

“I think the police endorsement still had power,” Raphael said.

Dan Kalb, the District 1 council member-elect,  said that while he was not endorsed by the police union, he will still strive to do the best thing to reduce crime in the city and support police officers.

“I don’t think that the decision as to what policy we should approve or change, as the case may be, should be based on how well or how poorly a particular union, in this case OPOA, did in the election, or how much one worries about their political influence,” he said.

8 Comments

  1. Although I was absolutely sure I was voting for Barbara Parker, I was on the fence regarding Kaplan/De La Fuente. But the trashy OPOA mailers made my decisions final in both races. My opinion of the OPOA was already fairly low – now I distrust their motives completely.

  2. The ability of the police union to influence decisions by the city council and mayor operates in tandem with the clout of the more finessed fire fighters union. The smiley warm fuzzy fire fighters play the soft role to the hard OPOA. But they’re not soft and cuddly when it comes to protecting their money and working conditions.

    Fire fighters are not much concerned about protecting themselves from OFD personnel actions the way the OPOA are, but fire fighters are joined at the hip to the cops when it comes to protecting their extremely generous wages,
    benefits, and retirement benefits.

    Then there are the other city union employees who only wish they could get the compensation that cops and fire get. They can’t reach those pay levels because only cops and fire can use the powerful threat of going to binding arbitration to extract favorable contracts.

    That power is enshrined in the city charter and its sanctity assured by the city council’s cowardice.

    The other unions won’t support repeal of binding arbitration’s compensation protection out of concern that they would get their compensation or at least retirement benefits cut next. Not an unreasonable concern, but self-fulfilling prophesy the longer we keep paying unneccessarily high fire and police compensation.

    The proof of the pudding of whether the police union has lost it’s political power will be what the council does about repealing or at least modifying binding arbitration after Federal Judge Henderson decides how far of a receivership to impose on OPD.

    All of which is to say, follow the compensation paid to police and fire before concluding they have lost political power.

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