This week will end the tenure of three of the longest-standing members on the Oakland City Council, each of whom has served for nearly two decades. On January 7, three new members who won in the November 2012 election will take over for District 5 Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente, who gave up his position to unsuccessfully run against Rebecca Kaplan for the at-large seat and District 1 councilmember Jane Brunner, who lost her race for City Attorney to Barbara Parker. Nancy Nadel, who is vacating the District 3 seat, did not run for re-election.
As the new council prepares for its first regular meeting on January 22, it will face some of its biggest challenges in nearly a decade: A homicide rate that recently reached 131 in a city of 400,000 people and a budget that some elected officials call the toughest in a decade. Meanwhile, the three outgoing city leaders, with nearly 60 years of combined experience between them, are preparing for life outside of electoral politics. While Nadel said that she plans to remain in West Oakland, where she owns a small shop called the Oakland Chocolate Company, Brunner and De La Fuente are planning to stay involved at City Hall in some way, they said.
Brunner, who was elected in 1996 to represent District 1, which includes North Oakland, is a senior attorney at the law offices of Seigel & Yee, specializing in employment civil litigation, student rights and wrongful termination and discrimination. Brunner received her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from UC Berkeley, and her law degree from UC Hastings College of the Law. Prior to being elected to the City Council, Brunner was a special education teacher in Oregon.
Brunner said her future plans are to continue practicing labor law and to help mediate development and labor negotiations—perhaps even in issues taken up by the Oakland City Council. She has lived in Oakland for the last nearly 40 years, and says she’ll continue to live in her North Oakland home with her husband.
“It’s been fun, and we have done a tremendous amount,” Brunner said of her tenure on the council during a farewell speech on December 18, pointing to policy issues including introducing a city living wage, which she worked on with De La Fuente and which was passed in 1998. That ordinance called for a baseline pay of $8 per hour with health benefits for city employees and companies that contract with the city, or for $9.25 an hour if health benefits are not offered, as well as 12 paid sick days off per year.
In her time as an elected official, Brunner championed affordable housing, sustainable development, increased police department resources, and bringing jobs to Oakland. Brunner chaired the taskforce that spearheaded an agreement directing half of the jobs associated with the Army Base development to be given to Oakland residents. The 366-acre development is expected to bring in 2,000 permanent jobs and 2,800 construction jobs to the site, located at the base of the Bay Bridge. The cost of the Army Base project, which would build a shipping, packaging and distribution facility, is currently between $400,000 and $500,000, according to city officials.
During her bid for city attorney, Brunner ran on a platform that trumpeted her work on the Oakland’s Business Assistance Center, a city-run and funded office that helps businesses owners who want to open up or expand locally. She advocated for the city’s CompStat program, which helps police use data for crime fighting. She was a key supporter of former mayor (and now California governor) Jerry Brown’s focus on growth downtown, and she introduced legislation to create an affordable housing trust fund in Oakland, a pot of money that residents can use to pay their mortgages if they’re in trouble of losing their homes.
She has also worked on smaller pieces of legislation that have become city policy, such as the five-minute grace period for parking meters in Oakland. She led the cause to create the city’s living wage policy, and her law offices also helped fund neighborhood parks at six elementary schools in North Oakland.
“I have always voted with my integrity,” Brunner said to a packed City Council chambers on December 18, when she gave a departure speech. “I have lived here for almost 40 years, and I wanted to make sure when I voted for a building, when I’m 90 years old and walking by it, that I would be proud that I voted for it. That’s how I made my decisions.”
Unlike Brunner, who said she’s moving out of electoral politics, De La Fuente, who was elected to the Oakland City Council in 1992, said that in the near-term he is not seeking elected office, but it could be a future goal.
De La Fuente emigrated from Mexico to the United States at the age of 21. His life in politics began in 1987, when he ran an unsuccessful bid for Oakland’s at-large seat on the City Council. He won District 5, the Fruitvale District, five years later, in 1992, and has been re-elected in that district ever since. In November 2012, he lost in his race for the city’s at-large seat to incumbent Rebecca Kaplan
In addition to serving as an elected official, De La Fuente has been an ardent supporter of labor rights, and has represented the Glass, Molders, Plastics and Allied Workers union as the vice president for nearly four decades. De La Fuente got his start in union leadership as a machinist when he moved here.
Now, at age 64, De La Fuente said he wants to stay involved in Oakland politics, lobbying for issues he is well known for, including supporting gang injunctions, which were put in place in his district, creating more programs for youth, and advocating for labor issues, including pension reform. De La Fuente announced in December that he plans to launch a new foundation that will provide scholarships for young people in Oakland. He declined to provide more details, saying the initiative is new.
“I’m going to figure out a way to work with the people I’ve built relationships with over the years, and to continue to influence politics in Oakland,” De La Fuente said in a phone interview in early January, just a few days prior to announcing the launch of a program he has long advocated—a city municipal identification card program, which would provide a legal ID for any Oakland resident, regardless of immigration status or age. “I’m still focused and concentrated on the city’s business,” he said.
During his last two decades on the council, De La Fuente is credited with turning his district from a fallow stretch of abandoned or struggling businesses plagued with a high crime rate, into a neighborhood that built two new schools, as well as the Fruitvale Shopping Center, and which has taken on contentious crime-fighting strategies, including the use of gang injunctions.
“I learned right away when I was elected that I was not going to be able to change the whole city or the whole public school system,” De La Fuente said. “So I concentrated on District 5, and built new education opportunities for residents of Fruitvale—especially Latino people—and I’ll continue that work with my new scholarship program.”
De La Fuente was embroiled in a controversial decision in 2010 to lay off 80 police officers, which he voted for. Many council members have since stated that the layoffs have contributed, in some way at least, to the soaring crime rate—at a five-year high. De La Fuente has insisted that fighting crime does not only have to be about the number of officers, and has supported other strategies, including gang injunctions, youth curfews and the recently-launched Operation Ceasefire, a complex program that targets violent offenders and requires them to get help before they commit again, or face focused police attention.
“I have tried to give police new tools to deal with the rising crime rate in Oakland, things that would reduce the number of young people who are dying on our streets—things like curfews and injunctions,” De La Fuente said. “I’m going to continue to concentrate on trying to drive the establishment of elected officials to use these tools that are necessary.”
De La Fuente said being involved in politics at City Hall for the last 20 years has positioned him as a more effective leader in Oakland. “Sometimes you learn that you can be more effective on the outside, rather than the inside,” he said. “When you know now bureaucracy works, then it can make you even more effective as a political leader. I’m not running for any political office in the near future, but I’m not ruling it out.”
De La Fuente said one other possibility is to work in Sacramento on behalf of Oakland, he said, citing his strong political relationship with Governor Jerry Brown.
Nadel, 66, said her plan is to refocus her energy into her chocolate-making business in West Oakland, adding simply that it was her time to retire.
During Nadel’s time on the City Council, she said one of her key issues was helping to reintegrate previously incarcerated people into work and Oakland society after release from jail or prison. Two programs that she’s been involved in over the years include Youth Ventures, an Oakland-based nonprofit that provides outreach for disadvantaged youth, and Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, another nonprofit focused that seeks to reduce violence in black communities.
She also worked on programs expanding literacy for adults, helped create a new teen center in West Oakland that’s slated to open this spring and led environmental protection legislation—one of which banned plastic bags in Oakland, an ordinance that took effect on January 1, 2013. Nadel helped write Measure BB, a 2004 ordinance that passed with more than 70 percent of the vote allowing the city to spend Measure Y funding on violence prevention programs, which also has a mandate on minimum police officer staffing. She also helped the city establish ranked-choice voting, a system in which voters choose elected officials by ranking their first, second, and third choice votes on one ballot.
Prior to joining the City Council in 1998, Nadel served two terms as board member on the East Bay Municipal Utility District, and worked as an environmental engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency. She graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in geology, and with a master’s degree from UC Berkeley in engineering geoscience. She ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2006 against De La Fuente and former mayor Ron Dellums, who won that year.
“I’ve been focusing my energy on the City Council, so now I can refocus on my chocolate company and let it blossom,” said Nadel, who got the idea to open a sustainably-sourced, fair trade chocolate company in 2008, after visiting cocoa farmers in Jamaica. “My husband and I vacationed there six years ago, and met some farmers, and fell in love with them,” Nadel said. “We learned all about how they weren’t getting good prices for their beans.”
She said she’s focused both her work on the council and in her business on what she calls the “three E’s”—social equity, economic prosperity, and environmental enhancement. “I’ve embraced restorative justice and I hope we keep moving forward with those programs,” Nadel said. “I’m going to miss doing creative policy work.”