Nine candidates have their say at forum
on August 27, 2010
Nine candidates shared the spotlight at the Sierra Club’s Oakland mayoral forum on Wednesday night, despite selective invitations that initially drew criticism.
The forum, hosted in downtown Oakland by the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay chapter at the East Bay Community Foundation, allowed the candidates to discuss their particular plans for green governance. Candidates addressed five questions prepared ahead of time by Sierra Club members. Topics ranged from high-density, affordable housing to the creation of green jobs. A crowd of Sierra Club members, as well as many campaign volunteers out to support their candidates, attended the forum.
Although each candidate cited emissions from idling trucks and ships in the Port of Oakland as an environmental hazard, they diverged widely over how they would address the issue as mayor.
Don Perata, a former state senator and one-time senate president pro tem, said that regulating pollution from the port should be straightforward, since the Port Commission ultimately works for the mayor. “There shouldn’t be any need to ask for the cooperation,” Perata said. “You just get the cooperation.” He also mentioned $1 billion in untapped money from state proposition 1B that could pay for programs at the port.
Proposition 1B, passed in 2006, created $2 billion in bond money for the Trade Corridor Improvement Fund. The money can be appropriated by the state legislature for improvements in what the federal government designates as trade corridors of “national significance.”
Terence Candell, executive director of Candell’s College Preparatory Academy, used his turn to ask Perata why he didn’t secure these proposition 1B funds for the Port of Oakland while in the state senate. Then Candell said that as mayor he would rewrite the city charter so that the mayor was responsible for truck upgrades in the port. Upgrades to engine parts that cause high carbon dioxide emissions are part of an ongoing effort to reduce toxins released by trucks in Oakland’s port.
Most candidates suggested small ways the port could be changed. Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said that upgrading vehicles to be more environmentally friendly was a good start, but added, “By the way, those retrofits need to be maintained.” Kaplan suggested an on-site maintenance center would keep the trucks’ pollution down.
Oakland City Councilmember Jean Quan promised to look at what the city of Los Angeles has done to control trucking emissions at its port, and many candidates referred to the L.A. plan, which puts more responsibility on trucking companies for the emissions coming from their trucks, as a model for Oakland. Truckers in Oakland’s port are currently responsible for the upkeep of their own trucks, which many candidates said is too financially onerous for such low-paid workers.
Candidate Arnold Fields took yet another approach, saying that the port should finance its own electric grid and new, “clean, green machines” to haul loads in and out.
However, former reporter and political consultant Joe Tuman said the city government’s relationship with the port was not so easy to navigate. “If there’s going to be an impact for that or a fix for that, it’s not going to come from us,” Tuman said, adding that the port falls outside the Oakland city government’s jurisdiction. The only way the mayor can control the port, Tuman said, is by changing the terms for the leases on the 13 points of entry into the port.
Candidates also addressed the idea of Oakland bringing in more sustainable energy by taking over its own power generation. The largest difference of opinion surfaced over whether PG&E was a viable partner for delivering solar and wind energy to Oakland residents and businesses.
Green Party candidate Don Macleay cited the need for a large partner like PG&E to bring sustainably produced energy to Oakland. “We have a lot of space available and we should use it,” said Macleay, “but I want to make sure we’re doing something that’s viable and realistic.”
Quan cast doubt on the workability of a relationship with PG&E. “In Oakland we were very heavily pressured by PG&E,” Quan said. “Then there was an effort to close that option before we even looked at it.” In June, California voted against a ballot measure that would have required majority voter approval for any municipality in the state to take over power generation. News sources reported that PG&E provided millions in funding to support the measure.
“I think we should have a little good capitalist competition here between green energy and PG&E over time,” Quan went on to say.
The last question of the night asked candidates how they would address “perpetually underfunded” parks and recreation programs, as well as tree planting efforts. Candidates went back and forth on whether funds exist for these programs. Perata was quick to say that the Urban Releaf program already plants trees in Oakland. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” he said, “just support what we have.”
While Joe Tuman said parks and recreation could not be a priority until Oakland digs out of its “enormous financial hole,” Kaplan went on to say that a focus on building Oakland’s economy would restore these programs in time.
Throughout the forum, the crowd’s mood appeared supportive of the candidates. Sierra Club members filed in wearing their green member stickers, and many campaign volunteers also attended.
If Wednesday’s forum had gone as originally planned, only three candidates would have presented their opinions to the crowd. The Sierra Club drew criticism after Kent Lewandowski, a volunteer chairperson, initially told several candidates by email that they would not be included. Only the three candidates deemed “most viable”—Quan, Kaplan, and Perata—would have had an opportunity to speak at the forum.
According to Kate Kelley, senior chapter director of the San Francisco Bay Sierra Club, the group’s candidate viability standards were adopted from guidelines created by the League of Women Voters. “Many organizations look to the League of Women Voters as a guide to create a format for these kinds of forums,” Kelley said. “We looked to them as our guide.”
The guidelines for viability range from points gauging the candidate’s level of political activity to more controversial and complex requirements. According to the guidelines, a candidate must meet all of the requirements of a threshold list — including making a public intention to run, staffing a publicly accessible campaign headquarters, and having a website or other material with an articulated campaign platform. Additional criteria exclude those who have not garnered over 5 percent favor in a professionally conducted opinion poll, received over 400 donations, received 20 percent of the vote in a previous general election, or held the office they are currently seeking.
The League of Women Voters is planning a September 23 forum using these guidelines, and only Quan, Kaplan, and Perata have been invited to attend.
Invited and uninvited candidates alike railed against the Sierra Club’s decision. Perata pledged to boycott the event unless all guests were invited. Rhys Williams, campaign spokesperson, said Perata felt participating in a comprehensive forum was the only “fair, democratic, and respectful” option.
An email sent by Dyra Candell, the Candell campaign’s chief of staff and wife of the candidate, accused the Sierra Club and Kent Lewandowski of elitism and bigotry. “The only thing that disappoints me is that the people of Oakland lose again because of elitist pigs like you,” the email read. Oakland North and other media outlets were sent copies of the correspondence.
Terence Candell said he fully supports his wife and backed the sentiment of the email at the time it was sent. Though the Sierra Club eventually allowed all registered candidates to speak, Candell says he was stunned by the initial decision. “Oakland has never been an exclusive club, we’ve always tried to be inclusive,” he said.
The Ella Baker Center, formerly a participant in the forum through its initiative, the Oakland Climate Action Coalition, retracted its support after the format became known. Abel Habtegeorgis, spokesperson for Ella Baker Center, said that a forum with only three participants would not be fair. “We felt that too many candidates were excluded,” Habtegeorgis said. “We believe that candidate forums should be as fair and balanced as possible.” Despite the organization’s approval of the decision to allow full participation, the coalition has decided to coordinate its own environmental forum on green jobs and climate action on September 15.
Media backlash followed the announcement as well. An editorial in Oakland Local railed against the decision, saying the move seemed designed only to “keep people ignorant of what a broader field of candidates thought.” Zennie Abraham, a local blogger, was a recipient of the original Sierra Club email sent to the uninvited candidates, and replied directly to Lewandowski to express his displeasure with the move. “If The Sierra Club is not intellectually capable of solving the riddle of hosting a comprehensive forum for the people of Oakland, just don’t do one,” Abraham wrote.
Kelley said the public reaction prompted the Sierra Club’s format revision. “The candidates wanted it to be all-inclusive,” Kelley said. “When we received some pushback on our format, we made the change.”
While the expanded format allowed each of the participating candidates equal time to speak, it also limited the depth of responses. Ron Bishop, conservation chair on the Sierra Club’s Northern Alameda executive committee, said there was no way to fully probe each candidate with a 90-minute time limit. “We could only ask so many questions,” Bishop said. “It would be an all-day event to have a serious discussion with every candidate.”
Ultimately, Candell said he was grateful for the effort undertaken by the Sierra Club to make their forum accessible to all. “I appreciate the fact that they backed off something they knew was wrong,” Candell said. “We are not the type to hold a grudge, we’ve got too much work to do. We’ve got to make sure this city moves forward and everyone must be included.”
Other candidates said they were happy to receive a belated invitation to the forum. Referring to his campaign slogan, local realtor and community organizer Larry Lionel Young, Jr. said, “If Oakland wants change, if they want to be open and hear the democratic process, come November 2nd, they’ll vote ‘LL’ and Oakland will be well.”
Macleay said that he would like to see organizations use social media and the Internet to bring the candidates’ ideas to more people. “The Sierra Club could have interviewed us and put it on the Internet,” said Macleay. “Or they could hold events more like mixers.”
Oakland organizations are planning several more forums in the weeks before the mayoral election. In addition to forums on September 23 and October 21, the League of Women Voters would like to host an all-inclusive event that could later be posted to the Internet, according to member Helen Hutchinson.
Text by Laura Hautala and Evan Wagstaff.
Lead image: Rebecca Kaplan addresses the crowd as fellow candidates Larry Lionel Young, Jr., Joe Tuman, and Jean Quan take notes.
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