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The candidates

Seven candidates vie for Jean Quan’s Oakland City Council seat

on September 23, 2010

This November, Oakland voters won’t just be choosing the city’s next mayor—they’ll be changing the balance of power in the city’s legislature as well, as Jean Quan steps down from her city council position of eight years in order to run for mayor. Quan currently represents the wildly diverse swath of Oakland marked as District 4, and with seven new faces contending for her position, voters in that area face a range of candidates not seen in over a decade.

District 4 extends from the Contra Costa County line in the Oakland hills, where views of the bay, open spaces and meandering streets define the landscape, to the flatlands of Bancroft Avenue. “We’re the most diverse district in the city,” said Quan, citing the region’s range in ethnicity, language, and wealth. “It really is a microcosm of the city.”

Seven candidates are vying for the council seat, making it one of the most hotly contested city races this November other than the mayor’s race. They represent the district’s full geographic range, coming from both the flatlands and the hills, and their experience in Oakland’s political scene runs the gamut. Two candidates, Clinton Killian and Melanie Shelby, have attempted and failed to win Oakland’s at-large city council seat in separate previous elections. Killian also worked on the AC Transit Board from 1997 to 2000 and on the Oakland Planning Commission until 2005. Shelby was a commissioner for the Oakland Housing Authority.

Two candidates take their primary political experience from Oakland neighborhood organizations. Jill Broadhurst lives with her young family in Montclair and chairs the Montclair Safety and Improvement District Beautification Committee. Dimond resident Daniel Swafford founded and chaired a neighborhood crime prevention council for his District 4 police beat in 2007, and also chaired the Dimond Improvement Association, a neighborhood merchants’ group.

Libby Schaaf has served as a council in a range of Oakland offices. An attorney, Schaaf worked for as director of public affairs for the Port of Oakland, in addition to serving as chief aide for Jerry Brown during his time as Oakland mayor. Finally, Melrose resident Ralph Kanz is the conservation director at the Alameda Creek Alliance, and served three years on the Oakland Public Ethics Commission, chairing it in 2005.

Only Jason Gillen comes to the table without a tie to an Oakland political organization. A self-described “finance professional,” Gillen lives in the Allendale neighborhood with his young family.

Quan is not endorsing any of the candidates running for her soon-to-be former seat. “There’s several strong candidates and it’s been hard to get to the forums,” said Quan.

The candidates made their cases to voters last Thursday at a forum sponsored by League of Women Voters of Oakland (LWV). While their backgrounds differed, they showed very little disagreement with each other on key issues.

Facing a crowd of about 250 at the Fruitvale Presbyterian Church, the candidates answered 10 questions from the crowd that had been screened by members of the league. The candidates had met two days earlier at smaller forum hosted by the Piedmont Pines Neighborhood Association at Joaquin Miller High School to answer questions they were given ahead of time.

At the larger forum, most of the candidates cited public safety, the city budget, and education as their top priorities. All agreed the budget is the most pressing issue that faces district in the next three years. “We can build a great foundation for Oakland,” said Jill Broadhurst, but “everybody is going to have to give” when it comes to cutting services and restructuring pay for city employees.

Kanz, the former board member of the Oakland Public Ethics Commission, said that the city council could achieve accountability with zero-based budgeting, a technique that accounts for expenditures in the previous year’s budget before approving new ones. Kanz called the approach, which is uncommon in government, appropriate “given the severity of the situation.” Kanz also commented that he would cut the city council’s budget before any public services.

During the budget discussion, ideas arose for increasing revenues for the city. Daniel Swafford said that job training would increase the tax base. “We need to step up with education and a strong focus to get people trained at an early age with skill sets that are employable after high school,” Swafford said.

Libby Schaaf pointed to development of the former Oakland Army base as a way to increase revenues for the city and help “create a rainy day fund.”

The lone dissenter on the question of the most pressing issue facing the city was Jason Gillen, who listed public safety instead. Gillen said he would love to focus on improving the budget with business development, but said, “If we don’t have a better public image and better public security in Oakland, then we’re not going to get that kind of development.”

On her priorities for District 4 in particular, Melanie Shelby listed public safety first, as well as road quality. “You can misalign your vehicle driving through many of the potholes,” she said.

Unlike other parts of the city, District 4 includes large expanses of park space, including the city-run Joaquin Miller Park. Clinton Killian said that the rest of the city had limited access to these spaces, and that attracting visitors would “strengthen the commercial core” of the district.

Regardless of who wins the race for District 4, the upcoming election will change the makeup of Oakland’s government. Should Quan—who is running against a field of 9 other candidates herself—lose her big for mayor in November, she may retire from city government after 20 cumulative years in elected office. Quan never previously faced steep competition for her job, especially during her time representing District 4. After previous councilmember Dick Spees retired, she won her first city council election against David Stein by over nine percentage points in November of 2002, and then ran unopposed in 2006. She previously spent 12 years on the Oakland school board.

If Quan loses the heated battle to be Oakland’s next mayor, the area she’s represented for two decades will lose much of its institutional knowledge. “It’s a great deal of history that’s going to go with her,” said Jose Dorado, chair of the Maxwell Park Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), who is running for city council in District 6. “She’s been involved in so many different ways in many different years.”

Dorado said that Quan’s approach to crime prevention centered on her close, cultivated relationship to District 4’s crime prevention councils. “Without that,” said Dorado, “you really don’t have community policing.” Dorado said that her presence at crime prevention meetings and general availability allowed this relationship to thrive.

Quan also has a history with the Oakland Board of Education, having served with current District 4 director Gary Yee during her 12 years in office there.

The district faces ongoing issues that run from wildfire prevention to the basics of public safety.  According to Spees, who represented the area for 27 years before his retirement in 2002, when it comes to the issues facing District 4, “crime is strictly number one.” Cuts to the Oakland police force put the district’s varied neighborhoods at risk in different ways, he said. With police focusing their efforts on violent crime in the flatlands, “burglaries and robberies have gone crazy,” in the hills, said Spees.

With a great deal of trees in parks like the vast Joaquin-Miller recreational area, residents worry that a repeat of the 1991 Oakland hills fire could occur However, Spees said a project to prevent wildfires in the hills currently wallows in political gridlock. “The money has been paid, bonds were floated, but the project lingers,” said Spees. “In a dry year, it could easily go up in flames.”

As for the biggest challenge facing her successor, Quan cited the job of keeping constituents involved in changing their communities. “I’ve been very proud that I’ve gotten people in all parts of the district to be politically active,” said Quan.

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