Progressive forum follows an alternative format
on October 12, 2010
On Monday, eight of the ten candidates running for mayor of Oakland faced the city’s progressive community in a relatively lighthearted forum at Humanist Hall in downtown Oakland. The format of the event, co-sponsored by thirteen left-leaning organizations, including the Alameda County Green Party and the Niebyl Proctor Marxist Library, broke away from standard debate protocol. “We’re going to do this differently than most of the mayoral forums you’ve seen before” said forum moderator and former city councilman Wilson Riles, Jr. Candidates expressed their views on complex issues through rapid-fire answers and hot-potato question passing, even using simple hand gestures to denote “yes,” “no,” and “I don’t know.”
Absent from the debate was former state senator Don Perata, who did not attend the forum because of other commitments. Candidate Marcie Hodge, a community college trustee, was also missing from the event.
Moderator Riles Jr., set the leftist tone for the debate, addressing his politically themed t-shirt before introducing the candidates. “The words on my t-shirt say American Indian Blues Society, established in 1492,” referencing the movement to replace Columbus Day with a day commemorating the indigenous people of North America. “It tells you a little about where the blues really come from.”
Despite the socially progressive crowd, the content of the debate didn’t stray far from standard mayoral forum topics including jobs, crime and housing. Even with the unusual format, the subject matter of the questions was weighty and the candidates struggled to squeeze complex opinions into brief sound bites. “Wow, that’s a lot to answer in 90 seconds but I’ll try to get through it,” said candidate Joe Tuman when asked about ways to attract new business to Oakland and create jobs for the city’s residents. Tuman went on to suggest that the city try to court industries “willing to work with people in the poorest parts of our communities as well as those who are educated and have been laid off from jobs,” though time constraints stopped him from explaining the specifics of his idea.
Current city councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan vowed to overturn constricting zoning codes and granting permits to companies attempting to establish themselves in Oakland while Larry Lionel “LL” Young Jr. promised to mandate that all Oakland city positions be allocated exclusively to Oakland residents. “That’s a no-brainer,” he said. “We have to put ourselves first. Period. There is no other way around it.”
Affordable housing and upholding Oakland’s rent control laws were also main topics at the forum. Many of the candidates including Kaplan and Jean Quan stressed the importance of extending outreach services to unlawfully evicted tenants to educate them about their rights. Greg Harland suggested buying up what he called a “huge hidden supply of houses that the bank is sitting on” and using them as affordable housing, mimicking a program in Baltimore that has enjoyed considerable success. “There is no point in having rent control if there isn’t a good supply of housing,” Harland said.
The housing issue took a slightly more heated turn when the topic of inclusionary housing was brought up. Inclusionary housing is a form of low-income housing that involves blending socio-economically and racially diverse populations together, and the concept was supported by many of the candidates. “In Oakland I believe that reflects out values system and the diversity of our community,” said Tuman.
But Young, Jr. and candidate Terence Candell were careful to spell out their concerns that the concept could lead toward neighborhood gentrification. “I’m for inclusion, yes, but I’m not in favor of people coming into this city, like the banks have been doing and helping with the gentrification process by which African American people have been pushed out of our city,” said Candell, who opted to use his booming voice rather than the provided microphone to address the audience.
The racial undertones surrounding the debate intensified as candidates took on the subject of public safety and police pensions. Currently, police officers in Oakland do not contribute to their pensions and are able to retire with full pay at the age of fifty, a privilege that many Oaklanders have blamed for putting strain on the budget. Though police officers have voted to contribute up to 9 percent into their pension plans starting in 2011, the matter will be decided in the November election.
Rebecca Kaplan was one of the candidates who spoke out against the inflated pensions. “All the other sectors of the Oakland work force pay what they call ‘employee share’ of their pension,” she said. “The police is the only subset that doesn’t.” Candell immediately confronted what he perceived as an inconsistency in Kaplan and Quan’s platforms on the matter, accusing them of voting for the police pensions during their time on the city council. “Now suddenly they want to sit up here, holier than thou, saying ‘Oh well as mayor we want to change things,’” he said in a mimicking tone. “Well why didn’t you change them when you were on city council?” Both Quan and Kaplan say they have not changed positions on the issue.
Candell went on to suggest that Kapan, Quan and the mostly white audience could not understand the complex relationship between the police force and the African American community. “They ain’t never been on the recipient end of that billy club,” Candell said, gesturing towards Kaplan. “I have. My people who I represent have been on the recipient end of that billy club and that shot in the back of the neck that they don’t know anything about.”
The debate ended with a “lightening round” in which candidates used hand gestures rather than words to express their final opinions on the topics covered during the meeting—a finger on the nose to represent “yes,” a hand on the head to represent “no,” and upturned hands to represent uncertainty. Despite the occasional outbursts of dissent, most of the candidates had the same responses to many of the questions, ranging from whether to support the “Justice for Oscar Grant” movement and the proposal to evaluate the BART police review board (yes), to enforcing Oakland’s living wage ordinance (yes). Candidates differed on the proposal to adopt a local currency (Harland opposed and Tuman and Young were unsure) and strengthening the Citizen’s Police Review Board by giving civilians disciplinary powers over police officers including the power to fire them (Quan and Tuman were unsure).
As the candidates took questions from the audience, some attendees gathered around a small snack table to rehash the event. “Seems like they are basically all the same except for that guy who seems a little more intense than the rest,” said forum attendee and undecided voter Kate Mills, pointing to Candell. “I’ll probably vote Green though. I’m here aren’t I?”
Image: Mayoral candidates took turns answering questions during the candidate forum at Humanist Hall Monday night. When a candidate finished an answer, he or she chose who answered next. Here, Joe Tuman passes the microphone to Greg Harland as Jean Quan jots down some notes. Photo by Laith Agha
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