Mayoral candidate Don Macleay sells voters on going ‘Green’
on October 21, 2010
It’s the First Friday in October, and Art Murmur is in full swing. Local ’zines, art depots and thrift shops are peddling their wares in between galleries packed with inebriated merrymakers. The atmosphere is hardly political, and yet mingling with the crowd is Don Macleay, one of Oakland’s ten mayoral candidates. “Let me tell you,” he says, thrusting fliers into the hands of passersby, “say ‘Hi, I’m a politician,’ and people will shy away from you. But say, ‘Hi, I’m with the Green Party,’ and people will take your card.”
Sure enough, several folks break from the festivities to grill Macleay on this election season’s hot button issues—the budget, education and public safety. The vibrant 52-year-old blends into the crowd with his jeans and black jacket, and feels confident that here he’s reaching an untapped group, a fringe element often neglected by career politicos. “I know a lot of people who are very active in Oakland politics who do not know what Art Murmur is,” he says. “There’s a lot of little micro-groups out there you have to reach.”
The Green Party can relate—after all, it is something of a micro-group itself. Though small, the party has had some success running candidates on the local level, but gained most of its national attention with Ralph Nader’s presidential campaigns in 1996 and 2000. Social justice, universal healthcare and non-violent resistance are usually at the heart of Green campaigns, along with, of course, environmental issues. The Green Party’s East Bay contingency of active Green Party members is modest, but Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin is a Green, and Green Party candidate for California governor, Laura Wells, lives in Oakland.
The local “Greens,” as those in the know call them, hope that running a citizen candidate like Macleay in the mayoral race will, at the very least, better establish them in Oakland’s consciousness. Jan Arnold is a member of the Green Party’s Alameda County Council, a term the Greens use instead of central committee, which works on elections and on issues that crop up in between them. “Central committee sounds kind of top-down, and we’re more of a bottom-up organization,” she says. Arnold says that Macleay’s goal—in addition winning—is to build the Green Party in the East Bay. “I think the Green Party is good for Oakland,” she says. “And I think Don Macleay is a really good guy.”
Macleay was born Donald Lachlan Macleay III in La Jolla, California, in 1958. Growing up in a military family, he relocated every two years for most of his childhood. Macleay left home before completing high school (he later earned his GED), and has since worn a sizeable set of job-related hats. At 14, he landed in Montreal, Canada, where he eventually worked in left-wing politics and labor organizing. Through one of his first jobs as an extrusion machine operator at Rehau Plastics in Montreal, Macleay became active in the Confederations of National Trade Unions—and says he lost his job as a result. “I come from that activist tradition,” he says. “I’m a long-term, hardcore union member. I first cut my teeth organizing the union when I was 19.”
Macleay is a trained machinist—for most of his career he worked cutting metal. He is a longtime member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and served as the union’s shop steward when he worked as a general machinist at Caral Manufacturing, a machine factory and distribution company in Albany, California.
He also spent several years working abroad, including time spent working as a machinist in Germany and Italy in the late 1980s, and teaching English and working in advertising in China in the mid-90s. In the 1980s, Macleay lived in Nicaragua for seven years thanks to what he calls an “error of fate and tourism.” There, he was a trade teacher and saw active combat during the Nicaraguan Resistance. “Our project and Nicaraguan government workers in general were being attacked by the Contras [resistance fighters]—that is who we fought against. I did not take any part in politics in Nicaragua, and did not advocate on behalf of the government,” says Macleay. “But when it came time to join the militia, I was with my co-workers.”
There, Macleay also worked on watershed preservation, which sparked his interest in all things environmental.Upon his return to the United States, Macleay earned degrees from San Francisco State and Oakland’s Laney College in liberal studies, with a focus in communications and Mandarin. He also studied land management to complete his science requirement.
Macleay’s career as a machinist was abruptly ended in 1998 when he was involved in a serious accident on the job. “A piece of steel that weighed 200 pounds fell into my lap and twisted my back in two places,” he says. “But for a person with industrial injuries, I do pretty well.”
After his accident, Macleay turned his longtime computer hobby into a viable business. “I’m not the curmudgeon type,” he says. “I’ve always been one to embrace new technologies.” Today he owns 55 percent of the Oakland-based company East Bay Computer Services, where he employs six people who work with businesses that need outside IT help. Benefits and flexible hours are made available to every employee, even though most work part-time, he says. “I made a decision real early on to hire people and to create jobs and to provide health insurance,” he says. “I’m trying to make jobs here that accommodate people’s lifestyles.”
Macleay became an active member of the Green Party in 1995, but has never before run for public office. Why disrupt his calm, workaday existence to enter the fray of the mayoral race? “My decision to run was collective,” says Macleay. “As this election approached, local Greens knew we wanted to run a candidate in the mayoral race. It was all about who was willing to step up. It was me saying, ‘I’ll do it this time.’”
On a Tuesday morning, Macleay is working from the building he owns on 40th Street in Oakland. He’s wearing blue jeans and a gray shirt, top button open, with sunglasses casually placed on his head of dark brown hair. Over the entrance hangs an inconspicuous placard that reads “East Bay Computer Services.” At the nearest intersection, a lawn sign covered in small green typeface is shoved into a patch of grass. “Don Macleay,” it says. “A mayor for all of Oakland.”
Macleay’s life is neatly consolidated into this building. On the bottom floor, there’s his office—a modest space in the front where the main furnishings are a paper-laden desk and a vintage jukebox. Down the hallway, a back room filled with computer carcasses houses his business’ workshop. Across from that is an ode to his machinist past—a room filled with every tool imaginable, where Macleay unwinds by crafting with wood and metal.
The building also has two apartments, one of which Macleay rents out as part of his second business, Opal Property Management. He lives in the other one. “Pretty brutal commute I got here,” he says, as he walks up wooden stairs at the back of the building. The inside of his apartment is cozy, well-lived in. The walls are decorated with memorabilia from Macleay’s travels, and the floor is littered withtoys.
Macleay has two sons—the older one is 20 and attends UC Davis; the younger is 7-years-old. Macleay shares joint custody of his youngest son with his ex-wife. “I’ve been married three times,” says Macleay, chuckling. “I’m serially divorced. But I’m currently unattached, and I think I’ll stay that way for a while.”
A bachelor he may be, but Macleay is also clearly a doting dad. Pictures of his sons are all over the bulletin board, and a box containing his youngest son’s Halloween costume is in the middle of the office floor. The 7-year-old, Macleay says, attends an Oakland public school, where Macleay is an active parent. Having this personal stake in the local educational system was part of what led him to run for office.
“This election came up, and local Greens were just very concerned that Oakland’s core issues were not being addressed,” says Macleay. “I was just really convinced that they’re not really doing the stuff around public safety that they need to be doing. They’re not reaching the youth.”
“They” refers both to Oakland’s current city government and to Democrats and Republicans everywhere, whose two-party dominance is a hot topic in the Green world. Jan Arnold, Macleay’s friend and fellow Green, refers to them as the “titanic” or “corporate” parties, and both she and Macleay believe that choosing between these two is no choice at all.
Oakland’s mayoral seat is non-partisan, meaning there is no primary in which Democrats and Republicans choose their respective candidates for mayor. Still, Macleay points out that most of his rivals are registered as Democrats. When he hears the word “non-partisan” affiliated with the current mayoral election, he becomes indignant. “Non-partisan, my ass!” he says. “Every one of them is affiliated with a party. These guys have too many friends. I feel very strongly about this. I feel that with whoever replaces Ron Dellums—if it’s not me—that person is going to have a political agenda that does not place the constituency first.”
Macleay’s major campaign platform is his promise torepresent the whole of his constituency. This campaign promise manifests itself in many ways, from his “mayor for all of Oakland” slogan to his visits to Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods with his campaign manager, Orlando Johnson. Johnson is a former convict who grew up in Oakland, and is involved with the Oakland Community Action Network, an organization that aims to help Oakland’s poor on get involved in local politics. Johnson’s work is mostly geared toward educating underserved communities in East and West Oakland. “He was running himself, at first,” says Macleay of Johnson. “He’s a very dynamic man. He’s taken me to places I have never seen. A lot of them have never seen a white political activist.”
Macleay believes firmly that, despite his status as a white, middle-aged man, he can connect with and represent Oakland’s low-income communities, particularly young people of color. “Every time I speak somewhere, people that come and talk to me are people of color,” he says. “My proposals have resonated more with black people because most of these issues impact their day-to-day lives.” He also points to his international experience. “I have a little bit of a multicultural background,” says Macleay. “I have lived as a racial minority, and not for just a day or two at a time.”
Johnson agrees—from his perspective, race is a non-issue with Macleay in the African-American and Latino communities. “I believe that 100 percent of the people that meet Don—and talk to him—like him, because he’s not the average white guy,” he says. “He speaks six languages, he lived in Nicaragua—he even lost a friend over there. People don’t feel like, ‘Man, you’ve never been on the battlefield.’” Johnson also notes that he and Macleay have helped each other understand their respective communities. “He’s helped me educate myself on white culture,” says Johnson. “And he’s learning from my perspective how hard it is out here.”
Johnson believes that Macleay is in the mayoral race for all the right reasons. “We’re the only campaign that never talks bad about anybody. We’re just interested in moving the city forward,” says Johnson. “And Don, he’s comfortable being himself. He’ll just give it to you straight. To me, that’s a true sign of leadership in a mayor.”
Macleay says he takes Johnson’s influence to heart. He believes that three of Oakland’s major problems—low-performing schools, parolee recidivism and unemployment—are all tied to a systematic abandonment of Oakland’s youth by the city government.
As the mayor, Macleay says he would work to get the school board more funds, but that it should be up to education professionals to allocate them. “If I run for school board, I’ll be talking about schools. But not from the mayor’s desk,” he says. He is enthusiastic about the idea of turning public schools into community centers that the public can use long after 5 p.m, and wants libraries, schools and the Office of Parks and Recreation to work together to do more youth and community outreach.
When it comes to employment, Macleay is quick to say that he’s at odds with current city council members who support big developments like the Uptown Project, the Upper Broadway Project and Oak to Ninth in hopes that they will one day create jobs. The Uptown Project for example, he says, demolished homes and businesses to make room for a housing development with condominiums that aren’t selling. “We need to leverage the strengths we already have,” he says. “A lot of us work in service businesses, retail, restaurants, medium and small businesses and auto repair, to name a few. They’ve all weathered the storm really well—we should look at what’s been successful.” Macleay believes that a little growth in already-established industries would be much more productive for Oakland, without “putting all our eggs in one basket.”
Another employment-related problem, he says, is that parolees attempting to reenter the workforce face a lack of resources. “We need to make a place for them here in society,” he says. As mayor, he says he would engage in conversations with local businesses about the importance of hiring parolees. “If people want less crime, this one of the easiest ways to do it,” Macleay says. “You separate parolees from crime by hiring them.”
As a Green Party candidate, Macleay is also focused on Oakland’s environmental issues. He cites air pollution as a major problem, and his proposed solution is simple: trees. As he sees it, basic urban reforestation is the simplest and most effective way to clean air and buffer noise. “I sound silly, but if we lined our streets with trees, we could really cut into the air pollution,” he says. “We can do nothing about pollutions from the freeways and the port—that doesn’t mean we don’t try, but it’s hard. It also doesn’t mean we won’t be part of a solution.”
One evening last week, Macleay and six of his fellow mayoral candidates arrived at the Humanist Church in downtown Oakland. They’d come straight from another function at the Asian Cultural Center, where Macleay tested out his Mandarin on a few attendees, to participate in this “progressive” forum put on by a number of leftist organizations. Each candidate looked more spent than the next, but they calmly took the stage. Seated from the right at a long folding table were Joe Tuman, L.L. Young, Jean Quan, Greg Harland, Terence Candell, and Rebecca Kaplan. All the way on the left was Don Macleay.
Macleay was looking slightly more formal this evening, in black slacks and a printed, button-down shirt. A Green Party button was attached to his lapel. There was good reason to look sharp—even though front-runner Don Perata was nowhere to be seen, Macleay had his work cut out for him with this crowd. City councilmember Rebecca Kaplan was a fact-spewing machine, confident and fast-talking. Councilmember Jean Quan is one of Oakland’s most well-known faces. And then there was Terence Candell, decked out in a shiny yellow and black three-piece suit, refusing the microphone, hollering his answers across the room at a slow, intimidating pace. When other candidates spoke, Candell shook his head disapprovingly.
Macleay’s answers to the moderator’s questions oscillated between sweeping statements about basic human rights and specific opinions on legislation. When asked about joblessness in Oakland, Macleay passionately said he “believes in a right to a job.” He spoke clearly, looking directly into audience members faces. “I believe in it deeply,” he said. “I also believe in the living wage as all wages. We should have no job in this country that’s not at a living wage.” The crowd broke into applause.
Later, he talked about a statement he co-signed with Rebecca Kaplan in response to a questionnaire on public safety distributed to the mayoral candidates by People United for a Better Life in Oakland (PUEBLO). The Macleay-Kaplan statement lists a number of approaches to handling crime in Oakland, among them strengthening the Citizens Police Review Board and increasing civilian employment by the police department. After highlighting these ideas, Macleay went on to say that 74 percent of Oakland’s annual city budget goes toward public safety. “Arming ourselves endlessly is just like trying to treat everyone who doesn’t have health insurance in the emergency room, which we also do,” he says. “It’s expensive, inefficient, and pretty much a waste of time.”
Jan Arnold, who was in the audience, commended Macleay’s performance. “That’s the kind of clarity you don’t hear from politicians,” she says. “He’s always listening to people about what they think. He’s not just a speechmaker. He’s a local activist.”
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