Oakland’s youngest mayoral candidate, Larry Lionel Young, Jr., strives to stand out
on October 25, 2010
Larry Lionel Young, Jr. is finishing up work on a Friday afternoon at his office on Grand Avenue. Young’s gray cubicle is sandwiched between two others a few feet from the front door. Paper printouts with phrases like “good thoughts,” “fantastic results” and “successful action” are tacked haphazardly to the cushioned wall above his desk where his laptop sits atop a mound of papers.
Young wears black slacks and a matching vest, and his expression is serious as he stands arranging papers. At the moment, he is a realtor at the Mason-McDuffie Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate office. But he collects his things and—like Clark Kent emerging from a phone booth with an alternate identity—walks out the door to assume his other role: Oakland mayoral candidate.
At 30, Young is the youngest of Oakland’s ten candidates for mayor this election season. On a crowded ballot, where the candidates are predominantly in their 40s, and clawing for ways to set themselves apart from one another, his drastic age difference draws attention. “No one can relate to the youth better than the youth,” he says. “Youth is strength. It’s untapped resources that Oakland has yet to use.”
As a mayoral candidate, Young believes his ability to relate to young people will help him accomplish his main campaign platform—developing youth recreational programs. Before becoming a realtor, Young’s work brought him into frequent contact with kids; for four years, Young worked as a substitute teacher in the Oakland Unified School District, teaching all grade levels.
But being young and without many resources has also presented some challenges. Young has no campaign office. He has no staff, no billboard ads, no website. He campaigns the old-fashioned way: passing out flyers door-to-door, approaching people on the street and talking up his platforms every minute of every day. “I don’t have money for TV ads and things like that,” Young says. “So, this is what I do and that’s what the next mayor is going to need to be able to do—make a way with what it is you have.”
Every day, he rides around town in his silver 2007 Chevy HHR in search of local hot spots where he can campaign. His license plate, enclosed in an “I sell homes” frame, reads: “LLYJR *heart* U.” Change clutters the inner door handle on the passenger side; a scratched-off Cherry Double Doubler lottery ticket sits in the center console atop a small brown rock he says his daughter gave him.
A classic soul CD plays as the backdrop to his car rides—Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Diana Ross, The Spinners—and is interrupted intermittently by his Black Eyed Peas’ “Imma Be” ringtone, signaling receipt of a text message, or Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” for incoming phone calls. Driving, Young points out businesses and homes that display his campaign flyer on their doors or windows. “There’s a supporter,” he says sucking on a Now & Later. Every so often, he rolls down his window to greet passersby he knows.
Equipped with a brown envelope full of homemade campaign flyers, he stops to chat with dozens of people during his travels, ending every conversation with a flyer, a handshake and his campaign slogan: “Vote LL and Oakland Will be Well.’” Young estimates he has reached thousands of people through street campaigning. “I try to visit the places where I’ll make the most impact, places where people don’t vote,” Young says of his campaign strategy. “It’s amazing. People are actually going to be voting for me who never ever voted in their life, because they never felt they had a reason to before.”
On this particular afternoon, he stops at two barbershops, a convenience store, a local park, a senior citizen’s home, an automotive shop and Laney College. At each place, his visit is unannounced. He introduces himself and makes small talk before encouraging his new friends to give him their vote.
At Laney College, he dances with a student hip-hop group during a rehearsal and talks with them about his plans to funnel more money into youth recreation facilities. At a park near the Lakeview Branch Library, he does pull-ups with a few Oakland residents and talks with a woman whose car bumper says her child attends Cal Poly, his alma mater. At the Medical Hill Rehabilitation Center, a nursing home for the elderly, he offers to play piano for the residents, as he once did when his own uncle lived there, but is asked to come back another day when the staff can schedule the visit.
Campaigning is something Young often does alone. When asked what runs through his head in the long car rides around Oakland, he smiles. “If everybody knew better, we could do better,” he says and laughs. “Vote LL and Oakland will be well!”
Young was born in Oakland and, although he lived in Adams Point, his childhood was divided among different parts of the city where his grandparents lived. “I was what they called a guy from the Oakland ‘NEWS’, which is north, east, west and south,” he says.
When he was two, his father died suddenly from a heart attack, leaving Young’s mother to raise him alone. “She’s part of the reason I am the way I am,” he says, listing his mother among his role models, along with Barack Obama, Cornel West and New Thought writer Wallace D. Wattles.
“I’m excited that he decided to run for mayor,” Young’s mother, Jennifer Young Benson says. “I support him in every way. I always knew he was a leader. What he feels, he’ll do.”
Young says his neighborhood community—coaches, cousins, aunts and a neighborhood woman he knows only as “Tea Cookie”—also helped make him into the person he is today. “My mom, as a single parent, she wasn’t always able to be there,” he says. “We have to start trying to be more of a community in Oakland. That’s how I was raised.”
As a child, he was involved in local sports, playing baseball in Oakland’s Babe Ruth League and Pop Warner football. He followed his football coach to Berkeley High School where, in addition to playing football, he also became a basketball star at the school.
At 16, he was involved in a serious car accident, which left him near death and in a coma. He suffered a cerebral hematoma—a bruise on his brain—and experienced temporary memory loss. “They asked my mom if they should pull the cords—cut the life support off, because they didn’t think I would make it,” he says.
Young is still scarred on parts of his face and head from the accident and often points to the experience as an example of his perseverance. “Despite all that, not only did I live, not only did I learn to walk again,” Young says, “but I earned a full scholarship to college. Whether people believe in you or not, that’s always been something that doesn’t faze me, because it starts within.”
After high school, Young attended Laney and Diablo Valley Colleges before finishing a degree in speech communication at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. In the years following graduation, he tried his hand at a number of different careers—teacher, salesman, actor and business consultant— before completing an MBA from the University of Phoenix in 2009 and landing in his current role as a realtor.
“My strategic plan was to retire at 30. I’m late,” Young says laughing. He adds that his ultimate career goal is to buy and rent commercial property. “People kind of get stuck on the idea of just doing one thing. But, I never could just grasp doing just one thing.”
At 25, Young became a father. His daughter, Chozen, is now 5 years old and lives in Hayward with her mother, Young’s ex-girlfriend. The two share custody and Young sees Chozen three times a week. ”She comes to the debates. She comes and sits down and watches and listens,” Young says. “She’s a part of something great and I’m happy to be able to afford my child that opportunity to see her dad trying to do something positive.”
Political involvement was not always part of Young’s plan. He has never held public office. In 2006, he attempted a run in the California gubernatorial election, but did not submit his paperwork in time. Two years later, he decided he would run during the next mayoral election. “I want to see real change happen,” he says. “This is one way I see that I can make the most change.”
Young says he sees too much corruption among Oakland politicians. “A lot of them take money from unions and corporations,” he says, adding that this forces the city to tailor policies to benefit those financial supporters. “It’s not in the best interest of the city.”
As a newcomer to Oakland’s political scene, he hopes to move the city away from the same network of powerful people who have governed for decades. “People get stuck in their ways and just keep doing what they’ve been doing,” he says. “We need a young mayor who’s got some fresh ideas.”
With his lack of experience, some believe Young’s run for mayor is too ambitious. But Young disagrees. “Everybody has their own opinion,” he says. “I’m just as smart as anybody else. I can do it now.”
Sunlight shines through a stained glass window at Temescal’s Faith Presbyterian Church early on a Saturday morning. It’s 9:55 and mayoral candidate Jean Quan is the first to arrive for today’s mayoral forum, which is being hosted by Standing Together for Accountable Neighborhood Development, a North Oakland concerned citizens group.
Before any other candidates arrive, Quan’s already begun circulating the chapel. “Got too much paper?’ she says to each person as she passes out her campaign materials. Within a matter of minutes, seven other candidates including Young have spilled into the church. Don Perata and Marcie Hodge are the only two candidates not to appear this morning.
Young chats with attendees at the rear of the church for a few minutes. Wearing a gray suit with a black tie, he is among the more formally dressed candidates today. He is joined by Chozen, who totes a long “Vote for LL and Oakland Will be Well” sign, which they set down to display on a pew in the back. Young guides Chozen to the second row where mayoral candidate Don Macleay’s 7-year-old son already sits. Chozen slides in next to him as her father greets the other candidates.
The moderator signals for the start of the program and the candidates find their names on tent cards displayed on a long table at the front of the church. Young listens intently as a representative from the Registrar of Voters begins the forum with a presentation on ranked choice voting, which Young has said he doesn’t really understand. “I don’t know if it’s really clear,” he says. “But I’m hoping I could get 51 percent of the vote on the first try.”
At this particular forum, each candidate is allowed six minutes for opening remarks before answering audience questions. Young is sixth in line to speak, and as the candidates before him address the audience, he sips a glass of orange juice and makes funny faces and hand gestures across the room at Chozen, whom he affectionately calls “Chozey Love.”
When it’s his turn to speak, Young mostly talks about his background—where he’s from and his leadership experience. But he breaks a little from that topic to address youth recreational opportunities, his main platform issue. “These young people need help and 4 percent towards your recreational facilities isn’t enough,” he says walking down the church aisle. “As your next mayor of Oakland, we’re going to increase that and also provide more job training programs.”
As a former teacher, Young is a self-proclaimed youth advocate and believes that supporting Oakland’s young people is the vehicle that will, ultimately, lead to the betterment of the city. “Developing our youth and young adults is essential to our safety,” he says. “Once we solve that problem, we’ll solve two. Whereas, people have it the other way around, because they’re just not in touch with reality.”
To help young adults, Young promises to create more trade programs that teach skills like mechanical work and carpentry. “We need to put trades back into our schools so that way young people have more productive things to do than break into homes,” he says at the forum. “Because, when people don’t have things productive to do, they’ll find miscellaneous things to do. That’s just a fact.”
All the candidates this election season have focused on ways to solve Oakland’s budget problems. Young has pushed for the creation of a municipally-owned utility system as one cost-cutting mechanism. “Santa Clara provides their own water, garbage and electricity,” he says, adding that it saves citizens 25 to 40 percent in fees for electricity. “Why can’t Oakland, the most beautiful city in the world, do that?”
Additionally, Young believes all city employees who do not live in Oakland should be assessed a tax which would be deducted directly from their paychecks.“2,564 positions in the city of Oakland are occupied by those who go to Walnut Creek, who go to Emeryville and contribute to those cities,” Young says. “We cannot afford to pay seven assisted city managers who do not live in Oakland over $100,000. It’s very reckless.”
As Young walks around the church delivering his opening remarks, his focus is on convincing his listeners that he is the best person for the job. “Leadership,” he says. “That’s definitely what Oakland needs. I’ve got that.”
“This is a city that I grew up in. This is a city that has helped me grow into the person that I am,” Young says looking out into the crowd. “I’ve gone through a lot. I’m always learning. That’s the pledge that I take to being Oakland mayor.”
“You’re late,” a security guard shouts at Young through a gate left ajar at the Castlemont Community of Small Schools football field on a Saturday in October. Young has just arrived at Castlemont from the mayoral forum earlier that day. “I just got out of a debate,” he says laughing. “I’m coming, sir.”
Chozen dances in the backseat to James Brown’s “Funky Good Time” as Young parks in an empty spot near the football field.
Young has volunteered as an announcer at Castlemont’s football games for the past three years. “I like giving back to the community and spicing the games up a little bit,” Young says. “When I was young and we had football games, we used to always like it when an announcer was there. You hear your name get called out and hear your number over the loudspeaker. It’s real empowering.”
Today is the East Oakland school’s homecoming game; the Castlemont Knights are playing Skyline’s Titans. The players have already begun warming up when Young walks onto the track surrounding the football field. He looks out into a sea of shiny jerseys—black and purple on one side and white and red on the other.
As Young waits for delivery of a microphone and speaker system to the track in front of the bleachers, Chozen challenges him to a race around the track. The two take their marks and sprint 100 yards ahead, the laces on Chozen’s sparkly black hi-top sneakers flopping with each step.
When the speaker system arrives, Young fiddles with the controls and plays Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” as the game kicks off. He’s brought along a campaign sign, which he situates so it faces the fans watching the game. “I am your host Larry Lionel Young, Jr. and your next mayor of Oakland,” he says into the microphone.
The bleachers are sparsely filled with about 150 people. Skyline supporters sit to the left and Castlemont supporters to the right. Between plays, Young blasts upbeat soul music through the speakers. “Turn it off, man!” one fan shouts at Young, to which another replies, “He’s the next mayor. He can play whatever he wants!”
But most of the people there that day don’t even know who Young is, let alone his mayoral aspirations. “I didn’t know he was running,” says East Oakland resident Linda Gosey, watching the game from Skyline’s side. She writes Young’s name down, so she can look him up later. “I’ll have to do a little research and find out.”
David Laviene, also from East Oakland, often comes to Castlemont’s football games and says he’s seen Young announcing at the games before, but had no idea he was a candidate. “I was very much undecided, “ Laviene says of his vote, watching the game from the stands. “But since the brother right here is running, I’ll go with him.”
After three hours of play, Skyline wipes out Castlemont. In the distance, a white board with the words “Home of the Knights” across the top displays the final score: 55-18.
Fans begin to exit the stadium. Young sighs and grabs his white campaign sign off the ground. He motions to Chozen, who is playing in the bleachers with two girls she’s met at the game. As the two walk back to the parking lot, Chozen is excited about going to her cousin’s sleepover later that night.
“You got to have patience,” he says to her. “Remember what patience is?”
“No,” she says shaking her head.
“Just wait a little longer.”
On a Friday afternoon, Young takes a break from campaigning and drives into Emeryville. On a whim, he calls Ken Bukowski, his friend and the former mayor of Emeryville, as he rides over the Oakland border.
“Hey Ken!” he shouts into his cell phone. “What’s up? Where you at? I’m in Emeryville.”
The two decide to meet at Doyle Street Park, located at the corner of 62nd and Doyle Streets. “This is our newest park. We just opened it last year,” Bukowski says as Young maneuvers into the seat across from him at a gray picnic table. Three kids play on the park’s jungle gym behind Bukowski, who is dressed casually in a red polo shirt, jeans and white sneakers.
Bukowski and Young met two or three years ago while participating in Toastmasters, the nonprofit communication and leadership club. “Larry is a friend,” Bukowski says. “He’s really sincere at what he’s trying to do and I recognize that, because I’m sincere at what I do.”
“So, give me some ideas on being mayor, Ken,” Young says as he sets his cell phone down on the table.
“Give you some ideas on being mayor?”
“Yeah. What’s it like, and how can I best position myself to get in office?”
Bukowski rattles on for a few minutes about his extensive record in Emeryville politics—six-time mayor, 23 years on the city council and a failed crusade for free wireless in the city— before offering Young advice on his own campaign.
“I’m just being honest here,” he begins, looking out towards the public bathroom building to his left. “But, you know, you have never served in a public office and I think, in order for you to become the mayor, I think you need to have some record of service.”
Young listens silently and doesn’t disagree or interject to jump to his own defense.
Bukowski, sounding thoughtful, says that this election season his support is behind one of Young’s competitors. “This is no disrespect to you, ok?” he adds.
Young seems unfazed by Bukowski’s candor. He gets up to take a call and Bukowski continues. “I think he could probably do the best job, but look at the world of possibilities,” he says as Young quietly returns to the table. “I mean, let’s be real. No, I don’t think he can win. It’s not possible. I mean, look at the polls.”
Bukowski suggests that Young run for a city council seat during the next election cycle. “I was saying to myself, ‘Well, gee, if he ever did get elected to the city council, then he would have a springboard to go for Oakland mayor,” says Bukowski.
After some silence, Young asks matter-of-factly, “It’s politics, huh?”
Bukowski nods and agrees, “It’s politics.”
Check out all of our Oakland elections coverage on our Campaign 2010 page.
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