Small business owner Arnie Fields aims for top Oakland job
on October 26, 2010
Of the ten people running for mayor in Oakland this fall, Arnold Fields—Arnie to his friends, and if you’re voting in Oakland, he considers you a friend—may be the candidate whose campaign most resembles his life before politics. Between appearances on the campaign circuit, Fields still pulls double duty as a real estate broker and as the owner and operator of Revolution Café, a West Oakland coffee shop and bar that doubles as his campaign headquarters.
A lifelong entrepreneur, Fields unsurprisingly identifies as a pro-business Republican—even if this makes his path to City Hall that much steeper. But then there’s Arnie Fields the social liberal, an unmistakable child of the Bay Area: his first business was a skateboard design company called Confusion Skateboards, possibly named for the effect it would later have on voters trying to find a category in their minds for its founder. And before you ask: yes, he can skate.
“I love doing my front-side grinds,” Fields said boyishly one day in October, outside a community meeting at the Oakland Museum of California. “I’ve been up and down the California coast, surfing and skateboarding.” he said. “That was before I was a working stiff.”
The meeting was an arts forum, to which Fields and fellow mayoral candidate Jean Quan had both come to make whistle-stop speeches before joining their competitors at a mayoral forum in Rockridge. An hour into the event, neither candidate had been invited to speak, and those on stage gave them no reason to think they would be. Quietly, Quan finally walked out. As Fields followed her, he handed a few parting flyers to the attendees he could reach from the aisle, introducing himself in a loud whisper as “the next mayor of Oakland.”
If Quan, a sitting member of Oakland’s City Council and widely considered a mayoral frontrunner, is not always given a soapbox, the bar is that much higher for Fields. When he ran for mayor in 2006—his first political campaign—he captured just one percent of the vote.
Outside the museum’s auditorium, Fields passed out more flyers, adding “artist” to the list of titles by which he introduced himself. “We need public art everywhere,” he likes to say, and he means it: he supports city-sanctioned graffiti murals on freeway ramps and fences across the city. “I’m not talking about tagging,” he says. “But we need to have common sense for street art that is maybe not permitted. You can’t just paint over it.” Fields tends to wear trucker hats, even above the suit and tie he had put on for this event, and the foam front of the hat he wore that evening bore a miniature graffiti drawing spelling out “Revolution Café.”
“Oh, this?” he shrugged, doffing the cap to consider it. “One of my customers made it for me.”
At 44, Fields treasures such hints of youth. In the half-pipe, he limits himself these days to skating with his sons Hunter and Quin, ages thirteen and nine respectively. When his 4-year-old daughter Amber gets a little older, perhaps she’ll join them.
But a youthful vocabulary peppers Fields’ speech. He doesn’t say, “I don’t drink.” He says, “I’m pretty much straightedge”—which is strange for a man who spends his evenings behind a bar filling cups with Sierra Nevada, Red Stripe, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. “I’ve had a lot of alcoholics in my family,” Fields says, “which is why I’m really not a big fan of alcohol.” But Revolution Café serves only beer and wine, not liquor, and despite the shop’s name, its customers tend to drink in moderation. Fields’ thoughts on alcohol also inform his support for Proposition 19, the ballot initiative that would decriminalize marijuana in California. “I’ve seen a lot of people go from dysfunctional alcoholics to functional potheads,” he says.
In an election in which some candidates have questioned the need for a brick-and-mortar headquarters altogether, Fields’ campaign—indeed, his whole identity—is deeply rooted in the sense of place afforded by his base of operations at Revolution Café. The coffee shop sits on 7th Street in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood of West Oakland, which Fields’ campaign literature bluntly describes as “one of the worst neighborhoods in Oakland.” The same pamphlet goes on to say that the café “has become a mecca for the arts and entertainment community, boosting morale within the neighborhood.” At the very least, Revolution is the centerpiece of a block Fields has spent half his life cultivating.
As the city was preparing to demolish West Oakland’s Lincoln Theater in the mid-1990s, Fields saw an opportunity to preserve a building he considered an historic landmark. Already established as a real estate broker and the owner of several properties in Oakland, he purchased the theater in 1995 for $250,000, saving it from immediate demolition. With the theater as a starting point, Fields gradually built up a nucleus of properties near the intersection of 7th Street and Peralta, which has now grown to include Revolution Café, as well as a barber shop, several residential units, some office space and a warehouse. With his wife Lucy, Fields worked to establish the area as an officially historic district with protections against unwarranted demolition.
Even with this protection, however, the Lincoln Theater was ultimately demolished in 2005. “I was extremely depressed,” Fields says. He claims the demolition couldn’t have occurred without the help of corrupt judges, who “brought city attorneys into chambers, but not my attorneys. I’ve never seen that before.” The episode laid the foundation for a longstanding enmity between Fields and Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA), which is responsible, among other things, for enforcing Oakland’s housing and planning codes and fighting urban blight.
With Lincoln Theater gone, Revolution Café has become the center of the community Fields is trying to build. Inside, the café’s chaotic ambiance hints at Fields’ idiosyncrasies and affiliations. From the ceiling hangs a full-size bicycle, ridden by a plastic skeleton. Elsewhere hang a dusty guitar, a disco ball, and a string of Christmas lights with bulbs the shape of cows. The walls are lined with portraits of figures ranging from Barbra Streisand to Malcolm X to the Incredible Hulk. On a table, an issue of the music magazine Metal Maniacs sits directly on top of a copy of Bay Area Parent.
At the center of it all is Fields—or rather Arnie, here if anywhere—serving drinks and making conversation when it’s busy, cleaning toilets and buying groceries when it’s not. “I do it all,” he says, and asks that his small staff try to keep up. “I’m an adult,” he says. “I have three kids. I’m not looking to adopt anybody.”
Grilling sandwiches behind the counter, cook Eric Stucke doesn’t look like he needs adopting. Sporting a ponytail well past his shoulders and a bull ring through his nasal septum, Stucke easily blends in with Revolution’s patrons. He says Fields’ campaign hasn’t changed his work routine much. “It hasn’t really affected our turnout,” he says. The campaign “has been pretty separate” from the café. “There’s a bunch of computers in the back, but that’s about it.”
On a recent Sunday night, Fields hosted a fundraising concert for the East Bay chapter of Food Not Bombs, a nonprofit organization that provides vegetarian meals to the needy. Although Fields raised no money for his own campaign, he says he considers the event a part of his mayoral run. “We’re into supporting everybody,” he says.
But Fields has been reluctant to ask anybody to support him, at least financially. He solicits votes about as often as he breathes, but has refused to engage in any kind of fundraising whatsoever. “I want people to understand that when you vote for me, it won’t cost you a dime,” he says. “But what you’re going to get is priceless.” Naturally, this stance has limited Fields’ visibility. He has no ads on TV, on billboards, or anywhere, really. His campaign website is Spartan—though a few paragraphs and pictures went up within a week of the election, for most of the campaign season all the text on the site could have fit into a single post on Twitter. And during an interview for this article in the lobby of the Oakland Museum of California, Fields personally folded a tall stack of campaign pamphlets in thirds, one by one, as he spoke. Fields declined to estimate how much of his own money he’s spent to wage his campaign. But he insists that “Oakland is tired of being bought and paid for.” He promises to be “a mayor that’s free.”
This financial asceticism constitutes the central plank of Fields’ platform—he talks of nothing more passionately, or more often, than his disgust with the corruption that he says infects Oakland’s government. Asked what distinguishes him from his competitors, Fields says, “I know where the skeletons are. I know where the bodies are buried.”
Fields is particularly critical of CEDA. He calls the agency “the 8,000-pound gorilla in the room”—a destructive force, Fields says, that no one is talking about. He accuses CEDA of abusing its anti-blight mandate, saying the agency tears down buildings that could be salvaged, forcing people out of their homes in the process. And in cases of less extreme property damage, he asserts, CEDA employees habitually cite owners for invented or exaggerated code violations, and arbitrarily modify documents in order to eke greater revenue for both the city and themselves. As the owner of eight buildings throughout Oakland, Fields has come up against CEDA regularly. For instance, on a property on 23rd Avenue, CEDA attempted to penalize Fields $8,000—attributed too vaguely, Fields says, to an unspecified “CEDA code enforcement charge”—for building a roof without the proper permit. Fields challenged the fine in court, and ultimately was charged only $2,000.
Fields proposes an alternative to CEDA’s current policies: “My gig is cherishing our existing infrastructure,” he says. “Restoring—not renovating.” He complains that “these cuckoo bastards”—the current administration, and Jerry Brown’s before it—“keep tearing everything down.” But, he wonders, “How can you be an historic city if you don’t have historic buildings?”
Fields’ growing frustration with Oakland’s government—the corruption he perceives in it, and how he believes this has literally altered the city’s landscape—has drawn him from the sidelines into the political fray. “The way I see it,” he says, “there are three ways to deal” with a corrupt official. “One: bend over and keep payin’.” For many Oaklanders, this would be the only option if they were found to be in violation of the housing code. “Two,” Fields continues, “kill him.” Fields just barely grins; for better or worse, “the second option is not in my deck of cards.”
Which leaves, he says, “Three: expose him.” For Fields, this means running for mayor to call attention to a problem. Even if he does not win the election, Fields, who in the course of the fall’s forums has likely referred to CEDA more than his nine competitors combined, will have succeeded in making code enforcement and alleged corruption a part of the discussion.
Not that Fields isn’t running to win. To those who say that this year’s field of ten candidates is too many—or that the lesser known candidates will disrupt the new ranked-choice ballot system—Fields responds that “this is America, and this is supposed to be a democracy.” In other words, everyone deserves a fair chance at public office. “Democracy is not supposed to be an illusion,” he says.
If he does win, Fields has a few ideas to curb corruption. He says he’d hold monthly “town hall”-style meetings in order to give Oaklanders a chance to communicate directly with their leaders. “If we find somebody who’s part of the problem”—an official shown to be corrupt in some way—“they’re gone.” Such perpetrators would be identified using “common sense.” Fields says. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. There’s right and there’s wrong.”
And in order to increase accountability in agencies he distrusts, like CEDA, Fields says he would like each to have a highly visible director—a person at whom Oakland’s citizens will know the buck definitively stops. At present, Fields believes that very few Oakland officials are held accountable for their decisions. “I want to put a face on every department in the city,” he says. “We’re going to run this place like it’s a small town.”
Besides fighting corruption, Fields’ other top priorities include education and public safety. “I’d like to see 100 percent of our kids graduating” from high school, he says, and proposes creating a network of after-school drop-in centers to help make that happen. As he imagines them, the centers would be staffed by volunteers—including “seniors, college students and professionals”—and so would not require much funding. “We’re going to save the city not with the buck, but with the imagination,” he says.
Fields also says that “I want people safe. In every neighborhood.” He supports an increase in police funding through Measure BB, which would allow the City of Oakland to continue to levy an existing public safety tax while employing fewer police officers—a move proponents say will prevent further layoffs. But as to Measure X, which would increase police funding by enacting a new parcel tax, Fields said ten days before the election that he was undecided. (“I have to look into it,” he said.) Though he wants to increase the size of the police force, he says, he does not want to do so at the expense of other programs.
Laura Townsend, one of Fields’ handful of volunteers, started working for him after a dispute with CEDA about whether her basement qualified as a separate apartment (she says it doesn’t). So when she walked into Revolution Café one night this fall, the two had a lot to talk about. A medical sales representative by day, Townsend says working for Fields has been “great,” largely because of the way he runs his campaign. “He’s progressive, he’s forward-thinking, he’s eccentric,” she says, but then pauses to weigh her words. “Well, maybe not eccentric, but… intense. He’s intense about everything he does.”
Ultimately, it may take both words to describe Fields. In his closing remarks at a recent forum at Rockridge’s College Preparatory School, Fields had just one request to make of Oakland voters. “I’m asking you, please,” he said. “Put down the Kool-Aid and vote for Arnie Fields.”
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