Quan passes baton to Schaaf in District Four
on November 17, 2010
When Jean Quan chose to run for mayor this fall rather than for reelection to Oakland’s City Council, she left a vacuum in the city’s fourth municipal district, which she has represented on the council since 2003. Seven candidates vied for her seat, more than for any office on an Oaklander’s ballot other than the unprecedented ten-way race for mayor that Quan narrowly won. With Quan moving to City Hall and Libby Schaaf replacing her in January, the face of District Four politics is entering a new chapter.
District Four, which runs from Oakland’s border with Contra Costa County in the Oakland hills down into the flatlands around Bancroft Avenue, encompasses a culturally and geographically diverse swath of the city. “We’re the most diverse district in the city,” Quan boasted to Oakland North in September, and public figures from Quan to city council candidate Ralph Kanz, who placed sixth in the District Four race this fall, have called the district a “microcosm” of Oakland.
Dick Spees, who represented District Four on the council for 24 years before making way for Quan in 2003, says the district’s diversity means its representatives “can be a little more active city-wide,” since the issues relevant to the district are so often of interest in other districts as well. While he thinks the district’s own problems—including a declining school system, deteriorating infrastructure, and rising crime—are important, Spees says District Four’s relative prosperity renders these problems “not as urgent” as elsewhere in the city.
District Four was one of just three of Oakland’s seven districts to hold an election for City Council this year; while incumbents Patricia Kernighan of District Two and Desley Brooks of District Six faced just one or two challengers each, Quan’s departure left an open field in District Four that seven candidates rushed to fill.
Although the race lacked an incumbent, some candidates had more government experience than others. Libby Schaaf, who ultimately won the seat with 42 percent of first-choice votes in the city’s new ranked-choice voting system, has had a long career in city government. She served as chief of staff to City Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente (District Five) from 1999 to 2004, and as a top aide to former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown in the mid-2000s. (Brown was elected this fall to a third term as governor.)
Given Schaaf’s experience, and the long list of endorsements she received from Brown, a host of local leaders, and media outlets including the Oakland Tribune and the East Bay Express, after the election fellow candidate Ralph Kanz called Schaaf “in essence the incumbent in the race.”
But Schaaf was not the only candidate with a strong political résumé: Melanie Shelby served as an Oakland Housing Authority commissioner, and Clinton Killian was an AC Transit Board member from 1997 to 2000 and on the Oakland Planning Commission until 2005. Both Shelby and Killian, who placed third and fifth respectively this fall, had previously run unsuccessful campaigns for the council’s at-large seat.
Candidates Jill Broadhurst and Daniel Swafford both derive their experience from Oakland neighborhood organizations: Broadhurst has served on the Montclair Safety and Improvement Council since its founding in 2002, and Swafford founded a neighborhood crime prevention council in the Dimond District, and has chaired the Dimond Improvement Association, a local merchants’ group. Only Jason Gillen, who placed seventh and last with about 2.5 percent of first-choice votes, ran with no prior political experience.
Kanz, who served three years on the Oakland Public Ethics Commission and currently works as the Alameda Creek Alliance’s conservation director, placed sixth in the race. He said that if he had fully understood how stiff the competition would be before he began his campaign, he probably wouldn’t have run.
Schaaf, the race’s winner, will be a familiar face in District Four. She grew up in the district, just a few blocks from Spees, who was a family friend throughout his tenure on the council. Schaaf is quick to mention the rigors of running for office while raising two young children; as it happens, her own mother was named Oakland’s Mother of the Year in by a coalition of city non-profit organizations in 1995.
Before entering government in 1999 as an aide to De La Fuente, Schaaf practiced employment law for three years at the Oakland office of Reed Smith LLP, and then created and supervised a volunteer program for Oakland Unified School District.
Spees, who encouraged Schaaf to run and endorsed her campaign, expects her time in his old council seat will be productive. “I think she’s going to make a fine councilwoman,” he said, citing her background as an attorney and her experience in city government. “She can obviously analyze things quite well,” Spees said, but believes her greatest virtue is that she’s “a very calming person” who will “fit into the mix very well” at City Hall.
In addition to Spees, Schaaf credits family friend Judy Johnson with nudging her to run for elected office. Johnson urged Schaaf to participate in Emerge California, a training program for Democratic-leaning women considering running for state and local office. Schaaf says the program helped transform her from aide to candidate.
Now that she has won, Schaaf’s relationship to her former bosses is likely to change—for example, she will be working with De La Fuente as an equal on the council rather than his aide. Despite previous collaboration—and De La Fuente’s endorsement during her campaign—Schaaf foresees no exclusive alliance. “I see working with all of the council,” she said. (De La Fuente was unavailable for comment for this article.)
Jerry Brown’s return to the governorship also makes for a unique relationship to Schaaf. While he represents Schaaf on the state level as governor, Brown maintains a residence in Schaaf’s new district, which she laughingly points out makes him one of her constituents. Schaaf says she is grateful that “when I call [Brown] he picks up the phone,” and for Brown’s endorsement, but she expects no special treatment from Sacramento once she and Brown take their respective offices.
Perhaps the biggest endorsement Schaaf did not receive was from outgoing representative Jean Quan, who declined to endorse any candidate in the District Four race. “I wish her well,” Quan said of Schaaf at Quan’s last official “office hours” as a councilmember last Sunday at the Montclair Farmers’ Market. “Whoever takes my place is going to have a hard time, because it’s a very diverse district.”
As she prepares to take office this winter, Schaaf says her top priorities are “getting the city’s finances in order,” enhancing the public’s safety, and improving the city’s traffic infrastructure. Under De La Fuente she helped to establish the Fruitvale BART Transit Village, and worked on the revitalization of Park Boulevard. During the two years she worked for Brown (which were punctuated by a maternity leave), she worked as a member of the Measure Y Violence Prevention Implementation Program.
With these experiences under her belt, Schaaf sets out for her first term in elected office. Is she happy to have been elected? “’Happy’ is not the word that comes to mind,” she says. “Humbled, pleased—but very aware of the work that’s ahead.”
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Patricia Kernighan is the District 2 councilperson and Desley Brooks is District 6 – you have these reversed.
Excellent catch. We’ve corrected the sentence, and we regret the error. Thanks for reading so closely!
Ted Trautman, Reporter
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