It’s still cold, not yet eight o’clock on a Thursday morning in October, and Len Raphael is hard at work. The sun hasn’t yet reached the table set up between the coffee seller and flower shack at the MacArthur BART station. Moving between the turnstiles and the little table covered in reading material and lawn-signs, Raphael says he feels like a salesman. Wearing red suspenders over a checkered shirt and beaming at the crowds of commuters, he makes himself stand out.
“I’m running for city council, against the advice of my friends and family,” he tells a morning commuter, handing over a pamphlet. “But don’t get me wrong,” Raphael says, shedding his smile. “I’m running to win.”
Len Raphael is a political non-politician, a long time sideline-commenter on multiple Oakland news sites who is now looking to roll up his sleeves and subject city government to a powerful personality and an accountant’s understanding of fiscal complexity. A suspendered, smiling candidate, in some ways he looks as though he could have stepped out of a campaign from the late 19th century.
His house in Temescal flies an American flag—and will, he says, until his son Ben returns from his deployment in Afghanistan, where he led his Green Beret unit less than a month ago. Both of Raphael’s sons were Oakland Tech graduates. His campaign headquarters is in the old Kasper’s Hot Dogs flatiron building on Telegraph, where the neon sign that has promised “hot dogs” since 1943 now shares its marquee with a banner reading “Shake up city hall!”
He loves Oakland, he says, partially because it reminds him of the Brooklyn of his youth. “I love cities,” says Raphael. “I find cities fascinating; and in some ways, Oakland is Brooklyn with better weather.”
Raphael is a numbers man. A Certified Public Accountant for more than 30 years, and treasurer on local campaigns for city council and on campaigns against recent measures I and J, he likes to say he has discovered a destructive formula in Oakland city government policy. Oakland is paying too much in compensation to its public workers, Raphael says, especially its firefighters and police. The public workers’ unions back candidates in elections; the candidates back unions once elected; and union influence leads to Oakland overpaying in combined salary and pension, Raphael says. Police become too expensive, and Oakland cannot afford enough officers, so crime goes up and Oakland suffers.
“I’ve crunched the numbers,” he’ll say as an introduction to his fiscal policy. He relies often on derivations of this phrase, regularly ending arguments with the assurance: “I’ve done the math.”
Raphael’s stated plan is to reduce costs by cutting pay for all city employees—the mayor, the city council, and especially police officers and firefighters. This would let Oakland double its number of police officers, Raphael says, adding that a firm hand is needed to put the police department under civilian control. He has concluded that Oakland is headed not only for worse crime because of this, but also for bankruptcy—and sooner than most politicians say.
“People don’t think I sound alarmist,” he says with a wide smile. “They think I sound like a nutcase.”
Raphael doesn’t mind. He has established his outsider’s posture in the race quite deliberately, and it seems he doesn’t even much like sharing the same sentence with Amy Lemley and other candidates supported by unions and other influential local organizations. “If you’re going on endorsements,” he says with forthright cheer to a passerby at Rockridge BART one morning, “I don’t have any.”
A few days later, at the October 12 District 1 debate at The College Preparatory School, Raphael’s is the only name card with a handwritten alteration. Above the typed “Leonard,” capital letters now read “LEN.” He sets his wooden walking stick on the table—an artifact of recent surgery on one foot—and sheds his outdoor vest to show off his red suspenders. As the forum begins, he affects something of a poker face when the other candidates speak, as though avoiding culpability in what he sees as a dangerous and far-reaching in-club in Oakland politics.
As a result of random ordering, Raphael is the last to introduce himself. It seems likely he would have chosen this final spot anyway—the better to set himself apart from the field. Later in the evening, he will be the candidate to react most visibly to his opponents’ statements, sighing heavily, chuckling or putting his hand over his face as he catches what he believes are their factual errors. As he introduces himself, he cites a review of his own political acumen that recently appeared in an Oakland Tribune editorial on the District 1 race. “After years as a political watchdog,” he reads aloud to the crowd, “Raphael understands the complexities best.”
What he doesn’t say at the College Prep debate is that the Tribune’s editorial on the District 1 race went on to endorse Craig Brandt, explaining that between the two of them, Brandt “has the better temperament to effect change.” Raphael sometimes tells voters on the streets that he’s proud of this critique—he says his temperament is something that will help him “shake up city hall”—but he holds back on announcing it before a crowd. The Tribune’s take on Raphael nicely illustrates his position as something of a paradox in the race. His own supporters observe that his style could mean a difficulty with compromise that could prove both obstacle and advantage to Raphael in office. He doesn’t dwell on this in the debate, but stays on message and tells a story of serious, but fixable problems in Oakland’s fiscal responsibilities.
Raphael, like several of his fellow District 1 candidates, says it was crime that gradually drew him into local politics. He moved to Oakland from Brooklyn in 1970, he says, thanks to “a 1956 red Dodge Coronet with a bad parking brake.” He says his car couldn’t take the hills of San Francisco, so he settled in the East Bay. Before becoming an accountant, he ran a bicycle shop, and then opened an auto shop—when he had his first personal encounter with the crime problem in Oakland. Raphael says his shop, Car World, was broken into on its first night in business.
The city’s crime surprised Raphael, even back then. “And I don’t think it’s changed much,” he says.
Nevertheless, Raphael says, he minded his own business politically until the 2007 murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey, in broad daylight, made him wonder whether something was somehow more wrong in Oakland than anywhere else. “This guy knows there are no cops in Oakland,” Raphael says of Bailey’s killer. He says he had often heard longtime District 1 councilmember Jane Brunner say there was no money for new police, but only after this killing did he start to wonder why. Since then, he’s been paying attention to local government with an accountant’s diligence.
After working for many years at larger accounting offices in San Francisco, Raphael opened his own accounting business, Raphael & Associates, in Emeryville. Raphael says he wishes Oakland was a little more like Emeryville. “It’s safe,” he says. “It has parking.”
For years, Raphael’s role in politics was as a provider of analysis online. A regular commenter on many community forums, blogs and news sites (including Oakland North), Raphael quickly made a name for himself among the city’s most involved political watchdogs. After reading about the Bailey murder, however, he decided to get more actively involved in Oakland politics.
In 2008, after Raphael pledged support to whoever challenged incumbent Jane Brunner in the city council race, he found himself working as treasurer for candidate Patrick McCullough, the North Oakland man who had been thrust into the news after confrontations with alleged drug dealers outside his house culminated in McCullough shooting a 15-year-old boy in 2005. McCullough’s actions would eventually be ruled as self-defense, and the boy whom he shot has since made a full recovery, but his story and his candidacy set off intense local argument about the lines between self-defense and vigilantism.
It wasn’t the shooting that won Raphael’s support in the campaign, he says. “Would I have done the same thing?” Raphael says. “Probably not.” He does say that that McCullough’s decision to protect himself with a registered handgun “is a terrible comment on our city’s public security system.” After McCullough received about 27 percent of the vote, despite being underfunded and running against an incumbent of “a zillion years,” Raphael says he was encouraged by the “other guy’s” chances in a city election.
So, in the next District 1 election, he decided to try it himself. The big issue–trumping all others, he believes–is crime. “Crime scares people and businesses out of Oakland,” he says. “The perception is reality.” And to Raphael, the beginning of the answer is in the salary numbers. “You have to cut what these people are paid,” Raphael says simply. “You must cut fire and police. It’s not about what they’re worth, it’s about what we’re able to pay.”
The argument that qualified applicants won’t come to Oakland if compensation drops doesn’t hold much weight with Raphael. “My younger son was deployed to Afghanistan four weeks ago,” he says. “He’s a graduate of West Point. He had several years of combat experience, and was awarded a bronze star. He is not paid anything close to what Oakland police are paid.”
After factoring in health and retirement benefits and overtime pay, Raphael says, the average Oakland police officer or firefighter is paid the equivalent of $200,000 a year, a number that has failed to drop during the recent economic decline. Raphael monitors public employee salaries in a number of places, but most regularly through a database maintained by the San Jose Mercury News. Five years ago, he says, he might have worried that reducing this number could discourage applicants from becoming police officers for Oakland. Now, he says, the market value for the job has dropped, and a renegotiation of compensation is critical if Oakland wants to be able to hire more officers—something Raphael says is vital for public safety.
“And I’m the only one talking about this,” says Raphael of compensation renegotiation.
Both at debates and in his person-to-person campaigning, Raphael talks to voters like an energetic coach trying to help the electorate see the problems he sees. He doesn’t think anyone else in the race has a plausible plan to pay for more police officers—something many candidates say they plan on making a priority. “You have to ask how they’re going to get cops for less than $200,000 a year,” he says to voters, hoping to increase their skepticism.
He challenges everyone he meets to go and see who is funding the campaigns of each candidate, and announces often that he has no union backing. In fact, the bulk of his campaign expenditures—roughly $21,000 out of a total $23,000—has come from his own pocket. “Be careful who you’re voting for,” he’s fond of saying. Getting union money out of the city council is vital, he argues, to fixing the system of favors making it impossible for Oakland to hire more police.
Raphael has told his supporters to consider Don Macleay and Craig Brandt as their second and third choice, respectively, on their ranked-choice ballots. “I don’t think in terms of gaming the system or optimizing my chances,” Raphael says of these endorsements. He says he made his choices based on the integrity he respects in these two candidates.
“He’s a little bull-headed,” says Ken Ott, a Berkeley graduate and tech manager for a private medical clinic in San Francisco, who works as Raphael’s campaign manager. “He’s not very polished.” This is something in which both Ott and Raphael take pride.
“He trumpets what he thinks, laughs loud and talks loud,” says Jim Dexter, a retired technical writer and current chairperson on an Oakland hills Neighborhood Crime Prevention Committee, who says he has long been an admirer of Raphael’s energetic presence as a public commentator. “He takes a big broad brush and just whacks something with it,” Dexter says.
Raphael says he’s not surprised to hear these observations, and that he has full confidence in his ability to cooperate and thrive in office. “If I’m bullheaded, I’d say you have to be somewhat like a pit-bull to stay on target with the fiscal problems and the mismanagement of OPD,” he says. “We have a consensus, all right, but the consensus we have is dangerously mediocre, and we’ll consensus ourselves right into Chapter 9 – with a high crime rate, to boot.”
In his time away from work and the council race, Raphael puts his considerable will to work in his Temescal backyard. Surrounded by a high Mediterranean-style wall, he tends a lively community of beans, squash, figs, apricots and herbs. Olive trees and grapes frame the garden entrance, enhancing the feeling that the little patch could be somewhere in southern France or Italy instead of a swath of temperate Temescal. He is particularly proud of the current population of nightcrawler worms in his compost batch, which have proven so prodigious that he was forced to buy a larger bin to hold them all.
“I’ve gotten pretty attached to them,” he says, digging appraisingly into the damp brown of the compost. Raphael’s sympathetic streak is such that he can’t bear to relocate the worms into his garden until he’s sure they’re strong enough to survive—and he wouldn’t think of parting with them at the Temescal farmers’ market, he says, because he can’t be sure they won’t be used for fish bait.
Both Ott and Dexter agree that Raphael is likely to have an effect on the political landscape of Oakland even if he isn’t elected, and that his election would open the door for a greater diversity of perspectives in the city council. “Having someone like Len in office pushes the envelope of the possible,” Ott says.
His rallying points are well known to the other District 1 candidates—many of whom, Raphael argues, have gradually changed their messaging to acknowledge elements in his. (Candidate Dan Kalb, for example, on a debate podium talking about the need to hire more police for Oakland: “I may have to channel Len here for a moment.”) All the council candidates take very different approaches in gaining the confidence of the electorate; Raphael’s, as his manager Ott says, is to warn repeatedly that Oakland is falling awfully fast. “But he also has solutions,” Ott says–primarily Raphael’s cost-cutting plans, which the candidate argues is the first step in reducing crime. This is something, Raphael says, that the “clubby group of insiders” currently in office will not be willing to do. Raphael says the very fact that Amy Lemley’s campaign is being run by Larry Tramutola, who is known for his work with Brunner and Oakland politician Don Perata, illustrates the hold of the “old-guard” in these races.
“To me, they’re clones,” he says of the other faces in the city council race, handing his latest pamphlet to a commuter one morning outside the Rockridge BART. “Is that how it seems to you?”
There is something almost like intimacy in the way Raphael uses the words “they” and “them” in conversation when referring to the in-club he sees in city government. He will very often begin speaking about “them” without specifying who “they” are, but it goes without saying that there is only one “they” in his language. His adversarial attention is always trained on them, and they are never far from his mind or the point he is making.
Raphael agrees that his message can come off as a little gloomy. But his perspective isn’t pessimistic. “People tell me: ‘I support you, but I hear you speak and I come away depressed,’” says Raphael in a break in the commuter foot-traffic at Rockridge. He chuckles a bit and shrugs so his red suspenders move a little on his shoulders. “Do I look depressed?”