In the Oak Tree neighborhood in East Oakland, sex workers and pimps have been known to stand in front of the Youth Employment Partnership (YEP) building where teens walk in and out everyday. “It gets so bad when the kids get their paychecks. The women say, ‘Do you want spend your money?’ Pimps are walking up to the kids asking, ‘How much do you make? You can make more,’” said Russell Jeung, a neighborhood resident and member of New Hope Covenant Church, which holds services at YEP.
Residents, non-profit organizers, and local businesses owners from the Oak Tree area gathered last Wednesday night at YEP, a youth employment training agency, to hear seven of the 15 mayoral candidates’ strategies for dealing with neighborhood issues including sex trafficking, the construction of a new bus route, and youth employment. Jeung, along with New Hope Covenant Church, Street Level, THINK Now College and the East Bay Asian Youth Center organized the event.
The seven candidates’ name place cards were propped on the long table at the front of the room: Courtney Ruby, Bryan Parker, Rebecca Kaplan, Libby Schaaf, Joe Tuman, Dan Siegel and Mayor Jean Quan. The discussion was slated to start at 7 p.m. but by that time, only Ruby was seated at the table. Throughout the night, the mayoral candidates trickled in and out of the room, in no particular order. Quan, the incumbent, arrived around 9:15 p.m., even though the meeting was scheduled to end at 9, to find a nearly empty room. There was an even a surprise guest who slid in at the last minute, mayoral hopeful Nancy Sidebotham.
Sayuri Sakamoto, an Oak Tree resident and member of the church, acted as lead panel moderator. Each candidate was given the same three questions—about sex trafficking, the planned bus route and youth employment—to prepare for ahead of time. The night was structured so that each candidate would have 10 minutes to answer the questions and take additional questions from the audience. But very few addressed the three points. A majority of the candidates came armed with a sales pitch, instead. Ruby, the city auditor, delivered a list of her achievements and her background in city finances, and lawyer Dan Siegel spoke of his experience as a social activist and about high-profile social advocacy cases that he worked on.
When asked about strategies for reducing prostitution on International Boulevard between 23rd Avenue and 28th Avenue, District 4 Councilmember Libby Schaaf said the police tend to use male decoys to arrest the women, who she said are the real victims. “I believe we need to do more of these decoys by using female undercover officers because the people we want to get are the pimps and the johns,” Schaaf said.
Councilmember-at-Large Rebecca Kaplan said she believes there should be more beat police officers who know the neighborhood and can prevent sex trafficking there. She said, “I believe that it is essential that we restore the walking beat officers, particularly for areas like here where we have an outrageous epidemic of children being pimped.”
Candidate Joe Tuman suggested a strategic plan that involves shaming out-of-town individuals caught soliciting sex with minors by placing a billboard in that person’s hometown. “If that person is from Antioch, I will buy a billboard in Antioch and put that individual’s picture there with his name,” he said.
Jeung and other residents say that the number of sex workers visible on the neighborhood’s streets has been increasing over the last 10 years, and that about 10 women routinely work around certain Oak Tree intersections. “We realized we need to get more attention on this issue. Other neighborhoods are organizing [against prostitution] and police are pushing the trafficking down,” he said before the event.
A banner, “BRT 4 Everyone,” hung on the wall of the room, a reference to a planned Bus Rapid Transit route that would run from 20th Street in Uptown all the way to the San Leandro BART station. A large portion of the route will be put in along the International Boulevard corridor, which runs along the Oak Tree neighborhood. Some local business owners at the meeting said they were concerned there will be lack of parking for customers and loss of profits from their small businesses during the construction. A prewritten question asked the candidates to address their stance on forgivable loans, which would be given by the city to businesses that are affected by the construction. The borrower would be expected to pay it back over a certain period of time—or if they cannot, the loan could be forgiven.
When asked by a business owner in the audience if she would endorse such a loan offer, Kaplan replied, “Absolutely. I will absolutely fight for forgivable loans to be included in the program.”
When it was Tuman’s turn to address the prepared question, he said, “Yes. Absolutely. [I am] very supportive of local businesses here. I don’t mind it.” He said that parking is a real problem and asked the audience to visit his website on the parking policies he hopes to implement. Tuman believes that lowering parking fees and violation fines will create a less intimidating environment for drivers, and that it will attract more shoppers to local businesses.
Later in the evening, candidates tackled the topic of youth employment in the area. Quan said that last summer she implemented a job program that provided 2,100 jobs, and she would like to have the city provide more internships and apprenticeships for teens. “They can earn some money while they are going to school and then are less likely to drop out of school,” she said. She also spoke about providing job-training programs in the health field and others that will help teens straight out of high school.
Siegel’s plan involved training more young people to work in the hospitality industry—places like hotels and restaurants. “I talked to the president of Laney College about creating what we are going to call a world-class institute,” he said. “We train people to work in hospitality. There are thousands of jobs out there.”
Candidate Bryan Parker said that with his business background he would work with employers to encourage them to hire young workers. He also said he would engage with businesses early on in the year—instead of April or May, when it is right before the summer—to ensure to that businesses were fully prepared to offer summer jobs. “I would use my business acumen to make sure that we would do that,” he said.
At the end of the night, audience members were invited to vote on which candidate had the best strategies for some of the issues discussed. Kaplan’s stance on implementing more walking beat officers won the overall vote—but only by a close margin.
This story was corrected on Monday, October 27, 2014 to clarify that Nancy Sidebotham is on the mayoral ballot.