Candidates discuss homelessness, schools at heated mayoral forum

Mayoral candidates debate Wednesday night in West Oakland.

Mayoral candidates debate Wednesday night in West Oakland.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf spent Wednesday night defending her record during the second mayoral forum of the election season. 

The other candidates, a mix of first-time hopefuls and contenders from previous years, used the forum to question her progress on issues like creating affordable housing and addressing homelessness. Local businessman Saied Karamooz told the mayor, “Talk is cheap.” Tax preparer Nancy Sidebotham wanted to know “what the heck” the mayor’s office does. And community organizer Cat Brooks, who leads the Anti Police-Terror Project, said she’s “sick and tired about hearing why things can’t get done.” Through it all, Schaaf stood behind the accomplishments of her term, saying that she is “incredibly proud” with the work done over the last four years, like the work the city’s Department of Transportation crews have “started to finally pave the damn roads.”

Nearly a dozen West Oakland neighborhood groups hosted the forum. Initially, the group planned to hold the event at the West Oakland Senior Center, but according to event organizers, the center was locked due to a miscommunication. They moved the forum across the street to the DeFremery Recreation Center a half hour before it was set to start. About 30 people jammed into a small, lilac-colored multipurpose room, complete with a folded-up ping pong table on one end and stacked cans of organic evaporated milk on the other. Sitting on mismatched folding chairs, they faced the candidates who sat at a couple of conference tables taking turns standing and speaking. Sounds of jumping and yelling could be heard overhead during the candidate’s discussion, as the events of the day continued at the recreation center.

Representatives from the sponsoring groups each asked a question of the six attending candidates, who are among the ten people running for mayor. In addition to Schaaf, Brooks, Sidebotham and Karamooz, the forum included self-proclaimed “son of Oakland” and community activist Ken Houston and Jesse A.J. Smith. Smith, a member of Occupy Oakland, addressed the audience during the candidates’ opening statements but did not participate in any further discussion, noting that he did not want to take time from other candidates. The 29-year-old calls himself a minor candidate running on a single issue: to replace Oakland Police Department administrators with civilian leaders. While he said he does not expect to win, Smith said he is hoping that a strong showing of votes for his campaign will send a message to the winning candidate that police reform is important to Oakland voters.

Civil rights attorney Pamela Price, one of the more well-known candidates running for mayor, having just run for Alameda County District Attorney, did not attend. A representative of her campaign who was in the audience said event organizers did not invite Price to the forum.

Moderator Ben Delaney of the Jack London District Association noted that many of the prepared questions were lengthy and had multiple parts, adding jokingly that he “had nothing to do with writing it. I am merely reading it.” The questions covered an array of topics, but the issues of homelessness and affordable housing dominated the discussion. The forum came one day after a fire displaced 37 people living at the homeless encampment in East Oakland known as the Village.

Brooks blamed the mayor for the conditions that led to the fire during a protest Tuesday. She says the fire could have been prevented if the mayor had opened up public buildings, like Oakland City Hall, to shelter the homeless. She told the forum audience that “enough is enough. We have got to be sick and tired of hearing about incremental progress.”

Schaaf did not mention The Village fire, and she wasn’t explicitly asked about it. Instead, she spoke at length about what she’s doing to address the city’s homelessness crisis, starting the Tuff Sheds project, in which the city sets up small buildings to serve as temporary homes as the homeless transition to permanent housing. Two camps have been set up since May; each can house 40 people. Schaaf called the project the “first thing that is working with the communities that are most impacted.” Schaaf said she believes in the program, telling the group it gives homeless people “peace of mind to go to bed at night behind a locked door with their partners, their pets, and their possessions.”

Brooks quickly criticized the Tuff Sheds approach, arguing that you can’t “solve the problem 40 at a time in chemically-treated tool sheds.” Instead, she suggested the city open its buildings and land to the homeless to use “public lands for public goods.”

Karamooz agreed with Brooks, vowing that, if elected, he would open the doors of city hall his first night in office so “our brother and sisters who do not have access to the luxury of indoor plumbing can go and have a dignified way to relieve themselves.” He accused the current administration of allowing the city to turn “into an outdoor latrine,” adding that “everywhere you look there’s a pile of poop or a puddle of pee, and that’s unacceptable to everyone.”

Sidebotham added that at “all [homeless people] want to do is have a chance, and the city isn’t doing anything.” Her campaign promise is to house every single homeless person in Oakland.

Houston, who said he lived in an Oakland encampment for 30 days and seven nights, did not directly blame the city for the crisis, but noted that he could “not understand how the community could actually allow people to live like animals.” Houston, who describes his platform as “the street,” said he’ll tackle the issue by talking to people. “That’s what I do. I’m a people person,” said Houston. “Son of Oakland. Born and raised. Committed. I will always say that.”

After a question about jobs, the forum quickly turned into a discussion about education. A representative from the group Oakland Works asked the candidates how they and their staff would work with community members to improve education.

Schaaf called herself “hella proud” of the Oakland Promise, an initiative that aims to give children resources and scholarships to head to college. She credited the “comprehensive education program” with contributing to last year’s Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) graduation rate of 70 percent, what she calls the “district’s highest graduation rate in decades.”

Brooks was quick to parry the mayor’s statement at her next opportunity, noting that in a year when the OUSD is facing millions of dollars in budget cuts, scholarships are not the answer. “While I desperately believe, deeply believe and agree that we need money for scholarships, I’m more concerned about plugging the hole right now,” said Brooks.

During her next chance to speak, Schaaf fired back, calling the Oakland Promise “a lot more than scholarships.”

This dynamic between Brooks and Schaaf continued throughout the debate: Brooks criticized the mayor’s policies, while Schaaf smiled, looking down and scribbling on a sheet of paper in front of her. When the mayor outlined her accomplishments and plans, Brooks stared straight ahead, rarely glancing at her opponent. Neither addressed the other by name. While audience seats were unassigned, it was soon clear based on applause the room was mostly divided: supporters of the mayor sat on the right, and those who disapprove of the mayor’s record, including a number of Brooks supporters, sat on the left.

Karamooz, who did address Schaaf by name, agreed with the mayor that the Oakland Promise “has done some good things,” but said Schaaf deserves no credit for the program because it would exist without her. “If we don’t hold politicians accountable, they will take credit for the sun coming up tomorrow morning,” said Karamooz, eliciting a chuckle from the crowd.

Karamooz and Sidebotham argued that charter schools are contributing to OUSD’s problem by taking state per-pupil school funding away from public schools struggling to stay open. Houston outlined what he is doing for Oakland children, noting that next month he’s opening a laundry facility for homeless youth “so they don’t smell like feces.”

During closing statements, Schaaf again defended her record, telling the audience and the candidates that “the problems of Oakland are larger than what lies within the authority of just the mayor.” She noted that a mayor has to work with regional and state authorities and—“Lord forbid”—the federal government to “bring the results that Oaklanders deserve.”

Karamooz and Brooks used their last words to go after the incumbent. Karamooz told the crowd that behind all the problems discussed Wednesday night “is a dysfunctional government and a mayor who refuses to accept her responsibility for the failures.” Holding up a laminated sheet of crime statistics, he then went after an earlier claim the mayor made that violent crime is down. He argued that violent crime incidents “have gone up in the last four years, not down.” Karamooz then tossed a copy of the statistics at the mayor.

But whether violent crime rates have gone up or down depends on how you define “violent crime.” Karamooz defines violent crimes as homicides, aggravated assaults, and rapes. Based the Oakland Police Department (OPD) end of year crime report for 2017, if you characterize violent crime this way, Karamooz is correct. From 2014, when Schaaf was elected, to 2017, there was a slight increase in these three crimes, about 3.8 percent overall.

But that’s not the way the OPD measures violent crime. Their statistics include robberies as a fourth category. With that data point, there was nearly an 11 percent decrease since 2014. Karamooz argues that the decrease in robberies, which are down 24 percent over the last five years, distorts the numbers.

The mayor’s office has also touted a recent study that showed a roughly 30 percent drop in gun-related homicides since 2013, attributing the decrease to the city-backed Operation Ceasefire program.

The next mayoral forum will be next Wednesday, September 19, at the Allen Temple Baptist Church from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The election is Tuesday, November, 6th.

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