Candidates for the Oakland City Council’s District 4 seat told a packed panel audience Thursday night about the many complaints they’ve heard while campaigning: grievances about affordable housing, illegal dumping and public safety. But one story stuck out to candidate Matt Hummel: The one from the Montclair resident who told him he’d just spent $2,000 on new rims thanks to a pothole.
“The next thing he said out of his mouth was: ‘But I’d rather swerve around potholes if we could spend the money on fixing homelessness,’” said Hummel. “Thank God people are thinking this way. I’m glad to know that the wealthiest district in the city is ready to put its money where their mouth is and help people.”
Sentiments like this dominated the panel discussion, which focused primarily on a single issue: equity. Six of the 7 candidates running to replace outgoing Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington attended: businessman Charlie Michelson; non-profit CEO Nayeli Maxson; former chief of staff to the councilmember-at-large Sheng Thao; former city employee Joseph Tanios; Democratic Party official Pam Harris, and Hummel, chair of the city’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission. Organizers said the seventh candidate, Pastor Joseph Simmons, was expected to attend, but it was unclear why he was absent.
The theme of the night was an obvious choice for event organizers, the 22x Neighborhood Council, whose mission statement focuses on creating an equitable Oakland.
Ravinder Singh, a member of the neighborhood council and the Chair of the Community Policing Advisory Board, moderated the discussion. Nearly every folding metal chair was taken in the auditorium of Sequoia Elementary School in Oakland’s Dimond neighborhood. A dinner was served from aluminum tubs in the back. At the front, the candidates sat at folding tables facing the audience, identified by names handwritten in purple ink on folder paper. In contrast to the mayoral forum a few days earlier, throughout the discussion, the candidates were cordial; in fact, those who arrived early, Harris and Michelson, smiled and chatted before questions began. Audience members were asked to write questions for the candidates on index cards placed on their chairs.
Candidates started the discussion with an opening statement and then Singh asked the first question crafted by the 22x Neighborhood Council. It focused on the Equity Indicators Report released by the city earlier this summer. The study, done in partnership with researchers at City University of New York (CUNY), used existing data to examine racial disparities across the city. While civic engagement scores were high, based on an algorithm developed by CUNY researchers, Oakland did poorly overall, scoring 33.5 out of a possible 100. The figure was brought down by low scores in the public safety category, which included analysis of the city’s homicides, adult felony arrests and police use of force incidents. Singh asked the candidates to give a one-minute explanation of how they, representing one of the wealthier districts in the city, would “close the disparities.”
Harris said when she and her wife decided to raise their family here, she felt Oakland reflected their values. Now, she said, she feels that’s less and less the case. “We need someone from the D4 seat with an equity lens. Somebody who says, ‘I know my district is more well resourced.’ You see that other districts are less well resourced. What are our needs and what are the needs of other districts?” said Harris.
Michelson, who’s been endorsed by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and outgoing Councilmember Campbell Washington, said the city has to hold the newly-formed Department of Race and Equity “accountable, making sure that the recommendations and findings in this report are implemented across the city.“ He called the city’s equity problems “multitudinal. I don’t know if that’s a word or not, but time’s up”—a response that elicited a few laughs.
Thao said it’s not about how holding department officials accountable, but rather supporting them by allowing staffers to hire more people. She pointed out that department head Darlene Flynn “only has one staff person. She can’t do everything with just one staff person,” said Thao.
Hummel told the audience that as chair of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, his group was the first in the city to work with the Department of Race and Equity. He called inequity a “moral crisis” and vowed to continue to make the issue a priority if elected.
Tanios, a immigrant who moved to the United Stated more than four decades ago, said as someone who is “foreign born” he understands the issue of equity. His plan is to “involve the community more” because “you deserve better service than the lip service you are getting now.” He did not elaborate on what he meant by “lip service.”
Maxson said that as CEO of the Alliance for Community Development, she’s had experience tackling this issue. The nonprofit’s mission is to increase capital for underrepresented entrepreneurs, including people of color. She told the crowd that her commitment to fairness will continue if she assumes office.
The discussion of equity continued as Singh read this question from the audience: “What policy changes could be made to address gross inequities in housing?”
Harris suggested the city “make sure we desegregate by class around the city,” but did not propose any specific policy changes.
Maxson said the issue of housing insecurity is very personal to her. She said her family was paid to leave their home when a tech employee bought their building during the first dot.com boom. She suggested that the city make the permitting and planning process for building new affordable housing more navigable so “problem-solvers” can invest in creating more units.
Tanios agreed with Maxson, adding that “we need to work together” to “streamline the permitting process.”
The topic was also personal to Thao, who said that as a survivor of domestic violence, she left her home with her young son and lived in her vehicle for a few months. Thao told the crowd she’ll use her personal experience as well as her background working with the council to address affordability issues. “City hall is a beast. This is why we need someone with experience,” said Thao.
Hummel used his time to talk about the city’s growing homeless population. He noted that in January, a representative from the United Nations inspected Oakland’s encampments and told the East Bay Express she observed “systemic cruelty” in the way the city treats its homeless residents by allowing them to live in rodent-infested camps without access to clean water and toilets. He said that as District 4’s councilmember he would fight to “open up all public land” for the homeless.
Michelson said the housing crisis stems from a “high-quality problem—that people actually want to live here.” His suggestion was to build more affordable housing, and he thinks the city can do so through revenues collected from developers. He said he wants to make sure that “the people building market rate housing pay their fair share to get more Oaklanders housed.”
At one point, an audience member suggested via index card that the candidates get more than a minute to answer each question, but Singh said it wasn’t possible in the interest of time. Other audience questions included inquiries into the candidates’ plans to prioritize funding in District 4 neighborhoods, their thoughts on fostering the arts, and their insights into on how the city can help take care of the aging community being priced out of District 4 homes.
These questions evoked primarily uniform responses from the candidates, who spoke about the need to prioritize and communicate with the District 4 community.
But one question divided the panel: On a contentious council, how will you foster relationships with other members? This is a key question, since outgoing Councilmember Campbell Washington said in April she is not seeking reelection because of “toxic” city council meetings. Candidates formed two camps: Those who feel the office needs a city government insider and those who do not.
Maxson and Thao, having worked as staffers for councilmembers, both touted their relationships with current members. Maxson said she plans to be direct when she disagrees with someone. Thao said she knows the councilmembers on a “personal level and a professional level” and that if she could not get the five votes needed to pass an ordinance, “I would not be voluntarily standing here in front of you today.”
Hummel cited his experience on the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, adding that he’s friends with most of the councilmembers “on Facebook even,” garnering a few audience chuckles. Tanios boasted of his skills as a communicator. He said he speaks four languages and added that as a former city employee, he has always worked well with the council.
But Michelson and Harris said the new District 4 councilmember needs to be an outsider. “We can’t let personal relationships get in the way of running the city,” said Michelson. Harris suggested the key to working with the council is electing someone who is “committed to accessibility and transparency, someone who’s not looking at this seat as a way to another seat.”
Singh then threw the candidates a political curveball, reading a yes or no question from an audience member: “Have you or will you accept donations from the Oakland police union?”
Hummel and Maxson said no. Michelson, Harris, Thao and Tanios said they were undecided.
The next candidate discussion will be hosted by the League of Women Voters on September 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Allendale Recreation Center. The election is November 6.