Jean Quan probably could have held onto her city council seat representing the Oakland hills for as long as she wanted. But the two-term councilwoman decided to give up her spot when she launched her bid for mayor. And now voters in the Montclair, Dimond, and Laurel districts are facing a relatively rare phenomenon in local politics — an open city council seat. And they have a crowded field to choose from. Seven candidates in all, to be exact.
But don't look to Quan for help on how to mark your ranked choice ballot for the District 4 council seat. She decided not to endorse any of the seven. However, four candidates appear to have emerged with viable campaigns in the past several weeks: Libby Schaaf, a former City Hall staffer; Daniel Swafford, a community activist and business consultant; Jill Broadhurst, an education activist and dedicated Montclair parent; and Melanie Shelby, also a community activist and former council candidate.
If endorsements and experience are good indicators, then Schaaf may be tough to beat. The former aide to both Mayor Jerry Brown and Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente clearly knows more about Oakland city government than any of her rivals. As a result, she will be able to dive into the city's budget problems right away and offer viable solutions, she said. "I have a lot of in-depth knowledge of Oakland government," she said. "And I have a burning desire to change things."
Schaaf also has nuanced positions on several of Oakland's most pressing issues. For example, she said she would have "looked harder" for a solution to the standoff this summer between the council and the police union over pension reform. But if faced with the vote of laying off eighty officers or agreeing to a no-police layoff demand in exchange for cops paying 9 percent of their pensions, she said she would have voted for the layoffs — just like Quan and Schaaf's former boss De La Fuente. Schaaf also is a supporter of a two-tiered pension system, as is Oakland mayoral candidate Rebecca Kaplan.
Schaaf also tepidly supports Measure X, the $54 million parcel tax to fund police, although she said she has strong reservations about it. She also intends to vote for Measure BB, the so-called "Measure Y fix," although she also has some concerns about that initiative and how the city implemented Measure Y in the first place. "You can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," she said in explaining her decisions.
Perhaps the most pressing question about Schaaf is her close relationship to De La Fuente and whether she will vote in lockstep with him. But Schaaf maintained that she's very much her own person. "I'll be independent," she promised. "I don't agree with him on every single issue and no one knows that better than he does." Schaaf also has not endorsed anyone for mayor, including De La Fuente's longtime close ally, Don Perata.
Although Quan is not backing anyone in the race, her husband, Floyd Huen has endorsed Swafford. And of the four leading candidates in the race, Swafford has the deepest roots in District 4, having grown up there and attended Montclair Elementary, Montera Middle School, and Skyline High School — all public schools in the district. Swafford also has been the most active in the district in the past several years. He helped organize the grand opening celebration for the Farmer Joe's supermarket in the Dimond and he runs the increasingly popular Oaktoberfest. "I'm not a politician who's new to the district," he said. "I'm a strong community advocate."
Swafford said he plans to work on fostering and attracting the arts, particularly in the up-and-coming Dimond and Laurel districts. And he said he plans to work with nonprofits and help them get established. He wants them to occupy some of the many empty storefronts in both neighborhoods — a move he believes will help nearby struggling retailers and businesses that need more customers.
Swafford said he also would have voted for the police layoffs — if there were no other viable options. And he said he's opposes Measure X, but supports Measure BB.
Of the four most viable candidates, Broadhurst is probably the least experienced. She's active in the Montclair PTA, and wants to improve the relationship between Oakland Unified and the city. She also is a good government advocate and believes the city should be more transparent in its decision-making.
Like Schaaf and Swafford, Broadhurst also lauded Quan for being a hardworking advocate for hills neighborhoods. And like her rivals, Broadhurst wasn't completely enthralled with Quan either. "I wish she would have listened a little more," Broadhurst said of Quan," and been more engaging with the public."
Broadhurst also said she would have voted against the police layoffs, and she opposes both Measure X and Measure BB. She also opposes Measure W, the telephone tax; both Schaaf and Swafford support it, too, as does Quan.
As for Shelby, her campaign said she was not available to be interviewed for this story. The three others in the race are perennial candidate Clinton Killian; political neophyte Jason Gillen; and former Oakland Public Ethics Commission chair Ralph Kanz. Recently, Kanz expressed support for Broadhurst after his campaign failed to gather momentum.
In 2006, the knock on Pat Kernighan was the same as the one facing Libby Schaaf this year. Would the longtime City Hall aide be in De La Fuente's pocket? After all, he was one of Kernighan's strongest supporters and he quietly helped her run her campaign. But in the past four years, Kernighan proved repeatedly that the concerns about her were unfounded. Indeed, Kernighan has turned out to be one of the most independent members of the council. One needs no more proof than the fact that De La Fuente has refused to endorse her for reelection this year.
It was particularly noteworthy that Kernighan opposed a plan backed by De La Fuente that would have allowed housing along a portion of the city's industrial waterfront. De La Fuente had steadfastly supported the plan, which also stood to benefit several of his close friends and allies, including former aide Carlos Plazola, one of the most influential lobbyists in the city.
If reelected, Kernighan says her top priorities will be Oakland's twin problems of crime and attracting more business to the city. "The long-term solution is to bring more jobs to the city," she said. "But it's hard to attract and grow businesses if there's a perception that the city is not safe." During her tenure, she led the effort to attract a Trader Joe's to Lakeshore Avenue. And she's also beloved by Chinatown merchants. Carl Chan, the informal mayor of Chinatown, is one of her most ardent supporters.
Kernighan took heat for the city's parking fiasco last year. But she also led the effort to roll back parking meter times to 6 p.m. In addition, she voted for the police layoffs because of the cops' refusal to pay into their pensions. And like Jean Quan, she voted to put Measure X on the ballot because of an agreement between the council and the police union, but does not support the parcel tax. She also is a strong backer of Measure BB, and plans to vote for Measure W, the telephone tax. She also is a consistent supporter of taxing and regulating medical cannabis.
Her lone opponent in the District 2 race is political newcomer Jennifer Pae. In an interview, it was not clear where Pae stands on the issues. She talked in general terms about the importance of public safety, of creating a long-term budget, and of revamping Oakland's parking policy, but offered no specifics. "We need to turn things around and chart a new course for the city," she said, without citing details of how she would do that.
Pae also criticized Kernighan for an alleged lack of "leadership." Yet Pae repeatedly dodged a question about how she would have voted on the police layoffs/pension dispute. After repeated questioning, she finally said she would have voted against the layoffs even though she thinks police need to contribute to their pensions. But then she offered no plan for accomplishing that goal. Pae also said she will vote for Measure X, Measure BB, and Measure W.
District 6 councilwoman Desley Brooks is perhaps the most polarizing member of the city council. She's aggressively candid and forceful. But she's also a fierce advocate for overhauling Oakland's budget, and for improving the performance of the Oakland Police Department. She's also been a critic of the police union and its refusal to contribute to its pension without a no-layoff guarantee.
Although her competitors say she doesn't work hard enough on behalf of all of her constituents, Brooks has led an effort to upgrade city parks and after-school programs for youth throughout her East Oakland district. She also has sponsored numerous successful weekend events in the parks. "Parks create community," she said. "They pull people together."
Her opponents are José Dorado, chair of the Maxwell Park Neighborhood Council and Nancy Sidebotham, a longtime public safety advocate who has run against Brooks previously. Dorado also is chair of the citywide Measure Y Committee and is an avid Jean Quan supporter. Both also are extremely critical of Brooks. "She has a very narrow agenda," Dorado said. "You ask people in Maxwell Park or people in the flats, they never see her."
"Desley Brooks does her own thing — she doesn't represent the community," Sidebotham added. "Most of the community hates her guts. She's about taking care of her family and friends."
Dorado and Sidebotham, who are both tax preparers, also cite public safety as their top priority. But both said they would have voted for the police layoffs. Dorado said he'll vote for Measure X, and he supports Measure BB. But Sidebotham opposes both. Brooks also is against Measure X, but backs Measure BB.