The largest presence in this fall's District 5 city council race in Oakland isn't even on the ballot. After two decades in Oakland City Hall, Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente is giving up his District 5 seat to challenge Rebecca Kaplan for her council At-Large spot. And for Fruitvale and Glenview district voters, the question is whether they will choose one of the two candidates who have ties to him, or whether they will select one of his fiercest foes. The decision could prove pivotal, because if the moderate De La Fuente beats the progressive Kaplan, then De La Fuente and his supporters may once again regain control of the council.
The three main candidates vying to win the predominantly Latino district are Shelly Garza, a former staffer for ex-Councilman Henry Chang, who was a longtime De La Fuente ally; Noel Gallo, a veteran Oakland school board member who also has long been a De La Fuente friend and supporter; and Mario Juarez, a Fruitvale businessman, who has opposed De La Fuente for years. De La Fuente has endorsed both Garza and Gallo.
"Ignacio has done many great things to help this community," said Garza, who now runs a small business incubator specializing in assisting food-truck owners. When asked whether she would vote to elect De La Fuente president of the council should they both win on November 6, Garza responded: "I can't say I would or I wouldn't support him, but I can say that I have not always agreed with him." She added, though, that she believes that, with three new council members coming on board next year, "it's time for new ideas."
Although he expressed personal affection for De La Fuente, Gallo said he is not beholden to him. "I'm not Ignacio's boy. That is very clear," Gallo said. "But, right off the top of my head, I don't think I would support Ignacio. I think we need to give someone else a chance, and that's what I think the public is looking for."
When Juarez was asked whether he would support De La Fuente's potential political plans, he doubled over in faux laughter, turned to his campaign manager, Kathy Neal, and said, "Ah, isn't he cute?" Once Juarez composed himself, he said: "The guy is who he is. There's no friendship there. I stand for fresh leadership, so for us to put up retreads and recycle old ideas, it seems to me, it's not the right message that we're trying to send to the voters."
Four years ago, Juarez ran a strong, but unsuccessful campaign against De La Fuente. The race was mired in controversy after a number of Juarez's former business partners claimed he defrauded them in real estate deals. Juarez's campaign headquarters were vandalized. In recent weeks, questions over Juarez's financial dealings have again popped up following a report that he allegedly bilked two partners out of a combined $240,000. Last Thursday, during a candidate's forum in Sheffield Village, an attorney for yet another former business partner of Juarez interrupted the meeting to serve him with a complaint. In a statement last week, Juarez contended that he has never lost a court judgment nor been fined for any violations since obtaining his real estate license in 2004. "However, this has not stopped political opponents from making false allegations against me," he said. "It happened to me in 2008 when I was running for office and it is happening again in this campaign."
Quelling the district's perennial crime problems and finding ways to pay for public safety, along with resuscitating the area's struggling business climate, have been the central themes of the race. Gallo has positioned himself as the most fervent advocate of youth curfews and gang injunctions, and he's mentioned the possibility of raising taxes to help pay for them. "Either we're going to be serious about safety or we're not," said Gallo at a candidate's forum last month. "If you walk in District 5 you're going to find retirees behind fences with a dog in the middle, behind bars on their porch, peeking through the window because they can't come out and enjoy their retirement age because someone within that neighborhood is creating harm."
Much of Gallo's rhetoric also is highlighted with repeated references to days gone by. "The way we had it before was, if you're out standing on the corner at midnight, somebody at my home was notified that I shouldn't be out there in the streets," he said. "Today, there's a segment of kids who are on the corner planning, creating negative activities so they can come and violate your property."
In fact, the controversial issue of youth curfews and gang injunctions is the biggest policy difference among the candidates. Garza, Juarez, and Dawn McMahan, the fourth candidate in the race, all say they oppose the policies, because they're too costly and focus broadly on young people as the source of the district's many ills. "Fighting might with might doesn't work," said McMahan, who believes the solution to the district's problems must include increased partnerships between for-profits and nonprofits.
There is strong agreement among the candidates that the city's understaffed police department needs additional officers, but they differ on how to find funding to bring the force back up to 800-plus cops. Juarez called his proposal for an airport users' tax his "big idea" and it's the campaign's only specific plan for creating additional revenue. He said a $7.95 tax on all passengers arriving at Oakland International Airport would raise $111 million annually and avoid overburdening local residents with more taxes since most of the revenue would come from people outside the city. "We don't need to go to you," Juarez said last month, "because the well is dry already." His opponents, however, believe in a more longterm approach to expanding the local tax base by attracting new businesses to the Fruitvale area while nurturing the ones they already have, but that, too, is uniquely connected to keeping the streets safe.
"I want to make District 5 a destination," Garza said. "We all want people to feel like they have to go to the Fruitvale." Garza noted that the number of dining options in the area greatly dwindles once the sun goes down. "We can't even walk to a nice restaurant after 7 p.m. because they are all closed by then."
Garza's work as an organizer for the district's fleet of food trucks and sidewalk vendors and as an unsung hero for pushing through a city ordinance to expand the growing food service niche, has also helped her find solutions for lowering crime, she said. Garza wants to replicate partnerships she forged between the police department and private security firms employed by food truck owners to keep the streets safe for commerce.
Similar to what candidates in other current Oakland council races believe, Gallo said the city must also attract large retailers to retain a larger share of tax receipts. "Oakland loses a billion dollars every year just on sales-tax revenue alone because we choose to buy goods outside of Oakland. Whether it's furniture or clothing or other items, we ought to attract business to come here so we can pay for police officers, better roads and other city services. In addition, we may have to come to you.
"Remember," said Gallo, "safety is our number-one priority."