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Oakland Council District 4 Is a Wide-Open Contest

With the incumbent quitting, the race features seven candidates, including three who are running as a slate.



Last April, when Annie Campbell Washington announced that she wasn't running for reelection, it was immediately apparent there would be intense competition for her council seat. Sure enough, six candidates are now running to replace her, and depending on the outcome — along with results in districts 2 and 6 — Oakland's legislative power balance could change.

Over the past four years, Campbell Washington often sided with Mayor Libby Schaaf on major policy questions. And as the councilmember representing the Montclair, Laurel, and Dimond districts, Campbell Washington was more moderate than some of her council colleagues on issues like renter protections and police reforms while championing public health.

During the past several months, Campbell Washington and Schaaf have attempted to find a candidate to back for the seat. Initially, they both supported Chris Young. But Young dropped out of the race after he was criticized for misrepresenting his status as an attorney after he was suspended by the California State Bar. So, Campbell Washington and Schaaf then threw their support behind Charlie Michelson, a retired ship supply company CEO who jumped in the race as a relative unknown but pledged to make the Oakland City Council his full-time job.

"It's about giving back to the place that's done so much for me," Michelson said in a recent interview. But last Sunday, Michelson suddenly and surprisingly dropped out of the race. In an email and Facebook post, he wrote that he had to quit for "deeply personal reasons." Michelson, who the Express interviewed twice, once for this report and once for its endorsement process, didn't respond to an email seeking further explanation.

Michelson's departure leaves the field of six remaining candidates as wide open as ever. It's anyone's race at this point, but topping the field are three women who have endorsed each other as a slate — Sheng Thao, Nayeli Maxson, and Pamela Harris. The three are each urging voters to select the other two as their second and third picks on their ranked choice ballots. And all three likely would take a more progressive approach to policy than Campbell Washington did.

Sheng Thao.
  • Sheng Thao.

Currently the chief of staff for city councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, Thao has lined up endorsements from major labor unions including SEIU 1021 and the firefighters, and from political leaders like Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Alameda.

A single mother, daughter of refugees, and resident of the Laurel, Thao said Oakland needs to dramatically increase efforts to address the housing and homelessness crises. One program she intends to fund is the Henry Robinson Center model, which places homeless people into single-room-occupancy (SRO) housing, where case workers help them seek employment, benefits, and long-term housing. Oakland purchased a second building this year to create another Henry Robinson center, but Thao said a third and even fourth are needed.

On housing, Thao said Oakland needs more infill and transit-oriented development. She pointed to parts of MacArthur Boulevard in the Laurel where denser housing should be built but said the council needs to act quicker to upzone areas.

Thao is less ambiguous than other candidates when it comes to rent control. "If Proposition 10 is passed, I feel we need to implement stronger measures," she said, referring to the state proposition to eliminate restrictions on local rent control. She said rent control should be extended to single-family rental homes, and Oakland should adopt a 20-year rolling period on new construction to cover more units (much like Berkeley is proposing).

"I would also be in favor of vacancy control," she said, referring to a restriction on landlords' ability to raise rents on vacant units.

Nayeli Maxson.
  • Nayeli Maxson.

Maxson is a policy wonk who has worked for former state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and did a short stint for Campbell Washington before Maxson became the executive director of the Alliance for Community Development, an economic development nonprofit.

Endorsed by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb, and former Mayor Jean Quan, Maxson said she believes one way to better incentivize affordable housing construction is to adjust the city's impact fees. "I'm going to push for more transparency around developers' books and see if the numbers really pencil out," she said, referring to the financial barriers that developers often claim prevent them from building affordable units.

She also believes that community land trusts could help take housing out of the "speculative market," thereby addressing the housing crisis — if government provides support.

Both Maxson and Thao are also well-versed in District 4's unique problem: fire safety. While the fire prevention district is now defunct, they said there's opportunity to create short-term funding to reduce fuels while exploring long-term solutions, possibly including a regional district in partnership with other governments.

Pamela Harris.
  • Pamela Harris.

Harris, meanwhile, is a political newcomer. She said she has "always mistrusted electoral politics" but decided to run after concluding that women of color need to take on greater leadership. She's worked in affordable housing, arts and media, and economic development in various roles.

A centerpiece of her campaign is the need to push for greater equity in every policy area. "We need to talk about issues of race and class," Harris said, adding that she's especially worried about the decline of Oakland's Black population and the forces that are pushing out all low-income groups, including artists.