Four candidates with differing visions for Oakland's future are vying for the open District Two council seat. Candidates Kevin Blackburn and Dana King both want to grow the city's economy and develop lots of new housing. Abel Guillen is advocating for more affordable housing construction and wants to prevent the displacement of longtime residents. And Andrew Park has made improving public safety and expanding community policing the top issues of his campaign.
The four candidates are running to replace longtime councilmember Pat Kernighan, who decided to not seek reelection this year. District Two includes the Grand Lake, Eastlake, and San Antonio neighborhoods, and the area around Laney College.
Of the four candidates, Guillen is the only one with experience as an elected official: He will soon finish his second term on the Peralta Community College Board of Trustees, a panel that oversees Laney and Merritt colleges, Berkeley City College, and the College of Alameda. In 2012, he nearly won a seat in the State Assembly, losing a close race to Rob Bonta. Assemblymember Bonta has now endorsed Guillen's council candidacy, as has Kernighan.
Guillen said he originally decided to run for state office to push an education agenda in Sacramento. "I ran for my students, basically," he said in an interview. But the Oakland resident said that when Kernighan announced that she was not running again for council, he decided to launch a campaign because the council is "where the rubber hits the road" in terms of local issues. A liberal Democrat, Guillen has been endorsed by the Democratic Party leadership and by organized labor.
Guillen's passion is education — he works as public education financial consultant — but he says his priorities, if elected, include improving public safety and creating jobs for local residents, in addition to building more affordable housing in the city. He also advocates for more diversity in the Oakland Police Department, and said he will push for OPD to hire more city residents. "What would it look like if we actually had a police force that reflected the diversity of the community?" he said. He said he plans to work more with the Peralta colleges and OPD to enable greater numbers of students to train as officers.
In the case of displacement, Guillen sees the housing shortage as being the primary culprit. "It's incumbent upon us to be able to provide affordable housing," he said, so that teachers, cops, firefighters, and working-class families can find homes in Oakland. He wants the city to finance affordable housing construction using development grants funded by cap-and-trade proceeds. These state funds can be used to subsidize housing construction along public transportation corridors, with the goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. He also wants to help create an inclusionary housing policy, which Oakland currently lacks, that would convince developers of market rate housing to also build or fund affordable units.
King, a political newcomer and former longtime TV news anchor, contends that her background in broadcast news is a strong qualification for elected office. "I've been in the public sphere for 25 years," she said. "I know how to navigate on behalf of the city."
While her lack of experience in policy-making sets her apart from Guillen, she argues that her years of experience in the newsroom have prepared her well for the demands of being on the council. She said her ability to communicate is a skillset that is currently lacking in City Hall. She contends that as a reporter she became adept at working on a deadline, thinking on her feet, and taking research and implementing it.
King wants to attract new businesses to Oakland and solve the city's blight problems. She argues that the Occupy Oakland movement drove business out of the downtown area and contends that some neighborhoods are now "a ghost town." "We lost a lot of those small businesses," she said, "and they're not coming back." To entice new businesses, King said she would work to implement an assembly line-style city-permit approval process for business proposals that fall within a predefined set of standards. She also views San Francisco's business tax incentives as a possible model for growth, citing Twitter's move to the Tenderloin as an example. Although such incentives might result in Oakland losing tax revenue in the short term, she argues that new businesses serve as anchors in a neighborhood and will attract further investment.
In terms of public safety, King advocates for increased staffing for the Oakland Police Department, but said she also wants to help develop a tiered personnel structure, with community service officers, traffic officers, and patrol officers all receiving different pay rates. She would also advocate for civilianizing certain positions within the department and using sworn officers who are on disability to perform light duties, such as clerical work.
Blackburn, meanwhile, comes from a background in fiscal policy: He currently serves as the assistant vice president for Legislative and Regulatory Affairs at the Federal Home Loan Bank. What Oakland lacks, he said, is a viable long-term plan for growing the city. Like King, he advocates for more economic growth and development, including the construction of additional market-rate housing and attracting more tech businesses to the city.
Blackburn also wants to entice more large retail outlets to Oakland, noting that the city loses more than $1 billion a year in retail sales to other cities, and thus is missing out on millions in sales tax revenues each year.
Blackburn also views the tech industry as a vehicle for reducing poverty and crime. He points to tech initiatives that train underprivileged youth in coding and software development, and contends that such programs end up generating economic growth and thus more investment from tech companies. He advocates for offering empty, city-owned offices as free incubator space to start-ups. He also said he would work to schedule meetings between city lawmakers and tech executives to ask, "What is it going to take for you to consider putting a satellite office in Oakland?"
For Blackburn, displacement comes down to supply and demand. To ease the pressure on Oakland's residents, he wants to see 50,000 new housing units added to the market in the coming years, roughly three fourths of which would be market-rate housing. He also advocates for "walkable, livable communities that are sustainable," which would include approving more rapid bus transit routes to entice residents to drive less. He would also work to have much of the International Boulevard corridor rezoned to allow for taller, mixed-use buildings that offer retail space on the ground floor and multi-family housing above. The combination of better public transit, more retail, and higher home ownership rates would bolster Oakland's economy, while also improving public safety through greater population density, he argues.
As for Park, his focus is on crime reduction. As co-chair of his Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council and founder of a community-building nonprofit, he says he acts as a liaison between the community and law enforcement. He told me about being asked by OPD to help locate a young man in his neighborhood who had an outstanding warrant. The young man, however, was convinced that police would shoot him. Park said that when the community service officer contacted him, he asked the officer, "Is there any possibility that they're going to take him down hard?" After receiving assurances from the police that they would work with Park to resolve the situation peacefully, he used his network in the community to let the young man know that he could safely turn himself in, which he did.
When I asked about his vision for community policing, he told me that he would work with police leadership to assign dedicated problem-solving officers to each beat in the city and that he would advocate for police officers to spend more time out of their cars while they were on patrol. Park also wants to hire more civilian personnel in the police department so that sworn officers, who draw much higher salaries, could be assigned to crucial duties, such as crime prevention and investigation. But the most important improvement, according to Park, is to increase cooperation between residents and law enforcement. "Oakland will never be truly safe until the police and the community work together for our safety."