When Michael Johnson, a little-known challenger to Oakland city Councilmember Desley Brooks, began telling audiences this summer that "District Six is an economic donut hole that exists in Oakland," his comment caught some people's attention not only because of its candor, but because of the fact that the Oakland healthcare professional and associate pastor was attempting to play hardball with one of the city's toughest politicians.
But Johnson has not been playing rough all by himself. The other two challengers to Brooks in this year's election — Shereda Nosakhare and James Moore — have also targeted the incumbent unmercifully, describing her twelve years in office as a failure.
And some of the criticisms have been difficult to refute. Economic development has hopped, skipped, and jumped over Brooks' East Oakland district, substantial parts of the area are still overrun with crime, and not a single large grocery store exists in the area. In fact, it was the lack of fresh produce and groceries that prompted Johnson's "donut hole" comment. He later told an environmental group that the absence of a grocery stores suggests a "negligible quality of life" in District Six and accused Brooks of inaction. Uncharacteristically, Brooks has mostly refrained from returning fire against her opponents.
Of the three Oakland City Council races this fall, the District Six campaign is the only one that includes an incumbent. And for many Oakland residents who have, over the years, seen Brooks' soaring progressive rhetoric followed by vicious public takedowns of her colleagues, the sight of three political newcomers landing verbal haymakers on the often meek-looking Brooks has been disarming. When Johnson was asked why he is running to unseat Brooks, he replied, "Because I am seeking, after twelve long years, to replace the chaos, the conflict, and the confusion that has existed on the city council and replace it with collaboration, coordination, and communication." In fact, Johnson has employed the alliteration-heavy quote so often that Brooks was able to repeat it verbatim during an interview last week.
"Anybody can say anything they want," Brooks told me. "Hopefully, it's not all about sound bites, and it's about substance." She continued, "I respect people's right to run in a race. I wish they would run based on what their vision is for actually getting something done."
While it is true that much of the campaign in District Six has been about disparaging Brooks and highlighting the numerous problems in East Oakland, Brooks' challengers have offered up some alternatives. In addition to outlining plans to bring more retail to District Six, Johnson has been touting a proposed public-private partnership between schools and businesses that he calls "town and gown." He also advocates for improving data-driven and community policing to the city.
Nosakhare, a public policy analyst and community liaison for city Councilmember Libby Schaaf (who is running for mayor), also says that if elected, she will push hard for redevelopment projects in the district. She also proposes taking better advantage of Oakland Unified School District's underutilized child development programs and pairing them with the city-run Head Start programs.
Moore, a 35-year resident of East Oakland, believes mentoring teenagers and creating opportunities for young adults to become entrepreneurs will lower crime by 10 percent in the district. "Jobs are hard to come by, so the natural alternative is to create your own business," he said.
Brooks contends that her challengers' criticisms of her work are unfounded, so she offered me a guided tour to highlight improvements she has made in her district.
Driving down Seminary Avenue near Mills College, Brooks noted that she steered funding toward the installation of dual candelabra-style streetlights that both beautify and differentiate the neighborhood from retail areas. "If you pay attention to detail, you can make a big difference," she said. Later, at Burkhalter Park, where a new play structure was recently completed, Brooks said, "What you'll find in this district is a lot of people are just getting by and it is important families have places where they can take children and do things together."
During the campaign, Brooks has often batted away claims by her opponents that she has done little to improve the district by pointing to six parks projects she has worked to implement in partnership with various nonprofits. "We don't have a lot of money in this city, and so you need to figure out ways that you can use resources that we have to get things the community wants," she said. As we passed a streetscape improvement project in which construction workers in hard hats were busy preparing the foundation for new retail shops and a Walgreens slated to open next year at the corner of 64th Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, Brooks noted that Moore had called the project a waste of time.
Although Brooks' mission was to highlight the work she's done in her district, she didn't shy away from talking about the landmark that nearly got her censured last year by the city council following allegations that she violated the non-interference rules in the City Charter. "So, this is the infamous Rainbow Teen Center," said Brooks, as we pulled up in front of the building. Later, we drove by the site on 66th Avenue near the Coliseum that was once slated for a Foods Co. grocery store — a plan that was later nixed by the company. Brooks admitted that the lack of access to fresh foods is a "significant issue" and said she is actively working toward luring another store to the district soon. The demise of the two planned Foods Co. markets for East Oakland, said Brooks, was not her fault. "Redevelopment got dissolved across the state, but you think that I use that as an excuse? It's just reality."
If her opponents are not criticizing Brooks for the problems in the district, they are faulting her for notoriously boorish behavior on the city council dais. Brooks says her reputation for constantly quarreling with members of the Oakland City Council and staff is misunderstood. Brooks said she reached out to Schaaf to work on the recent zero waste garbage contract and routinely seeks alliances with Council President Pat Kernighan — both of whom have often been on the receiving end of her council meetings barbs. In response to her critics, Brooks said, "I would hope that I had a representative who was passionate about my interests and advocated for my needs. I'm very passionate about what I do. If you see passion then that's what I would call it — passion."
Brooks' passion also appears to resonate with voters in the district. According to a poll released last week, she holds a commanding lead over Johnson, 64 percent to 19 percent, in a ranked-choice voting scenario. However, the poll also showed that 46 percent of voters in District Six are still undecided.