Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty stood at the back of the hall at a senior center in Pleasanton looking a little more grumpy than usual. Haggerty, who is retiring from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, was growing impatient with the responses from the four candidates hoping to replace him. When the moderator of the candidate forum randomly selected Haggerty to come on stage to ask a question, he asked a blunt question before exiting stage left. "Can any of you explain what a county supervisor actually does?"
The candidates appeared momentarily flummoxed. State Sen. Bob Wieckowski tackled the question by laying out general facts about how many people work for the county and the size of its budget before rebounding to rattle off a few county programs. Fremont Councilmember Vinnie Bacon and Dublin Mayor David Haubert also noted a few social services endeavors performed by the county. And Dublin Vice Mayor Melissa Hernandez said the job of county supervisor is basically to serve as the safety net for the county's poor, seniors, and disabled. It was possibly the most succinct description for one of the most prized seats in all of Alameda County government.
Each supervisor is one of five stewards for a $3 billion county budget. The job pays well, at least for a public servant, and there are no term limits. If history is a guide, election to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors is the local version of a life-long appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
For this reason, the race for the District 1 supervisorial seat in the Tri-Valley and Fremont is Alameda County's marquee political contest this March. Yet like most things involving the Board of Supervisors, it has managed to fly under the radar for most voters. The lack of any candidate-created storylines, along with four legitimate candidates who are evenly matched, has made the contest one of the county's most unpredictable races in years. To this date, no frontrunner has emerged. An internal poll by the Hernandez campaign, used in part to drum up financial support for her campaign, underscored what many political observers were already thinking. The poll revealed a top-to-bottom statistical tie among the four candidates when the survey's margin of error was taken into account.
None of the candidates are particularly well-known among the electorate, even though all four are currently elected officials within the district. The candidate's collective low voter I.D. is not surprising since each appeared to have taken a low-profile approach at the start of their campaigns. That was one of the reasons for Haggerty's exasperation with the field of candidates at the Pleasanton forum, even though he had endorsed half the field — Wieckowski and Hernandez.
Although the vast territory covered by District 1 does not include any of urban Alameda County — including Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, San Leandro, and their neighbors — the race nonetheless has countywide significance for its potential to further consolidate the Board of Supervisors' progressive direction. Supervisors Keith Carson, Wilma Chan, and Richard Valle are typically the most progressive members. Nate Miley and the outgoing Haggerty occupy space closer to the political center.
The major issue that highlights this divide is Miley and Haggerty's support of Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern and general deference to law enforcement. Last year, the three progressives flexed their muscle by voting to end funding for Urban Shield, a police emergency training event and trade show that had drawn the ire by progressives and police-accountability activists almost since its 2007 inception. Meanwhile, progressive activists have repeatedly called for the Board of Supervisors to use its budgetary power to reign in the sheriff's department, and last year State Sen. Nancy Skinner called for an audit of the sheriff's department following a number of deaths at Dublin's Santa Rita Jail. But despite controlling the sheriff's budget, supervisors have been reluctant to hold Ahern more accountable due to the fact that he has great autonomy as an elected official.
Sheriff Ahern has emerged as a hot-button issue in the race, despite the perception that the Tri-Valley and Fremont are far more friendly to law enforcement than the rest of Alameda County. At candidates forums in both halves of the district, voters have peppered the candidates with questions about the sheriff — be it their stance on Urban Shield, and whether the framework for how county sheriffs are elected should be reformed. At one candidate forum in Dublin in December, nearly half of the questions involved Ahern. The queries also serve as an elegant way to separate the general ideologies of the four candidates.
The Dublin candidates — Haubert and Hernandez — have been decidedly supportive of Ahern. Hernandez has repeatedly sidestepped the question of Urban Shield. "I definitely feel our police officers and firefighters should have the correct training in the case of an emergency or a disaster," Hernandez said. "We have to remember that he makes certain decisions that the Board of Supervisors have no control over," Hernandez told Alameda County Democrats. Other times, she reiterated Ahern's independence, issuing support for an audit of his department, but predicting that the results would only bolster the need for additional staffing. Like Hernandez, Haubert also has supported the need for emergency training for local police officers.
Wieckowski opposes Urban Shield and strongly denounces the acquisition of excess military equipment to "be used on any of the people who live in this county." Bacon added a similar sentiment. "I do not believe in the militarization of our police."