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."
Hernandez and Haubert share a bit of ignominy. Both voted against raising the rainbow LGBT Pride flag over Dublin City Hall last year. The decision became a high-profile local news story before Hernandez and Haubert later changed their stance. Haubert showed up at the subsequent council meeting sporting a rainbow sash across his chest to highlight his support for the LGBT cause.
Overall, Hernandez has campaigned on maintaining and improving social services in the county. She often ranks fighting homeless as her top priority. With homeless encampments now sprouting up in every corner of Alameda County, she believes individual cities should have leeway to find their own solutions. Determining a location for a homeless navigation center in Fremont was a hot-button issue that divided the community between progressives and NIMBYs.
Homelessness and climate change are Wieckowski's top priorities as supervisor. Neither issue is surprising since he wrote the law that allows residents greater latitude in building Accessory Dwelling Units, also known as granny flats, on their properties. Wieckowski said such secondary housing units are one tool for increasing the region's housing stock. "We can build more housing because it's affordable by design," he told the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee last month. Wieckowski's legislation removes impact fees on ADUs that can run from $5,000 up to $60,000.
It's unclear, however, how receptive District 1's primarily suburban voters are to Wieckowski's vision for housing construction. His opponents have each rung the bell for local control of zoning, taking care to paint Sacramento in a negative light. Such rhetoric has often forced Wieckowski into a defensive mode. When the dissolution of local redevelopment agencies was mentioned in the context of the state's recent push for cities to relinquish control of approving new housing, Wieckowski said the moves were made because too many cities were not doing their share in adding to the housing supply. At a number of public appearances, Wieckowski's stance has been met cooly by audience members, many of whom had deep concerns about crushing traffic and fears that additional housing would only make the situation worse.
Wieckowski also has long been known for his environmentalist activism. His most notable legislative proposal, a potentially consequential bill related to fracking, was ultimately watered down by the powerful oil and gas industry, and eventually died. As a supervisor, Wieckowski said he will bolster the resiliency of the bay. "How do we spend money that benefits the entire bay?" he asked. "We're challenged by sea-level rise. "How do we build sea walls and saltwater ponds and marshes?"
The intermittent presence in the race of Dublin Mayor David Haubert, a skillful speaker, has proven problematic for Hernandez since they are likely to split the Tri-Valley vote. "I know what it takes to get things done," he said. "I'm the only candidate up here who has mayoral and school boardmember experience, and the only candidate broadly supported by members of the Democratic and Republican Party." But Haubert's registration as "No Party Preference" has hindered him in this race. Since the Democratic Party and its large number of affiliated groups don't invite non-Democrats to their forums and public endorsement meetings, Haubert is often missing from events involving his competitors.
Haubert's few performances with the entire field of candidate have tended to change the entire focus of the debate onto Wieckowski, given the mayor's repeated attempts to paint him as the type of Sacramento insider who has moved in the past to take local control from Tri-Valley and Fremont voters. "I absolutely oppose any attack on local control," Haubert declared at a forum in Pleasanton on the question of Senate Bill 50, the now-defunct legislation that would have fostered more housing density around transportation centers. "As county supervisor, I would fight hard to preserve local control." Haubert has some standing on the issue. Despite the perception that the Tri-Valley opposes housing density, during his time on the city council Dublin has done its part in approving large housing developments near its BART stations.
Bacon, an affable Fremont politician whose prior campaigns included local TV commercials that included his dog barking "Bacon! Bacon! Bacon!" with Bacon doing the voiceover. In this contest, he may have a leg-up on his opponents because he was first to enter the race back in February 2019. He did so with the assumption he would be challenging Haggerty's re-election. Then in May, Haggerty announced his retirement from the board. His decision clinched one of Alameda County's great electoral oddities. In 24 years on the Board of Supervisors, Haggerty has never once faced a challenger for his seat. His inexperience on the campaign trail and propensity for colorful quotes were seen as possible weaknesses that Bacon, a two-term councilmember known for his campaign ground game and willingness to go negative against an opponent, could easily exploit.
If you drive through the leafy neighborhoods of Fremont, it's hard to miss Bacon's yard signs. What they lack in graphic design is made up with a potentially potent message: Vinnie Bacon "Your clean money candidate." It's a moniker Bacon has proudly carried throughout his political career to combat the power of developer's money pouring into Fremont's recent elections. Demonizing developers has proven to be a winning strategy in Fremont, where growing traffic woes and severely overcrowded schools have long worn on residents. Bacon believes that voters in the Tri-Valley share similar concerns.
Bacon said he opposed SB 50 because it did not sufficiently address affordable housing. But Bacon's stances on housing often confuse. While he has also registered general support for high-density housing near transit hubs, he nevertheless voted against a 1,000-unit development at the Warm Spring BART station in Fremont. He believes that Measure A1 funds derived from a county bond for affordable housing are not fairly distributed to District 1. "I definitely think we need a supervisor that is going to be fair in those allocations," Bacon said.
But on the overall question of increasing housing supply, Bacon has been less specific. He argues that the regional problem could be solved by forcing places like Cupertino, which have an immense imbalance between creating a large number of new jobs with new housing, to do their share. Alameda County also needs to do a better job in creating new high-income jobs closer to home in order to alleviate traffic in the East Bay and limit pollution.
Over the course of the campaign, Bacon has often equated elected officials receiving campaign contributions from developers to a "pay-to-play" scheme. "I'm the only candidate in this race who does not take money from corporations or developers," he told the Alameda County Democrats last month, while referring to Wieckowski and Hernandez. "Are they fighting for the people or fighting for the people who give them money?"
While Bacon has been truthful to his word, this strategy has put a damper on his ability to raise anywhere close to the campaign coffers that Wieckowski and Hernandez have amassed. Through the most recent campaign finance reporting period on Jan. 18, Haubert topped the field by raising $151,427 during the contest, primarily from housing developers. Hernandez came in second, with $140,009, including large donations from police unions and Alameda County sheriff's deputies. Wieckowski raised $117,760, mostly from unions and statewide donors that also have contributed to his prior state senate campaigns. Bacon's $68,292 in contributions have consisted of large donations from family members and his own pocket.
How this race will shape up on Mar. 3 is literally anybody's guess. The one certainty among political insiders is a belief that no candidate will receive a simple majority of the vote, meaning that the top two candidates will advance to a runoff in November. But which candidates will appear on that ballot is a crapshoot. An argument could be made for every single match-up mathematically conceivable.
Elsewhere on the Board of Supervisors
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors is a bit long in the tooth. While Haggerty is retiring after serving 24 years, most of his colleagues on the board also have served almost as long or more. Supervisor Keith Carson has served since 1992. Supervisor Nate Miley has served since 2000. Both are up for re-election this March. Supervisor Wilma Chan has served since 2010, but also sat on the board for six years in the 1990s.
Thus, Haggerty's departure could be the first of several in coming years. The board's second and third-longest-serving supervisors are also up for re-election this March. Miley represents the crazy-quilt District 4 that snakes from Oakland to a large portion of unincorporated Alameda County, and Pleasanton. He faces a challenge from Esther Gooslby, an Oakland resident and member of Communities For A Better Environment.. Her campaign slogan is a direct reference to Miley: "No to the 20-year status quo." Goolsby is making the fight against climate change at the local level her main priority. One of her talking points often describes the impetus for her run for supervisor as a call from above. "My ancestors said, "Go claim that seat, because it is ours.'"
Like Haggerty, Carson has not faced a challenger this century. The District 5 supervisorial seat represents large portions of Oakland, Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville, and Piedmont. Carson's opponent is Albany Mayor Nick Pilch. Although his campaign has lacked many specifics for how he is better suited for the job, Pilch has highlighted one major flaw in Alameda County's election system — the immense financial barriers some underfunded candidates face just in getting their name on the ballot. In addition, to paying a $1,657 filing fees with the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, Pilch paid an additional $6,224 to have his candidate statement included in the voters' handbook. For countywide offices, the fees are even higher. "If elected," he said on his website, "I will work to greatly reduce barriers like these to candidate participation in all elections in the County."