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With major questions swirling about how elections will work across the country this year, local candidates drilled down into specifics. Mural by Troy Lovegates. Credit: Photo by Pete Rosos

Many were watching the Democratic National Convention last night, but the local Alameda County Democratic Party also hosted its election year candidates’ forum.

Over Zoom, Elihu Harris—who was mayor of Oakland in the 1990s—interviewed 14 of the candidates running for districts 1, 3, 5, 7, and the citywide At-Large seat, all who are seeking the Democratic Party’s influential endorsement.

Odd-numbered districts are up for election this year; even-numbered districts will vote in 2021. Not sure which district you live in? You can look it up here.

While there were a few technical hiccups, last night’s local Democratic Party candidate’s forum was a lot like previous years: an illuminating display of how the candidates describe Oakland’s strengths and needs, and how they differ on major issues. If you missed the live forum, you can watch a recording of it here, or read our district-by-district rundown of highlights below.

(Candidates who aren’t registered Democrats, or didn’t attend for other reasons, included Seneca Scott, Meron Semedar, Alexus Taylor, and Faye Taylor in the D3 race; Zoe Lopez-Meraz in the D5 race; and Robert Jackson in the D7 race.) 

District 1: North Oakland

— Reported by Natalie Orenstein

District 1 candidates Stephanie Dominguez Walton, Dan Kalb, and Tri Ngo. Credit: Screenshot from Facebook Live

In North Oakland, two candidates, Stephanie Dominguez Walton and Tri Ngo, are running against incumbent Dan Kalb, who’s held his seat since 2012. 

Kalb, who has a background in environmental work, presented himself as a prolific, detail-oriented legislator willing to pursue “bold solutions that some people might not like.” 

Walton, who’s worked in real estate and before that in broadcast journalism, criticized the “status quo,” taking a subtle dig at Kalb by describing current leadership as unresponsive to constituents. She said twice that she’s “comfortable in every neighborhood in the district,” noting she’s done advocacy work and talked to residents across North Oakland.

Ngo, an engineer, said he’d be the most accountable politician of the D1 candidates. He mentioned several times that he won’t accept campaign contributions above $35. (Currently, individuals can give up to $900.)

Homelessness and housing insecurity were a major focus. Ngo likened conditions in Oakland to the Vietnamese refugee camp where he was born, saying he could “immediately find permanent housing for the homeless” by combing through vacant buildings and moving people into “wherever is fastest,” while taxing luxury property owners more.

Kalb said he has a track record of supporting renters. He authored Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance and co-sponsored the city’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium. Walton said that building more housing, along with further decreasing the police budget, would be her top solution to Oakland’s budget and housing woes, since “more people living and working in Oakland keeps the economic engine going.”

The candidates differed on a question about the future of the Oakland A’s. Walton embraced the proposal to build a new stadium at Howard Terminal, saying the move would preserve Oakland’s beloved team and create thousands of union jobs. She supports selling the Coliseum to the A’s to build affordable housing. Ngo indicated he’d support the new stadium too, but Kalb said politicians have a “responsibility” to learn much more about different proposals before giving up “leverage” in negotiations with powerful organizations like the A’s by committing to a vague idea about what’s best. (Neither the current nor proposed stadium site is in District 1.)

As the forum wrapped up, Kalb joked that he and Walton should each contribute $35 to Ngo’s campaign.

“I’m holding you accountable,” Ngo responded.

District 3: West Oakland, downtown

— Reported by Natalie Orenstein

District 3 candidates Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Carroll Fife. Credit: Screenshot from Facebook Live

Although six candidates have qualified to run in the District 3 race, only two were at the Democratic Party forum. The rest aren’t registered Democrats or didn’t attend for other reasons.

Carroll Fife is the director of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Action, and is best known for her leadership role in the Moms 4 Housing movement. 

Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who’s running for her third term, previously helmed an affordable housing nonprofit organization and is part of the City Council’s “Equity Caucus,” which drafted the city’s most recent budget.

Those budget decisions caused tension at Tuesday’s forum. McElhaney said she’s proud to have been on the “prevailing side of every budget since 2013.” Regarding the most recent budget that was passed in July, Fife replied: “To be on the prevailing side of the budget when the mayor has to break a tie because the community’s voice isn’t being heard is not necessarily the right side of history to be on.” The main point of difference in the recent budget was cuts to the police department. Fife and others advocated for larger immediate reductions to police spending than what McElhaney supported.

Fife described herself as a “servant of the people” who’s running for office because she’s been asked to. McElhaney also described herself as “still fairly neophyte to politics,” but said, “in this setting, activism has to meet the ability to get it done.” She added that she has the political relationships to be effective.

District 3 is the backdrop to some of Oakland’s most pressing and divisive issues. It hosts a significant portion of the city’s houseless population, as well as Howard Terminal, where the Oakland A’s want to build a new ballpark. The district’s homeowners and renters face enormous pressures, and gentrification has long been a concern.

“The first thing we need to do is address the speculative nature of housing,” said Fife, who called for “limiting market-rate development” in favor of affordable housing. McElhaney said the homelessness crisis requires local emergency response as well as state and federal funding. 

On the A’s question, neither candidate gave a definitive answer. McElhaney said she’s “waiting for the information to come out,” but has made sure Oaklanders have a say.

Fife said she “needs to do some robust listening to the folks most impacted.” While the Coliseum site is best “for people and the environment,” a move to Jack London Square’s Howard Terminal would bring more revenue to District 3, she said. 

The candidates differed on the needs of downtown Oakland too, with McElhaney holding up the arrival of Target and Sprouts as successes while Fife said corporations shouldn’t get subsidies at the expense of small businesses.

The four candidates who didn’t participate last night are Seneca Scott, Meron Semedar, Alexus Taylor, and Faye Taylor.

District 5: Fruitvale

— Reported by Azucena Rasilla

District 5 candidates Noel Gallo and Richard Raya. Credit: Screenshot from Facebook Live

Richard Santos Raya, one of two challengers running against incumbent Noel Gallo, introduced himself by talking about how he moved to Fruitvale when he was five years old. He described his father, Richard Raya, as an “old school Chicano who grew up in the Central Valley” and his mother as a “Black woman who grew up in the Bay.”

“I got to really see firsthand the diversity that makes Oakland so beautiful,” said Raya. 

Gallo emphasized that he has lived in East Oakland his entire life, and that his children attended Oakland Unified School District’s schools and grew up in Fruitvale.

“For me, it’s not about what you say, it’s about what you do,” said Gallo. He positioned himself as a hardworking neighborhood advocate who served 20 years on the school board and six years on City Council.

On the issue of housing, homelessness, and gentrification, Gallo called himself a “leader.” He spoke of his role in the development of the affordable housing project Casa Arabella, and added that he wants to see affordable housing built for Oakland teachers.

Raya said that we cannot develop our way out of the housing crisis, and that more of the city’s budget will need to be spent on housing to make a dent on the problem. “We have to put our money where our progressive values are and actually subsidize housing,” he said.

When asked about homelessness, Gallo talked about his weekend neighborhood cleanups. “We not only clean the streets and the sidewalks. We go into the encampments to pick up all the needles and trash,” he said. “I believe in a safe, clean, healthy city.”

Raya mentioned that he accompanied Gallo during one cleanup and said he respected this work. But he said elected officials have to do more. “I do think that the Oakland electorate is moving to a point where we want our leaders to have public health solutions to public health problems with more expansive solutions,” said Raya.

Asked about the looming budget crisis facing the city because of the pandemic, Raya said that had he been on the City Council this year, he would not have voted to postpone the city’s business tax reform, which has been delayed until at least 2022. Councilmember Gallo voted to put the tax reform on hold in order to create a blue-ribbon commission that will give business owners and other stakeholders an opportunity to shape the new tax rates before they’re incorporated into the ballot measure.

Some Oaklanders watching the discussion on Facebook Live raised the question of how bus rapid transit will affect local businesses on International Blvd. One of the commenters, Andrew Park, wrote, “Less bus stops means less people stopping in Fruitvale and East Oakland.”

Gallo said that the BRT project was developed to attract more customers to corridors along where the BRT runs in a clean and safe way that helps the environment. This is one subject where the two candidates disagree the most. Santos Raya said that one of the cons of the BRT project has been how local businesses have been affected due to the delayed construction. 

Zoe Lopez-Meraz did not participate in last night’s forum.

District 7: East Oakland

— Reported by Ricky Rodas

District 7 candidates Treva Reid, Marcie Hodge, Marchon Tatmon, Aaron Clay. Credit: Screenshot from Facebook Live

In East Oakland’s District 7, four Democratic candidates are hoping to fill a seat left vacant by Larry Reid, who announced his resignation last year. (Robert Jackson, bishop of Acts Full Gospel Church, is also running but did not participate in the forum.) 

Candidates Treva Reid, Marcie Hodge, Marchon Tatmon, and Aaron Clay are all self-professed Oakland natives. Each billed themselves as a leader who would bring sustainable economic prosperity to long-overlooked Black and brown communities in this district. 

All four candidates had similar stances on hot-button issues like affordable housing, homelessness, gentrification, rejuvenating small businesses, and dealing with the likely shortfall in the 2021 budget. Many of them focused on the Coliseum site as a key piece of the district’s economic puzzle.

All four agreed that the Howard Terminal location for a new A’s ballpark is a bad idea. Tatmon said Howard Terminal is polluted and should not be considered. Instead, all of the candidates asserted that East Oakland’s future depended on the Coliseum and the A’s staying there. They agreed the site should also include housing and that the surrounding area could be turned into an entertainment hub. 

When asked about specific strategies for economic development, answers differed. 

Treva Reid, former field representative for State Senator Nancy Skinner and daughter of Larry Reid, said rezoning parts of East Oakland, like the unused Walmart land near Oakland International Airport which shuttered in 2016,  was crucial for bringing small Black and people of color-owned businesses to the district. 

Aaron Clay, a small business owner and teacher, stressed the importance of community involvement and utilizing projects like the Black Cultural Zone, a hub site in East Oakland for culture organizations, clinics and small businesses. 

Marcie Hodge stressed the need for designing business pods, though she didn’t explain what those small retail spaces would look like. “Small is the new big,” Hodge said. 

Marchon Tatmon, former mayoral candidate and businessman, said East Oakland will become an “economic juggernaut” by promoting small business sectors around the airport and the Coliseum. 

Regarding homelessness, the conversation circled back to utilizing the Coliseum site. Reid said the land should partly be used to house homeless residents, while Clay said houseless individuals should not be moved to just one part of the district. Instead, the city should build shelters throughout the city. Tatmon and Hodge both stressed the mental health impacts of homelessness, and called for more wraparound resources that address underlying issues. 

While all four candidates agreed that city employees should not face wage cuts, they differed widely on how they would balance the city’s budget and where they’d cut. Reid made the boldest assertion, saying portions of OPD’s budget should be “reallocated” to other city services. She also said she supports a tax on rideshare companies, a proposal that Councilmember Kaplan tried to advance recently but was voted down.

Clay called the budget a “document of our priorities,” and said OPD has overspent its budget for too long. He also said Oakland should move funds away from policing and toward other services, such as housing and mental health. 

Tatmon cited his time sitting on the city’s budget commission and once again circled back to economic development and promoting entrepreneurship as a means to generate tax revenue and avoid cuts. 

Hodge said if cuts are made, city workers shouldn’t be laid off. 

Tatmon and Hodge were mostly silent on the issue of defunding OPD, though Tatmon mentioned in his closing argument that he was in favor of defunding. 

At-Large: the entire city

— Reported by Darwin BondGraham

At-Large candidate Rebecca Kaplan. Credit: Screenshot from Facebook Live

Candidate Rebecca Kaplan used her time last night to emphasize progressive policies she’s championed since she joined the City Council in 2009. Asked about affordable housing and homelessness, Kaplan said she helped draft Oakland’s affordable housing impact fee in 2016, and set aside funds in the last budget for the city to buy old hotels to use as homeless housing.

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“I don’t mean just sheds,” said Kaplan said, referring derisively to the city’s program that shelters homeless people in garden sheds. Kaplan also criticized the city administration for not properly accounting for millions in affordable housing impact fees collected in recent years. Both comments were indirect criticisms of Mayor Libby Schaaf, a longtime political foe of Kaplan’s.

Candidate Derreck Johnson, who has Schaaf’s backing, introduced himself as an Oakland native who was raised in West Oakland’s Acorn Housing by a single mother. “I am Oakland,” he said.

At-Large candidate Derreck Johnson. Credit: Screenshot from Facebook Live

Johnson described his restaurant, Home of Chicken and Waffles, as one that has “created hundreds of jobs over the years,” with many filled by previously incarcerated people.

Asked about police reforms, he said Oakland needs to change its culture of policing and that city councilmembers should have an “unwavering commitment to tearing down systems of oppression.” He recalled an instance in which he was pulled over by officers, and before he could take out his driver’s license, was asked by officers if he was on probation or parole. “It just made my heart beat,” Johnson said.

Asked if he supports the November ballot measure that seeks to strengthen the civilian-led Police Commission, he said yes, and added that he’d like Oakland to hire more Black and brown officers and conduct trainings to reduce racial bias in policing.

Kaplan’s said her record on policing reflects similar values. She voted to put the Police Commission reforms on the ballot in July, and has criticized OPD for years for consuming millions of dollars on unbudgeted overtime that can’t be used on other services. “That is part of why I fought for and won money in the budget last year to start toward the path of civilian mental health first responders,” she said.

At-Large candidate Nancy Sidebotham. Credit: Screenshot from Facebook Live

Tax preparer and East Oakland resident Nancy Sidebotham stood far apart from Kaplan and Johnson on most issues, especially policing.

“Out here in East Oakland, defunding the police is not something that 90% of the people want because crime is such rampant activity out here,” she said. Sidebotham added that a vocal minority wants OPD cuts while the majority has been left out of the debate.

Sidebotham described Oakland government in sour terms: “We have allowed what should be a vibrant local economy to be hijacked by corporate interests that use us as a convenient location to allow dollars to flow through but not stay in the city.” She called the current city administration a “cabal.”

“Oakland’s in the sewer right now,” she said, adding that the council should focus on economic policies to bring jobs back to the city.

Johnson mentioned jobs, too. “Jerry Brown wanted ten thousand new houses,” he said referring to former Mayor Jerry Brown’s 10k Plan from 20 years ago, “I want 10,000 new jobs.”

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Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham worked with The Appeal, where he was an investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian, and was an enterprise reporter for the East Bay Express. BondGraham's work has also appeared with KQED, ProPublica and other leading national and local outlets. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017.

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has spent the last two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the hyperlocal news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, joins us through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Rodas will be reporting on small and immigrant-owned businesses in Oakland.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.