Five challengers are hoping to unseat District 3 City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, the former head of an affordable housing nonprofit who’s running for her third term representing West Oakland, downtown, Adams Point, Pill Hill, and the Jack London District.
There’s Carroll Fife, an activist and director of the nonprofit Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, who’s best known for her leadership role in the Moms 4 Housing movement. Seneca Scott, a former union leader who created Bottoms Up Community Garden, is running too. Faye Taylor, a dockworker, may be the only candidate who grew up in West Oakland. Meron Semedar, a human rights activist and former refugee from Eritrea, and Alexus Taylor have also qualified for the ballot.
The Oaklandside interviewed four of the candidates. Semedar and Alexus Taylor did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls. (In the rest of this story, “Taylor” refers to Faye Taylor.)
McElhaney presented herself in the interview as a progressive who’s been mischaracterized and attacked for her realistic if sometimes unpopular takes on controversial issues like housing.
Fife said she’s running to heed calls for a representative who will fight for the systemic change that people want, not the interests of the wealthy and powerful.
Scott considers himself a “pragmatist” with a track record of bringing neighbors together and tackling nuanced problems.
Taylor said she’s tired of inaction by current city officials addressing neighborhood issues. She has the moral conscience and strength, she said, to make sure problems finally get solved.
Housing is District 3’s central issue
Housing and homelessness are the focal points of the District 3 race, and a couple of the candidates have deep experience in the fields of affordable housing development and renters’ rights. But the candidates’ views on the issues are polarized, and they see one another’s approaches to the problem as harmful or unrealistic.
McElhaney views the district as suffering from an onslaught of outside forces. Predatory lenders and investors who scoop up foreclosed properties from “hotel rooms in Shanghai,” have “targeted Black communities with a heat-seeking missile,” said McElhaney, and there’s not a lot the city can do. According to McElhaney, city policies meant to protect renters and poor residents often do more harm than good.
The federal government, said McElhaney, has the ability to alleviate the housing crisis locally. Cities can only do their best to pursue “triage” policies like “regulated campsites” and trailer parks, she said.
“The way people are looking at local municipalities to solve global problems is not helping Black folks survive,” she said. “Tenant protections may do a lot of things, but protecting the Black community isn’t it.”
McElhaney said policies like rent control or eviction moratoriums (which she voted to support) can end up threatening older African American landlords who’ve had to work harder than their white neighbors to build wealth and buy a property, and now rely on tenants’ rent payments. Local rent control is also severely limited by state policies like Costa Hawkins, she noted. (The Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act exempts new buildings and single-family homes from rent control, among other restrictions.)
“People have said I’m anti-tenant,” McElhaney said. “I don’t have a lot of patience for that conversation. People talk about Black lives but they don’t listen to Black voices.”
Fife’s views on housing stand in sharp contrast to McElhaney’s. Fife was a leader in Moms 4 Housing, which aimed to call attention to the phenomenon of empty, investor-owned properties, by illegally moving homeless, Black mothers into a vacant home on Magnolia Street in West Oakland last year.
“The dominant narrative before we engaged in that civil disobedience was, there’s a housing crisis and we need to build more,” said Fife. “Our position was, there are four empty homes for every unsheltered person.” Wedgewood, the company that owned the Magnolia Street house, “is a prime example of what speculation does to neighborhoods.” More market-rate construction isn’t what Oakland needs, Fife said.
The Moms 4 Housing occupation ended with a forceful eviction carried out by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. But the moms drew masses of protesters into the streets, which led to international media attention and ultimately an agreement from Wedgewood to sell the house—and offer other properties in the future—to a land trust.
But McElhaney said the activists didn’t succeed in undermining corporate ownership across Oakland.
“When people seek to bring attention to one of these really nuanced things, you try to bring cameras and stage demonstrations,” she said. “It raised some critical issues, and sadly that involved poor people for whom you can’t deliver that promise. For me as an advocate—I’m not an activist that way—because I grew up in a poor family, I’ve often not appreciated when my pain has been put on for a headline, and then people walk away afterwards.”
Fife, on the other hand, said her bid for City Council is just the next step in years of work to “decommodify housing.” Whereas McElhaney is skeptical of greater tenant protections, Fife embraces them.
Taylor lives on the Magnolia Street block where the Moms 4 Housing protest took place. She said the demonstrations both “disturbed the neighborhood” and showed her the extraordinary power the sheriff has to carry out evictions.
“They had tanks on my block, and uniforms. I said, whoa, what is this, a war?” Taylor said.
The district has changed tremendously since Taylor was a child in West Oakland.
“The apartments being built, we can’t afford to live in them,” she said. She supports a policy like the proposed Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which would give renters the first shot at buying their building when it’s sold.
“Then I think it should go to [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], to try to keep it in the community,” she said, referring to publicly-owned housing.
Taylor is also a proponent of greater renter protections. She said she’s met many longtime Black renters during her council campaign this year who’ve experienced landlord harassment and discrimination because of their race.
Black people are hugely over-represented in the local homeless population, comprising 47% of unhoused people in the county but 11% of the general population. Surveys have found a majority were once housed here. Fife herself said an “illegal eviction” is what pushed her out of District 3 several years ago. She moved back recently.
To escape a disaster when the eviction moratorium is lifted, Oakland needs to prioritize renter protections, but work to support homeowners too, Scott said.
“If not, the bank owns it and we’re back to square one. We need to separate who are the mass landowners and mega-corporations, and who are the individual citizens who worked hard to own homes,” he said. “Stop treating everything as a blanket approach.”
Scott said Oakland should try using eminent domain to buy houses facing foreclosure and sell them back to the homeowners for fairer rates. Similar proposals floated years ago in Richmond never produced much after financial companies pushed back against the plan, some filing lawsuits.
Scott said he’d work to identify the often hidden “root causes” of homelessness and housing insecurity, to make sure programs are helping the people they’re meant to. An unhoused person he met who was offered a trailer almost declined, despite having a chance to shower and lock his door for the first time in ages. Why? Because he couldn’t bring his belongings there.
“To the community’s perspective, those belongings are blight,” Scott said. “They don’t see the entire perspective, which is why people are screaming out and losing their empathy. At the same time we need to hold people accountable for being good neighbors. You’re not a good neighbor if you dump stuff.”
Fife noted that ACCE’s legal team helped write Oakland’s eviction moratorium, considered one of the strongest by tenant advocates nationally.
“All of the things I’m talking about doing as an elected official, I’m doing right now. It’s really about how effective we can be. I believe you can get concessions from these spaces and I’m going to try to extract as much as I can,” she said.
Community security or better policing?
When The Oaklandside interviewed D3 residents about the issues on their minds, many mentioned safety concerns. West Oakland, in particular, still experiences higher rates of gun violence than many other parts of the city. The candidates have different ideas about how to prevent violence and whether police can play a positive role, or whether it’s time to find alternatives.
Scott said Black neighborhoods like West Oakland have been “over-policed,” and the Oakland Police Department budget is “bloated.”
“But you also need to enforce the law to keep the rule of law, which isn’t something people like to look at. If you’re taking your truck and dumping [trash] in my neighborhood, we need to be tougher,” he said.
Scott opened a community garden and launched a festival called OakHella to bring West Oaklanders together in a safe space. “People feel safer when they know their neighbors,” he said. “I can tell you who can fix cars on my block, and who’s a healer.”
Scott said he’d continue to facilitate that sort of connection if elected: “People are down to do the work. We’re not saying [to politicians], do the work for us. We’re saying, help us make our work mean something.”
McElhaney said the movement to “defund OPD” has been “music” to her ears. She speaks candidly about the grief and pain she’s experienced since her son Victor was shot and killed in Los Angeles in 2019. Her adopted grandson was killed in 2015 in West Oakland. Although their deaths were not the result of police shootings, McElhaney said she never calls the cops for fear that it could lead to the killing of another Black person. In 2017, she spearheaded the creation of Oakland’s unusual, non-police Department of Violence Prevention. But the department has had trouble staffing up and taking on a more prominent role in the city’s anti-violence programs, partly because other councilmembers and the city administration were opposed to creating it.
“The truth is, it wasn’t welcomed in our administration, so it’s not fully implemented,” she said. “The administration dragged their feet, and now we’re so grateful to have someone in that full-time job,” she said, referring to Chief Guillermo Cespedes, a social worker known for anti-gang work in Los Angeles. “We’re that much further ahead than other jurisdictions because we have a framework of trauma-informed, non-police response. When the ‘defund’ call came in, I really had this prayer to Victor: Okay, this is why Mommy ran.”
Some of the activists making that call saw McElhaney as an obstructor of their goal, however. She opposed immediate, large cuts to OPD’s budget, including Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas’ pitch for up to $25 million. McElhaney also voted in favor of a $2.25 million police helicopter contract during this summer’s budget hearings, but also voted to trim $1.2 million from a gunshot detection system used by OPD. The council later unanimously supported a proposal from councilmembers Loren Taylor and Bas to create a task force that will look into cutting 50% of OPD’s general fund budget.
Fife said she supported Bas’ deeper OPD funding cut, and that the “national climate around police violence” is part of what prompted her to run for City Council and seek “radically courageous” change. Fife said Oakland should start by following Berkeley’s lead in taking police out of traffic enforcement, as “that’s one of the areas with a huge disproportionate impact on Black folks.”
“Community-based security” is needed instead, said Fife, referring to the Community Ready Corps, which her partner helped found in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood of West Oakland. She said groups like CRC work because they’re staffed by people who are from, and intimately know, the communities they work to protect. Their security and self-defense work is paired with community service and advocacy around education, health, and economic prosperity, with a goal of fostering “self-determination” in areas like West Oakland.
Initially CRC “was a group of Black men in martial arts school. Elders were getting assaulted and robbed, so they started doing patrols in the neighborhood,” Fife said. “When they’re on the scene people are like, ‘We’re good, we’re safe.’”
McElhaney said she was “insulted, as a Black woman” by Bas’ proposal to make a deep cut to the Oakland police budget. According to McElhaney, Bas didn’t identify in enough detail what exactly to cut.
“I was very concerned that without clarity, we’d not be able to deliver on a real promise,” she said. And “the administration can be recalcitrant when the council is throwing up a whole bunch of innovation but not management.”
Taylor said she’s skeptical the task force will produce real change, but said she’d support a “mental health section” of OPD with cops who wear different uniforms and don’t carry guns when they respond to crisis calls. “They might have a stun gun, because they might need it with some of these crazy people out there,” she added. The City Council has already approved a pilot program called Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland, or MACRO, which will bring counselors and EMTs, not cops, to some mental health calls.
Taylor sees issues of police violence less as a systemic problem, and more a product of who’s allowed to become an officer. The Oakland Black Officers Association complained last year in a public letter that the department was still discriminating against Black police recruits. Most Oakland police officers are white and Latino, most are men, and only about 10% of them live in Oakland, according to city data.
“What type of person is letting these people into our communities? Start at the top,” she said. But Taylor opposed the firing of former OPD Chief Anne Kirkpatrick this year, saying, “police like her, and I haven’t heard anything that she’s done wrong.”
Kirkpatrick’s three year stint at OPD saw the department slide backwards on court-ordered reforms and she was criticized by OPD’s independent monitor for mishandling the investigation of a fatal police shooting of a homeless man in West Oakland in 2018. Kikrpatrick is now suing Oakland, claiming she was fired for complaints she made against members of the Police Commission, which oversees OPD’s policies and practices.
The recent police budget votes have also raised questions about council dynamics, as the immediate OPD cuts were rejected by the self-described Equity Caucus consisting of McElhaney and East Oakland Councilmembers Noel Gallo, Loren Taylor, and Larry Reid.
“For many decades people have wanted to see flatland representatives come together and really advocate for poor people together,” McElhaney said. The Equity Caucus, which includes the council’s three Black members, was also born out of frustration at the scheduling of important council votes at the start of the pandemic, when “Black and brown people were living in terror,” she said. “We were trying to respond to the crisis in our communities and were being asked to read volumes of legislation.”
But many activists see the Equity Caucus as a barrier to progressive change; Fife calls it the “conservative caucus” because she perceives its members as more pro-police and pro-landlord than other officials. Others have questioned whether the caucus prevents collaboration between councilmembers. Only four elected officials are legally permitted to speak to one another about any given item outside of a public meeting, so once caucus members have talked to each other, nobody else can try to work with them.
“There’s nothing new about councilmembers coming together,” countered McElhaney. “What’s unusual is Black people controlling the decision. All of a sudden people are terrified.”
Is D3 the future home of the Oakland A’s?
Taylor is the only D3 candidate who shared a definitive position on the future of the Oakland Athletics: Don’t come to West Oakland.
“I think they should leave the Coliseum exactly where it is. You’re just supposed to get out there on the field and do your job,” she said of Oakland’s last professional sports team. “It’s close to BART and gives people jobs.” At the proposed Howard Terminal site in Jack London, Taylor said, “transportation would be horrible, horrible, horrible.”
Taylor’s stance is unsurprising, as she’s a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union that is opposing the A’s plan to build a ballpark at Howard Terminal on the waterfront. ILWU says the new stadium would jam truck traffic and block jobs at the active port.
Scott is also skeptical of the A’s move, but still keeping an open mind. “As a union man, my biggest hold-up is lots of employees would be affected,” said Scott, a former director for SEIU Local 1021, which represents over 1,000 city employees and other municipal workers in the Bay Area. He questioned the transportation impact too, saying parking is already scarce in his neighborhood a mile away, and hordes of sports fans would compound the scramble for curb space.
“But I have friends who own bars and restaurants and bookstores and coffee shops. Imagine the economic impact on those businesses by bringing the beloved A’s to our district,” Scott said.
Fife said there “are financial interests on both sides” clouding the right solution.
“I’ve been told by people who want to develop that the longshore workers are fighting for a parcel of land that is just a great big empty parking lot, that it’s inaccurate that their workforce will be impacted,” she said. “ILWU is saying that’s not true, that they’re going to lose workers and kill all work. Where do you go? What I can say for certain is I don’t believe the city should sell any public land to a private corporation. I take issue with the Fisher family owning two of the largest swaths in the city,” she said, referring to the A’s majority owner, San Francisco billionaire John Fisher.
McElhaney said it’s the Port of Oakland, not the city, that has sway over the potential deal, but that Oakland should scrutinize the environmental and economic impacts of all outcomes. She’s pushed for close attention to community input regarding the fate of the Coliseum and Howard Terminal.
Several of the D3 candidates claim they almost didn’t run this year: Scott and Fife because of philosophical questions about whether a political office is the best place to effect change, and McElhaney because she’d been planning to take a break to spend time with her son Victor and go back to a higher-paying job, before tragedy struck.
Now, McElhaney said, she’s “frustrated that I’m even facing challengers, that any progressive is facing challengers.” The time, energy, and money that goes into campaigning should be focused instead on “defeating Trump.”
Scott had a different perspective: “I’m excited to see so many people running in this election,” he said. “It’s a sign of a healthy democracy.”