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Of the eight people who serve on Oakland’s City Council, only one, the at-large councilmember, is elected to represent the entire city, rather than a single district. This job requires ambition, vision, and energy on par with being the mayor. Since 2009, this person has been Rebecca Kaplan, a progressive Democrat who ran for mayor in 2014 and currently serves as president of the City Council.
Challenging Kaplan is Derreck Johnson, a newcomer to politics who used to own the Home of Chicken and Waffles restaurant in Jack London Square, and Nancy Sidebotham, a tax preparer.
Kaplan has the most political experience of the three. She served on the board of AC Transit for seven years before joining Oakland’s City Council, and has held positions on the boards of the Alameda County Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Johnson and Sidebotham are running campaigns that emphasize their deep roots in the city, and their status as political outsiders who can’t be blamed for existing problems. Johnson, who says he’ll bring a new perspective and fresh energy to the council, has been endorsed by Mayor Libby Schaaf. Sidebotham argues that she’ll clean up corruption in City Hall and eliminate burdensome taxes.
The Oaklandside interviewed all three, and we had them fill out a detailed questionnaire. Here’s what they said.
Sidebotham has lived in Oakland since 1964, and went to Merritt College back when it was located in North Oakland. She got into politics in 1982 when she decided something had to be done about the treatment of dogs and cats at the police-operated animal shelter. She said in an interview that she managed to have the shelter taken away from OPD management, and the number of animals euthanized at the shelter each year dropped.
After helping out the city’s orphaned pets, in 1990 and 1994 Sidebotham unsuccessfully ran for the District 6 council seat. She became active in her Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council in Millsmont and on the Community Policing Advisory Board, and ran in a crowded field for mayor in 2014 and for the at-large seat in 2016. She ran for mayor again in 2018, losing once more.
Asked why she’s running yet again after numerous failed attempts, she said, “I can be a voice to wake up people.”
Her efforts to upset the establishment go back decades. In the 1990s, she used the nickname “no-nonsense Nancy” to describe her blunt manner of speech.
“I run to tell the truth, and I know Oakland inside out,” she said. She pulled no punches in describing her opponents in this year’s election.
“Derreck’s being run because he’s controllable,” she said. Sidebotham believes Mayor Schaaf, through her endorsement of Johnson, is aiming to knock out her longtime rival Kaplan with someone she can rely on to back her policies. She feels that Schaaf has abused her power by pushing initiatives like Measure AA, a property tax that would have funded private nonprofits.
Sidebotham had few supportive things to say of Kaplan. “Rebecca should never have been named [City Council] president,” she said. She said the vacant parcel tax, which Kaplan authored and voters approved two years ago, has harmed many small landlords.
Sidebotham, who owns five properties, including two rentals, also said relocation payments, which the city requires landlords to pay tenants who are evicted if the owners decide to move in, are unfair. Kaplan authored the legislation in 2017 as an anti-displacement measure for low-income renters. “It’s something that needs to be looked at,” Sidebotham said.
Sidebotham also criticized recent legislation that protects tenants from landlord harassment. She said harassment can go both ways. “No one is talking about the damage tenants are doing to buildings,” she said. “There are tenants who demolish stuff, but you have to pay them to get them out.”
The city has done a poor job developing the local economy in general, she said. “We have no economic development in Oakland at all. We want to bring more people into this city but we have no services for them. In Oakland, there’s no place to shop.”
Adding a massive number of blue-collar and retail jobs, she said, would solve many of Oakland’s problems. With more Oaklanders employed, Sidebotham thinks crime would drop. But unlike most of the candidates running for City Council this year, Sidebotham is a staunch supporter of the Oakland Police Department and believes that most Oakland residents, who she refers to as the “silent majority,” agree with her.
“Most people in Oakland say, ‘Don’t defund the police. We need them.’ I walked down the street the other night at 11 o’clock and I heard gunshots,” said Sidebotham, who lives in Millsmont neighborhood. “Oakland has constant criminal activity.”
She doesn’t support the Oakland Police Commission, the civilian body that oversees OPD policies and practices, and the city’s Community Police Review Agency.
“The commission has little to no training and is manipulated by outside influence,” she wrote in a questionnaire from The Oaklandside. In her interview with us, Sidebotham said civilian members of the police commission are mostly people who “hate the police,” and that the board needs more balance instead of being given more power, as Measure S1 would do if approved by voters this year.
Johnson was born and raised in Oakland and can trace his family’s roots back several generations here. He remembers the West Oakland Acorn neighborhood of his childhood years as a “robust community” and a supportive place, even though it had its problems.
“It was 99% Black. Growing up in the projects we had African-American dentists, doctors, and all the homes nearby were owned by Black people,” said Johnson. “My dentist, Dr. Harrison, lived on Magnolia, and there was an attorney there, so we were exposed to middle-class African Americans. You had your lower class, like us, but we were all in the same community.”
Johnson said he jumped in the race this year because he’s worried about Oakland.
“The urgency for me is looking at a city I don’t recognize anymore,” he said. “The homeless and affordable housing situation has gotten way out of hand.”
The primary cause of the homelessness crisis, in Johnson’s view, is Oakland’s “insufficient housing supply,” and too few homeless shelters. In his response to our questionnaire, he blamed a “lack of political will” as a major reason why so many homeless people remain on the streets.
On the broader question of the housing crisis, he wrote: “Oakland’s housing affordability crisis is primarily the result of a severe housing shortage in the Bay Area,” and said that “Oakland’s slow planning approval process, the [City] Council’s late implementation of affordable housing impact fees, and the failure of surrounding cities to build sufficient housing all contribute to a chronic shortage that skews the market toward higher prices.”
His solutions include removing regulatory barriers and upzoning, so that denser housing can be built in more parts of the city.
When asked about whether Oakland could do more to help low-income renters, Johnson said he believes “tenants should have rights,” but that the city has gotten too involved in rental housing regulations, to the harm of smaller landlords. Johnson believes Oakland should mainly defer to state laws on rental housing. “The state has some very vigorous tenant protections that are already signed into legislation,” he said.
He’s also running because he feels the current City Council hasn’t created a business-friendly atmosphere.
“I see the current council pushing Oakland as a really non-business-friendly city,” he said. “The only way to get the economy stimulated is job development and luring businesses to our city.”
At his former Jack London Square business, Home of Chicken and Waffles, Johnson said he employed formerly incarcerated people, estimating he’s responsible for creating a couple hundred jobs in Oakland over the years. But he feels the City Council has made entrepreneurship difficult.
“When it comes to regulatory issues, I think there’s too many ordinances that are introduced,” he said. “The city needs to focus more on the services for our taxpayers and get out of the regulatory business.”
Kaplan and other members of the City Council were wrong to try to pass a progressive business tax reform this year, said Johnson. “Right now, it’s tone-deaf to raise taxes on anyone.”
While the tax reform would have cut taxes for some small businesses, or kept them at the same level, Johnson said he thinks it would have driven larger companies out of the city.
“My sales were down 20% this year before COVID just because the Warriors left,” he said about the basketball team’s departure. Johnson feels that the City Council needs members who have “had the pressure to make payroll” as business owners, and can understand policy issues from that standpoint.
Johnson also takes issue with recent council proposals to give workers who were laid off due to the COVID-19 crisis the first right to their old jobs when their employers begin hiring again. “That’s actually very unrealistic if you’re a business owner,” he said. “Me having to be dictated to on who I bring back to work… that’s a choice that I should have as a small business.”
On policing, he said he’s interested in the sorts of reforms President Barack Obama’s 2015 Task Force on 21st Century Policing advocated.
Johnson has had negative experiences with police. In 2007, he was pulled over by an OPD officer who immediately asked him if he was on probation. Johnson said it was likely because of how he looked—a Black man wearing a bandana and sweaty clothes (he’d just left the gym) and driving an old truck he used at his business. He’d said he’d like to see police undergo more training to address bias, but isn’t pushing for more radical changes.
“At the end of the day I know we have some very bad apples in the police department—nationwide,” said Johnson. “Look at the shootings and the killings against our people. It’s atrocious. It’s sickening, actually. But I don’t believe that everyone that’s sworn to protect our communities are bad people. With that being said, I’m not for dismantling the police department.”
The incumbent councilmember also isn’t in favor of dismantling the Oakland Police Department. But while Kaplan has supported some increased police spending in areas like gun tracing, she’s a far more aggressive critic of the police than her challengers, and is seeking deep budget cuts and fundamental reforms.
During the most recent budget cycle, Kaplan advocated for large cuts to the police department and freezing millions set aside for police overtime, pending a more comprehensive review. She also requested that OPD’s media relations unit be cut. “Their PR department often lies, and they don’t seem to report to anybody,” she said.
Kaplan wants to go the route of Berkeley, civilianizing traffic enforcement so that OPD officers are no longer responsible for writing tickets. She had a policy inserted into the current budget that will take authority over special events permits away from OPD.
Oakland has already moved in the direction of civilianizing other police jobs, partly because of Kaplan’s advocacy. She pointed to her role in setting aside funding, in the last city budget, for a study exploring how Oakland could create a civilian emergency response team to handle mental health calls.
“There was foot-dragging from the administration,” she said about delays in getting the study completed, but ultimately, the research was completed. The study’s findings helped develop the city’s new MACRO pilot program, which will send mental health counselors and EMT’s to respond to nonviolent 911 calls, instead of police officers.
“This year, we fought for money to actually do the program, so Oakland is years ahead of other cities,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan also expressed full support for a more powerful Police Commission. She believes the commission proved its worth by firing OPD Chief Anne Kirkpatrick back in February. Last month, Kirkpatrick filed a lawsuit claiming she was fired for exposing corruption within the police commission. But Kaplan said the real reasons Kirkpatrick was fired were obvious to anyone who had been paying attention to the police department.
“The chief was hiding information about a shooting,” Kaplan said about the way OPD handled the investigation of the shooting of Joshua Pawlik, a homeless man who was killed by several OPD officers in a controversial 2018 shooting. Kirkpatrick cleared the officers of any wrongdoing, but OPD’s independent monitor issued a report last month about the shooting, and the subsequent OPD investigation, which found that Kirkpatrick biased the investigation.
“That’s why you need a police commission overseeing the department,” said Kaplan.
On housing, Kaplan said Oakland’s existing rules protect tenants against displacement while respecting the rights of landlords. At this point, she believes Oakland needs to push for changes at the state level to further expand renter protections.
“The state exempts certain units from rent control,” she said, referring to California’s Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which allows single-family homes and condos to escape rent control, as well as apartments built after 1995. It also allows landlords to increase rent as high as they’d like after a tenant moves out of a rent-controlled unit. “These rules disproportionately benefit the biggest landlords. I think our largest gap between where we are and should be is this state law problem,” she said.
As for the homelessness crisis, Kaplan believes the root cause is the displacement of Oakland residents through “wrongful foreclosure, excessive rent increases, and eviction.” She added, “the overwhelming majority of people who are homeless in Oakland are from here.”
Although she acknowledges that the city’s response to the crisis has been inadequate thus far, Kaplan pointed to several initiatives that she thinks are making a positive impact. She authored Measure W, the vacant property tax that Sidebotham dislikes, to raise money for homeless services. Kaplan also praised the city’s efforts to buy up old single-room-occupancy hotels and apartment buildings and convert them to shelters.
“That was a project I fought hard for,” said Kaplan. She thinks the city should purchase more buildings rather than expand the mayor’s Tuff Shed program, which involves creating sanctioned homeless camps where unsheltered people bunk in tiny cabins and have access to toilets and a kitchen while social workers help them obtain healthcare, IDs, and seek longer-term housing.
“Tuff Sheds have had the lowest success rate,” she claimed about the program’s outcomes in terms of placing people into long-term housing.
Kaplan said her work on the council in recent years has been guided partly by experiences she had as a young Hebrew Bible teacher, her first job. “The teachings I was raised with put a lot of emphasis on the importance of how we treat those who are often overlooked,” she said.
Correction: Nancy Sidebotham owns two rental properties, not five as this story originally stated. This story also had to be updated after we learned that Derreck Johnson does not own the Home of Chicken and Waffles restaurant. He lost the restaurant in 2017 after filing for bankruptcy.