District 5 stretches from the industrial Jingletown neighborhood on the edge of the Oakland estuary to Glenview, an affluent area of single-family homes nestled around Park Boulevard above the 580 freeway. Credit: Pete Rosos

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District 5 residents have three choices this year for their next City Council representative. Incumbent Noel Gallo, a lifelong Fruitvale resident, is running for his third term. Two young activists, Zoe Lopez-Meraz, 28, and Richard Santos Raya, 27, have teamed up to run against Gallo, and are asking voters to rank them first and second on their ballots in hopes the combined power of their supporters will push one of them over the 50% mark needed to win.

District 5 stretches from the industrial Jingletown neighborhood on the edge of the Oakland estuary to Glenview, an affluent area of single-family homes nestled around Park Boulevard above the 580 freeway. Residents who spoke to The Oaklandside all agreed that they want a representative who is engaged with constituents, and as in other parts of the city, affordable housing and illegal dumping are important issues. But D5 residents are especially concerned with traffic safety and helping out the area’s numerous small businesses, many of them immigrant-owned. 

We asked each candidate to fill out a detailed questionnaire. Read their answers here.

Noel Gallo

Zoe Lopez-Meraz

Richard Santos Raya

All three candidates in this year’s election are Latinx. Gallo is a political veteran with almost three decades of experience. He served on the Oakland Unified School District board from 1992 to 2012 and as the D5 councilmember for the past eight years. Lopez-Meraz and Santos Raya are both millennials with backgrounds in social activism. Santos Raya is an organizer with Sunrise Bay Area, a youth-led organization that focuses on solutions to climate change, and Lopez-Meraz volunteers with local organizations that provide help to unhoused people.

Lopez-Meraz and Santos Raya both said they made the decision to campaign against Gallo because they don’t feel he’s fully supportive of efforts to defund the police and reinvest in alternative approaches to crime prevention and public safety.

Key to Lopez-Meraz and Santos Raya’s campaigns is Oakland’s use of ranked choice voting, a type of electoral system where voters rank candidates in order of preference. If one candidate wins more than 50% of the first-choice votes, they’re the winner of the election. But if no candidate receives more than 50%, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their voters’ second choices are distributed among the remaining candidates until one of them reaches a majority.

In some respects, Gallo has been campaigning the entire time he’s been in office. He communicates with voters in a retail politics fashion—meeting with residents  in person and speaking in a folksy, no-nonsense tone. The councilmember walks his district, especially in the Fruitvale, and personally participates in weekend trash cleanups where he highlights the problem of illegal dumping.

Santos Raya said during a recent candidates forum that he admires Gallo’s dedication, but thinks D5 residents are ready for a councilmember who will bring a “public health” approach to solving systemic problems like homelessness and illegal dumping.

The Oaklandside spoke with all three candidates about their vision for District 5.

Zoe Lopez-Meraz

Jingletown resident Zoe Lopez-Meraz was born in San Diego and grew up partly in Tijuana. As a border resident, she witnessed the impact of U.S. immigration policy firsthand. When she was young, crossing from Mexico into the United States was easier for immigrants and visitors alike. Now, she said, it takes much longer because of the federal government’s anti-immigrant policies.

Credit: Xuy Corona

As a child, Lopez-Meraz and her family moved frequently between cities, partly due to her father’s “illegal activities,” which led to him getting in trouble with law enforcement. Lopez-Meraz did not speak about her family history in detail, but said these early-life experiences have been “fundamental to my identity.” 

Housing insecurity and other hardships experienced by many D5 residents aren’t caused by people’s individual “character flaws,” she said. “These are systemic repercussions” of an unfair system that exploits the poor and people of color.

When asked how she would tackle the homelessness crisis, Lopez-Meraz said she supports universal rent control for all residential units, emergency mortgage protections for homeowners, and progressive tax reform for corporate and commercial landlords and tech companies. Those policies aren’t achievable at the city level and would require action from state lawmakers. But Lopez-Meraz also said the city could sanction homeless camps and provide wraparound services, give Section 8 renters more protections, and use more empty hotel rooms as emergency housing.

Her view of the criminal justice system was also shaped by her parents’ experiences when she was a child, especially her father’s encounters with police in Mexico and the United States. 

“A lot of what I saw in Mexico and stateside was corruption,” she said about the police. “There were plenty of encounters that my dad got out of by paying his way out of it. You could buy your way out of trouble.” 

Witnessing police corruption led her to become skeptical of law enforcement and is one of the reasons she supports Measure S1, which would strengthen the Oakland Police Commission, the city’s civilian-led oversight committee.

Lopez-Meraz is an advocate of sanctuary cities and she has advocated for the abolition of ICE (the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that enforces federal immigration laws). She said it’s important to “make sure that there are services and access to secure housing and health care,” for Oakland’s undocumented residents.

Lopez-Meraz said the prosperity of District 5 will depend on the health of its local shops, restaurants, and warehouses. “The way to acknowledge each other’s needs is to focus on small business,” she said. “You have people that are probably a little more affluent that start small businesses, right? But they also need to hire staff, and that is going to come from Jingletown and Fruitvale.”

With countless businesses closing because of the pandemic, Lopez-Meraz said she would like to see the city create zero-interest loans for small businesses to rebuild post-pandemic.

As election day draws near, Lopez-Meraz said a big part of her campaign is focused on registering young people to vote. “I’m advocating for people to work with their COVID pods to make a date to go together, so there’s accountability to drop their ballots off in person and make sure their vote counts.”

Richard Santos Raya

Credit: Aaron Molo

Richard Santos Raya is no stranger to politics. His father, Richard Raya, served as chief of staff for former District 2 City Councilmember Abel Guillén. Raya Sr. also unsuccessfully ran for the District 1 City Council seat in 2012. 

“My dad’s experience in 2012 running, and 2014 to 2018 with Abel’s office, made me not want to get involved in politics,” Santos Raya said. “I would see my dad at the dining room table calling his friends for donations, and he just looked miserable.” 

Even though Abel Guíllen is like family for Santos Raya, he said that if he would have been a resident of District 2 during Guillen’s re-election bid in 2018, he would have voted for Nikki Fortunato Bas (who ended up winning the election). 

“I wasn’t surprised when he lost,” Santos Raya said of Guíllen. “Nikki was an outsider who came out of nowhere. Her ideas were there. Her progressive values were there. Her track record was there.”

Similarly, Santos Raya is now trying to unseat an incumbent, Noel Gallo, by campaigning as a progressive who will shift the district’s priorities in a dramatic new direction. After graduating from Northeastern University’s School of Law, Santos Raya came back to Oakland and began teaching at Centro Legal de la Raza’s Youth Law Academy, as well as organizing around climate change with Sunrise Movement Bay Area. 

Santos Raya said he thinks Gallo has contradicted himself on the issue of policing, talking at times like a reformer, but then offering support to the police.

“When I talk about the politicians of yesterday, that’s what I’m talking about,” he said. “Saying one thing and doing the other.”

Santos Raya said he brings a sense of humor and a knack for storytelling to the campaign. “Some of that comes out when you see me talking in candidate forums. This mellifluous language, that’s where I really live,” he said. “Our campaign is trying to tell a story about what people need, what changes can happen that we all want.” 

Santos Raya, who served on the Oakland Cultural Affairs Commission until his term ended in September, is concerned about the future of arts and culture in Oakland.

“I do think that Oakland’s culture is really endangered right now,” he said. “We, as a city, need to take it upon ourselves to protect how culture moves through our city, and our cultural identity.”

Noel Gallo

In an interview, Gallo said he’s running on his record of constituent services and policymaking and that what matters most is what he has accomplished. 

Credit: Courtesy of the candidate

“It is not what you say, but what you do,” he said. “It’s about doing the work, and I do it with honor and respect.” 

As councilmember, Gallo has supported affordable housing projects and new tenant protection laws that have been approved in recent years. “The reason why we have affordable housing being built by the Unity Council is because I pushed them,” he said about the ongoing expansion of affordable housing around the Fruitvale BART Station.

Gallo is also known for his weekly neighborhood cleanups, even during the pandemic. “I’m out there every Saturday doing the avenues, and now, I’m there on Sunday, helping clean the homeless encampments.” 

To get homeless residents off the streets, Gallo said the city should provide additional wrap-around services at sanctioned homeless camps and remove more trash around camps.

“I support the rehabilitation of underutilized buildings, like hotels, to convert to housing opportunities—but these establishments must have sufficient and strong community and health-related services,” he said.

With the pandemic moving into its seventh month, Gallo said the Fruitvale needs more accessible testing. The neighborhood has some of the highest rates of COVID-19 cases in the state and Latino and Black residents are disproportionately harmed by the spread of the virus. In late May, 12 workers at the Fruitvale chain grocery store, Cardenas Market, tested positive for COVID. Gallo said concerns that grocery workers were being exposed to COVID-19 was something he took action to address. 

“I forced Cardenas to establish a testing site that they paid for,” he said. “And, they wind up discovering that they had 19 employees that tested positive.” 

On the issue of policing, Gallo has sent mixed signals. In 2016, he joined District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb to sponsor Measure LL, which voters overwhelmingly approved to establish the Police Commission. At the time, Gallo said OPD needed greater oversight. More recently, Gallo has sided with OPD, including by joining former Chief Anne Kirkpatrick at a press conference where she criticized the police commission for firing her. Gallo has said he believes the court-appointed monitor who oversees OPD’s progress on reforms should be gotten rid of. And in June, he rejected large budget cuts for OPD and voted on a modest reduction to the police budget while also approving spending on a new helicopter and an expensive gunshot detection system for the police.

Asked about why he voted in favor of fewer cuts to OPD’s budget in June, he said the city has bigger priorities and financial considerations, and that he didn’t want to lay off any city employees. 

“For you to have an impact on the community that may have been neglected, you need the four or five votes,” said Gallo about the budget vote. “For me, teaming up with Larry Reid, Loren Taylor, and Lynette McElhaney, the African American elected officials elected by the people to represent the needs of that community,” made sense on that vote.

However, Gallo said that he wants to move forward with a policy to reduce OPD funding in the 2021-23 budget by $50 million. The budget policy passed in July calls for cutting police spending by 50%, or $150 million.

Still, given the pandemic, Gallo said there are other factors the council will have to balance against police reforms. “We have a $112 million deficit but nobody wanted to touch the emergency reserve or the $42 million in case something drastic happens and we need that money,” he said about the city’s finances. “The biggest challenge we have is that we didn’t want to lay off any employee.”

As District 5 voters begin to decide whether to cast their vote in person or mail it in, Gallo said he wants to remind his constituents and all Oakland voters that “voting is one of our constitutional rights, and we should take advantage of that responsibility.”

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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.