D5 candidates Richard Santos Raya and Zoe Lopez-Meraz at their joint election party in Fruitvale. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

On election night one week ago, incumbent Noel Gallo held what appeared to be a solid lead in the three-person race for City Council in District 5. After the first ballot count late in the evening, Gallo had 53.2% of the vote, enough to avoid triggering a ranked-choice runoff. But since then, each day’s new tally has shown Gallo’s lead slowly shrinking.

Yesterday afternoon, the county registrar posted the latest results showing Gallo’s advantage had dropped to 50.7%—a mere 166 votes above the threshold that would trigger a ranked-choice runoff.

It’s exactly this scenario that Gallo’s two challengers, Richard Santos Raya and Zoe Lopez-Meraz, have been hoping for since the start of their campaigns last summer, when they decided to run together as a ranked choice ticket: Santos Raya urged his supporters to mark him first on their ballot, and Lopez-Meraz second. She did the same, in reverse.

Individually, neither Santos Raya (31%) or Lopez-Meraz (17%) have come close to garnering as many votes as Gallo. But together, they’ve so far received nearly 49% of the total vote.

With at least 1,726 votes left to count—and possibly more depending on how many people voted in person between Oct. 31 and Nov. 3—Gallo’s percent of the total first round ballots could fall below 50% in the next few days. If that happens, the candidate with the fewest votes, Lopez-Meraz, will be eliminated, and her votes will be redistributed according to her voters’ second choices. Santos Raya is expected to pick up the vast majority, putting him within range of Gallo.

“This is about people, not about which one of us wins,” Lopez-Meraz said in a recent interview about her campaign’s coordination with Santos Raya. “We believe and want the same things for Oakland.”

Neither Lopez-Meraz, 28, or Santos Raya, 27, had ever run for elected office before this year. Both said they knew the odds were stacked against them when they decided to run, given that Gallo is an incumbent and because the pandemic and other crises would make voter outreach more difficult.

“We have COVID. We had the wildfires,” said Santos Raya, who along with Lopez-Meraz employed several strategies to mobilize voters, including masked-up in-person outreach and social media campaigns.“We were up against some real circumstantial challenges. And yet, I’m still so proud,” he said.

Gallo, a two-term incumbent with deep ties in Fruitvale, previously served two decades on the OUSD school board. In contrast, Santos Raya and Lopez-Meraz were relatively unknown and started their campaigns months after most local candidates had already begun raising funds and reaching out to voters.

Gallo did not return The Oaklandside’s calls or emails for this report.

Over many years, Gallo became well known for holding weekly trash cleanups in Fruitvale. Those events resonated with many district voters who feel their neighborhoods are neglected by City Hall. On the council, Gallo developed a reputation as someone who wasn’t afraid to rock the boat at times and styled himself as a truth teller who wouldn’t shy away from controversy while confronting difficult problems in East Oakland like gun violence and illegal dumping.

Gallo has also beaten long political odds himself. In 2016, he campaigned for reelection against a candidate, Viola Gonzales, who was backed by Mayor Libby Schaaf, former D5 councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente, the Oakland Police Officers Association, and deep-pocketed business and real estate groups like the Oakland Chamber of Commerce and California Association of Realtors. Gallo won a convincing victory with 56% of the vote.

Santos Raya said one reason he and Lopez-Meraz entered this year’s race was because they believe Gallo has been inconsistent in recent votes regarding the Oakland police. Gallo co-authored the 2016 ballot measure that created the Police Commission, a civilian-led oversight committee, but opposed deep budget cuts to OPD over the summer and has recently defended the department, including standing by former chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who was fired last February. Gallo appeared at a press conference with Kirkpatrick and called for the ousting of the independent monitor who tracks OPD’s reforms.

The two challengers said their campaigns, win or lose, show that District 5 voters are open to more progressive ideas.

“While some thought that our ideas were too young or too radical, there are a lot of voters like Zoe and me,” Santos Raya said. “It’s humbling to see all of the support, and it sends a message to people who doubted us.” Lopez-Meraz added, “At least 48 percent voted for change and believed in our progressive platform.”

The next vote count will be updated later today around 5 p.m. We’re tracking local results here.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland 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.