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Carroll Fife joined the City Council in January 2021, in the midst of the Oakland A’s proposal to build a 35,000-seat stadium, thousands of homes, a hotel, and office and retail space at Howard Terminal near the Port of Oakland and Jack London Square.
The $12 billion project, if built, would have huge impacts on West Oakland and Chinatown. Fife came into the District 3 office, which represents West Oakland and Jack London Square on Oakland’s City Council, after defeating incumbent Lynette Gibson McElhaney. She has served as executive director of nonprofit community advocacy organization ACCE, and was one of the key architects of the Moms 4 Housing movement, and helped organize the Anti Police-Terror Project. She campaigned for her Council seat on plans to address issues of police reform, homelessness, and housing affordability. But Fife told us she believes the scope of the ballpark proposal has sucked up time, attention, and city resources to the point that it’s hobbled the city’s ability to address more pressing issues facing Oakland residents.
Fife, along with Councilmember Noel Gallo, voted against approving the project’s environmental impact report in February. She has been critical of the Howard Terminal development process but unlike Gallo, who would prefer the A’s build at the Coliseum, she isn’t outright opposed to it at the moment. Her stance is more nuanced. In a conversation with The Oaklandside, she discussed where she currently stands on the project, why she supports letting the voters decide its fate, and her frustration over apparently being shut out by the A’s ownership and front office.
Our Q&A focused on the subject of Howard Terminal but also touched on her political future and powerful enemies she said she’s collected less than halfway through her first term. That—along with emails and voicemail messages from some ballpark supporters that have left Fife concerned for her safety and that of her family—has her contemplating whether she was more effective as an organizer and activist working outside City Hall. Fife told us she’s on the fence about running for re-election in 2024.
But that doesn’t mean she is slowing down, even if she thinks the stadium plan should. Fife said there is still a lot of work ahead in deciding how the proposal should address issues and projects affecting District 3 residents. The list includes what a Howard Terminal development community benefits package and financial deal would look like.
“I would love to have a world-class stadium in my district, but not at the expense of all of the potential problems that could come if we don’t analyze this properly,” Fife told us.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What is your current stance on the Howard Terminal proposal?
My current request is for an open and transparent process, especially around financing, around the input from the community, and the responsibility of all stakeholders.
My position is if it’s too difficult to have a conversation with key stakeholders—and I’m trying not to sound narcissistic, but I’m like damn, can y’all just talk to me? Can I get a phone call? I don’t understand that. I don’t think if I was a white man I would be in this same position having to beg a developer to have a conversation with me about such a large process in my district.
On that topic, you and others have expressed frustration over who the A’s ownership and front office have and haven’t been communicating with. So have they reached out to you? Have you had a sit-down meeting or one-on-one with a representative of the A’s?
Dave [Kaval, the A’s team president] reached out to me once around the time I was inaugurated. And that’s it. That was January of 2021.
It shows a level of either disrespect or a lack of serious interest in this process by having Taj Tashombe [vice president of government and external affairs for the A’s] be the voice of the A’s. He has no decision-making power. He’s said it himself. [While Tashombe has worked with community groups related to the Howard Terminal proposal, including on its community benefits package, Fife said she hasn’t had access to Kaval and others leading on negotiating the stadium deal with the city]
Who has your ear on this issue? Whose input and opinions do you seek out?
I’m seeking out people with expertise in development of stadiums. There’s two people I’ve talked to who have been part of stadium developments [including the San Francisco Giants ballpark].
I would love to have a world-class stadium in my district but not at the expense of all of the potential problems that could come if we don’t analyze this properly.
What’s frustrated you about conversations about Howard Terminal so far?
What’s frustrated me so much is that the decisions that people are making are super self-interested. They seem to lack a 360-degree analysis of impacts for other groups.
Like, it’s so funny how I’ve been maligned since the time I was elected as being a pawn for labor and bought by labor. I’m not bought and paid for by anybody. I self-fundraised a quarter of a million dollars. The narrative has now shifted to “Carroll is bought and paid for by the East Oakland Stadium Alliance and is a corrupt politician because she wants polluters in her district versus revenue-generating sports teams.”
My focus as an organizer and an activist and now as an elected official has always been to listen to the people who are shut out of processes, especially these big processes, because there is something in what they are saying that is really relevant to how we move forward.
Historically in this country, those are the voices who are always bulldozed and always end up on the short end of the stick. I don’t want to be a part of anything that perpetuates the historic ways that power has steamrolled people without it.
The Port of Oakland is still a major economic engine for the city of Oakland. Do you think many A’s fans understand that? How does this shape opposition to the Howard Terminal ballpark project?
When I was organizing and speaking for Bernie [Sanders] before tens of thousands of people, I would get so much criticism for being a part of a campaign where the “Bernie Bros” weren’t reined in because of how aggressive and violent they were as fanatics. Like A’s fanatics. My frustration is that fanatics don’t really care about anything other than what they believe in. It takes a very special person to be like, “I really super believe and want this thing and I also understand that it could impact people.”
I don’t think Americans are really self-aware in that way. We tend to be the opposite: selfish. You want the immediate gratification of what it is that you want. The conditions we are living in, specifically in Oakland, is a reflection of the fact that there are a lot of people who are like, “I care about me. Not about what is needed, but what is important to me.”
You have said that you’re in office to talk about issues like affordable housing—and that the last thing you want to talk about is baseball. Do you still feel that way?
I’m speaking as an elected official right now about all of the things I am contacted about every single day. I get pains in my eyes and neck just sitting and reading emails. Not one of the urgent emails—”I need to call the police,” “I don’t want to call the police,” all of the things people are in crisis about—none of it is baseball.
We are prioritizing shifting an entire city government to focus on this development. I get told “no” so many times about why we can’t do things with the Department of Transportation, or real estate, or the city administration.
I know because I was in these meetings every Friday with the mayor, some of the city staff, and elected officials. This energy has shifted to focus on the A’s and how we put everything in place to make sure we have the proper staffing, the money, and grant writers to make sure the A’s can develop here. We are putting the city on hold. I am getting phone calls and threats of recall because my constituents’ needs are not getting met.
We already have a 16% if not more vacancy rate [of unfilled positions on city staff]. I can’t even get a staff report on our vacancy rate that’s been scheduled since last September. Everybody is focused on—the majority of their attention anyway—on making the space for this development to come.
You came to local politics from a background in community organizing. Now that you’re inside City Hall, what do you think organizers should know about how politics works to help them do their work more effectively?
My background is in human services and urban education. I’ve been an organizer because I’ve had to be, because of my own personal conditions as well as the people around me that I love.
In organizing other community members to get active about the things they love and care about, I’ve found that it’s not only that people don’t have a seat at the table. It’s that even if you are at the table, there’s so many ways that this established system of government works that is set up to aggregate power in only a few hands. Even if you are at the table you can still get the fucking Jedi-mind trick shit played on you and the outcomes remain consistent with the status quo.
Sometimes I feel like, why am I here? There’s a reason. But it just feels like more exposure for less impact, if that makes sense. I’m more exposed to people who know about me because everybody wants to be at my neck and I’m probably able to be less effective than when I was outside of City Hall. But that’s ok. I’m going to pivot real soon.
What are you pivoting to?
A return to my roots.
Does that mean you are not running for re-election in 2024?
I’m not sure. I’m often concerned for my safety and the safety of my family because of some of the things I’ve experienced over the last year and a half. But then again, I don’t know if it goes away if I don’t run. I don’t know if I’m just forever exposed. I have a lot to think about.
The police and the police union? They are not fans [of Fife]. Big real estate developers? They are not fans. Status-quo politicians and elected officials? They are not fans. Nonprofits and other organizations that don’t want to be accountable? Not fans. I’m just making a bunch of enemies.
It’s difficult to be the clean water amongst dirty water. I am just trying to keep my head above it all and figure out what impact I can have. That’s the saving grace of being an organizer—being able to communicate to people directly to their hearts and brains about what’s real.
I think there is going to be an increased push to invalidate my work and effectiveness on council so there are not more Carroll Fife’s in the future. They clearly did not expect me to be in this position. I think they are going to help manufacture the conditions to not ever allow that to happen again.
Lots of people in Oakland have concerns about whether or not this proposed development will create more affordable housing or enough of it. A lot of this comes down to definitions. What does “affordable housing” mean to you and what are you looking to see in this deal?
The textbook definition is you are rent- or mortgage-burdened if you pay more than a third of your income in rent. With that definition, I don’t believe this particular development will allow levels of affordability to the average median income earner in West Oakland. I think that’s known and expected.
To be fair, I don’t expect every single developer to solve the affordability crisis. That’s an issue that is far greater than any one project. But I do believe they have an obligation to do their part.
I would know better if I could have a direct conversation with the folks who can make decisions about what could be done but I don’t get a sense that they give a shit. It’s the opposite. They are trying to get away from what the city of Oakland has on the books about what developers are supposed to do, which is what’s pissing off other developers who have to abide by those rules. It’s challenging.
At the town hall you organized in March, you brought up the idea of letting residents decide about Howard Terminal by putting it on the November ballot. Where are you now with that idea?
I believe that if we trust democracy and trust the process that we all are subjected to, the voters of Oakland should determine whether or not they want their tax dollars spent on a project like this. They’ve been subjected to sports deals in the past that have not gone well for them. I think they should have a say in what the city does because the reality right now is that it’s not necessarily a decision that is being made in the interest of the constituents.
We are talking about potentially creating a district that will be a luxury waterfront district for a select group of wealthy people who can live there. People will be able to visit and come on game days and experience the amenities of that particular area, but I guarantee it will be more policed. It will be whiter and wealthier.
There is [currently] no ballpark there that boasts luxury hotels and entertainment venues and market-rate housing, and I’ve been racially profiled three times over the last year in different spaces there [in Jack London Square]. And I’m a flipping councilmember.
It’s really uncomfortable. It’s super humiliating to be followed around by a security guard, or not be served, or to be talked to rudely. This increases as the demographic changes in the city of Oakland.
On the issue of having the public vote on Howard Terminal, what do you say to someone who says, “We pay City Council members to figure this stuff out—so please do your jobs and figure it out?”
I would say that this project has been marketed as being privately financed. We’ve quickly found out that this is not true. We can assume that the infrastructure costs of this development will cost Oakland taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and they should weigh in if they want to participate in that decision.
What Oakland residents will pay over time is a drop in the bucket when compared to the salary of City Council members.
What does a win on Howard Terminal look like for you?
A win looks like all of the stakeholders being at the table. I’m talking about the maritime stakeholders, our Chinatown constituents, West Oakland and Old Oakland, and the Port, and the city and even representatives from the county and the state with the A’s who go through the maritime concerns, the concerns of the ILWU, the concerns about the railway. I used to work right there…just crossing the railway, not on a game day, was dangerous.
Having all those people at the table to be able to share out how to mitigate the concerns they have, to have an honest conversation, and to work out a process. Everybody would have to give. But to actually work through the concerns people have, I think it’s the right thing to do.
Maybe I’m just naive and don’t know enough about development, but listening is such a big part of governance and doing what’s right to not repeat the failures of the past. We owe that to our city.