Ignacio De La Fuente is the favorite candidate of an independent expenditure committee funded by the developers who hope to build a coal export terminal in West Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

A handful of candidates running for Oakland mayor stand to benefit from the support of a few influential groups and wealthy individuals who are preparing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting their preferred contenders in advance of Nov. 8, the last day to vote.

While the candidates for mayor are only allowed to accept contributions of up to $900 from individuals and corporations, so-called independent expenditure committees can accept unlimited amounts of money from wealthy donors or large organizations like unions. And they can spend endless amounts on things like TV and web ads, phone and text messages, mailers, and polls to support or oppose whoever they like—so long as they’re not coordinating with any candidates while doing so.

The right for wealthy people and deep-pocketed organizations to do this was cemented by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case. 

In Oakland this year, labor unions have set up two campaign committees through which they have already spent over $426,000 backing mayoral candidate Sheng Thao. That’s far more than all of the mayoral candidates but one—Loren Taylor—have been able to raise for their own campaigns.

Another independent expenditures committee has been set up by developers and lobbyists who hope to build and operate a coal export terminal near the Port of Oakland. They’ve raised $110,000 so far, all of which they plan to spend supporting Ignacio De La Fuente, who told The Oaklandside he’s in favor of the coal plan.

And two local investors and a retired attorney have set up a committee with $9,600 to promote the campaigns of Loren Taylor, Treva Reid, and Ignacio De La Fuente. (Remember, Oakland has ranked-choice voting, meaning multicandidate strategies can pay off big.)

Which candidates are drawing the most outside money?

Labor unions are lined up behind Sheng Thao

In terms of fundraising, District 6 City Councilmember Loren Taylor is leading the mayor’s race having raised $450,000, which is $80,000 more than than the next best-funded candidate, Sheng Thao. 

But Thao, the District 4 councilmember, is benefitting from the support of most of the unions that represent city employees, as well as unions for the building trades, healthcare workers, and teachers. These unions are virtually unanimous in their support for Thao, having given little to nothing directly to other candidates’ campaigns and spending nothing to independently support them.

The Working Families for a Better Oakland committee was established by the International Association of Firefighters Local 55, the union that represents Oakland’s firefighters. Its contributors include:

  • Alameda Labor Council, $80,000 
  • IFPTE Local 21 (Oakland city workers), $50,000 
  • IAFF Local 55 (Oakland firefighters), $45,000 
  • State Building and Construction Trades Council, $40,000 
  • Sheet Metal Workers Local 104, $25,000 
  • Steamfitters Local 342, $25,000 
  • SEIU United Healthcare Workers West, $10,000 

The other labor committee backing Thao, East and South Bay Working Families United, was set up by the California Federation of Teachers. Six unions and the state’s union umbrella organization, the California Federation of Labor, have put $490,000 into this committee:

  • AFSCME, $150,000
  • AFSCME 3299, $100,000
  • CA Labor Federation, $100,000
  • SEIU State Council PAC, $50,000
  • State Building and Construction Trades Council, $40,000
  • IBEW 332, $25,000
  • California Federation of Teachers COPE, $25,000

In addition to Thao, the East and South Bay Working Families United committee is also paying for phone banking and canvassing to support Aisha Wahab in her run for State Senate District 10 and Liz Ortega-Toro for the 20th Assembly District, according to state records.

Some of the unions have a vested interest in who wins the mayor’s race, given the fact that the mayor appoints the city administrator and helps direct the city’s negotiations with its workers over salaries and benefits.

Zac Unger, president of the Oakland firefighters union, said labor support for Thao has more to do with her positions on policy matters affecting working people in general, and her ability to govern.

"Sheng has consistently stood up for working families and Oakland's underrepresented communities. She's proven effective at building alliances and bringing groups together to achieve concrete results for Oakland," Unger said.

Representatives with Working Families for a Better Oakland didn’t respond to questions from The Oaklandside about why they’re supporting Thao.

Unions are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Sheng Thao. Credit: Amir Aziz

Asked about why she thinks the unions have thrown their support entirely behind her, Thao told The Oaklandside in an interview that she is “unapologetically for working families.”

“Labor unions are not special interests like some folks believe. These are city workers, working families that may not have a lot, but they put their money together to ensure they have a voice at the table,” Thao said.

Unlike other independent expenditure committees that are often funded by a few wealthy individuals or corporations, the money the unions are spending on the Oakland mayor’s race ultimately comes from the dues from thousands of members, according to campaign finance disclosure reports.

Thao said she’s proud of her union endorsements. “My values align with them one thousand percent.”

Coal terminal developers are supporting Ignacio De La Fuente

Ignacio De La Fuente, who served on the City Council from 1992 to 2011 before he vacated the District 6 position to run unsuccessfully for the at-large seat, stands to get a boost from the Californians for Safer Streets political action committee. 

Established by Greg McConnell, a longtime lobbyist with many clients including real estate developers, landlords, entertainment companies, and industrial firms, Californians for Safer Streets has raised $115,000, mostly from the following sources:

  • Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal, $50,000
  • Jonathan Brooks, $50,000
  • Allan Boscacci, $10,000
  • David Haubert for Alameda County Supervisor 2024, $5,000

The Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal is a corporation owned by developer Phil Tagami, who has been seeking to build a coal export terminal in West Oakland since 2015. Jonathan Brooks is a Los Angeles financier whose hedge fund, JMB Capital, owns the right to operate the coal terminal if it ever gets built.

Oakland’s current mayor and members of the City Council are opposed to the construction of the coal terminal and in 2016, the council voted to ban the transport and storage of coal within city limits.

Tagami sued the city in federal court and won a decision by a federal judge who overturned the coal ban. But the project remains tied up in state court, where the city and Tagami have sued one another over the status of the development. If the next mayor were to support the coal terminal project, it could advance Tagami’s plan.

Tagami, who lived in Oakland for over 50 years and was involved in redeveloping the Fox Theater, Rotunda Building, and many other high-profile projects, told The Oaklandside that he and others set up the Safer Streets committee because they feel Oakland’s current elected leaders “prioritize political grandstanding over substantive progress” at a time when the city is struggling with crime, homelessness, and a loss of well-paying jobs.

“While I [have] no idea regarding his position on the bulk terminal project, De La Fuente is not willing to accept the ‘status-quo’ that has become so readily assumed by others,” said Tagami. “He is willing to fight along with businesses and residents for better government. For a better Oakland. And given his track record as an elected official, I have faith that he will be able to fulfill his promises.”

The Oaklandside asked De La Fuente about his position on the proposed coal export terminal and he told us the following. He said he was on City Council in 2010 when the council first voted to approve development plans for the old Oakland Army Base, and that he voted for the development agreement with Tagami’s company knowing that it could result in construction of a coal terminal. He said he supports increasing Oakland’s tax base and creating jobs, and the terminal would do both.

“In my opinion there is no city that can survive without retaining and increasing their tax base,” he said.

Asked about studies that showed the terminal would increase air pollution in neighborhoods with disproportionately high asthma rates and other diseases, De La Fuente criticized city leaders for approving the project and later opposing it over environmental concerns.

“It’s very easy to be Monday morning quarterbacking,” he said.

The third largest contributor to the committee, Allan Boscacci, is the grandson of the founder of the AB&I Foundry, the East Oakland metalworks that is being closed by its parent company, McWane, and relocated to Texas.

AB&I has long been known as a source of air pollution. Earlier this year Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a lawsuit against the foundry for spewing dangerous chemicals into the air and violating state law by not warning nearby residents about these emissions.

The state Fair Political Practices Commission fined AB&I $100,000 in 2016 for illegally funneling $24,000 in campaign contributions to Oakland candidates from 2012 to 2014 through company employees and their spouses. Ignacio De La Fuente was one of the biggest beneficiaries of these illegal contributions, some of which were made through Allan Boscacci. De La Fuente’s campaign committee in his run for the at-large seat received $6,300 in illegal contributions. Company executives said De La Fuente and other Oakland politicians were unaware the contributions were illegal and investigators found no evidence proving otherwise. AB&I officials also told investigators they were unaware they were breaking the law.

A ranked-choice strategy?

Technology investor Robert Spears set up the Citizens for Impactful Voting committee to support Loren Taylor, Ignacio De La Fuente, and Treva Reid.

In 2018, Spears played a role in helping Taylor win the District 6 City Council race by setting up another independent expenditure committee that paid for $31,000 in ads opposing incumbent councilmember Desley Brooks.

So far, the Citizens for Impactful Voting committee has raised less money than others involved in this year’s mayoral election. Charles Freiberg, a retired attorney, and Jeffrey Banks, and investor, have each given $4,800 for a total of $9,600.

Freiberg and Banks are also supporters of Loren Taylor, having given Taylor’s campaign committee $800 and the maximum $900 contributions this year, respectively.

Spears didn’t immediatley respond to emails from The Oaklandside, and we’ll update this post if we get to speak with him, but the fact that this committee is supporting three candidates reflects Oakland’s ranked-choice election system. Instead of being able to vote for only one candidate, voters get to rank their top five favorites. If no candidate wins more than 50% in the first round of counting ballots, then the last-placed candidate is eliminated and voters who picked this candidate as their first choice have their ballots redistributed to their second choices. If no one wins in this second round the process is repeated until there’s a clear winner.

By encouraging people to strategically vote for three candidates, committees like Citizens for Impactful Voting increase the likelihood that one of their candidates will win.

Correction: Oakland uses Alameda County's rules regarding ranked-choice voting. Under this system, voters are allowed to rank up to five candidates, not three.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham worked with The Appeal, where he was an investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian, and was an enterprise reporter for the East Bay Express. BondGraham's work has also appeared with KQED, ProPublica and other leading national and local outlets. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017.