Nenna Joiner (left) and Janani Ramachandran (right) are the two District 4 councilmember candidates. Credit: Courtesy of candidates

Two political newcomers, Nenna Joiner and Janani Ramachandran, are contending for the District 4 City Council seat that Sheng Thao is leaving behind to run for mayor.

The D4 boundaries were redrawn by the city earlier this year. It includes the neighborhoods of Panoramic Hill, Glen Highlands, Dimond, Oakmore, Lincoln Highlands, Glenview (previously in District 5), Laurel, Redwood Heights, Montclair, Crestmont, and Allendale, among others.

If you’re not sure which district you live in, you can type in your address here to find out.

While both D4 candidates have experience in Oakland politics, having served on different commissions and boards, neither have held an elected office.

We interviewed both candidates to see how they would go about addressing several of the big issues on the minds of D4 residents, including public safety, fires, and housing.

Nenna Joiner

Nenna Joiner is a small business owner in Oakland and Berkeley. Credit: Courtesy of the candidate

Joiner has made their experience as a local business owner, nearly three decades in Oakland, and status as a political outsider the centerpieces of their campaign. For Joiner, well-functioning neighborhoods that are clean and feel safe for businesses, families, and children are what the next D4 councilperson should be focusing on.

“The most pressing issues that Oakland is facing are public safety, blighted infrastructure, housing, and the unhoused,” said Joiner (who uses the pronouns they/them). 

Originally from Las Vegas, Joiner has resided in Oakland for the past 27 years. Since 2009, they have owned and operated Feelmore, an adult store with locations in Oakland and Berkeley. 

Joiner said Oakland currently has the tax dollars to improve its neighborhoods—Oakland voters in 2016 approved Measure KK, a bond that provided $600 million for street improvements, public facilities, and affordable housing projects—and that as councilmember they would see to it that those revenues are used to address the needs of D4 residents.

Joiner said the city could also be doing more in partnership with other government agencies at the county, state, and federal levels to address issues in Oakland, including fires. Seasonal wildfires have long been a concern of residents in District 4, which includes much of the Oakland hills. Fires are increasingly also a concern in the lower areas of the district. In the past month alone, there were several fires in District 4 along I-580, some caused by arson and others still under investigation. Joiner lives across the street from the most recent fire, which occurred on Oct. 3. 

“We have to address the vegetation management and getting PG&E and Caltrans to come in here to do a lot of the work that they should be doing,” Joiner said about vegetation along the freeway that helps spread fires. “Something is not being done.”

When asked about housing, Joiner said that accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, could help meet the city’s high demand but that it’s currently too difficult to obtain permits to build them. Oakland’s City Council is currently considering a ban on building these types of backyard cottages in certain areas of the Oakland hills, including large swaths of D4, that are considered high-risk for fires. 

But Joiner noted that many homes in D4 neighborhoods like Laurel have the advantage of being built on oversized lots that could potentially accommodate more of these small rental units. As a councilmember, Joiner said they would work to bring information resources to D4 residents, so they would have a better understanding of what they need to do to obtain a permit to build an ADU. 

On the topic of public safety, Joiner believes there’s a role for both traditional policing and more community-driven alternatives like the city’s new MACRO program, where non-police personnel respond to certain non-violent emergencies. Joiner said they’d support the MACRO pilot program being made permanent and extended to 24 hours.  

“I think the main thing that we’re all saying is, everybody wants peace,” Joiner said about the polarizing nature of Oakland’s ongoing public debate over policing. “You want to make sure your community is taken care of. You also want to make sure that those who fall into trouble have places to go as well and are welcomed back into the community.”

Oakland currently employs 681 police officers. Joiner believes the ideal number would be around 1,200. Last December, the City Council approved two police academies for next year and hired a recruitment firm to help fill vacancies.

Joiner also wants to find viable ways to help longtime Oaklanders stay in their homes. Many Oakland seniors and longtime residents, they said, own homes but lack the resources for proper upkeep. And even if they were to sell their homes, said Joiner, the profits are still often not enough to allow them to purchase a new home within the city.

Property crime in Oakland, they said, can compound the financial stresses that many Oakland residents are already feeling. “It’s hard for people to replace things. When you have an older car, and your catalytic converter gets stolen, you got to replace it. That’s more money out of your pocket,” they said. 

If elected, Joiner wants District 4 voters to know that they’ll be a consistent advocate for their concerns and that their decisions will come down to what’s needed, not what’s politically expedient. “I just want to be someone who looks at the data and takes the vote, yes or no. And not abstaining from the decision for people to vote me into office,” they said. “You can lean left or right, but if you don’t vote, that matters a lot more.”

Corner of 35th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard, part of District 4. Credit: Amir Aziz

Janani Ramachandran

Janani Ramachandran is a social justice attorney. Credit: Courtesy of the candidate

Ramachandran, like Joiner, believes public safety is top of mind for many voters in District 4. “The number one issue is public safety. It doesn’t matter where in the district you’re living; people feel unsafe in their homes and their neighborhoods,” said Ramachandran.

A social justice attorney who was born and raised in the East Bay, Ramachandran ran a competitive race last year for the state Assembly’s 18th District seat against eventual winner Mia Bonta.

A former Oakland Public Ethics Commission member, Ramachandran feels she’s well qualified to take on another of her core issues: a lack of accountability and corruption in city government, which she said ranges “from blatant schemes to others that are quieter.”

Ramachandran was involved as a citizen in the city’s recent redistricting process, often participating in the public comment portions of public meetings. “There was a lot of political gamesmanship that went on [with the redistricting], a lot of economic interests from both in and outside of the city,” she said. 

When her home in the Bartlett neighborhood was redistricted from D4 to D5, she moved to a new residence in D4 in order to run for the open council seat.

When it comes to public safety, Ramachandran believes there aren’t enough police offers to respond to calls. When a convenience store in the district, Dimond Market, was burglarized in September, Ramachandran spoke with the owners and learned that they’d waited two hours for police to arrive. The store, which is located on MacArthur Boulevard and Maple Avenue, remains closed. 

“The bare minimum with public safety has to be a fully staffed [police department] with [beat cops] walking and biking in commercial corridors,” she said. “I don’t mean we need to become a militarized Oakland. But this is a pragmatic intervention to the wave of crimes happening right now.”

She said she also supports the MACRO program, but not at the expense of reducing the effectiveness of Oakland’s police force. “I am not for defunding the police—that’s not one of my platforms or goals,” she said. “If there are things that can be redirected out of police, either temporarily or permanently, let’s identify what those are to safely happen.”

Ramachandran said she has taken calls on mental health and domestic violence hotlines in Oakland and understands the calls for non-police interventions. “I know there’s a major appetite for people all over the city to have other kinds of nonviolent calls addressed by non-police staff,” she said. “If MACRO expands in the way that’s originally intended, I think it can be really impactful.”

When it comes to housing, Ramachandran wants to see more of it available at all income levels—but especially more affordable housing. One way to achieve that, she said, is by building on empty lots in District 4 that are close to public transit. One such lot at the corner of High Street and MacArthur Boulevard was recently approved for senior housing to be developed by AMG & Associates.

When asked about the threat of fires in D4, Ramachandran said she’d like to see more done by the city to prevent vegetation fires like the recent ones near I-580 and larger fires that have the potential to occur in the hills. Oakland is currently in the process of creating a vegetation management plan, but its status hasn’t been updated since last spring. Ramachandran said she’d work with the city’s planning commission “to make sure that that plan is implemented and then fully funded.”

Applying for state grants through agencies like Cal Fire to remove dead trees and vegetation, said Ramachandran, could also help. So too could providing more information to residents about emergency preparedness, she said—not only for fires but for earthquakes.

As the D4 councilmember, Ramachandran said she would work to raise money from the state and federal governments to help Oakland address its problems. “Federal funds are going to create jobs,” she said. “This is going to be so important for an economic revival coming out of the pandemic.”

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.