We invited nine of the 10 people running to be the next mayor of Oakland to sit down with us for in-depth interviews, asking them mostly the same questions. Such as, how many police officers does the Oakland Police Department need? How would they help the City Council and the city administration work together better? How would they fix Oakland’s potholes? We developed these questions with help from hundreds of Oakland residents who answered our election survey this summer; thank you to everyone who weighed in.
Oakland mayoral candidate interviews
Settle in for a long read; these conversations are weighty, befitting the office these candidates seek. They’ve been edited for length, relevance, and clarity, with some added fact-checking and background reading from us. We’re publishing them over the next week or so; note that we decided not to interview candidate Peter Liu and provide another platform for his dangerous and hateful rhetoric.)
This interview is with Ignacio De La Fuente, who served District 5 on the Oakland City Council from 1992 until 2011, including roughly a decade as council president. De La Fuente, an Oakland resident for more than five decades, has said he chose to come out of political retirement because he believes the city has become a worse place for people to live due to a lack of political will to enforce city laws. De La Fuente has espoused a “back to basics” approach to local governance that would prioritize public safety.
Over the years, we’ve seen several examples of tension between the City Council and the city administration. As mayor, you’d be the city administrator’s boss. How would you help the council and the city administration work together better?
The same way I did when I was on the City Council for 21 years. I proved my ability to work with the majority of the council and was elected by my peers as council president. Why? Because I managed to build relationships with respect and with the corporation of the majority of the City Council, and with the administration.
I believe that the mayor has, as the highest elected official in the city, the responsibility to make sure the administration and the elected policymakers work together to accomplish their goals, represent citizens, and get this city moving in the right direction.
Regarding the last budget that the mayor drafted and the City Council approved, with amendments: Was there anything in that budget that you strongly disagreed with and would have excluded if you were mayor? And is there anything that you feel was left out of that budget?
The allocation of resources for public safety [was missing]. What are the priorities for this city? To me, public safety and homelessness are the priority. I probably would’ve allocated more resources to law enforcement and for homeless camp cleanups.
Oakland is thousands of units short of meeting its affordable housing construction goals set by the region and the state. Would expanding affordable housing in Oakland be a priority of yours as mayor? Can you share some of the concrete steps you would take to do that? How would market-rate development and social housing play a role in your plan?
First, I have to say that Oakland has actually provided more affordable housing units than the entire county. [Editor’s note: According to the Association of Bay Area Governments, from 2015 to 2020 Oakland build 29% of all affordable housing in the county.]
I believe it’s the responsibility not only of Oakland to provide affordable housing, but the rest of the county. So as mayor of Alameda County’s largest city, I will push the county and push other cities to do their share. I don’t think that Oakland can do it all.
Number two, Oakland doesn’t have what it used to have decades ago, which was housing funds. We have no specific resources or money for housing. So you have to use market-rate housing and market-rate developments to generate revenue and to build affordable housing units. [Editor’s note: Oakland has dedicated funds for affordable housing through its impact fees, Measure KK, and state and federal grants, however, the city no longer can use redevelopment, a state program that existed when De La Fuente was on the council which allowed Oakland to use future growth in property tax revenue to pay for large scale projects, including affordable housing.]
Are you referring to impact fees? Or can you describe how the market-rate developments would fund affordable housing?
Through negotiations with developers—because I believe we already have impact fees—so I think it’s more the ability of the city to facilitate and to make sure the development works, and at the same time that we use that leverage to get developers to do more, especially for affordable housing units.
And again, I believe that Oakland should not be the only city that is required to fulfill our responsibilities of building affordable housing.
What policies and programs would you pursue as mayor to get the 5,000 unhoused people off the street in Oakland? And how would you balance some of these pressing safety concerns, like fires associated with homeless encampments, with pleas from the community to not criminalize people trying to survive out there?
You used the word “balance.” I believe that’s what we need to do—balance the needs of the homeless population with the needs of our residents and our businesses.
I believe we have the moral responsibility to help as many people as we can, especially when it comes to homelessness. But not at the expense of businesses or the expense of residents and other people who cannot enjoy this city and take their children to school. I was in a Zoom meeting a couple of months ago with 200 people in East Oakland, and the cries for help when it comes to homeless encampments in their neighborhood are real. So balancing and ensuring that we enforce the laws we have [is important].
We cannot allow Oakland to be the only city in the county that’s assimilating thousands of homeless individuals. Prioritizing and balancing is the question. [Editor’s note: Oakland bears a disproportionate burden of the homelessness crisis; the city has one-quarter of the county’s total population but half the county’s homeless people are Oakland residents. Both the county and Oakland saw similar increases of between 22% and 24% in homelessness from 2019 to 2022.]
I believe in a multi-agency approach. The reality is that homelessness and mental health is the responsibility of the county and the state, not the city of Oakland. So as the mayor of the largest city, I will push the county to do its job, do a better job, of cooperating with the city—a multi-agency approach with results—not just pouring money into the system.
We just read from the auditor that last year the city spent $69 million on homeless services and we have nothing to show for it. So concrete, results-based approaches, I believe, are necessary to prevent what’s happening.
Can you name one or two specific policies or programs on the books that you would pursue enforcement of or introduce to right that balance?
Again, I think that the city has not pushed the county to do its job, to be candid. Again, it’s the county’s responsibility.
When it comes to a specific approach, I’ve been talking to some members of the board of supervisors. We cannot do everything at the same time, but targeting two or three of the major encampments in the city of Oakland—set up a timeline, 120 or 180 days, to work with these specific encampments. The [Encampment Management Policy] allocates resources and relocation places. That’s what we need to do. The city already purchased many hotels downtown and many rooms for single occupancy. All of that, I believe, requires real commitment and enforcement.
Sometimes, people that are living on the streets do not want to follow any rules or want to do anything—they want to stay where they are. And I think it’s our job to make sure that at the same time that we offer services and work with them, at the end of the day, we have to enforce the rules in order for us to really start cleaning up the city. And I believe homeless encampments have created a very difficult challenge for businesses and residents. I think at some point we have to enforce the rules and make sure that people follow them.
One of the biggest challenges that business owners say they’re dealing with right now is the rising cost of goods due to global supply chain issues. Have you thought about any local solutions to remedying this national problem?
Honestly, I don’t know if any city can remedy this national problem, but I believe that cities are responsible for responding to some of the crises we face. And I believe that in Oakland if you ask businesses, which I do all the time—because I’m out all the time—public safety is one of the biggest challenges right now. I know that the high cost of goods is a challenge, but what’s even more challenging for them is the safety of their businesses and the constant break-ins and robberies.
So first, I will make sure that the businesses not only feel safe but that we provide that vital service, as local government.
I think Oakland has a reputation that it takes too long to get [building and business] permits, and it takes too long to get anything done in the city. So streamlining the process and being facilitators versus obstructionist is the answer.
In our reader surveys, residents have noted the lack of large grocery stores with fresh produce in West and East Oakland. How will you work with the councilmembers in those areas to create more grocery stores with better, healthier options?
Very good question. I think that we have managed to increase the number. I think that when Jerry Brown was the mayor and came out with the idea of attracting 10,000 new residents to downtown Oakland, that actually became a reality.
[Editor’s note: Brown’s “10K plan” came up short during his tenure, but under later mayors Jean Quan and Libby Schaaf, building picked up downtown leading to the addition of thousands of new apartments.] That means the demand for grocery stores, especially in neighborhoods like West Oakland or East Oakland, is real.
I think the challenge for Oakland right now and the main reason that I’m running for mayor is the public safety issue. Businesses are leaving, they are not coming to Oakland. And they’re leaving because they know that the city is not doing a good enough job at protecting them. Creating a safe environment and attracting businesses is absolutely vital.
We cannot do what this council is doing. The progressive tax on the November ballot, in my opinion, will kill jobs. When we are the highest-taxed city in the Bay Area, it’s more difficult to retain and attract businesses. So I’m opposing the tax. I actually signed the argument against the progressive tax on the ballot because I believe it will be bad for Oakland.
So creating a level playing field, creating a city that is facilitating instead of obstructionist, and that is providing a safe environment, to me is the key for us to help small businesses in the city of Oakland.
Regarding economic development, a political action committee has been set up by a local developer and a hedge-fund manager from Los Angeles. They want to build a coal export terminal on the waterfront near the Port of Oakland.
They have put $100,000 into this committee. It’s an independent expenditure committee—so we understand that it’s not coordinating with your campaign—but it is supporting you for mayor. What is your position on the coal export terminal?
I don’t know if you checked or not, but actually, we voted on that terminal. I was still on the City Council back in 2010, I believe it was when we actually approved that terminal. So I voted for it.
I am a very pro-development person. I believe that we have to increase our tax base, versus raising taxes. If you check my record of 20 years on the City Council, I was always a very pro-development person. And not just the Army base—we’re talking about almost every project in Oakland—because I believe increasing our tax base and generating jobs is necessary. So I do support our ability to use our resources like the Port of Oakland to attract businesses.
I also believe there is enough technology available to deal with any [pollution] those businesses create. So to answer your question, I supported it before and believe in development. In my opinion, there’s no city that can survive without retaining and increasing its tax base and promoting businesses. So I do.
The city’s argument, when it tried to stop that project, was that the environmental impacts would be severe. That the terminal would blow coal dust into East and West Oakland, worsening asthma for the communities that already experience a disproportionate pollution level. Do you feel that’s not a concern?
The city came out with that [argument] after they approved the project, right? So why did they approve it? Why did these people vote for it, if that was the case? You know, it’s very easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback.
California is one of the toughest states in the country when it comes to environmental protection. We have so many agencies that it’s very difficult for businesses to even function. I believe that those state agencies are responsible for establishing standards and ensuring that people live by the standards created for different industries. If we don’t, then it’s our fault and it’s the agencies’ fault. But I do believe that the people who are now opposing [the coal terminal] are the same people that voted for it.
They would have said that they weren’t aware at the time that coal was going to be shipped through there. But that is definitely a controversy. And the developer says that that was disclosed at the time, and that’s been litigated.
I’m correct, and I can tell you that everybody knew. Now, did things get hot afterward, and did people change their minds and get wishy-washy? Yes. Again, I’m one of those people that built a reputation of, what you see is what you get. Do I make all the right decisions all the time? No. But do I live by them? Absolutely.
The Coliseum and the Arena are huge entertainment hubs for the city. If the Oakland Athletics move to Howard Terminal, or if they leave the city entirely, that’ll leave those facilities without sports tenants to anchor them. What would be your plans for those properties?
Thank you for that question. You know, I was on the Alameda Coliseum Joint Powers Authority Commission for 20 or 30 years. It’s about 150 or 160 acres of land owned by the city and the county. Unfortunately, the county made the dumb decision to sell their half to the A’s—and they haven’t even paid for it yet. But I believe that that site has got to be developed—the whole site, not no half the site, obviously. So as mayor, I will try to reconsolidate those 150 acres.
I believe that it’s the best piece of land in the entire country. I’m not just talking about California. You have every mode of transportation there. You have an airport within five minutes. It’s the best possible site for major development. Oakland has no retail. Oakland has no bowling alley. Oakland lacks many, many things that can be in that particular location. I can guarantee you that that is one of the most attractive sites, anywhere.
As mayor, I will use the office to attract development and negotiate the best possible development on that site, create jobs and a tax base, and retain the buying power of our residents. The fact is that Oaklanders spend all their money in Emeryville or in San Francisco or Walnut Creek, but not in Oakland. Why? We not only have no grocery stores but no major retail. Why is that? Because of all the issues that we face, and there’s no leadership. You need a salesperson. You need someone that has the willingness to spend the time going and knocking on doors and bringing businesses here. And that’s what I will do as mayor of this city.
Oakland currently spends several million dollars a year from its budget on the arts, supporting arts organizations and institutions. Is that something you support? Do you think the city should be spending money directly on the arts?
Absolutely. Art and culture are ingrained in who we are. And in my opinion, art and our diversity of culture in Oakland help minimize our challenges.
Not only will I continue supporting the arts, but I will also attract more private investment and more champions for the arts. So the answer is yes, absolutely.
While public schools in Oakland are run by OUSD and charter school organizations, Mayor Libby Schaaf has made education a big part of her tenure, through her support of programs like Oakland Undivided and Oakland Promise. What role should the mayor have in Oakland’s public education?
I wish that the school district was in the mayor’s office, but it’s not. Obviously, we know that OUSD has its own board, its own elected officials, budgets, and everything else. But I think the mayor, as the highest elected office in the city, has the responsibility to promote, to do whatever they can, to help our residents get the best education possible.
I think some of the programs that Libby and the city are working on are absolutely wonderful and I will continue supporting that. But we also know that Oakland and OUSD have a relationship. We share soccer fields and facilities, and there are many other parts of education where the city shares responsibilities with OUSD. I will continue supporting that.
When I got elected to City Council back in 1992, I was a little bit naive as a councilmember, and I thought I would have more of a say about education in my district. Unfortunately, I found out real quick that it was not that simple. So I shifted my goal to build a couple of new schools in District 5—Ascend and Cesar Chavez Learning Center—to ensure that children in the district I represented would have schools as good as those they have up in the hills and in some other places.
So I will continue doing that, with the understanding that obviously I’m running for office because I believe that public safety and the cleanliness of the city are my priorities, and everything else will come after that. But parents will be able to walk their children to school without being afraid of going through encampments and other aspects of public safety they’re concerned with.
We know that many of Oakland’s streets are poorly maintained. They have potholes. Some are poorly designed. On others, there are not enough lights. How would you improve road conditions and traffic safety in Oakland?
Back to the basics. We forgot what the basic responsibilities of local government are: police, fire, streets, and infrastructure, which is a hundred years old in Oakland. You’ve got to allocate resources and you have to make sure that we actually do the job. That’s what we are required to do.
And it’s not only the potholes. One of the challenges we see every single day is that people don’t respect the traffic laws, period. Especially not in Oakland, where a red light doesn’t mean anything anymore. We are not enforcing any rules on the roads, which is why it’s getting worse and worse and worse.
[Editor’s note: Oakland is a large city with many miles of road and lots of dangerous traffic violations, but there are relatively few officers on patrol at any given time, until recently there was no dedicated traffic squad, and most officers spend most of their time addressing non-traffic related calls for service. Over the past few years, OPD has issued between 2,000 and 3,000 traffic tickets per year. It’s unclear how many red light, speeding, and reckless driving violations there are in a total year, but it’s certainly many more than a few thousand.]
It’s the same thing with homelessness. You know, we used to have, I think, 1,500 homeless 10 years ago. Now we’re talking about 5,000. For the same reasons. If we do not enforce the laws on the streets and on roads, people get used to doing whatever they want to do.
That’s exactly what’s happening in Oakland. These things have become normal. Not only car break-ins but the ability of people to run red lights and not abide by traffic laws is one of our biggest challenges. That’s why we have people run over by cars, especially on our main roads, International Boulevard, and Foothill.
Back when I was on the City Council, we were actually more aggressive when it came to enforcing the rules on the roads. Nowadays, Oakland is not enforcing anything. That’s one of the challenges, one of the realities that many people don’t even want to recognize—that we are not enforcing the laws, period.
Could you be more specific about your philosophy around traffic enforcement? Do you think that we need more or fewer cops? Do we need a deputized citizenry? Do we need more technology?
Do we need more cops? Absolutely. And we need technology. I’m the biggest promoter of giving police the tools and the technology that is available in order to do their job. License plate readers, cameras, you name it.
We absolutely need more police officers. We used to have a traffic unit. We don’t have it anymore. [Editor’s note: OPD Chief LeRonne Armstrong announced the reinstatement of the traffic unit on Sept. 27.] I think that’s one of the reasons why we have the escalation that we have. So hire more police officers, reinstate a traffic unit that will be accountable, file reports, enforce the law, and show people that we are actually enforcing the law and change people’s attitudes. Otherwise, it won’t happen.
I mention enforcement because I believe that’s the biggest problem that we have in Oakland—that everything has become normal. People don’t want to recognize it. That’s fine. I know because I talk to people, and I know how they feel about it.
Outside of enforcement, Oakland has spent a lot of money in recent years on new infrastructure. And people in Oakland have strong opinions about what’s more important: building new infrastructure for biking and walking or improving roads for driving. Where do you fall?
You know, when you look at Telegraph Avenue, when you look at Foothill Boulevard, we can try to emulate some of the cities that are different than we are, and build bike lanes on every road and have a bunch of [rental] bikes on the sides of the roads in areas of Oakland that nobody uses. So, no, I’m for improving the roads and improving the flow of traffic.
Since public safety is the main issue you’re running on, we want to drill down into the details a little bit more. Oakland has 681 police officers right now. Is that too few or too many? And can you explain your thinking on the issue of police staffing?
Oakland needs a minimum of 750 to 800. So my first priority, to set the tone, would be that we are going to hire more police officers. But to me, it’s even more important to give them the political support for them to do the job, so we can attract officers. You know, it takes a year and a half from recruiting to actually putting a cop on the street, and it costs a couple-hundred-thousand dollars a piece. We need lateral transfers and we need to reinstate the tone in Oakland that instead of attacking the police, we’re going to support them to do their jobs right.
And to me right now the biggest challenge is, officers are demoralized. There is no support for them to do the job. So I will give police officers the tools available for law enforcement so they can do their job, maximize the resources, and provide political support publicly as mayor, for them to do their job of protecting the citizens and protecting businesses.
In 2010, when the city’s budget was heavily impacted by the Great Recession, you were part of the group of councilmembers who negotiated with the Oakland Police Officer’s Association, and you were a proponent of laying off about 150 police officers. If the city hit a hard budget patch again and you were mayor, what would you say to voters who might think that you would lay police officers off again?
Well, first, that’s not correct. I never proposed to lay off 150 officers. Secondly, I think that it was Mayor Ron Dellums, Councilmember Jane Brunner, and myself who sat down for days and negotiated a new contract with OPOA.
Police officers were the only group in Oakland that did not pay the 13% contribution to the pension. At that time, with the budget crunch, when every other union and department was contributing to the pension and taking pay cuts, it was essential that everybody share the pain.
So we sat down to negotiate a contract with OPOA. They were going to pay the 13%, and in the end, they changed their mind and we had to lay off some police officers to balance the equation. Did I want to do that? No. They made that call when they didn’t want to pay the 13%.
So will I be a tough negotiator with them and every other union? Yes. Should everybody share the pain when times are hard? Absolutely. So I think it’s again a question of how willing we are—that during good times, people get a good increase in pay, and when it’s tough times, all of us have to bite the bullet and share the pain.
You mentioned giving officers the tools they need to address crime, including license plate readers, which have been a divisive issue in the city. You’ve also supported youth curfews and gang injunctions in years past. Has your thinking changed about those approaches or do you still think they are viable public safety policies?
To me, the situation at the time demands whatever policy or action you might take. You are absolutely correct. I supported gang injunctions back in the day. Why? Because the gangs were expanding so rapidly and the shooters were getting more brash and people were caught on the sidelines and people were caught in the middle of those shootings.
So sometimes you have to do whatever you need to do for your job, to protect your citizens, to make sure that people are safe. Sometimes you have to use tools that are maybe not acceptable to some.
I believe every tool should be available to local government in a time of crisis, absolutely. And I believe we are in a time of crisis now. That’s why I’m running.
When it comes to gun violence, what would you do as mayor to help prevent it? Are there programs currently operating like Ceasefire, the Department of Violence Prevention, that you would support or expand? Anything you would eliminate or do differently?
Again, sometimes emergencies and crises demand different responses. I support Ceasefire, I support some of these programs that are absolutely working. ShotSpotter was one of the things that we used to try, to give police the tools they need. So I will support that.
There are cities that are doing things dramatically different when it comes to policing. I think technology, and some of the things that you mentioned—license-plate readers and cameras and the ability to see who’s coming into your city, all those things—some people oppose them, but I believe they’re necessary sometimes.
And that’s one of the reasons why I believe I’m the best person for the job at this time. I will take whatever actions are necessary to fulfill local government’s biggest responsibility, which is to protect our businesses and people.
You were on the City Council from 1992 to 2011. During that timeframe, Oakland saw its highest and second-highest periods of gun violence. You’re running as a law and order candidate who will reduce crime. Why should voters expect you to be the person who can come in and solve this problem?
Well, to be fair, you’ve got to go back 20, 30, 40, or 50 years, right? I mean, this is Oakland. Crime spikes in Oakland have been going up, down, and sideways for many, many years.
I was there, as you remember, I was there as a City Council member. Being a mayor is totally different. As a councilmember, you are one of eight. You need consensus. You need to have the majority, which often requires you to compromise on issues and policies and tools.
As mayor, you are the highest-ranking elected official, you are the administrator’s [boss]. You have the ability to direct the bureaucracy to actually manage your resources and manage the agencies that are under the mayor. So it’s a little different, it’s apples and oranges, the way I see it. Totally different, but obviously, I hear what you’re saying.
Mayor Libby Schaaf has raised vast amounts of money from private sources for big initiatives and programs, rather than seeking the council’s approval and going through the city budget. What do you think of this approach?
Obviously, I think every city needs that infusion of philanthropic resources. Do I think it’s a good thing to bank on that? Absolutely not. I believe that as mayor, you’ve got to have the ability to work with the policymakers to build consensus. And if you are not capable of that, then it’s more difficult for you to do your job.
So to answer your question, I will continue raising philanthropic resources for issues in Oakland, because I think it’s healthy and it gives corporations and gives people the ability to participate and help.
But more than anything, I can tell you that as mayor, I will have a relationship with the City Council, the same way that I did when I was there for 20 years. I won’t be a mayor who spends their time fighting with the City Council. I’m a consensus builder. I did it before and I’ll do it again.