Oakland mayoral candidate Allyssa Victory Villanueva Credit: Amir Aziz

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.

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 Allyssa Victory Villanueva, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California who works on police reform and other criminal justice matters. A native of Oakland, Victory has lived in every City Council district. She mostly grew up in North Oakland’s Bushrod neighborhood, but her family lost their home when she was in high school and she was homeless and food insecure for a time. Victory is a graduate of UC San Diego and UC College of the Law, San Francisco. In 2021, Victory was elected to be a delegate of the CA Democratic Party to represent Assembly District 18, which includes Oakland. She currently lives in the Laurel District.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen examples of tension between the City Council and the city administration. As mayor, you would be the city administrator’s boss. How would you help the City Council and the city administration work together more effectively?

I support [Measure X], which will reform some parts of our government, and I do support the council having more authority over the city administrator, [including the] authority to direct, but also just authority to get actual information and reports to meet with their staff, which is not what’s been currently happening. It’s not really authorized by our city charter.

[Editor’s note: Measure X would establish Councilmember term limits, require two hearings before Council places certain measures on the ballot; count Councilmember abstentions and absences as “no” votes in determining whether Mayor may break a tie; provide Public Ethics Commission discretion in setting Councilmember salaries; authorize the Commission to set City Attorney and Auditor salaries.]

I support those changes. Even absent a charter [change], I will work to make sure we have joint meetings where [councilmembers are invited] to briefings from departments, where we’re having public dashboards and meetings about progress from our departments, and implementing legislation that council has already passed.

I know that the Encampment Management Policy has gotten us into a lot of debates and even litigation, but there are many other pieces of legislation or policy that our council has already passed, even some unanimously, that our city administration has delayed for years, has modified, or has underfunded. I want to be a leader that acts with transparency and integrity, especially with other elected leaders and people in City Hall that I have to get things done with.

Regarding the last budget that was written by the mayor and approved by the city council with their amendments: Was there anything specifically that you would have cut from that budget? And was there anything left out of that budget that you feel should have been in there?

Seeing that we had to make emergency adjustments on things like the Head Start funding—those are all things that could have been identified and better implemented in our budgeting. So when we have to make emergency adjustments, it shows that we weren’t doing a full assessment or having forethought of what needed to be funded in the upcoming years. 

Those are just some specific things I’d like to do more efficiently: being clear about what we need to fund and not having emergency meetings a month or two after we just worked on the budget. I want to ensure we’re also actually implementing the recommendations of our Budget Advisory Commission, as well as our city auditor.

A lot of folks are aware that we have high unfunded liabilities. I have worked as a labor attorney in pension law and enforcement, and [I know] those are really serious. [Editor’s note: Victory is referring to the cost of retired city employees’ pensions and healthcare, which hasn’t been fully funded in advance or by gains in the stock market where pension funds are invested and will require future contributions by the city.]

We need to fund some of those for our retiring, aging population of workers. Our city auditor issued a report with very specific recommendations we’ve not seen discussed or implemented.

Mayor Libby Schaaf has done an exceptional job of raising vast amounts of money from private sources to fund some of her biggest initiatives rather than going through the city budget. What do you think of this approach? Is it good for Oakland? Would you continue doing this as mayor? 

It’s not a sustainable approach, right? It’s depending a lot on philanthropy or on charity. And these programs are usually time-limited when they roll out. It’s always more sustainable when they’re funded through our own public dollars when it’s an actual line item in our budget housed within our city departments.

I know that [private money] has been used when we have our own deficits or there’s an unwillingness, I would say, to budget certain resources. But I’m really going to be focused intentionally on having public control and using public resources for our public services.

Oakland is thousands of units short of meeting its regional and state goals for affordable housing. As mayor, what concrete steps would you take to expand affordable housing in Oakland? And please share how market-rate development and social housing would or would not fit into your plan.

I’m not about trickle-down housing policies. I don’t believe that all of the luxury market-rate housing we’re developing will make any dent in the lack of affordability or the housing crisis we are experiencing.

It is designed for people who have luxury- and high-level incomes, people who are even recruited from outside of our city to take these new units. And a lot of those are already approved and permitted. We need to make sure that we are hitting our affordable housing goals.

Why set the goals? Why have so many meetings, so many committees focused on it if we’re not actually building and prioritizing [affordable housing] over private and market-rate developments? 

A lack of political will is kind of at the center of the extreme disparities [we’re experiencing] because there is a lot of funding that we’ve seen come in for building affordable housing. There are partnerships that we have with nonprofits, with land trusts, but also with the county and other agencies, and still, our homeless population has grown over this pandemic, [even though we’ve] had access to historic emergency funding for our budget.

I want to develop and build more housing and build it with public control. That’s part of why I’m running on public banking. I advised our city in San Francisco back in 2014 on how to create a municipal banking system to fund our own housing developments and to invest in local and small businesses. Public banking is supposed to replace the functions that a redevelopment agency used to play, but they were outlawed at the state level by Gov. Jerry Brown.

[Editor’s note: Redevelopment was a state program that allowed cities to dedicate the growth in future property tax revenues to projects like commercial and housing development. Oakland used redevelopment to make land available to developers to build commercial complexes and affordable housing, but the program was ended in 2012 by then-Governor Jerry Brown.]

[A public banking] system is now moving forward with different state legislation and a state study where I think we have an Oakland representative who is seated on that body. There is a feasibility study at the county level with Public Bank East Bay. But it would be publicly controlled so we can invest and build social housing and public housing. 

That’s how I see us being able to meet our goals and be more accountable to them and not depend, again, on philanthropy or private developers to build affordable units because they often are not profitable. I support increasing our impact fees so that when developers don’t want to include affordable units, which they should, we can build with the money those fees would generate.

[Editor’s note: impact fees are payments developers have to make for each market-rate unit they’re building if they choose not to include any affordable units in their projects. The city can use the fee money to subsidize other affordable housing developments later on.]

Do you have any thoughts on the proposal to set up an Enhanced Infrastructure Finance District to build affordable housing?

I need to see a very specific proposal. But I do support EIFDs. They’ve been around since 2014, so I don’t know why our city hasn’t been moving forward on any proposals or districts before now. If there was an actual comprehensive housing plan similar to our housing element, then there should be the EIFD that [helps us] to accomplish that. 

It will be harder for me to do that solely as mayor, and that’s something that I would work with the council to accomplish. But I do support both mechanisms. I know public banking may take a lot more to get up and off the ground, but it could have us in control again of financing, lending, and supporting other business.

What programs and policies would you support to get some or all of Oakland’s 5,000 unhoused residents off the streets? And how would you balance the pressing safety concerns around the numerous fires and other hazards associated with camps with pleas from the community not to criminalize the people living in them?

This is one of my top issues. I’ve been homeless in this city with my mother and my younger sister. I still serve on a regular basis at our encampments and talk to the people living there. A lot of them are workers. They’re people who just returned from incarceration, but their whole family and network are here. And they’re people who look like me, right? We have an equity issue with a majority of our unhoused people being Black when our city’s only 20% Black. So there’s some intentionality around pushing people out of their homes and providing nothing and just hoping that they will not become rehoused in this city. 

I want to stop our Encampment Management Policy. I opposed it at the beginning when it was going through committee and when it was in council. I opposed it as inhumane. I opposed it as a redlining policy that was about management, right? It’s there in the name. It’s not about solving our crisis. It’s not about reducing it. It’s not about housing people. It’s about managing encampments. It is redlining where they can exist and how they can exist. There was never any actual enforcement capacity; even our city administrator had commented on that during the debates over the policy. Where are all the staff visiting hundreds of encampments to regulate how people use propane tanks? There aren’t [enough staff].

We have to expand our shelter bed capacity, which is what we declared a local emergency about in 2018. We cannot clear any encampments or evict encampments unless we can offer people shelter. That’s a constitutional right. [Editor’s note: under the Martin v. Boise decision in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court, a homeless person cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of an alternative shelter.]

I want to invest our dollars into actually housing people, expanding real housing for human beings, and using our power to commandeer hotels, which every city has had with Project Homekey, through funds provided by our state. [Editor’s note: Oakland has purchased several buildings through Project Homekey, a state grant that helps local governments acquire hotels, SROs, dorms, and other facilities for use as homeless housing.]

Our city auditor just released an audit saying we’ve [spent] around $70 million [on homeless services] but we have no tracking, no accountability. We cannot claim that even one person has been permanently relocated because there’s a lack of basic transparency around how we’re spending our dollars. So I’m willing to use our emergency power that is held by the city administrator and the mayor. I’m willing to use our emergency funding and all of our existing funding sources to actually house folks, to reorient our staff to not implement [the encampment management policy], but to find pathways to real housing.

One of the biggest challenges that business owners say they are 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?

I would need to partner with our business communities that are impacted. I’m not a business expert and I own that. This will require a lot of partnerships and listening to our commissions about who is impacted and what solutions are actually going to address the problem.

But we are home to an international port. We should be able to address supply chain issues right here at the start of when supplies even come into our country. 

I also wanna help us shift to a more local economy, a circular economy, to ensure that people have local farmers that they can rely on, to plug in businesses with each other that can use materials that they each provide, and to help people understand what that even looks like—a more communal, circular reliance on Oakland.

Residents we’ve surveyed have noted the lack of large grocery stores with fresh produce in Oakland, particularly in West and East Oakland. How will you work with the councilmembers representing those areas to create more grocery stores with better, healthier options? 

I’ve experienced it firsthand. I used to live in District 7 and I had gone to San Leandro to do my shopping. I want to increase development, especially in West Oakland and East Oakland, especially in our tourist district right next to our international airport, right next to our Coliseum, and all of our attractions. There should be something as basic as a store, especially with all the hotels there, especially for our actual residents who live in this neighborhood and are paying taxes. 

I appreciate that some initiatives have partnered with liquor and corner stores to have a fresh produce box. Those could go even further to have full farmer’s markets and produce partnerships. I support having farmers’ markets and fresh produce markets, even if they’re not connected to an actual grocery store. And again, not necessarily bringing chain grocery stores, but investing in local grocers and having at least fresh produce available.

I tried to work on that with Councilmember Sheng Thao as soon as I moved to District 4 and not much progress was made, and then we became kind of opponents in this race. So we haven’t been focused on working on implementing that together. But I did help with Akoma Market and the Black Cultural Zone, being part of their work groups for years before they launched their market. They’re an excellent model of combining healthy produce access with clinical healthcare resources and culturally competent community resources.

Allyssa Victory Villanueva speaking at a mayoral candidates forum in August. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Coliseum and Arena are major entertainment hubs for the city. If the Oakland A’s move to Howard Terminal, or if they leave the city entirely, that’ll leave the complex without an anchor tenant. What do you envision for the future of that site and the real estate around it?

Our residents have envisioned so much. We had a whole “Coliseum City” plan around 2015, right? There have been so many different town halls by Oakland United or different churches around what people want, and they say they want more nightlife, more clubs, more bars, and more things for their kids to do in the summer. They want to open up the coliseum space for things like sideshows so that they’re not on our residential streets. I support bringing more publicly funded and publicly accessible entertainment and recreation to those spaces.

It is partially Oakland-owned land. Right now, we have an encampment there, right? For our youth and our vulnerable elders, part of us housing people is being able to use our recreational and tourist space for what it’s intended for. But I do support building housing that’s connected to the massive transit hub that’s there and having real nightlife for adults and for youth.

It’s not gonna be empty, right? The A’s still have a lease to play there until 2024. They are having to negotiate to purchase the county’s interest. I expect that they will propose their own development project at the Coliseum site that is separate from Howard Terminal, and we also have an exclusive negotiating agreement with the African American Sports and Entertainment Group, which plans to bring a WNBA team, have a soccer field for our Roots team, and also some type of film or movie industry. 

I would welcome all and any type of large development on publicly owned lands that could change the face of our city.

The city of Oakland currently spends several million a year on the arts through the city budget, supporting arts nonprofits and institutions. Do you think this is something the city should do, or are there bigger priorities?

It’s absolutely something we should do and should do more of. We should partner with artists. We should make sure there’s art accessible to our youth in their schools. Art is a part of healing. It’s a part of our history.

I like that there’s the Black Liberation Walking Tour in West Oakland. We need a citywide mural tour in the way they have in San Francisco and other places. Art helps give a sense of belonging, right? It gives a brand to our city. It lets people know this is a space they can come to be creative or to get really unique entertainment. Those are things that we cannot lose in our city, that make us unique, that make people from all over the world find their home in our city. Arts and culture are so powerful on many different levels, even as a tool for education, and we should invest more heavily in them.

Our youth have already shown they’re extremely creative with things like Youth Radio. I’ve been to several different youth festivals from our high school students. They have powerful stories to tell when you give them pen and paper, a microphone, or a camera.

We should continue our investments. I’m committed to partnering with our school district and other leaders to ensure that people all over the city have access to arts and arts programs. I’m a product of it myself. I can’t really do much—it looks like a two-year-old took a pencil to the wall—but I still do a lot of art as recreation for myself.

Speaking of public education, Oakland schools are run by OUSD and charter school organizations. But Mayor Libby Schaaf has still made education a big part of her platform through efforts like Oakland Undivided and Oakland Promise, and the Oakland Teacher Residency Program. What role should the mayor play in Oakland’s public education issues? 

Our schools are in crisis. I went to Berkeley public schools because my mom was a teacher, and she said, “Oakland’s a mess.” And that was decades ago. So this has been a cyclical problem that, yes, [as mayor], I don’t have control over OUSD’s decisions or their budget, but they’re still serving people in my city, right? Families do not see this as “the mayor versus the school board.” 

We need to have a lot more communication, regular partnerships, and meetings. I want to have more education consortiums with not just our school board but our county education office and leaders about what is going on with the crisis of [school] closures, with the crisis of racial equity in terms of our performance metrics, of Black students being at the bottom levels of almost every performance metric. We have to partner together to ensure that the city is doing its job of funding before and after-school services, investing in things like arts and things that may be extracurricular to some schools but that we think every youth should have access to. 

We need to clean up our parks and recreation centers. Some of them are entirely inoperable. Some of our libraries are not safe and clean. I want all of our youth and families to be able to access the city services that contribute to an environment of learning. 

The mayor’s role must also be about transparency; many people are asking questions. I can use some of my political relationships to ask for more town halls and more public meetings with our school board leaders. I also can take concerns myself as a representative of the people of this city. I can comment myself and have presentations to the school board—things I don’t see our mayor working on as intentionally [compared to her] private partnerships. Again, those are helpful to our residents and students but may not necessarily be sustainable.

The most sustainable is long-lasting partnerships and programs funded by our district, city, county education office, and state. We have to be united in lobbying the state for the education funds that we are owed. [California] has a $97 billion surplus and half of that has to go to education. We need to be advocating together to our state officials and elected leaders about how we need to improve, not necessarily our budgeting, but also our curriculum and our performance for all of our students.

As mayor, how would you improve street conditions in Oakland, and do you agree or disagree with the way the city has been approaching this in recent years?

I live by San Antonio Park and can barely drive out of my house. The current mayor ran both times on fixing our potholes. We’ve done pothole studies. We understand where the issues are through [SeeClickFix], where people are affirmatively posting that these are the problems. Part of the problem is that maybe not enough elected officials even live in these parts of the city and understand how serious it is.

The investments we’ve seen in recent years at Oakland’s Department of Transportation have been successful and we need more of them. We need a department focused on street repair, street safety, and even traffic enforcement.

There are some streets that should be taken out of commission, to be honest. We have a very car-focused city. We also have a lot of public transit but sometimes, even buses struggle to get around. We had a Slow Streets program that started during the pandemic. It was just caution signs and cones saying, “Don’t drive down these streets.” And people would simply move them, at least in the neighborhoods where I work.

Those were missed opportunities to really assess, comprehensively, whether there are unsafe streets we could take out of commission, in such disrepair that maybe they need to be shut down. Are there streets with high collision rates where we need to immediately stop people from driving or triage the area to ensure that there are protected crosswalks? 

There are very basic things that I don’t feel we are doing that, when we have hearings, public comment is very serious and strong about. We’ve started seeing so many vigilante people making their own crosswalks. People are protesting and making it clear that drivers are dangerous and have killed neighbors. 

I don’t think we’re doing enough or have high enough investments in those departments that are supposed to be repairing and maintaining our roads. I want to make more investments in OakDOT as well as Public Works. We already know where all of our potholes are. We need to actually fix them and stop putting bandaids on them, where we’ll have to fix them again in a few years. And I want to serve with equity. There are some streets, my whole life, that have been undrivable. It is unacceptable to have entire streets that you cannot use safely for decades. But I do support, again, more bike-safety infrastructure, non-car travel, and expanded public transit as well. 

So you would, in terms of spending, prioritize building new infrastructure for biking and walking rather than improving the roads for safer driving? 

Absolutely. My budget will have greater investments in non-car travel, green space, and shutting down some streets entirely. Also, partnering with school district members. There needs to be a policy of safe zones, drop-off zones, or protected crosswalks around every school. A lot of the traffic incidents we’re seeing are around schools.

You’ve never held public office in Oakland. Why did you decide to run for mayor now, as opposed to starting with a more accessible position on the City Council or the school board?

I’ve been asked that a lot. I don’t think I’m lacking in understanding the inner workings of our government, as the only candidate in this race who has a law degree concentrated in government, who’s been advising our City Council members, our mayor, our commissions since I was a law student. I’ve also worked inside our city attorney’s office and think my recent battle to get on the ballot showed how much I know our city charter and our city code, even better than some folks in City Hall.

I already train our commissioners and our committees. The last training I gave in my hat as [an ACLU attorney] was for our Police Commission. I’ve served as an expert to our Police Commission on revising our departmental policies—I know we’re gonna be talking about public safety in a minute—but I don’t think I lack any understanding of what our charter says or how our mayor should be working.

I’ve lived in the city and understand all our current government’s failures and our current administration. I’m an elected [Democratic Party] delegate to this assembly district. I’m a Civil Rights attorney that works across our entire state, advising not just this city but cities in 40 of our 58 counties. 

I’m also not really into stepping-stone politics. It is a lot to run for office. It’s a lot of time. It’s money, energy, time away from my family, and other obligations. And then it’s a four-year term at minimum. So I don’t want to waste people’s time in a seat that I am not passionate about, where I cannot make the change that I intend to make. City Council is a legislative body where I would need votes to get anything passed. And as we’re seeing, three council members are running against me for mayor because they understand that they cannot accomplish much on the council. They cannot accomplish much without a willing mayor who is going to partner with them.

Shifting now to public safety: Oakland has 681 police officers right now. Is that too few or too many? Can you explain your thinking on the issue of police staffing? 

There’s no magic number, no perfect number of police that’s going to make everyone safe and eliminate all crime, right? I would never sell the public on a lie like that. As a police-practices attorney, there’s no policy data supporting a magic number. 

Our city has Measure Z, a minimum staffing law, and we have budgeted that staff. And right now, we have less than that number, as you’ve said. [Editor’s note: Under Measure Z, Oakland must maintain minimum staffing of 678 officers to continue collecting a parcel tax that funds OPD and other services. Oakland’s City Council has budgeted for 752 officers but the city administration has had trouble hiring people to fill these jobs.]

We’ve budgeted enough staff and I’m committed to filling the vacancies that we have, but I don’t think at this time, with the performance metrics that we’ve seen from our currently staffed department, that we don’t need to expand or increase any staffing. I would fill the vacancies in our police department.

As mayor, what would be your plan for addressing gun violence? And what do you think is working or not working about the city’s current efforts? Is the Ceasefire program working?  Should the Department of Violence Prevention be getting more resources? Or do we need an entirely new approach?

It’s a little bit of both. Ceasefire is successful for certain types of residents and at-risk folks because it’s more targeted to people who already are known to be in these conflict circles. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s appropriate for everyone or addresses all the types of gun violence that we’re seeing throughout our city. We should maintain the current investments in it and it should be held by the Department of Violence Prevention.

DVP is one of our newest departments and I don’t think it’s been given enough of a chance or investment to see exactly what type of impact it can have. But from what they’ve already done, partnering with nonprofits and trusted community organizations to run the Town Nights event series—those have been successful and shown that violence prevention doesn’t need to involve police or criminalization. It can be higher investments in positive, safe events and offer things for our young people to do. We have models of really successful, large community events that are safe.

There are specific situations and areas where we know there’s higher gun violence. I’ve witnessed two shootings. There was a shooting over Labor Day, which was just regular for all neighbors. There are a lot of people who’ve been living with gun violence for decades, for their whole life.

But to be specific on my plans, I want to maintain Ceasefire. I want to invest more overall in our Department of Violence Prevention so that they can have more and expanded programs, especially since we’re seeing success from what they’ve already rolled out. I want to have gun buyback programs. I think the last one was maybe in 2019 and they’re very successful, but we need more money to fund them. People may not be trying to give up their expensive firearm for a $50 gift card. And again, we need to be partnering with people who are already trusted in our communities, who are working with juveniles and at-risk youth, and who are working with formerly incarcerated people.

I’m committed to partnering with our district attorney, public defender, sheriff, and people I can already work with, legislate with and give policy advice to on a regular basis about charging policies, diversion, real help, and services, especially to victims. I feel like we leave that out, too, by focusing on only catching the perpetrators. People are traumatized and hurt. Even if people don’t die from gun violence, they may be permanently injured.

We have to have higher investments in partnership with our county, victim services for gun violence, education, and prevention. We have to have a model of violence interruption and of non-violent communication that’s from our own city itself.

You’re a staff attorney with the ACLU, an organization that has in the past focused on problems of policing in Oakland. So we probably don’t need to tell you that the Oakland Police Department has had troubles. If you were mayor, what would be your plan to continue reforming or transforming OPD?

I want us to get out of our federal oversight and settlement agreement, but some of those same types of monitoring, reporting, and tracking should be held now by the Oakland Police Commission. [Editor’s note: OPD has been under federal court oversight since 2003 following the Riders case in which a squad of West Oakland officers was accused of beating up and planting drugs on people. The department remains under oversight until it completes a list of reforms contained in a document known as the Negotiated Settlement Agreement.]

I want our police commission to remain a real independent body, for them to have the full staffing, resourcing, and independent counsel that they need to do their jobs. And I want to implement things that our Reimagining Public Safety Task Force has recommended to help shift non-criminal tasks and responsibilities away from our officers so that they can focus on the job that they are supposed to be doing.

I want to implement recommendations from our city auditor and our Budget Advisory Commission. It is alarming to know that every year our police are spending millions over what was budgeted in overtime. There aren’t any checkpoints that are built-in when we know this has been an issue. So I want common-sense solutions that are already documented, that were already researched, that were already supported. I helped, again, as an expert on the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, and I know that every one of those 80-plus recommendations was tied to data, to a full analysis with examples of how they were implemented in other cities or counties.