We’ve 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. (And note that we decided not to interview candidate Peter Liu and provide another platform for his dangerous and hateful rhetoric.)
This interview is with John Reimann, a retired carpenter and former recording secretary of the Carpenters Local 713. Reimann is a socialist who believes that meaningful change—in Oakland, and elsewhere—will only come about from a working-class social movement that’s built from the ground up.
In recent years there have been several examples of tension between the City Council and the city administrator. Oftentimes the City Council doesn’t feel like the city administrator is enacting the policies and laws that they’ve approved. On the other hand, the city administration often feels like City Council is overstepping or loading up its plate with too much work, things like that. If you were elected mayor, how would you repair this relationship?
Well, I have a different view of the city administrator and that whole role. I think that oftentimes we see appointed administrators like that from the city level all the way up to the federal level, we see them as playing the role of dodging popular discontent around certain decisions. And so I do believe that it’s elected officials who should run the city from start to finish. Of course, the question is, how do those officials get elected? And on what basis? The fact of the matter is that here in Oakland, the elected officials—if you look at campaign donations—you can see they’re basically run by the real-estate developers. So the whole method of running the City Council and administering the city has to be transformed.
Regarding the last budget that was written by the mayor and approved b the City Council with amendments, was there anything in it that you objected to, that you would have cut as mayor? And anything left out that you feel should have been included?
Number one, we should start taxing the Port of Oakland. If I’m not mistaken, the Port of Oakland is the only port on the West Coast, or at least in California, that is not being taxed. That is a huge potential source of revenue.
Also, you cannot solve all the budgetary problems for the city without transforming the whole tax structure in the state with both corporate taxes and property taxes on the wealthy. In order to transform that, that’s not going to come from the top. It needs a movement from below. To put it quite bluntly, a working-class movement, to force those changes. Because, over the years, we’ve seen that the tax structure has been changed to benefit the rich and the corporations. That tax structure has been changed by Republicans and Democrats alike.
It’s definitely true that the tax structure is more regressive now than it has been at the federal level, and for some local taxes. But again, looking at the city of Oakland’s budget and putting aside those bigger changes—was there anything specifically left out or not included in the last budget that you would have fought to include or remove?
I think there should be a massive transfer and also an addition of money put into locally and democratically elected committees of public safety, to by and large replace the role of the police in communities. Just for example, in my neighborhood—I have lived for many years in the neighborhood that used to be known as Funktown—I’ve seen different instances of violence out in the streets: people getting into fights, situations where some man might be beating up a woman. And in general, I would not call the police on that because someone can end up getting killed. So if we had genuine community-run and community-elected committees of public safety, that would be the alternative for things like that.
Oakland is thousands of units short of meeting the affordable housing goals that are set by the region and state, the so-called RHNA goals. Would expanding affordable housing in Oakland be a goal of yours as mayor? If so, what concrete steps would you take to do that? And how would market-rate development or social housing fit into this plan?
First of all, we should understand that what they call affordable housing is largely a fraud—because what it’s based on is the rent that is affordable to the average income in whatever area we’re talking about. But what we see in many parts of Oakland, including my own neighborhood, is gentrification [causing] average incomes to go up. So what was affordable yesterday for an average working-class person—let’s say a single mom who is working maybe 50 hours a week just to support her kids—what was affordable to her yesterday is not longer affordable because the average income has gone up. So of course, I support affordable housing. But as I said, it’s largely a fraud.
Is there something the mayor could do? Do you think it’s the role of the mayor to restructure the system of eligibility then, for affordable housing? Or given those constraints, what would your plan be?
Well, here we get into what’s the fundamental difference between myself and every single other candidate. I’m not the “vote for me and I’ll set you free” candidate. All of history shows that the only real changes that we’ve seen in this country have come about from a movement from below—not from some great mayor or senator or president producing those changes. I came up during the Civil Rights era, and that’s living proof. Same with the labor movement in the 1930s. So that’s a long way of saying that it’s not a matter of the role of the mayor, per se, but as a mayor or even a candidate for mayor, encouraging and helping to organize that movement from below that would demand and force into existence massive funding for publicly run housing, publicly owned and run housing. Because the whole housing-for-profit model has been just as much of a disastrous failure for people as healthcare-for-profit has been.
Within that ground-up framework, are there specific programs and policies you would support or movements you would encourage around getting the 5,000 unhoused people in Oakland off the street? And how would you balance pressing safety concerns like fires at homeless camps with the pleas from many in the community to not criminalize the people living out there, who are trying to survive?
You know, I’ve been at various different protests against rousting people from homeless encampments, most recently down there at Wood Street. I don’t believe in simply rousting people from what amounts to their home—we call them “homeless” but those are the only homes people know. Yet I also understand that there are a lot of problems around those homeless camps. I often think that if I was living in the streets like that, I might be causing a lot of those problems, because the mere fact of having to live in the street like that plays a massive role in destabilizing people.
So we need to provide housing, through public-owned housing. And in the meantime, we need massive funding for services for people that are living in those encampments. You need social and psychological services and all of that, but also you need sanitation services. There’s a big homeless encampment not far from where I live and I see mounds of garbage out there in the streets. Why? Because there’s no place for people to leave their garbage. So sanitation, providing bathrooms and washing-up facilities, and also cooking facilities, we need all of that. We need funding for all of that, and that gets back of course to the issue of the budget, which I was talking about earlier.
So your focus would be more on cleaning and supporting and stabilizing the conditions at those camps versus making people leave?
Right. And again, we have to understand that no mayor can bring that about by himself or herself. It needs that movement from below to demand these things.
One big challenge business owners are dealing with is the rising cost of goods due to global supply-chain issues. Have you thought about any local solutions to this national problem?
A central, fundamental reason why I’m running for office is to try to clarify the fact that there are no local solutions. Or, put it this way: The local problems are just an expression of national and, in fact, international crises. What you’re really referring to as I understand your question is inflation. One fundamental part of inflation is the massive increase in oil prices. Well, that’s an international issue. Even at the national level, the president cannot affect that. So to put it more clearly, what you’re really talking about is an economic crisis of capitalism itself. So, once again, we need a movement from below to transform the entire system.
There are some local issues and local means of helping to alleviate these problems. For instance, you have the issue of rents. You also have the issue of costs—of getting capital for small businesses. Those things, to a certain extent at the city level, you can deal with that. But you need a budget that enables the city to deal with those issues and for that, again, we get back to that question that I’m talking about. You need a movement from below. And as we’ve seen, here in Oakland, it’s the real-estate interests that control the Democratic Party, so there are not going to be any means of resolving those problems.
Residents we’ve surveyed have noted the lack of large grocery stores and fresh produce in Oakland, particularly in West and East Oakland. How will you work with councilmembers in those areas to create more grocery stores with better, healthier options?
When I was a kid growing up in New York City on the Lower East Side, we had a huge, city-run market—it was like a crazy grocery store—where different local vendors had little fruit stands, there was a butcher, and so on. I remember going down there with my sister and my mother once a week and she would do the shopping. We need things like that here in Oakland. If you had extremely low rents or possibly no rents at all, then those small fruit stands and so on would be more than competitive with the giant food chains. That’s what I would like to see. Take, for instance, the old, long-vacant Oakland arena there at Lake Merritt—that would be one potential place. And there are all kinds of vacant lots and buildings throughout the city where city-run [grocery] centers like that could be set up.
Both the Oakland Coliseum and Arena are huge entertainment hubs. Whether the A’s leave and move to Howard Terminal or leave Oakland altogether, what do you envision for the future of that site?
Those sites could be, number one, shopping centers in the way that I’ve pictured them. You’d also obviously have to have public transit to make those arenas easily accessible to people. And also they could be centers for the arts. I would not support simply having them be new sources for luxury housing and expensive condos and hotels and so on.
Also, by the way, we should remember that there was a proposal for a gambling site not far from the airport and we should be on the lookout for something like that again in the future. It’s a horrible idea. I mean, you could build concentration camps that would bring tax revenue to the city. But in the first place, it’s been proven that all forms of gambling like that are essentially a tax on the poor and workers. So it’s a very regressive form of taxation. And are we going to say anything that brings tax revenue to the city are things that we support? People should be on the lookout so we can stop it dead in its tracks [if it ever again gets proposed].
Oakland spends a few million dollars per year on arts and culture through its city budget. Should the city be funding the arts directly or are there bigger priorities?
Oh yeah, of course, we should be supporting it directly. Of course. Both in terms of providing residencies and artists’ studios and providing public entertainment where different musicians and entertainers can perform, and not just expect them to perform for free. Baseball players don’t perform for free. So why should artists, who really add some cultural value, have to? And I’m not talking about just once a month at First Fridays, but regular sources [of entertainment] in city parks, or close down a city street in different neighborhoods, and so on.
Public schools in Oakland are run by Oakland Unified and various charter management organizations, but Mayor Libby Schaaf has always made education a priority, with programs like Oakland Undivided, Oakland Promise, and the Oakland teacher residency program. What role do you think the mayor should play in Oakland’s public education issues?
First of all, I should make it clear that I’m no Johnny-come-lately to this. I’ve been involved in the protests against the closing of Oakland public schools, which is the other side of the coin of the privatization of public schools. I’m totally against closing public schools. They say, “Well we have to close this school because the enrollment has gone down.” Well, nine times out of 10 that’s [a school] in an area of tremendous economic and educational disadvantage. My view is that what we should fight for is, if the enrollment has gone down, then good! Then let’s have smaller class sizes. That’s what I would encourage us to demand of the board of education, which as I understand it there are a number of members of the board of education who are in favor of privatizing. I don’t know Libby Schaaf’s position on it, but I know from other things that she’s certainly helped grease the wheels for that.
So as mayor you would use your position to push for the district to stop closing schools?
That would be one thing, yes. And you know, I hope this isn’t going too far afield, but I remember back in the 1960s, in the days of the Civil Rights Movement, I was going to a study group of high school students in Harlem who were studying history and current affairs. They were inspired to do that just by the movement itself. So we see how any struggle to really change society, inspires people, especially the youth, to learn. We have to have a curriculum that would provide the knowledge and inspiration for our young people to move in that direction. So that would be an important part of my program in regard to education, getting the youth themselves involved in developing that curriculum.
The roads in Oakland are not in great shape, and our city experiences a higher number of serious collisions than most. What would you do to improve conditions in our city for pedestrians, bicyclists, and vehicles?
We have to, in the first place, improve the roads. In my neighborhood, I know people who’ve had to have their cars realigned from hitting a pothole and have had flat tires. So we need to spend the money on that. We also need to spend money on mass public transit. I believe that it should be free and so those are a couple of specific things. And within that context, I think we also need to improve the bike lanes and expand that even further. If you had a really true mass-transit system, then the use of private automobiles would vastly decline.
The city itself doesn’t currently operate a transit system—that responsibility rests with the electeds governing Alameda County Transit and BART. Do you feel that the mayor could still play a role in expanding public transit? If so, how?
Well again, none of these things is going to be done by executive fiat from above. We have to remember that the city and this whole area had the old Key System after World War II. What happened? General Motors bought it up and shut it down. So we see the influence of private manufacturers on civic policy. I’m sorry if I sound like a broken record, but again, it takes a movement from below of the organized working class and through their own political party to transform this. The mayor can help develop that and help make sure that there’s money that goes from the city to help finance a public transit system.
You mentioned you want more bike lanes. What do you say to residents in Oakland, and there are plenty of them, who believe there are already too many bike lanes and the roads should be reconstructed and redesigned to simply improve the street conditions for driving and not for biking?
I think we need both. And as I said, if public transit was more convenient and also free, then it would not be so difficult to have to maneuver your way around the bike lanes. I use a bike sometimes, but at my age, I can’t do it very much. So I think you need both. And we cannot allow ourselves to get into this battle between different interests that are really one and the same, that serve the same community of people.
Do you have a sense of what the most dangerous roads in Oakland are? Based on your experience, what do you see as the priority roads that need to be fixed, in terms of safety?
In my immediate neighborhood, E.18th Street is a real problem. 14th Avenue is a real problem. And even on my immediate streets, E. 22nd Street, E. 24th, people go whizzing up and down them like they’re on their way to a fire. None of these things are just technical problems. It gets into a whole issue of the mass psychology of millions of people, including tens of thousands here in Oakland, which hinges on the question of traffic safety also.
You’ve said that you wouldn’t be a mayor who does things by fiat. But the mayor does have a lot of executive power—they get to write the budget, and direct spending and staff through the administrator to enact policies that could make real changes in people’s lives. Since your focus seems to be more on movement-building, why run for mayor?
Well in the first place the mayor can’t just establish a budget by fiat. They have to get the City Council to approve it. Then you’re talking about a whole other layer of city government. And let’s not close our eyes to what’s happening at the national level where from 2016 to 2020 you had a president that created a national movement. Of course, it was a racist and entirely reactionary national movement, but it had a huge impact on all levels, in the United States and globally, including here in the city of Oakland. As I said, I’m not the “vote for me and I’ll set you free” candidate. If you don’t speak to that issue of political movements and the needs and interests and degree to which the working class is organized, if you don’t speak to that issue and make yourself perfectly clear on that—and I don’t mean you, personally, but if any candidate doesn’t—then what they are really doing is accepting the status quo.
On the issue of public safety, Oakland has about 681 police officers right now. Do you feel that is too few, or too many? What’s your view on police staffing?
I think the cops in Oakland are vastly overpaid. I forget the exact figures, but they are making way more than they should be. In any case, you can’t deal with that issue in isolation. I know the issue of crime and public safety is a huge issue for a lot of people. If you just say “Oh, we need more cops,” or “Oh, we need fewer cops,” in and of itself that leaves a lot of things unsaid.
Those candidates who say we need more cops, they’re really heading in the direction of making Oakland a fortress with a cop on every corner. Also what they’re leaving unsaid—let’s not forget this—is that several studies have shown that fascist groups like the Proud Boys and others have massive numbers of police in them. These are racist, fascist groups. Incidentally, I don’t use that term freely—I never used to talk in those terms. But that’s the fact today. And I think it’s absolutely guaranteed that there are members of OPD that are involved in those groups, or at least sympathetic to those attitudes. So when you say that we need more cops, you’re covering over that aspect of what policing means.
And when you say we need fewer cops, period, and just leave it at that, then you are ignoring the very real problems that we face, that ordinary working-class people such as myself face here in Oakland. So you have to bring into the equation the question of: How do we provide public safety for people? What I’m saying is we need publicly funded and democratically elected committees of public safety that will replace the police in the different communities. That’s the only way you can really answer that question, in a balanced way.
Can you tell us more about what these public safety committees would look like, using the example of gun violence? As you know, many of the murders that happen in Oakland never get solved, and gun violence is a huge problem in the community.
A partial example of what it looks like is the old Black Panther Party. You know, again, gun violence is not an issue that exists in isolation. I just barely missed, by a matter of a few minutes, a shooting here around the block from me. I’d just gotten inside my house. I could have easily been in that crossfire.
Here’s another example of what it could look like: Years ago, there were a couple of young guys walking down the street. This is when Funktown was an active gang area. They’re walking down the street with rifles, and one of them pointed his rifle at my head and said, “What the hell are you looking at? I’ll blow your mother****ing brains out!” Now, the other guy that was with him, I used to be out in the street playing basketball with him, and he said, “Hey, leave youngblood alone, he’s cool.” So that’s a small individual example, of how a lot of this violence can be diffused. If you are known in the community, if you had a committee like that, that was known as, “These are people that are cool,” that’s a way to diffuse a lot of this gun violence. The alternative is to have a cop on every corner and have the cops shoot anybody that might possibly be carrying a gun. In other words, fortress Oakland.
The Funtown gang—you’re talking about Harvey Whisenton. That was a long time ago.
Yeah, it was. I’ve been living in this neighborhood since the 1970s. My corner used to be their place of business.
It still feels a little bit fuzzy, in terms of how you’d go about trying to reduce gun violence. You’re saying that if there are people in the community, if they know each other better, maybe these things can be…
No, no, no, that’s not what I’m saying—it’s not just having a nice feeling and kumbaya and all that stuff. I’m saying you have elected committees that are composed of and have direct roots in the community itself. And the people in those committees would patrol and walk the streets 24/7 and be on call to defuse these situations. I do think that with a lot of instances of violence, people really can be talked down. In fact, I’ve done that myself in other instances as well. If you’re known and people trust you, you really can talk people down.
What are your thoughts about the Department of Violence Prevention? It’s a new department. Have you been following that work, and does it get at the direction you’re talking about?
I have neighbors talk all the time about the dangers of violence and that sort of thing. I’ve never heard any of them talk about the Department of Violence Prevention. And I’ve read a little bit about it, but again, this is not going to be resolved by executive fiat or by something from on high. If you have a movement from below and out of that you have elected committees, that’s how it’s going to be solved. The Department of Violence Prevention, you know, it’s probably better than having a cop on every corner with a pistol on one hip and taser on the other and a billy club in his hand—I’m sure it’s better than that—but from what I see, it’s not present in the lives of my neighbors.