Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has officially filed for re-election as the 50th Mayor of Oakland. Considering this is the 50th Anniversary of the Oakland A’s in Oakland, and the 50th Anniversary of The Big Mac, maybe the Mayor’s timing is just right. The fact is, Libby faces a field of challengers that, put together, adds up to the largest number of candidates in Oakland’s history – 16 people. And the question of if that number will hold past August 11th aside for the moment, the fact is, it points more to a perceived problem with the Mayor and the direction of the City of Oakland, itself.
Let’s get this out of the way: Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf deserves a second term. That’s not to say this blogger will not use his media systems to tell the story of the Oakland Mayoral Election 2018, but consider this: the last time Oakland had a two-term Mayor was now-California Governor Jerry Brown from 1998 to 2006. Since then, the late, great Ron Dellums, then Jean Quan, have all been one-term Mayors of Oakland: Dellums refused to run for a second term, and Quan lost her bid for re-election. Now, it’s Libby’s turn at bat.
And the last time we had a stable City Administration was when the title of City Administrator was called “City Manager,” and Henry Gardner, then Craig Kocian who was his subordinate, was at the helm – from 1981 to 1997. Yes, we had a “council-manager” form of government, but we also had the three-term John Redding, then three more terms for Lionel Wilson as Mayor (and Oakland’s first black mayor), and then Elihu Harris for two terms.
After the voter-approved Measure X, and the new “stong mayor” format, only Jerry Brown has survived re-election for a second term. And since the “stong mayor” format, Oakland has had not a few, but a revolving door of city administrators. In 1997, Robert Bobb was hired as City Manager, but then, and with the brokering help of then Oakland City Attorney John Russo, joined with Jerry Brown to become his City Administrator. But Bobb had big dreams for Oakland as a city that had a downtown baseball stadium and hosted a Super Bowl – two objectives that clashed with Governor Brown’s unsually abrasive-at-the-time attitude toward sports, failing to see it as economic development, and running counter to the national trend of sports being used as a jobs creator then, and now.
In 2002, Brown fired Bobb over that basball stadium issue, and although the two remain friends to this day, the termination started a long period of management instability in Oakland. Since Bobb, Oakland has had Debra Edgerly, Dan Landheim, P. Lamont Ewell, Deanna Santana, Fred Blackwell, Henry Gardner, John Flores, and now Sabrina Landreth. Regardless of the time they actually served (which varies considerably) the average comes out to be two years for each of them, a true revolving door of management leadership in Oakland.
Under such change, and combined with the one-term Mayor problem, lower level staffers leave and projects favored by one mayor and city adminstrator and staffer often get lost under another combination of mayor, city adminstrator, and staffer.
This was true for Oakland Coliseum City. Coliseum City was the idea of architect Frank Dobson and developers Steve Lowe and Bob Lesty in 2004, and moved forward by Mayor Dellums in 2009 (and the focus of a special task force I was on, that year). Coliseum City was originally billed as the home for new stadiums for the Oakland Raider and the Oakland A’s, it’s now seemingly de-emphasized as a whole, as the City of Oakland under Mayor Schaaf has allowed the Oakland A’s to have an exclusive negotating agreement on the development of the Coliseum land, or the creation of a new home at Howard Terminal. And if it’s not that, then its the reports of the idea to sell the Coliseum land to a tech company like Tesla. Under a new Mayor, we will certainly have a different set of priorities for the Coliseum, and questions about the future of Coliseum City. At some point, we have to stop this constant instability because it leads to nothing getting done at all.
At this point, opponents to Mayor Schaaf will certainly talk about how they believe they’re better leaders and can point the City in a better direction. The problem is that all of them are lesser known than Mayor Schaaf, and have not produced and promoted plans to solve Oakland’s problems. While I pointed to Coliseum City, that’s far from Oakland’s most pressing problem: the homeless and the giant cost of living is. We all know this, but what mayoral candidate has done anything to fix it? It’s one thing to say “if you elect me, I will do this and that” but a good candidate does the “this and that” now, by example, to help solve the problem and gain political visibility.
The person who comes closest to that, and poses the best challenge to Mayor Schaaf, is Cat Brooks. But, while Ms. Brooks has a 400-person army of volunteers (and she’s gaining on Mayor Schaaf in Google Trends data) she’s still spending more time as acting a protestor than as a candidate – at some point, she has to get out of that mode and into one that’s going to cause her to win against Libby, and right now, I can’t see that happening Cat’s heart is in the right place, and she’s a wonderful person – but her desire to be at every tragedy has never historically resulted in a win. Cat has to build her own machine and events and happenings. And most of all, Cat must overcome the constant fear of success that plagues many African Americans (myself included). If she does that, she will sail – but the clock is ticking, fast. Cat has to realize that when she’s running for Mayor, it’s not about Libby, it’s about her.
And that brings me to this point: all of the challengers are running as a reaction to Libby, and not because they have an incredible plan for Oakland, itself. Pick the candidate: Brooks, Saied Kamarooz, Jesse A Smith, and many more – all of them have something negative to say about Libby, but no real expressed and detailed and broadcasted plan for Oakland.
Meanwhile, we have Libby Schaaf. Yes, Libby has made a ton of mistakes, but she has a large list of successes and does care, and is trying to get better on a daily basis. What Libby must do is remove a tendancy toward a kind of stubborness that winds up being dismissive of the ideas of others who care about Oakland. It’s a kind of “Libby, versus….” thing. That works on the national level, where she’s cleaned Donald Trump’s clock politically, but it only serves to gain an army of people who feel like she doesn’t hear them. Just talk to or read the messages of any of the 15 other candidates for Mayor of Oakland.
If Libby wants to sail into re-election, she has to bring Oakland together. She has to go back to her root message of “made in Oakland” and stick to it. She has to rebuild her coalition, and not be defensive. And she has to rid herself of any voice that tells her to keep battling perceived enemies, rather than working to build bridges and friendships.
Oakland needs this – it’s far too divided. And its City Council has come to reflect the kind of petty, personal differences that have come to define life in Oakland – just read Nextdoor. As one Oaklander, a Lyft Driver who has lived her for 10 years observed in our talk on Wednesday as he was driving me to North Oakland, “The city used to be more inclusive, and that’s gone now.” And Oakland now has as its residents some who, 10 years ago in 2008 or beyond, would have never considered living in Oakland because it was as a “black city”, as if that’s a bad thing.
On top of that, the City’s plagued by a growing mental health problem: Jennifer Schulte AKA “BBQ Becky” told Kenzie Smith that she purchased Lake Merritt for $5.7 million, and it was private property, then she proceeded to harrass him for over three hours. Libby has to so three things: 1) mix a new batch of Oakland’s special sauce, because the current cache has been soured by racism (which, in itself, is a mental illness), 2) solve the homeless problem, and 3) build economic development for the poor, not just the rich.
With all of that, Libby’s got some work to do, and so needs another term to finish doing it. Libby’s my first choice for re-election, and as the person who told her to run for Mayor in 2009, and then fooled everyone that she was going to run in 2010, I am not goiing to turn away from her. But there’s a rank choice voting second choice, and for that spot, Cat Brooks fills the bill. The third rank choice voting spot is open, for now.
Let’s do the candidates forums! Let’s talk Oakland!
Zennie Abraham is the CEO of Zennie62Media