Column: Undercurrents: Race and Gender in the Oakland Mayoral Race

by J. Douglas Allen-Tayor
Friday May 05, 2006

In an odd passage that perhaps reveals more about his own thoughts than it does about the campaign itself, San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Christopher Heredia gives his version of what Oakland voters may do in the upcoming mayoral race (“Oakland mayor rivals each woo voters in own particular ways,” April 30).  

“More than half of Oakland’s voters are women,” Mr. Heredia writes, “and many of them may well lean toward [Oakland City Councilmember] Nadel. A large percentage are African American, and conventional wisdom has them lining up behind [former U.S. Congressmember Ron] Dellums. The same conventional wisdom has the city’s Latinos, particularly those in [Oakland City Councilmember Ignacio] De La Fuente’s base in the Fruitvale district, voting for the City Council president. So the race,” Mr. Heredia concludes, “may well come down to voters in the Oakland hills, where residents have felt increasingly cut off from city services and attention under Brown.” 

There is considerable confusion generated in this paragraph published in the area’s leading daily newspaper. Mr. Heredia offers no polls or interviews to back up his “may well” and “conventional wisdom” speculations on how women, Latinos, and African-Americans may vote in Oakland. 

But the key item in Mr. Heredia’s speculation is the “voters in the hills” passage. Reading the paragraph again, someone with no knowledge of Oakland might surmise that there are no women, Latinos, or African-Americans living in Oakland’s hills, since Mr. Heredia deals with them elsewhere. Who does that leave, in Mr. Heredia’s mind? Asian-Americans, who make up a significant portion of Oakland residents, but are not mentioned in the Chronicle article? Does he not count them because he has decided that race is voting for race, and there is no Asian-American in the mayoral race? Quién sabe? 

Also unmentioned in the Chronicle article, pointedly, are white folks. Interestingly, while Mr. Heredia thinks that women vote for women, Latinos vote for Latinos, and blacks vote for blacks—at least in the Oakland mayoral race—his inclusions and exclusions in his article leads to the conclusion that he doesn’t think that white folks automatically vote for white folks. Does he only believe that race-based political appeal only applies to the darker races? Or has he noticed that Ms. Nadel is a woman, but has perhaps missed the fact that she is white? 

In any event, race and gender have always played a role in American politics and always will, within our lifetimes. There are probably some Latinos who will vote for Mr. De La Fuente because they believe that the time has come for a Latino mayor in Oakland, just as there are some women who will vote for Ms. Nadel because they believe the same about a woman mayor. But given the enormous political gains for Latinos in California in recent years—the Lieutenant Governor and the mayor of the state’s largest city are both Latino—as well as for women—the two United States Senators from California as well as several Bay Area members of Congress are women—this is less likely to be an issue than it once would have been. 

African-Americans in Oakland have had two double terms of African-American mayors under their belts—Lionel Wilson and Elihu Harris—and in Jerry Brown’s first run for mayor, gave him votes over several black candidates in about the same percentage as the rest of the city. So while race and gender will probably be some factor in the mayoral race, Oakland’s recent history shows us that it probably won’t be the factor. 

Given Oakland’s fairly even division of races and gender, the winning candidate for mayor must pull together a coalition that crosses many lines. There is every indication that the top three candidates, Ms. Nadel, Mr. De La Fuente, and Mr. Dellums—smart politicians all—are each trying to do exactly that. 

But while Mr. Heredia’s article may only serve to obscure what’s going on in the Oakland mayoral race, another recent Chronicle article, that by columnists Philip Matier and Andrew Ross (“Brooks’ City Funds Helped Spur Dellums Run.” May 1), seems deliberately designed to lead us in the wrong direction. 

The Matier & Ross column speculates on whether or not Oakland Sixth District Councilmember Desley Brooks is illegally helping Mr. Dellums’ mayoral campaign with city funds. You can read it for yourself, and draw your own conclusions. My attention was drawn to a passage near the bottom that read: “[Oakland Black] Caucus leaders—along with the Service Employees International Union—… organize[d] a “Draft Ron Dellums” table last summer at a series of concerts at Arroyo Viejo Park in Oakland. 

The series was hosted by Brooks, and was paid for with nearly $20,000 from her staff account, according to city records.” Reading that passage in the context of the rest of the column, the impression is given—intentionally, one would guess—that the Arroyo Viejo concerts were set up to promote Dellums’ candidacy, and were assisted with $20,000 in city money through Ms. Brooks’ office. 

A history lesson is in order. 

The Arroyo Viejo free concerts were put together by Ms. Brooks in the summer of 2005 when East Oakland was in the midst of both the sideshow hysteria and another murder surge, during which many city officials as well as private citizens were convinced that East Oakland African-Americans could not gather for large social events without accompanying violence. Ms. Brooks decided that it was one of her duties, as an East Oakland City Council representative, to change that reality and reverse those attitudes. And so she sponsored a series of four mid-summer, outdoor free music concerts with the help of Oakland hip hop music producer D’wayne Wiggins. 

It was an enormous risk for Ms. Brooks to take, because she was out on her own on this project, and if violence had erupted—as, say, occurred at the earlier festival at the lake or several Carijama festivals—the councilmember would have certainly been blasted for “irresponsibility” in the local press, including the Chronicle. 

Instead, the four concerts were both peaceful—odd, isn’t it, that we have to always mention that when talking about black folks getting together in Oakland—as well as highly successful. In an UnderCurrents column that summer I wrote that “for two successive Sundays in late July and early August, … mostly-black families spread out blankets and set up lawn chairs and umbrellas and canopies, ate barbecue and drank red soda water (a Texas thing, sure-enough), and listened to the old school R&B sounds of Rose Royce, one week, and then Oakland’s own Lenny Williams, the week after. … And in some six hours of events over the two days, the only argument I heard was over whether Randy Moss is going to make a difference with the Raiders.” 

Oakland police, who had a heavy presence at the first of the four concerts, were almost nonexistent at the park by the fourth, realizing that Ms. Brooks and Mr. Wiggins knew what they were doing, and had things well in hand. Much of the security, instead, was handled by Nation of Islam personnel. 

And far from being a campaign event organized for Ron Dellums, you could hardly call the 2005 Arroyo Viejo concerts a campaign event for Ms. Brooks herself, even though she knew she was probably facing opposition in her 2006 re-election campaign. Aside from a banner with her name on it on the bandstand, and a brief talk by Ms. Brooks thanking people for coming, the councilmember took a decided backseat during the concerts, knowing that folks had come out to see the musical performances, not her.  

As for the Dellums table, the SEIU and Oakland Black Caucus folks were there gathering signatures asking Mr. Dellums to run for mayor, true, but in the summer of 2005 they were doing that everywhere Oaklanders were gathered, including the City of Oakland-sponsored Art & Soul Festival at Frank Ogawa Plaza that year. Unless you believe that Councilmembers De La Fuente and Nadel were appropriating money for the Art & Soul Festival in order to convince Mr. Dellums to run for mayor, you have to conclude that the SEIU organizers and the Black Caucus members were only taking advantage of public gatherings, and whether or not city money was used for such events is not an issue.  

In that context, spending $20,000 of City of Oakland money on Councilmember Brooks’ 2005 Arroyo Viejo free concerts is only a misappropriation if you think fostering a stable African-American community shouldn’t be one of the foundations of Oakland City policy. Clearly, there are some people who believe that.