Race May Become an Issue In Peralta Trustee Campaign

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday August 08, 2006

Although the candidates may not raise it themselves, the battle between Latinos and African Americans for political power in Oakland and the East Bay has already become an issue in the race for the Peralta Community College District Area 7 trustee seat. 

Alona Clifton, the two-term incumbent, is being challenged by a 31-year-old education bond consultant, Abel Guillen. Area 7 includes the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland as well as West Oakland and a portion of the East Lake and Chinatown areas. 

Four years ago, Clifton easily won re-election to her seat, winning two-thirds of the vote against a student challenger. 

“I’ve heard it come up,” Guillen’s campaign manager, Matt Lockshin, said when asked about the Latino/African-American issue in this year’s race. “I wonder whether it will be a big issue. It shouldn’t be.” 

It is difficult to see how it won’t, whatever the candidates’ intentions.  

The issue of Latino versus African-American political power last came up as an issue in the recent mayoral race between Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, a Latino, and former Congressmember Ron Dellums, an African-American, even though neither candidate ran on the basis of their ethnicities. 

After a period culminating more than a decade ago in which African-Americans dominated the major elected positions in the Oakland area—a majority of the City Council and Oakland Unified School District boards, the mayor of Oakland and the area’s Congressional and state assembly representatives—African-American political power has been on the wane. In the meantime, although Latinos are growing in population in the area, their numbers have never been fully represented in political office in Oakland and the East Bay. 

The last holdout of major African American political power in the East Bay is the Peralta Community College District board of trustees, where African Americans hold four of the seven seats. 

Despite the fact that 14 percent of the student population in the Peralta District are Latino, there are no Latino representatives on the board of trustees. 

Meanwhile, the Area 7 Peralta trustee race pits two individuals against each other who have been active in causes important to their respective ethnicities. 

Clifton has long been an advocate for African American rights. She has been the Peralta trustee most consistent in pushing for the hiring of local workers and contracts for local businesses in Peralta construction projects. In an era where it is illegal for public agencies to promote affirmative action for minorities, “local hiring” and “local contracts” have become a substitute in the East Bay for promoting minority firms and workers. At one point, she served as president of the politically powerful Oakland/Berkeley Chapter of the Black Women Organized for Political Action, an organization credited with helping several African American women win political office in the East Bay. 

In 2004, the African-American-based magazine CityFlight named Clifton one of its “Ten Most Influential African Americans in the Bay Area,” noting that “Ms. Clifton’s 30 years of activism engages her in political, social and economic grassroots efforts. Her activism centers on providing better access, opportunity, and equity to African Americans in particular and to the greater community as a whole.” And Clifton was one of two Peralta trustees—board president Linda Handy was the other—to be honored last month at the Eleventh Annual African American Excellence in Business and Scholarship Gala in Oakland as one of 101 local women “making a difference in our community.” 

Meanwhile, as a student senator at UC Berkeley in the late ’90s, Guillen was instrumental in convincing the UC administration to change the name of the student center from the Golden Bear Center to the Cesar E. Chavez Student Center. A UC Berkeley press release at the time of the renaming ceremony in 1997 quoted Guillen as saying, “Many students agreed the renaming of the student center would serve as a strong symbolic gesture of the university's commitment to diversity. Cesar Chavez was not just a role model for Latinos, but for anyone who believes in the idea of social justice." While at UC Berkeley in the late ’90s, Guillen also fought against the repeal of the University of California’s affirmative action policy. 

But Guillen’s campaign manager said it is not his intention to make race an issue in this campaign. 

“Abel isn’t running as a Latino candidate,” Lockshin said by telephone. “He’s Latino, and he’s proud of it. And of course, he will be supported by Latino people. But I don’t see his base of support as Latinos. He is running as a progressive young Democrat.” 

Lockshin also said that even though Clifton is the incumbent “and only one of them can win, and one of them will lose, Abel isn’t running against Alona.” Instead, Lockshin said that Guillen’s position is that “it is the board as a whole that has made a number of decisions that were not in the best interests of the district,” including the controversial Peralta and Laney property contract with Oakland developer Alan Dones—later voluntarily abandoned by Dones—and the current contract with PeopleSoft to reorganize the district’s computer systems. Lockshin said Guillen is running on a platform of three principles: relevance to students, fairness to faculty and staff, and accountability and transparency to the entire community. 

Clifton could not be reached in time to comment for this article. 

In at least one area, Guillen and Clifton appear to be running on parallel tracks. Stating that one of Guillen’s issues is that Peralta “needs more workforce training to prepare those people for employment who are not interested in moving on to a four-year institution,” campaign manager Lockshin said that “the district needs to set up more partnerships with local businesses. They have some, but these businesses are not necessarily employing people from the colleges.” 

That, in fact, has been one of Clifton’s major issues on the trustee board. At a trustee meeting last May, for example, she pushed district staff to tighten implementation of the district’s Project Labor Agreements with contractors. Peralta’s PLAs promote the hiring of local workers and subcontracting with local businesses. 

While the public has not yet turned its attention to the November races, local political organizations are already preparing for endorsements in the Area 7 Peralta race. The endorsement decisions of the Alameda County Central Labor Council and unions representing Peralta trustees are expected later this month, with the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club endorsement expected early in September.