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Oakland Council Candidates on Familiar Ground With Third Race In Just a Year

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday September 26, 2006

Aimee Allison is hoping that the third time is the charm. Pat Kernighan is hoping that history keeps repeating itself. 

For the third time in a little over a year, the two women are squaring off against each other for the right to represent Oakland’s Council District Two. 

The district surrounds Lake Merritt to the north, east, and south almost like a cupped hand, taking in the Grand Avenue/Lakeshore communities, Trestle Glen, Park Boulevard up to MacArthur, Foothill and International almost to Fruitvale, and the Chinatown section. 

With large white, African-American, Latino, Chinese-American, and Southeast Asian-American communities, it is arguably the most diverse district of one of the most diverse cities in the country, with some of Oakland’s most moderate-to-conservative as well as progressive-liberal pockets. 

The last two councilmembers to represent that district, Danny Wan and John Russo, now Oakland City Attorney, were both able to win by crafting coalitions that bridged the gap between both sides. 

The race has taken on added citywide significance with the election last June of Ron Dellums as mayor of Oakland over the current City Council president, Ignacio De La Fuente. Dellums is scheduled to take office in January, along with whoever wins the District Two council race. 

Under Oakland’s strong mayor form of government, the mayor is the chief executive officer of the city, with enormous influence over the direction of city policy. But city policy itself—as well as city ordinance-writing and control over the budget—is in the hands of the City Council, and a City Council either in open opposition to Dellums or in an intense rivalry could significantly change or outright prevent many of Dellums’ proposals. 

Although Desley Brooks was the only Oakland City Councilmember to endorse Dellums’ candidacy, with several supporting their council colleague De La Fuente and one other councilmember, Nancy Nadel, running for mayor herself, at least some councilmembers are now expected to break off and form a pro-Dellums council coalition. 

That could mean everything from providing the new mayor with a working majority on the council against Council President De La Fuente to challenging De La Fuente for the council presidency itself. In those upcoming council battles, Kernighan is expected to support her main council backer—De La Fuente—while Allison would most likely be solidly in the Dellums camp. With several councilmembers reportedly on the fence between Dellums and De La Fuente, the outcome of the District Two council race could well determine which one of those two men runs Oakland in the next four years. 

Meanwhile, Kernighan and Allison are on familiar ground—running against each other. And while Kernighan has always been considered the front-runner in the races, Allison has gone from a virtual unknown in the spring of 2005 to a credible, serious challenger. 

In May 2005, Kernighan succeeded Danny Wan in the District Two seat, winning 28.8 percent of the vote over eight opponents in a special election called after Wan resigned his seat in mid-term. Allison came in fourth with 14.2 percent of the vote behind Oakland Unified School District President David Kakishiba and community activist Shirley Gee in that race. Because this was a special election, a majority of the votes was not needed, and no runoff was necessary.  

Because the 2005 special election was only for the final year of Wan’s four-year term, Kernighan had to immediately turn around and run for re-election in 2006.  

Last June, Kernighan beat Allison again in a three-person race, but this time by a much smaller margin, 46.1 percent to 39.3 percent. Gee came in a distant third. That set up the third election between Kernighan and Allison, a runoff on Nov. 7. 

Other than the fact that Kernighan is now the incumbent and Allison is no longer the unknown insurgent, this third race is essentially an extension of the first two, with Kernighan running as the nuts-and-bolts moderate insider, and Allison running as the progressive outsider. 

Kernighan, who served as Danny Wan’s chief of staff before the former councilmember’s resignation, lists three major issues as her re-election campaign platform: safety, children and parks, and neighborhood-serving retail. 

Allison, a Gulf War veteran who later became a conscientious objector and an outspoken antiwar advocate, lists several issues in her platform, including attacking the HIV/AIDS pandemic, support for Instant Runoff Voting, and supporting economic development, affordable housing and tenants rights, use of the port revenue for city purposes, advocacy for schools and youth, and fighting crime. 

The issue of safety is a growing concern in District Two with a series of street robberies and car burglaries and two well-publicized Grand Avenue murders last spring: the March 17 shooting death of Mark Kharmats in his insurance office and the April 24 robbery murder of Sonethavy Phomsouvandara at the Bangkok Palace Thai Restaurant. 

Both candidates take similar positions on the issue, with Kernighan calling for “increased police presence to deter street assaults and robberies in District Two neighborhoods” and filling the community policing positions mandated by Oakland’s anti-violence Measure Y, and Allison, in addition to calling for additional police, asking for more money in the city budget for crime prevention and intervention services. 

It is on development issues that the two candidates have clashed most sharply. Kernighan has been given credit for pulling together the compromise between developers and some environmentalist and affordable housing critics that led to the council’s passage last June and July of the massive and controversial Oak To Ninth development project. 

“We have arrived at a balance,” Kernighan said at the time of the council vote. “There are good things for everyone. Today, this site is a contaminated industrial site with no public access. What this project offers is to create a true regional waterfront attraction.” 

Allison opposed that compromise vote, telling councilmembers that night, “There are several excellent reasons not to rush forward. There is still time to change the project and support the Estuary Policy plan. [It’s] a vision that took five years of public input and resulted in a very balanced thoughtful plan ... I’m recommending that this council delay the final decision until some of the issues we heard tonight can be addressed.”