Public Comment

Commentary: How the Oakland Chamber of Commerce Destroyed an Election

By Paul Rockwell
Friday November 10, 2006

When the people of Oakland enacted the Campaign Reform Act of 2000, they wanted to make sure that non-affluent voters had an equal voice in the political life of the city. The preamble states: “The integrity of the governmental process, the competitiveness of campaigns and public confidence in local officials are all diminishing.” The high cost of elections “gives incumbents an overwhelming and patently unfair advantage.” 

By passing a reform act, moderate in content, Oakland residents attempted to reduce the corrupting influence of money in downtown politics, to put an end to the pay-to-play system that is destroying, not only Oakland, but political discourse throughout the country. 

For six years the Reform Act served the people of Oakland by protecting the integrity of its elections. When the recent, closely watched campaigns began in District 2, some months before June 2006, all the candidates and parties, including the Chamber of Commerce, accepted the rules. 

But something dramatic happened in June that changed everything. Ron Dellums, a visionary, African-American progressive, won the election for Mayor. By late October, Aimee Allison, another dynamic African-American, especially popular among Oakland youth, moved into a tie in the polls with incumbent Pat Kernighan. In fear of losing hold of City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce fell into a panic. So long as their favorite candidates, like De La Fuente and Pat Kernighan, were winning, the rules were fine. But with the Allison ascendancy, the rules had to be changed. And fast. 

Suddenly, without any public discussion or notice, OakPAC, the Chamber’s political arm, got a compliant judge to lift Oakland’s spending limits for political action committees. The Pandora’s box of campaign finance was open, and dirty money—money spent in defiance of Oakland’s laws—began to flow into the Kernighan campaign. Kernighan herself had no say in the matter. Allison and her supporters were stunned. Outraged students, involved in elections for the first time in their lives, made picket signs for downtown business: “Elections are not for sale.”  

When I first heard about the Chamber of Commerce move, I too was shocked. The intervention reminded me of the fiasco of 2000, when right-wing Supreme Court judges intervened in Florida, changing the long-standing rules of the state, halting the counting of votes, putting the loser into the White House. I have lived in Oakland for decades. I love my city, its redwooded hills, its local jazz, its bustling waterfront and vibrant culture. But Oakland has a long history of money politics. In all my years, I have never seen a power-grab as ruthless, as unethical, and as unconstitutional, as the Chamber intervention in District 2.  

It is true that Mayor-elect Ron Dellums tried desperately to save the integrity of the election. He negotiated a truce with OakPAC. OakPAC’s Chairman, Michael Colbruno, agreed to voluntarily give up a court victory, to respect Oakland’s limits, at least for the duration of the election. It was not as big a concession as it first seemed. Twenty thousand dollars was already spent in defiance of Oakland rules, and that is a huge amount of money for one week in a single district. The damage was done. Nor was the agreement binding on other independent groups, some of whom began to spend money to match OakPAC’s profligacy. One independent group, over which Allison had no control, published a negative anti-Kernighan brochure. Colbruno charged Allison with buying the election, even while his own lawyers argued in court that elections cannot be bought, since “money is speech.” Colbruno played it both ways. He talked about a truce in Oakland, but he never withdrew his anti-Oakland suit in court. He actually got a continuance, an extension of the restraining order that originally caused the anarchy in District 2.  

The central issue regarding the post-election controversy is not political. It’s not about Allison or Kernighan, about who won or lost. The central issue is a matter of principle. It concerns the 14th Amendment and the legality of the election itself. Free elections are based on a clear, uniform set of rules, consistently applied. Not only were the rules changed at the last minute to suit the needs of one contender, the entire election was carried out under two contradictory sets of rules: one with limits, one without limits. Some groups abided by one set of rules; other groups followed another agenda.  

We have no way of knowing who would have won a legal, fair election in District 2. But the fiasco in District 2 has major implications beyond the wrecking of one election. It threatens to destroy fair election practices in Oakland as a whole—and in perpetuity. The Chamber of Commerce is resurrecting a pay-to-play, dirty money system that makes it impossible for candidates like Aimee Allison, who lack access to power-brokers and big donors—to participate in local elections on an equal basis. The Chamber is driving African-Americans and other minorities out of the electoral process. Electoral finance is not only a corruption issue; it is a civil rights issue as well. 


Paul Rockwell is an Oakland writer.