I can’t say I was surprised when I awoke early on Nov. 8 to find Pat Kernighan the declared winner of Oakland’s competitive District 2 City Council race.
Sitting with Allison supporters at Maxwell’s restaurant at 13th and Webster streets last night, one devoted volunteer, Vanessa J. Moses, age 29, looked at the numbers she’d written in blue ink on her palm. Allison had defeated Kernighan by only 30 votes in the San Antonio precinct that Moses had manned on Election Day. In a neighborhood east of Lake Merritt populated by some of the city’s poorest families, Moses said Allison should have won by a much higher margin because this is where she focused the bulk of her campaign: hitting the pavement to engage voters who have often felt estranged from the political process.
But on election night Kernighan’s 55 percent edged out Allison’s 45 percent, with just 800 votes separating the candidates.
Earlier that evening at the Communication Workers building on Park Boulevard and E. 18th Street—get-out-the-vote headquarters for the Allison camp—Yvonne A. Smith was still keeping the faith. She told me a story about a 22-year-old Laney College student named Tony who needed a ride to and from the polls in order to vote for the first time in his life. With Tony translating for his Cantonese-speaking mother, Smith and her fellow volunteers assured her they would bring him back safely, which they did.
Sixty-eight-year-old Smith, who has lived in Oakland for 50 years, said she’s never seen so many Oaklanders energized about a City Council race. Indeed, over one-third of volunteers for Allison’s campaign came from voters outside of District 2, according to Naina Khanna, age 29, who was field director of the Allison campaign.
Smith, a longtime West Oakland resident, and Moses, a Temescal resident, exemplify this telling trend in the campaign. Indeed, if these and the many other non-district 2 Allison supporters could have voted, the 36-year old candidate would have easily won. But this factor set aside, the reality is that more of Kernighan’s supporters voted and not enough of Allison’s supporters did.
Ultimately, the Allison campaign was less about Allison the candidate as it was about what Allison represents: a progressive who, on the heels of a Dellums mayoral victory, had the potential to swing City Council towards more progressive political action.
Beyondchon.org columnist Ben Wyskida said it well in an Oct. 24 editorial:
“There are eight seats on the Oakland City Council, and as it stands today, three votes are reliably progressive and the other five are reliably pro-developer. To win, you need four plus the mayor. Five votes = real progressive power.”
Many progressive activists like Wyskida say this “five votes” factor is especially important because Dellums will move to implement plans for a “model city” in the new year, including critical decisions about housing and development projects.
But the significance of this factor didn’t replace one key fact: Allison put forth more political rhetoric, albeit progressive political rhetoric, than she did concrete, clear ideas about how to implement the progressive changes her supporters around the city were so excited about.
Pat Kernighan too failed to express concrete answers to the city’s problems, but unlike Allison, she could point to her record in city council and her relationships in various neighborhoods like Chinatown and her own hood Trestle Glen as proof to undecided voters that she was the safe bet candidate.
In addition, Allison did well to bring attention to the fact that she did not take political contributions from developers or corporations, forcing Kernighan to try distancing herself from big business and developers. Public campaign finance records show Kernighan accepted individual political contributions from developers like Phil Tagami, and James Falachi, and also from officials at the Port of Oakland, the independent city agency that plays a key role in the huge Oak to Ninth downtown development project.
But let’s be clear. The energy and momentum generated by the Allison campaign still matters. New voters have participated in the electoral process, and a very diverse group of supporters have come together across neighborhood, racial, ethnic, class, and age boundaries, building a network that Allison and other progressive candidates can draw upon in future elections.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that we witnessed a real grassroots, clean-money campaign where a progressive candidate new to electoral politics actually had a real shot at taking the post from a well-funded incumbent. Allison actually believed she could win, and this says a lot in a political climate where young progressives are often ridiculed for being naïve and out of touch with the majority populace.
Maybe to longtime residents of the Bay Area’s political twilight zone this doesn’t seem extraordinary, but in August I moved to the East Bay from Philadelphia where a green party candidate as liberal as Allison would be hard pressed to garner almost half of the vote in a district.
As a registered Berkeley voter, I could not vote for Allison in yesterday’s election. But if I could have, I would have. In an interview with the East Bay blog NovoMetro.com Allison said: “Democracy, at its healthiest, encourages people from all kinds of backgrounds…It will never be our turn until we assert ourselves.”
In political campaigns and in life, Allison’s words ring true. It will never be our turn until we assert ourselves. Sometimes you have to do what you feel called to do, even if it’s not certain things will turn out the way you expect. And even if the result is not what you wanted, you’ve lost nothing. You have only gained the experience of the growth born from taking risks.
I look forward to the Allison campaign for 2011.
Beandrea Davis is a resident of Oakland and student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.