Under Currents: The Battle Over the Oakland City Council Presidency

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday November 24, 2006

One of the more persistent guessing games in Oakland politics these days is who will be the next president of the Oakland City Council. 

Under the days of Elihu Harris and before, the mayor of Oakland used to sit on the City Council and serve as the council president. All that ended with the passage of Jerry Brown’s strong mayor measure in 1998. As we later learned, Mr. Brown had no interest in being a strong mayor, if, by that term, one means being “strongly” involved in the running of the city. Instead, Mr. Brown confined himself to a limited number of projects, leaving the council and the city administrator to pick up the slack and do the rest. Under that system, the council president—Ignacio De La Fuente—built that position into a seat of considerable power. 

Unlike Mr. Brown, incoming mayor Ron Dellums is not expected to be a slacker and will almost certainly try to restore a more executive/legislative balance to the city (where the council sets the policy and the mayor directs the carrying out of that policy). 

But Oakland is a city that often makes it up as it goes along, doubling back on its own policies when it is convenient and abandoning what the citizens have already thought was decided. That has been the charge of environmentalists and community activists in the massive Oak to Ninth development deal, which appears to have violated Oakland’s carefully crafted Estuary Plan. 

And so once it was settled that Mr. Dellums had defeated Mr. De La Fuente for the mayor’s office in last June’s election, it was widely believed that if Mr. De La Fuente returned as council president, the two powerful men—Mayor Dellums and Council President De La Fuente—would conduct an epic battle over the next four years over Oakland’s direction. 

There was only one councilmember thought powerful enough to challenge Mr. De La Fuente for the council presidency—North Oakland Councilmember Jane Brunner. When I covered Oakland City Council as a reporter some years ago (in the years before Desley Brooks and Jean Quan were elected), it was my observation that Mr. De La Fuente and Ms. Brunner were the two powers on the council. I often saw one of them or the other build a winning coalition to pass something without the other’s vote—it did not matter whether Mr. De La Fuente or Ms. Brunner was on the winning side—but I never saw anything pass in council in those days by a councilmember putting together a coalition if both Mr. De La Fuente and Ms. Brunner were opposed. 

It is thought that Ms. Brunner is dissatisfied with another four years as a City Councilmember, and nothing more. She seems to have once been interested in running for the state assembly, but got gerrymandered out of the district that she was supposed to be interested in running in. In recent months, it was thought that she would run for the office of Oakland City Attorney, once that office was vacated by John Russo on Mr. Russo’s way to the state Assembly, himself. However, Mr. Russo failed to oblige her, losing to Dellums ally and former Congressmember Barbara Lee aide Sandré Swanson in the Democratic primary last June for the 16th Assembly seat currently occupied by Wilma Chan. So Ms. Brunner, like many other ambitious Oakland politicians, may be stuck in limbo. 

But while others have speculated about Ms. Brunner’s ambitions, she herself has taken no public position about whether she was interested in running for Council President. 

Some thought that Ms. Brunner was waiting to see the results of the District 2 council race between incumbent Pat Kernighan and challenger Aimee Allison. Allison argued during the campaign that she was the best candidate qualified to assist in promoting Mayor Dellums’ platform, and Mr. De La Fuente vigorously supported Ms. Kernighan. That led to widespread assumption that the District 2 race was actually a surrogate race between Mr. Dellums and Mr. De La Fuente over the council presidency, with Ms. Kernighan certain to support Mr. De La Fuente when the new council president is chosen, and Allison supporting whoever might challenge Mr. De La Fuente. In a deeply divided eight-member City Council, with five votes needed for the presidency, the District 2 seat was almost certainly the swing vote. 

On election night this month, in fact, after it was clear that Ms. Kernighan had won, a Kernighan supporter told me that the one question he had feared during the various District 2 debates was, “Who will Pat Kernighan support for council president if she wins?” The question was never asked, so she never had to answer. 

Because of that, it is not yet certain who Ms. Kernighan will vote for in the council president election. One could argue that because of Mr. De La Fuente’s support for her campaign, she is pledged to him. On the other hand, Mr. Dellums pointedly kept neutral in the District 2 race, saying that District 2 voters were smart enough to make the choice on their own, and that he could work with either candidate. One could make an argument that with Mr. Dellums’ endorsement and active support, Ms. Allison might have beaten Ms. Kernighan—I’m not saying would have, only might have—and that by his staying out of the race, Ms. Kernighan already owes him a favor. I don’t have any idea if there was some agreement with Mr. Dellums and Ms. Kernighan over the council presidency. I’m not suggesting there was. I just know that sometimes political deals are made in that manner. 

In any event, the council presidency landscape may have suddenly changed, either because of the District 2 election, or by some other means. The new rumor—and this one is being passed along by people who have access to inside information—is that District 7 (far East Oakland) Councilmember Larry Reid may be running for the presidency. If so—and it is still unconfirmed—it is not clear whether this is being done with Mr. De La Fuente’s approval, or against Mr. De La Fuente. 

Mr. Reid—who once served as an aide to former Mayor Elihu Harris—has been a De La Fuente ally on the council, providing the council president with one of his most secure votes on swing issues. But Mr. Reid has his own mind, and his own ambitions. He once had his eye on the 16th Assembly seat himself, but seemed to lose interest in it after the more popular (and then seemingly invincible) City Attorney Russo made it known he was running. 

The rumor you get from some quarters is that Mr. Reid may be running for the presidency—if, indeed, he is running—as a placeholder for Mr. De La Fuente, the thought being that Mr. De La Fuente has weakened himself in some quarters of the city in recent months and does not have the votes to return as president. 

But another theory is that seeing that Mr. De La Fuente may not have the votes to return as president, Mr. Reid is stepping out on his own. Where does that leave Ms. Brunner? I don’t know. 

Is any of this true? I don’t know that either. As they say in the courthouse, these things are not offered for the proof of the matter asserted. It only appears that in the waning days of the mayoral administration of Jerry Brown, there is considerable political turmoil in Oakland, the winds of change are blowing, and though we cannot completely see the direction in which the city is heading, it does appear that there will be a different view.