Can the once-promising political future of Oakland Unified School District board member Chris Dobbins survive the recent scandal and censure? To quote the most trite of answers: Only time will tell.
Before he was accused of conducting an improper relationship with a 17-year-old female OUSD high school student, the 35-year-old Dobbins was considered one of Oakland’s rising political stars.
The UC Berkeley graduate and educational professional was easily elected to the school board in June of 2006 to replace the retiring District 6 Director Dan Siegel, easily beating local business owner Wandra J. Boyd 52-48 percent. In doing so, he assembled an impressive list of endorsements, including the incumbent Siegel, the powerful Oakland Education Association teachers union and its then-president, Ben Visnick, the Alameda County Democratic Party, and several members of the board of the Oakland Unified School District and the Alameda County Board of Education.
But maybe more important for someone seeking a larger political future in Oakland—where the ability to cross over racial lines is a necessity for anyone seeking citywide office—Dobbins, who is of mixed Irish-Syrian/Lebanese heritage, was able to garner key African-American endorsements and support against an African-American opponent.
And Dobbins, apparently, had his eyes set on citywide office.
Oakland resident Ignacio Ortiz, who spoke in support of Dobbins at last week’s OUSD censure meeting, said he met Dobbins when the two of them were food servers at Chevy’s. “He said he was interested in running for office, and I told him I’d do anything to help him,” Ortiz said. “And he said, ‘What if I ran for mayor?’”
Whether Dobbins still holds that ambition is not known.
Dobbins’ election last June went little noticed outside of the 6th District of Oakland, in part because the Oakland school board was still a powerless position at the time in those days of full state control, in part because anything about the Oakland election in 2006 was overshadowed by the epic mayoral battle between former Congressmember Ron Dellums and Councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente and Nancy Nadel.
But Dobbins came to citywide attention during last January’s much-watched Fox Oakland citywide inauguration, not so much for what he said in his speech—which was full of the usual thank-you’s and political promises—but of the boyishly, bubblingly enthusiastic way in which he gave it. Oakland, which has had more than its share of politicians giving out grim news from the state school takeover to the epidemic of murders, appeared ready for an officeholder who seemed to clearly be having so much fun on the job.
That support carried over to Dobbins’ board colleagues. Contrary to the charges made by Dobbins’ supporters at last week’s censure meeting that the censure was a “political vendetta,” Dobbins appeared to have been well-liked by fellow board members before the student impropriety charges surfaced.
In a board that has seen some legendary political feuds in recent years—the running one featuring former members Dan Siegel and Paul Cobb being one of the more memorable—Dobbins appeared to have no enemies. (Significantly, Cobb, a longtime local African-American activist and most recently the new publisher of the Oakland Post, an African-American-based newspaper, joined Siegel in endorsing Dobbins in the June 2006 election.)
Even local educator and political leader Toni Cook, who preceded Siegel in the 6th District OUSD board seat, began her remarks during the public comment section at last week’s board censure meeting with the statements, “I like Chris,” and “I know about the good work he has done,” before announcing her support for the censure.
“You should not be blinded in your judgment by his good works,” Cook told board members. “Any perceived relationship with a minor is wrong, regardless of his intentions. In eight years while I was on the board, we had three cases of employees who had similar charges against them. One went to jail and two were suspended. There can’t be one standard in the district for employees and another one for the board.”
But Cook, after all, was one of the signators on the petition of candidacy for Wandra J. Boyd, Dobbins’ opponent in last year’s election. If Dobbins decides to continue his political career past his current term, will his personal “likeability” be enough to overcome the current scandal and censure in voters who supported him last year, or for those who may never have taken a position on him before?
Retired OUSD board member Dan Siegel thinks so.
“I think he can rebound,” Siegel said by telephone this week, “though it may take time. Clearly he made an error. He and the young woman allowed their infatuation to go on a bit too far. But from all the available evidence, it did not cross the line into a physical relationship, and (Dobbins) did not do anything that could be considered abusive or exploitative of a young person. If he does not resign, it will be a matter he can put behind him.”
East Bay News Service editor Sanjiv Handa, a longtime observer of Oakland politics, agreed.
“Oakland voters tend to have a short memory,” Handa said. “Transgressions tend not to come back to haunt politicians.” Handa added that while “it can depend upon how much an opponent uses the information in a negative campaign,” he said that in this area, at least, “negative campaigning can backfire.”
Handa said that the charges against Dobbins may have been politically nullified, in part, because some board members made statements prior to the investigation that showed they had already made up their minds against him. And Handa said that e-mail excerpts which were published in the censure committee’s report—in one of which, Dobbins wrote to the student that “I have a girlfriend so I should not have been trying stuff in the first place”—might not turn out to be politically damaging if voters feel they were cherrypicked by the committee and taken out of context.
“I’ve talked to some parents already who see this as a witch hunt,” Handa said.
That Dobbins may be able to put the issue behind him appears to be true, at least with his hard-core supporters. A crowd of them packed the OUSD board room during the censure meeting, several of them speaking passionately in his support or in criticism of his fellow board members, the rest applauding loudly when they heard something in Dobbins’ favor, or groaning or calling out remarks when they heard something against him. These supporters heard the allegations against Dobbins and rejected them, and, for the most part, will probably remain in his corner for whatever campaign he chooses to run in the future.
Typical of those was Lolita Morelli, Dobbins’ seventh-grade counselor at Montera Middle School, who called Dobbins “an outstanding individual,” a “moral and ethical person” who Morelli said she imagined “was trying to help” the female student in question.
And, in fact, Bay Area voters have shown a tendency to continue to support local office holders who have been found guilty of improprieties.
Earlier this year, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s campaign manager quit after accusing Newsom of having an affair with his wife. Some observers said this was the end of Newsom’s rising star political career. Instead, seven months later, Newsom is as popular as ever, sailing along in his re-election campaign with no serious opposition, having scared off any of the progressive candidates who had once considered challenging him.
That was also the case with Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who had barely won office in 2002 when it came to public light that in the last days of his campaign against incumbent Shirley Dean, Bates had stolen from the newsstand more than a thousand copies of the Daily Cal newspaper edition that included an endorsement of Dean. Four years later, Bates easily won re-election.
And California Attorney General Jerry Brown, who illegally trashed many of his official records and correspondence as mayor of Oakland on his way out the door at Oakland City Hall this year, seems so far to have suffered no lasting political damage from the action.
But Newsom, Bates, and Brown were all well-known officeholders with long records of political accomplishments. A majority of voters had formed favorable opinions of them long before their improprieties, one of the key elements in a politician overcoming such problems.
A second factor, in the Newsom and Bates situations, at least, is a quick and (apparently) sincere apology. Both Newsom and Bates almost immediately admitted wrongdoing, and took their respective punishments (rehab in the case of Newsom, a fine in the case of Bates) without complaint. Though Brown does not appear to have publicly addressed the document—trashing himsel—and has certainly issued no apology, an aide with the attorney general’s office immediately issued a public statement acknowledging that the trashing had occurred.
It is unclear whether future voters will consider Dobbins’ impropriety more serious than that of the others. At the very least, Dobbins is guilty of a failure to break off a relationship with an underage student he was mentoring immediately after it was clear the relationship had strayed into romantic waters, picking her up from her UC dorm room at 2 a.m. and parking with her in his car at Strawberry Canyon a month after he had promised OUSD staff members that he would not see the girl any more. Voters may believe this more damaging than a consensual adult relationship, or destroying newspapers or documents, or they may not.
Meanwhile, unlike Newsom, Bates, and Brown, the first-termer Dobbins does not have a long political record to fall back on. While his continued hard core support in the 6th District would make him a formidable candidate should he choose to run for re-election in 2010, and a large cadre of family and friends and associates outside the district would be expected to support him whatever he does, he would find that most citywide voters’ knowledge of him will now begin with the question, “Wasn’t that the one who went with that high school girl?” That’s a first impression that will be difficult to overcome.
Dobbins’ second difficulty in emulating the swift political resurrection of fellow fallen officeholders is the fact that he never issued an unequivocal apology.
At the first news conference following the revelation of the charges of sleeping with his campaign manager’s wife, Newsom said, simply, “I want to make it clear that everything you’ve heard and read is true, and I’m deeply sorry about that. I’ve hurt someone I care deeply about—Alex Tourk and his friends and family. And that is something I have to live with.”
Bates did the same, issuing a statement that read: “There is no question that tossing newspapers is absolutely inappropriate and unacceptable. I apologize on behalf of myself and my supporters for our involvement in this activity.”
In contrast, Dobbins equivocated.
“I could have used better judgment,” he told fellow board members at the censure meeting, adding that “if [the student involved] felt I overstepped my bounds, then I apologize for that.”
But rather than leaving it at that, he then tried to criticize his detractors and minimize his actions, first saying that he had been censured when other OUSD board members had not for other infractions, then adding that “at the end of the day, I didn’t steal any money or anything like that.”
Because of that, privately, following the meeting, several board members—including moderates who did not publicly speak out against Dobbins prior to the investigation was completed—complained that “he still doesn’t get it,” and unless and until that sentiment changes, both with Dobbins and with his closest observers, it will be remembered, making any possible future political campaign beyond the 6th District start off with an enormous impediment to climb and overcome.
At last week’s special board meeting, embattled OUSD Boardmember Chris Dobbins examines the resolution against him that was released by the board’s Censure Committee (Alice Spearman, Noel Gallo and chair Greg Hodge).