Sharp Contrasts in Debates
On Friday evening, the district 2 council candidates met at City Hall to debate. They followed a debate between City Auditor Roland Smith and his challenger Courtney Ruby. The hearing room was packed, but it's not very big; I doubt anyone was there who hadn't already made up their minds. There were some members of the press, including a Trib reporter, a photographer from the Oakland Post, and Sanjiv Handa (who arrived 15 minutes late to the first debate). Allison supporters outnumbered Kernighan's (who did not invite her supporters to the event, as Allison did), and wore their orange T-shirts in direct contravention of League of Women Voters debate rules which were disseminated to the candidates.
Courtney Ruby presented a strikingly fresh presence across from Roland Smith - much younger, very professional, and with a slight Texan accent, she convincingly made her case for change in the auditor's office from her opening statement. I found her emphasis on benchmarks and copying successful practices in other cities (such as San Jose) very persuasive. She also suggested that the auditor place more of an emphasis on performance evaluation of city programs and grants, rather than double-checking parking tickets.
Roland Smith pointed to clear improvements in the city auditor's office since he took over in 1999, including migration to a sophisticated Oracle payroll system and an overall increase in the number of audits. He defended his work to refund parking tickets to citizens and increase revenue from city-owned parking lots, and blamed the council for not supporting him (Ruby responded that San Jose found that business and sales taxes are better targets of city revenue audits than parking lots). Smith glossed over the recent workplace scandal in his office, and said that an unnamed "female councilmember" gave him "a lot of wrath" when he refused to change a report at her request. He proclaimed his independence, but expressed his excitement to work with Ron Dellums, saying that he "can work well to provide information making [Dellums'] regime more desirable." Ruby, of course, has far more endorsements than Smith (including Barbara Lee, Keith Carson and Pat Kernighan) but he's getting a lot of support from the Oakland Post. Independence isn't really the issue at hand - it's effectiveness and creating a good working environment. This blog's contributors are eager supporters of Ms. Ruby.
There was a short break before the main event, and the gallery filled up completely. Aimee Allison's supporters had to be admonished twice by the LWV to cover up their loud campaign T-shirts. A photographer wearing a Ron Dellums pin on his hat (I think he works for the Post) busied himself taking dozens of pictures of Ms. Allison, for which she preened and posed prettily. Finally, the debate started, about ten minutes late.
Aimee Allison is an accomplished speaker, and used her measured tones and lengthy opening statement to make a broad case for addressing the division of Oakland above and below MacArthur Blvd, which I found to be very simplistic. She said that this widening economic gap is causing our problems, and that she wishes to be on the council to fight "growing social inequity and environmental degradation." I am not clear what she means by the latter, but the Green Party seems to confuse economic growth and transit-oriented housing construction with environmental harm, so perhaps she considers cleaning up Oak-to-Ninth to be a loss of (blighted) open space.
Pat Kernighan's opening statement was impressive and direct; she started off by taking a veiled swipe at her opponent's choice of a private school, noting that she started her involvement in Oakland politics as a public school parent and an advocate for parks. She placed emphasis on the equitable delivery of city services, and promised, if reelected, to prioritize "finding common ground with Dellums and really getting things done."
The League of Women Voters were of course one of the leading opponents of the Oak-to-Ninth development. Their first question was quite leading: what would the candidates do to address "gentrification" and the council "selling off public land?" Ms. Allison predictably called for socialist brakes on housing development, calling for "inclusionary zoning" and asserting that "the council should control the market." She characterizes all development deals as "corruption," and decried the council's alleged practice of "subsidizing profits over people."
Councilmember Kernighan rightly responded that, in the year she has been on the council, the city "has sold no land or given a subsidy" that goes to anything other than affordable housing. She again pointed to her work with the community benefits coalition to guarantee low-income, family-sized housing and that the developers "invest in our youth" through apprenticeship and entry-level jobs programs. She also noted that she was "the first councilmember to come out against the school land sale," which is true.
A very telling debate occured over the question of what the candidates have done to help the schools. Aimee Allison claimed to have been a former schoolteacher (I had never heard that before) and pointed to her work with "counter-recruitment," which appears to be a pacifist propaganda program. Kernighan spoke of her work to put Measure C on the ballot in 1996, and her targeting city funds toward after-school programs, school playgrounds, and pedestrian and public safety measures.
There was also a sharp exchange over Allison's controversial plan to tax the port, where she once again claimed that we could reap $500m/year (which is so ridiculously exaggerated to constitute a straight-up lie). Kernighan noted that this was against state law, and that this idea is being proposed without any sort of study of its effects on job growth in Oakland, but is open to the city attempting to recoup some impact fees. Allison responded that Swanson and Perata could work together to change state law.
The two also sparred over social spending by the city, with Pat saying that she has "actually done something" about social issues, and that she is "the biggest advocate on the council for community policing." Allison asserted that a friend left for "Pleasant Hill because Oakland is too pricey," which elicited some skepticism from the audience. She also called for a huge "New Deal-type job corps," saying that we "need to put money behind it." It was not clear where this money would come from. Beyond asserting that Oakland's current "approach has failed," Ms. Allison gave no clarification of how she thinks we can have community policing while slashing the police budget.
Pat Kernighan's conclusion made a forceful case for experience on the council. She noted that Allison didn't know that prostitution in San Antonio has been reduced thanks to a program she initiated last year. Pat, drawing a contrast with Allison's newfound love of local politics, noted that she has been "fighting for twenty years to make Oakland a better place," and that, while "it's easy to criticize," her "actions speak louder than words." Allison said that the "city is ready for a change in direction," and that "District Two is the swing vote" on the council. Perhaps reflecting the truth of that conclusion, (aspiring Council President?) Nancy Nadel endorsed Aimee Allison Monday morning. The debate will be rerun daily on KTOP.