A left-wing alternative for Oakland mayor

October 21, 2014

Alessandro Tinonga explains why Dan Siegel deserves the support of voters in Oakland who want a radical choice to the left of the Democratic Party for mayor.

IN THE last few years, Oakland has gone through massive changes. Growing corporate investments have established new businesses, attracting thousands of new professional workers and multiple residential redevelopment projects. The economic growth has helped create a new pulse to life downtown, with a growing restaurant scene and art community.

At the same time, however, the process has come at a great cost. Gentrification in Oakland has reinforced a militarized police force, produced a boom in low-wage jobs for many local residents and pushed already rising rental costs to new heights. While some parts of the city and particularly its new influx of residents are enjoying the economic prosperity, tens of thousands of people are struggling to survive.

Conditions are disproportionately worse for communities of color. In the last decade, a quarter of the city's Black community has been forced to leave.

Meanwhile, Oakland's notoriously corrupt and racist police force has gone on a rampage, shooting 29 residents since 2010, killing 12 of them. Despite this, however, nearly all of the 15 candidates running in the November election for mayor of Oakland are promising to hire 100 or 200 or 400 more cops. The Oakland Police Department already eats up nearly half of city's general fund, so hiring more cops will mean even less money for all other city services.

Oakland mayoral candidate Dan Siegel
Oakland mayoral candidate Dan Siegel

Only one candidate has stood out against the grey blur on this and other issues: civil rights attorney Dan Siegel, whose campaign has been built around promises for a $15 an hour minimum wage, universal pre-school for all Oakland children and policies to confront police brutality.

Siegel's mayoral campaign represents one way to fight back against the many problems and injustices in Oakland. That's why the Oakland International Socialist Organization has endorsed Siegel for mayor and is actively supporting his campaign.

SIEGEL HAS been a civil rights attorney in the Bay Area for over four decades.

In 1987, Siegel joined the San Francisco City Attorney's Office and helped settle a 14-year-old employment discrimination case against the San Francisco Fire Department, negotiating a consent decree that guaranteed affirmative action in hiring and promotions for women and people of color.

In the 1990s, he and his wife represented Jenny Harrison in her successful lawsuit against the University of California for sex discrimination in denying her tenure in the Mathematics Department at UC Berkeley. In 2007, Siegel won the two largest verdicts ever awarded in cases brought under Title IX, the law that forbids sex discrimination by colleges and universities and requires gender equity in intercollegiate athletic programs.

For the last two years, Siegel has represented the family of Alan Blueford, who was shot and killed by the Oakland Police Department in 2012. Alan's family is among Siegel's staunchest supporters--his campaign headquarters is housed at the Alan Blueford Center for Justice.

After launching his campaign for mayor, Siegel has continued to be participate in the fight against exploitation and oppression. From its launch, he supported the "Lift Up Oakland" referendum for a dramatically increased minimum wage, and his campaign helped organize protests against the City Council when it tried to pass an ordinance that would have undermined the initiative. To this day, he is the only major candidate calling for a $15 an hour minimum wage following a referendum victory on the Lift Up Oakland measure.

During the uprising against police violence in Ferguson, Mo., this summer, Siegel joined solidarity protests in Oakland and released a statement that read in part:

Oakland is infamous for the police violence that led to 541 police abuse lawsuits from January 1, 2000, to August 21, 2012. According to the City Attorney's office, Oakland paid out $11,466,868 to resolve 20 of these cases. Oakland's police, like those in Ferguson, were transformed by the military hardware that began to arrive with the "war on drugs" in 1980--tanks, helicopters, assault rifles, and night vision goggles. As in Ferguson, Oakland's militarized police use this equipment to suppress protests--as it did against the Oscar Grant movement in 2009-10 and the Occupy movement in 2011.

IN ADDITION to his pro-civil rights record, Siegel de-registered from the Democratic Party back in January, before announcing his candidacy for mayor. Although the election is technically nonpartisan, this decision to register as "decline to state" and run an independent campaign is another reason why radicals should support his campaign.

Oakland's recent political history makes the reasons why obvious. It's not just that individual politicians have sold out the interests of Oakland's poor and working class. The Democratic Party as an institution has also been an obstacle to building powerful social movements and a fighting labor movement.

Many people believe that party affiliation matters less in local races than in statewide or national ones, but this is mistaken. In most major cities, Republican elected officials are a dying breed, if they exist at all. This means the Democrats maintain a near lock on power in places like Oakland--and even California as a whole, since every single statewide office, each major city administration and California's Congressional delegation are all controlled by Democrats.

The records of the three other frontrunners in the race--incumbent Mayor Jean Quan and City Council members Rebecca Kaplan and Libby Schaaf--illustrate the problems with even liberal Democrats.

Let's start with Quan. During her 12 years on the Oakland School Board, she gained a reputation as a strong advocate for providing more funding for immigrant students, more inclusion of minority community history in textbooks, and comprehensive school services and after-school programs. As a member of the City Council from 2002 to 2010, she spearheaded several initiatives to keep the libraries open and increase funding for cultural arts.

However, within the first year of taking over as mayor, she proved that her loyalties lay with business and the establishment, not the communities she had previously advocated for. Most notoriously, she ordered two harsh police crackdowns against Occupy Oakland. To this day, she has not made an apology or even offered regret about these attacks.

In summing up the accomplishments of her administration, it's clear that she prioritizes a stable economy over an equal one. In an op-ed article for the Oakland Tribune, Quan trumpeted her policies in words that could have come straight from California Gov. Jerry Brown, who was mayor of Oakland a few years before Quan:

When I became mayor we faced a global recession, a shrinking police force and rising crime. Less than three years later, we've grown our economy by supporting local businesses and reviving major development projects to create jobs. As we've grown the city's budget, I used that growth to hire police officers and we have begun to reduce crime...

I cut budgets at City Hall, negotiated with police officers to contribute to their pensions, and reduced other pension costs...As a result, Oakland's overall economy is the strongest it's been in years.

When local unions launched the Lift Up Oakland campaign for a citywide ballot initiative that would raise the minimum wage to $12.25 an hour, Quan and other members of the city council tried to undermine it. She and others proposed an ordinance that sounded good: It would have raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, but with a phase-in of more than four years, and with so many loopholes that a lot of the city's low-wage service workers would have been left behind.

AMONG THE two City Council members, it's not even worth discussing Libby Schaaf--she's a poster child for business as usual under the neoliberal Democrats. Jerry Brown recently endorsed her, drawing a straight line from his administration's outspoken support for charter schools, enhanced police powers and gentrification, to Schaaf's pet policies in Oakland.

Rebecca Kaplan, on the other hand, has the reputation of being the most liberal member of the City Council. The former Green Party member and the first openly LGBT member of the Council, she is the most popular politician in Oakland right now.

Kaplan has championed some progressive causes during her time on the City Council, such as embracing local cannabis enterprises, rescinding Oakland's century-old "immoral dress" ordinance and reforming Oakland's outdated cabaret regulations. She also recently attended actions organized by the Fight for 15 movement, which shut down a local Burger King.

But when you dig a little deeper, it becomes apparent that Kaplan is also committed to supporting the business-driven transformation of Oakland--and siding with those who want to protect that project with armed force.

Within the last year, she has supported two projects that accelerated the corporate agenda in Oakland: the deal for the A's baseball team at O.co Coliseum and the new West Oakland Specific Plan.

Kaplan helped broker the deal reached in June for the Oakland Athletics to renew their lease at the Coliseum. The team's owner, Lew Wolff, had threatened to leave Oakland unless the city built a new stadium. Instead of calling out his greed, the City Council bent over backwards to make sure that the A's wouldn't leave Oakland.

Under the agreement signed this summer, Wolff will spend $10 million in upgrades to the Coliseum, including a new scoreboard. The catch is that the city agreed to forgive $5 million in back rent that the team didn't pay. In boasting about her role in the deal, Kaplan is essentially taking pride in a plan that forces Oakland taxpayers to contribute $5 million for a new scoreboard for a team owned by a man who can't wait to ditch the community.

As for the West Oakland Specific Plan (WOSP), it's a development scheme that will build thousands of new commercial spaces and housing units for the city's growing technical/professional sector. As David Judd and Claire Douglas wrote for SocialistWorker.org:

It labels large swaths of West Oakland "opportunity sites" for redevelopment and connects with other redevelopment schemes to cover a massive area...[Even] the new "affordable housing" will require that prospective tenants families have a household income between $47,000 and $65,000 and pay rent between $1,200 and $1,600 per month for a two-bedroom apartment. Three of four West Oakland households make less than this threshold, often much less.

Though the plan isn't final yet, Kaplan has consistently voted in favor of it during Planning Commission meetings.

When it comes to the police, Kaplan proudly points to her opposition to laying off police officers in 2010, and she promises to add 100 more cops to the force if elected mayor. Until recently, Kaplan supported the Domain Awareness Center (DAC), a plan for an integrated network of private and public cameras and sensors that would put thousands of Oakland residents under constant surveillance. After strong protests, she finally dropped her support in March of this year.

In 2012, the family of Alan Blueford, the 18-year-old high school senior gunned down by Oakland Police Officer Miguel Masso, protested at two City Council meetings along with supporters to demand answers.

At the first meeting, Council members, including Kaplan, promised to deliver the coroner's report to the Blueford family immediately. When the Council failed to deliver, the family led another protest in the Council chambers. Jeralynn and Adam Blueford, Alan's parents, made a direct appeal to Kaplan from across the aisle, asking for help in gaining justice for their son. Kaplan didn't respond--she folded her hands and looked down at her desk silently as the protest continued around her.

MORE COULD be said about the record of these and other candidates for mayor. But it is worth pointing out how the connections of these candidates to the Democratic Party has subverted whatever liberal or progressive commitments they may have had when they started out in politics.

Kaplan, for example, started out as a Green Party member. But she made her peace with the Democrats and the Oakland police in exchange for her political career, which could now include a term in the mayor's office if current opinion polls are correct.

Both Quan and her immediate predecessor as mayor, former liberal Congressman Ron Dellums, were part of a generation of activists and leftists who tried to work inside the Democratic Party to pull it in a more radical direction, only to see it pull them to the right--with Quan following this logic all the way to smashing the Occupy movement. Though she comes from a younger generation, Kaplan's trajectory leaves little doubt of where she is headed.

Dan Siegel himself was part of this group of 1960s and '70s radicals who became Democratic Party officeholders and officials. But Siegel took the important step of rejecting this logic after Quan ordered the crackdown against the Occupy movement. Siegel, one of Quan's most trusted advisers for many years, broke very publicly with her.

Malcolm X once said, "You put the Democrats first, and they put you last." When push came to shove, Siegel put the movement first. He hasn't made much of an issue of his decision to de-register from the Democratic Party during the campaign, but the fact that he did so sends a signal of political independence that's sorely needed in a city like Oakland.

DESPITE ALL this, some people and organizations on the left have resisted supporting the Siegel campaign.

For instance, the Green Party mayoral candidate Jason "Shake" Anderson has adopted a hostile attitude towards the Siegel campaign, while arguing that his own experience in the military would allow him to better relate to the police force, since he understands their "mission." Anderson is an unfortunate choice for the Green Party nomination--among the Oakland left, he is known for helping lead a smear campaign to label an Arab American activist within Occupy Oakland as a "terrorist."

Other activists, including some veterans of Occupy Oakland, have criticized Siegel's campaign, as well as the ISO's endorsement. The most common disagreement is the idea that engaging in the political system legitimizes the corrupt system of electoral politics, and so supporting Siegel perpetuates a system of injustice in Oakland.

While this point of view may be understandable after the history of supposedly left-wing politicians attacking social and community struggles like Occupy, it wrongly rejects all electoral activity, including campaigns that are clearly and consciously left wing and independent of the Democrats.

None of this is to say that the ISO agrees with every point that Siegel has raised during this campaign.

For example, Siegel is an advocate of "community policing," which would transfer more officers to walk citywide beats. We in the ISO believe that this would lead to more potentially deadly interactions between cops and young people of color. Still, unlike the other candidates, Siegel has rightly reframed the public safety problem in Oakland as an issue rooted in social and economic injustices, not a lack of cops on the street.

THE RADICAL and revolutionary left should take the Siegel campaign seriously for a number of reasons.

First, beyond Siegel's long history as a fighter for social justice, the campaign has put forward a consistent progressive message throughout the campaign. Most people who volunteered for the campaign have done so because it is the only one that is specific and straightforward about its platform.

Second, for many activists, Siegel's campaign has become part of larger struggles--the fight for stronger unions, tenants' and immigrant rights, and an end to police brutality, for example. Many of the most consistent volunteers and campaigners are people who were excited about Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant's election victory in Seattle last year. This idea that political campaigns can win with explicitly left-wing politics is what has motivated many of the lead volunteers to give their time and energies.

Third, the campaign has the potential to help build up forces fighting for social justice in Oakland.

Siegel's stance to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour is the issue that has made him more popular in recent months--and volunteers for his campaign have been able to talk to lots of supporters of a living wage while making the case for voting for Siegel. When canvassing in East and West Oakland, neighborhoods that are predominantly people of color, Siegel's history as a civil rights lawyer and his promises to provide key city services really resonate with the community.

Endorsements from the Oakland Education Association, Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the National Union of Healthcare Workers and Oakland Rising Action, which represents many progressive housing and immigrant rights activists, among many others, show that the Siegel campaign has made inroads into organizations representing labor and social justice activists.

With just a few weeks to go, Siegel has been running fourth in the polls. In the final days before the election. it would make a real difference if more left-wing and social justice activists got involved. Go to SiegelForOakland.org to find out how to get plugged in.

Whether or not Siegel wins, many people in his campaign are talking about plans for after the election. Questions are being raised about how to build a political movement that combats gentrification and wins immediate demands for workers and the oppressed.

It isn't clear what the outcome of the election will be. What is clear, though, is that the Siegel campaign has become a place for new and old activists to talk about how to spread left-wing politics in Oakland and fight for a better future.

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