In the next week the Oakland City Council will see a rare makeover as three long time council members exit the stage and 2 new faces take their places with one well-known local politician moving into the other. Jane Brunner, Nancy Nadel, and Ignacio de la Fuente, will be moving on while Lynette McElhaney, Dan Kalb, and former school board member Noel Gallo will be seated.
Much has already been written about the responsibilities and obstacles they will confront in fulfilling their promises to renew the city and remake the fractious city council. Top among them are crime and violence, police reform, and desperately needed public works along with the possibility of a transformative change in our local and regional economy with new development at the port.
But, little has been written about the legacy of the three outgoing council members, which is considerable despite the fractious board of more recent memory. I remember when all of these folks were elected; and while I may not recall all their specific accomplishments, I will long remember what they added to our little burg. And, I want them and you, curious readers, to know what some of those overarching themes were and why they need to be remembered and honored.
I came to work for the city council as the chief of staff for Nate Miley in 1991. He was considered the first reform council member after years of the Lionel Wilson-led council, Lionel himself a ground-breaker, as a judge and our first Black mayor. Former Assembly Member Elihu Harris had replaced Wilson during that campaign-an interesting story in itself (check it out online if you dare).
Harris disappointed many by seeming to pick up where Wilson left off. He and the majority of the council were seen as overly influenced by the downtown White business elite that dominated the previous Republican administrations. One refrain I remember from Harris and his cohorts was that Oakland was not going to build more affordable housing because too many folks moved here to take advantage of that, as if buses were dropping people off from Castro Valley to live in run down apartments, rather than that long-time residents still needed decent, affordable housing (which is not limited to projects.)
This is not to denigrate some of the Harris administration achievements, many of which were put in place before Jerry was inaugurated, and were credited to his mayoralty. In fact that old council was also influenced by activists members like Council Member Mary Moore who fought with the powers that be to protect the neighborhood interests. But, by the time Mary left and John Russo took her place, she had begun to be viewed as a NIMBY; and the reform-minded Russo then honed his power along with his generation’s local developers like Phil Tagami.
Someone ought to write a book about Mr. Tagami, by the way, a man many of us watched grow into a powerful and sometimes reviled figure in Oakland politics and the development community. He’s a truly fascinating character whether you like what he does and how he does it, or not.
After Miley was elected came Mr. De La Fuente and Sheila Jordan who spun off from the school board to the council then to the county Department of Ed where she has since built a small empire. As an aside, for all those budding politicos considering a run for the school board, Sheila, then Jean Quan, and now Noel Gallo were able to move to the council from 2nd Avenue. While it may seem that becoming a school trustee is often entree into the next level of elected office, it’s just as often a dead end for political careers. Running the schools is an almost completely thankless task.
So from Ms. Jordan, the seat then turned over to her close friend, Jane Brunner, while Nancy Nadel moved into what has been called the West Oakland seat; but which now finds most of it voters in the Adams point and Lake Merritt areas. Ignacio De La Fuente was elected to represent the Fruitvale district in 1992 and was the powerful president of the city council for 10 years of that two decades. This council set about changing the face of Oakland politics and bringing their strong social justice bonafides with them.
Prior to this “reform” council being elected, Wilson Riles Jr. was considered the “conscience of the council”. When Mr. Riles left to run the American Friends Service Committee, Nancy Nadel took that title and remained the only one of the new members-particularly after Mr. Russo was elected-to stand completely outside the heavily-financed camp of Don Perata followers.
Despite the heavy influence of Don Perata who ran a lobbying firm known as Perata Engineering-the guy who engineered the Raiders deal along with our long term taxpayer obligations to the Silver and Black-these council members pushed their own progressive agendas.
Notably, Brunner and Nadel, having grown up in low-income housing in New York City, have always been promoters of affordable housing for those who have long lived and struggled in Oakland.
Nadel who has the most interesting background in a membership of folks whose own stories could be made into successful miniseries, has a masters in geoscience, has worked as an artist, a teacher, and an environmentalist, and now heads her own sustainable boutique chocolate company.
She has led the struggle to develop restorative justice and violence prevention as a public health issue, and worked to implement groundbreaking programs to reintegrate former prisoners into the community.
Nancy can be counted on to look at ways that sustainable industries can be developed regionally, youth and their needs can be explored and resources can be found to demand underserved populations be offered real solutions to better their lives.
Jane has always been a union stalwart, a neighborhood mediator, and budget negotiator. Her negotiating talents have been prodigious even as others pushed for jobs programs that often resulted in little, she worked on the details that made them come alive (along with her former colleague, Jean Quan, a behind the scenes council negotiator without whom many successful ballot measures and inter-jurisdictional programs would not have passed.)
Jane presided over district town halls and folks from all over Oakland attended her D1 meetings to learn about and deliberate on the issues of the day facing Oakland. Only Mayor Jean Quan, of all the mayors in my memory, have promoted and organized similar but citywide town halls. I hope that new and long term council members will still consider adding these regular constituent check-in sessions to their agendas.
As a union lawyer, Jane Brunner, has advocated for local, union-strong jobs, that is, jobs with benefits and protections against unscrupulous employers and for affirmative action for Oaklanders who have traditionally been kept out of the equation. Council Member Desley Brooks has more recently assumed that mantle. Now it is her turn to develop a coalition to carry on that tradition with the new council members.
Now we come to Ignacio De La Fuente, who I once considered an ally and still consider a colleague. He came to office as the first Mexican immigrant to sit on the Oakland Council. He has maintained his cultural connections and roots in a district with a successful Latino- based business and retail district. Two of his most significant accomplishments are the redesign of the old Montgomery Ward building into the Cesar Chavez Education Center and the completion of the Fruitvale BART station project.
Believe it or not, I have worked more closely with Mr. De La Fuente than I have with Ms. Nadel and Ms. Brunner though I have always admired their tough work ethic and creative, progressive solutions.
As a council aide to Nate Miley, De La Fuente was the one who helped us shepherd through Miley’s ground breaking legislation to curb crime around liquor stores as alcohol industry lobbyists circled like vultures and our legislation looked like it could not pass. I watched while Ignacio challenged the police department’s budget busting excesses. I also remember when he tried hard to pass a local hire requirement for the police department that was undone by the California courts.
While De la Fuente has long had a knee-jerk reaction against environmentalism; because of concerns that it would hurt job growth-and an autocratic and rule-bending style of leadership-personally, he is always good-humored and self-deprecating. He has never shown offense at my outspoken criticism.
Nancy Nadel retired and has already moved on, but her innovative approaches to our problems will be missed. Jane seems to have ridden herself out of town on a rail, and Ignacio couldn’t wait to spend his stockpile of campaign funds on a useless crusade of silly attacks.
Somehow that didn’t surprise me. He had always hoped to be mayor, and he still seems to be the only one who doesn’t know that can never happen. When he watched a colleague and former close ally who came to the council later than he did, take that job with no money and little high level support, the bitterness fairly dripped off of him until even some of his allies could not stomach his campaign of naysaying and demagoguery against the administration. It could be said that it was reminiscent of the Republican approach to making government work.
Jane could have run a campaign describing the innovations she might very well have promoted as city attorney but with the able assistance of Larry Tramutola- another special Oakland character- she slid into an attack mode from which she never recovered.
This council changing-of-the-guard could be a tale of good intentions lost due to corruption, or opportunism, or simple convenience, but I think, like everything, it’s more complicated than that.
Public servants, and, make no mistake, these are public servants who have worked overtime for what they believe in, are elected by us (all 3 were repeatedly reelected), then trained by all of us. Yes, it’s difficult to run a work-a-day life and stay informed on politics even the local kind. But, it is a requirement of good government that folks not only vote but keep abreast of the issues they care about and continue to learn and demand what they want from their electeds in the context of what is possible.
Politicians are a little like puppies. You need both a rolled up newspaper and a bag of treats to train them to heel long enough to understand what you want. I frequently chat with folks I meet asking them how they think Oakland is doing. They often comment on the failures of the mayor and the city council (any mayor, any city council), the police department, etc. When asked what they would do, the answers quite often range from the impossible to the absurd. It is disturbing and appalling how little many of our most well-educated citizens know about how government works.
So on the day after this new year has started, I wanted to memorialize the hard work and the sometimes magnificent accomplishments of this previous board of long-time activists.
I’d also like to welcome the newly elected and soon-to-be-reviled, incoming city council. Before you post that nasty comment in the paper, or denounce a new initiative, take a look in the mirror, remembering the wise words of that sage, Pogo. We have met the enemy and he is us.