How the debate about police reform could remake Oakland’s City Council

Rachel Swan – July 31, 2020 Updated: Aug. 1, 2020 (SFChronicle.com)

Richard Santos Raya, 27, is running against City Councilman Noel Gallo, a law-and-order candidate.
Richard Santos Raya, 27, is running against City Councilman Noel Gallo, a law-and-order candidate.Photo: Stephen Lam / Special to The Chronicle
Oakland City Council candidate Richard Santos Raya shakes hand with Hugo Garcia, who has lived in Fruitvale since 1986.
Oakland City Council candidate Richard Santos Raya shakes hand with Hugo Garcia, who has lived in Fruitvale since 1986.Photo: Stephen Lam / Special to The Chronicle
Lynette Gibson McElhaney with clergy and others at a rally to endorse her run for City Council in 2012.
Lynette Gibson McElhaney with clergy and others at a rally to endorse her run for City Council in 2012.Photo: Lacy Atkins / The Chronicle 2012

When Richard Santos Raya announced his bid for Oakland City Council, he embodied a fervent moment of protest and generational conflict.

On June 28, the 27-year-old led a car caravan to City Councilman Noel Gallo’s house in the Fruitvale district of East Oakland. As the sun baked down, Raya delivered a speech about how jobs, housing and culture — not police — keep a community safe. He knelt in the street with other protesters, raised a fist and later posted photos of himself on Instagram.

That night, Raya set a plan in motion: He would run to unseat Gallo, a famously law-and-order politician who organizes Friday night safety walks and once pressed for youth curfews.

“Noel was just going to walk back into his seat,” said Raya, who works at Centro Legal de la Raza, a nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants. “And I thought, someone needs to challenge him.”

Crime and safety have driven many elections in Oakland, where high rates of violence have fueled calls for more police officers. But this year a progressive wave is rolling through the city, which has also been dogged by scandals in a police force operating under federal oversight since 2003. The political energy that now dominates Oakland is fed by a resistance movement that began with the 2016 presidential election and accelerated after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The makeup of the Oakland City Council could change dramatically in November, with five hotly contested races. Several of them could turn on a single topic: defunding the police.

“This is definitely going to be the defining issue,” said Joshua Davis, a resident of Uptown and member of the group East Bay for Everyone, which focuses mostly on housing but has also backed a community-led campaign to shift money away from the police budget. The group has not yet endorsed any council candidates.

“You can’t walk downtown without seeing murals that call for an end to police brutality,” Davis continued. “It’s not going away.”

The city’s marquee race is in West Oakland — District Three — where community activist Carroll Fife is running against City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney. Fife is best known for organizing Moms4Housing, a collective that began with an act of civil disobedience, when homeless mothers took over a speculator-owned house on Magnolia Street. Fife said she has grounded her campaign in the idea that public safety means stable housing and access to health care, rather than police patrols.

Carroll Fife, director of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, is running against City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney.

Carroll Fife, director of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, is running against City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney.Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

McElhaney, who was elected in 2012, ran on a platform that also emphasized safety, a calling that became more immediate after she lost a son and grandson to gun violence. In 2016, she persuaded colleagues to make “Love Life” the city’s official motto, and the next year she helped form the Department of Violence Prevention, which puts teams of social workers and counselors into high-crime areas, seeking to defuse conflicts before they heat up.

Many of Fife’s supporters see McElhaney as too moderate. But the councilwoman disagrees. She and Fife both support calls to divert money from the Police Department and toward social services, though McElhaney wants to work incrementally, while Fife urges immediate systemic change.

Even so, McElhaney describes her match as a battle between progressives with similar worldviews, who have better ways to spend their time and money.

“It’s absolutely silly that progressives would do anything other than raise money and campaign to defeat Trump, overturn Proposition 209 and fix Proposition 13,” she said, expressing support for affirmative action and property tax reforms to fund schools.

Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney supports calls to divert money from the Police Department and toward social services. McElhaney wants to work incrementally, while her opponent, Carroll Fife, urges immediate systemic change.

Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney supports calls to divert money from the Police Department and toward social services. McElhaney wants to work incrementally, while her opponent, Carroll Fife, urges immediate systemic change.Photo: Paul Kuroda / Special to The Chronicle 2018

In an area where every elected official is a Democrat, political fights often hinge on specific wedge issues. This year’s races are playing out against a backdrop of intense racial justice demonstrations and occasional acts of destruction. On a recent Monday, vandals covered Mayor Libby Schaaf’s house and the sidewalk in front of it with graffiti, scrawling messages such as “Defund OPD” and “Blood on Your Hands.”

The next day, Schaaf cast a tie-breaking City Council vote to reject deeper cuts to the police budget. At the same time, President Trump has threatened to send in federal agents to suppress protests in Oakland, a move that Schaaf criticized, saying it would only provoke civil unrest.

So, council races that might otherwise center on homelessness, development or bike infrastructure are suddenly focused on reimagining public safety. In District One, which spreads from the North Oakland hills to the Emeryville border, City Councilman Dan Kalb is defending his seat against Stephanie Dominguez Walton, a longtime organizer and mother of two, and Tri Ngo, an engineer who was born in a Vietnamese refugee camp.

Walton, who has many high-profile endorsements, spoke out in favor of a June proposal by Councilwoman Nikki Fortunato-Bas to slash the police budget by $25 million this year. The council rejected Fortunato-Bas’ item, opting instead to pass a more cautious budget with a $14.3 million cut to law enforcement.

The dynamics are slightly different in Oakland’s citywide at-large race, where the incumbent has also positioned herself as the most liberal. City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan will face off with restaurateur Derreck Johnson, a gay Black man who is campaigning for job growth, preservation of small businesses and community-centered police officers. He hopes to reform rather than dismantle the department.

Raised in the Acorn Projects of West Oakland, Johnson grew up to be a businessman with a social justice bent: He started a car detailing service from the trunk of his own car and hired formerly incarcerated people to operate it. He still recruits former inmates to work at his soul food restaurant, Home of Chicken and Waffles.

Kaplan was the first openly lesbian City Council member when she won in 2008, having built a multiracial coalition of activists, clergy and labor groups. Early in her first term, she established a free bus shuttle on Broadway and advocated for marijuana businesses. In recent years, Kaplan earned a reputation for shrewd politics and imaginative ideas — last year she caused an uproar by suggesting the city put homeless people on cruise ships — as well as unexpected positions. She was the swing vote in June to pass the budget with the more modest $14.3 million police cut, a move that angered her base.

In District Seven, the deep East Oakland neighborhoods most affected by crime and heavy police patrols, PG&E public affairs representative Treva Reid is running to succeed her father, City Councilman Larry Reid, who is retiring after nearly 24 years in office. Reid said she’s open to the idea of defunding the police, as long as the money is reinvested in community programs to reduce gun violence. People “may be challenged” with the slogan, she said, but the philosophy seems to have wide appeal.

She’s competing in a crowded field that includes Robert “Bishop Bob” Jackson, a pastor at the Acts Full Gospel Church on 66th Avenue. He’s wary of calls to defund the police altogether but favors proposals to remove police from situations related to mental health and homelessness.

These issues cause anguished debate in Fruitvale, another flatland area where street corners and lampposts bear makeshift memorials. The district has seen few changes in leadership. Former City Councilman Ignacio de la Fuente served the area from 1992 until 2013, at which point Gallo won the seat.

Gallo remembers Raya from the rallies outside his house. Protesters had picketed there twice as budget and public safety debates escalated in Oakland. Raya was in the second group.

“They got upset because I was not willing to defund the police by $150 million without a process,” Gallo recalled. For years he represented a more conservative ideal of crime prevention, chairing the council’s Public Safety Committee, pressing for more enforcement on homeless encampments and illegal dumping, and donning a yellow vest for Friday night safety walks or weekend sidewalk cleanups.

Now, Gallo supports a task force to reimagine public safety in Oakland and slash $150 million from the police — not right away but in the future.

“For me to straight off the top say we’ll cut $150 million would be irresponsible,” Gallo said. “We had already agreed with unions to not do any layoffs or furloughs.”

Raya sees Gallo as too paternalistic, representing an institution that’s starting to wobble.

“People are waking up,” Raya said. “They are getting angry. They will come to your house.”

Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: rswan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @rachelswan

Rachel Swan

Follow Rachel on:https://www.facebook.com/SFChronicle/rachelswan

Rachel Swan covers transportation for The Chronicle. She joined the paper in 2015 and has also reported on politics in Oakland and San Francisco.

Previously, Rachel held staff positions at the SF Weekly and the East Bay Express, where she covered technology, law and the arts. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley.

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