Takeaways from the forums

(Updated with additional information about Council candidate Jim Oddie on October 14, 2014).

Having now attended all four candidate forums open to the public – two more than Mayor Marie Gilmore – the Merry-Go-Round is prepared to offer our take on the five candidates running for municipal office.  After we do, we’ll pose, for each of them, what John McLaughlin used to call “the big question.”

We’ll start with a one-line summary for each candidate:

  • Mayor Gilmore is sticking to her time-tested formula for soothing the satisfied.
  • Insurgent Mayoral candidate Trish Spencer is depending on the disaffected to rise up and rebel.
  • Incumbent Councilman Stewart Chen, D.C. is willing to say almost anything to ingratiate himself with a particular voting bloc.
  • Dr. Chen’s IAFF Local 689 slate-mate, Jim Oddie, is banking on the Bonta connection to substitute for a track record.
  • Former Councilman Frank Matarrese is a voice crying in the wilderness – but he has something to say.

Mayor Gilmore

Gilmore, Chen & Tam with IAFF honchos

Mayor Gilmore (2nd from left) and her teammates

As we have previously pointed out, Ms. Gilmore reacts predictably whenever she is confronted with a contentious issue:  “It isn’t a problem” is her initial response, followed by, “If it’s a problem, it’s not our problem,” and then, “If it’s our problem, we’re working on a plan to make it go away.”

Based on Ms. Gilmore’s performance at the two forums she attended, it appears that she has taken this mantra from the dais onto the campaign trail.

Let’s look at two tables.  The first summarizes the projections made last June by former City Finance Director Fred Marsh for the General Fund for the next five years:

5 Year Projections - 2

The second reflects the analysis presented to the Planning Board by Dowling & Associates in February 2012 of traffic congestion at the tubes and bridges in 2007 and as projected in 2030 if the General Plan is followed:

Chart - Peak-hour traffic

What, then, would you say to these things?

If you’re Mayor Gilmore, the response to the first table is:  It’s not a problem.  When she was elected in 2010, Ms. Gilmore told the audience at the Sun/Alamedan forum, she’d seen a similar chart.  But, as it turned out, the General Fund hasn’t run out of money in the last four years.  In fact, the General Fund balance has gone up.  (What she does not say is that, as we previously have pointed out, the increase resulted primarily from funds transfers and other accounting maneuvers).

And if you’re the Mayor, your response to the second table is:  It’s somebody else’s problem.

At the LWV forum, Ms. Gilmore didn’t repeat the misleading comparison she’d previously made between traffic conditions at a fully operational naval air station and those at an undeveloped Alameda Point.  This time, she argued that traffic was a “regional problem,” not an Alameda problem.  Specifically, it was the backup on I-880, not the volume of cars coming from Alameda, that caused congestion at the tubes.

Under this view, any additional traffic generated by new developments along the northern waterfront or Alameda Point is simply irrelevant.  (Except, perhaps, to the people trying to get to work or a doctor’s appointment).  It’ll still be the freeway’s fault.

For both the budget deficit and traffic congestion, Ms. Gilmore also has gone on to the next step.  Even if she’s forced to admit that a problem exists with the budget or traffic and she can’t find somebody or something else to blame for it, she assures voters that, We’re working on a plan to make it go away.

“We’re talking,” the Mayor told the LWV forum audience, to the public employee unions about getting employees to “pay more” toward the cost of retiree health benefits – aka OPEB – in exchange for a “guaranteed” annual contribution by the City.  Likewise, “we’re talking” to AC Transit about increasing bus service to Alameda.

What portion of OPEB costs would the union workers pay?  How big a “guaranteed” contribution would the City make?  What additional service would AC Transit provide?  Ms. Gilmore didn’t say.  Maybe she didn’t want to “jeopardize ongoing negotiations.”  Or maybe City Attorney Janet Kern advised her that she’d be disqualified from voting on her own plan if she discussed its substance at a candidate forum.

In any event, the message to voters was clear:  There’s nothing to fret about.  We’ll come up with something.

NixonListening to the Mayor, we couldn’t help but think of Richard Nixon, who famously claimed when he ran for President in 1968 that he had a “plan” to end the Vietnam war – but he was reluctant to provide the details.  We all know how that turned out.  Maybe Ms. Gilmore’s plans, whatever they are, will meet a different fate.

Ms. Gilmore has given no reason to believe she’ll change her approach if she is re-elected.  So, for her, The Big Question is:  Are there enough voters satisfied with the status quo to get her another term?

Nixon again supplies the precedent.  The fallback argument during his 1972 re-election campaign consisted of a profane version of the old adage about not changing horses in the middle of the stream.  Every incumbent can make the same pitch – including Ms. Gilmore.  And it very often succeeds – unless the status quo is so unacceptable that the voters demand an immediate change.

For our part, we don’t detect any sense of urgency among Alameda voters.  It may well be true that, if the budget continues to be managed for the benefit of the public safety unions, the General Fund will run out of money in four years.  But it hasn’t happened yet.  And it may well true that, if the developments planned for the northern waterfront and Alameda Point go forward, the tubes and bridges will be hopelessly gridlocked and the surrounding neighborhoods hopelessly congested.  But it hasn’t happened yet.

Until the pain is palpable, not merely possible, a candidate like Ms. Gilmore who offers business as usual has the odds in her favor.

Trish Spencer

Trish Spencer

Trish Spencer

In our last column published in the Sun, we suggested that the best way to beat Ms. Gilmore was to appeal to the disaffected.  We don’t know if Ms. Spencer read that column – and, we have to admit, our advice wasn’t exactly novel – but she surely has taken the path we recommended.

To residents along the northern waterfront anxious about the impact of the Del Monte warehouse project on their neighborhood, Ms. Spencer has promised that she will “slow down” the pace of development.

To Bay Farm Island homeowners opposed to Ron Cowan’s plan to move the Harbor Bay Club and replace it with new luxury houses (or a hotel), Ms. Spencer has joined their grassroots group, Harbor Bay Neighbors, and echoed the group’s support for maintaining the original master plan.

To open-space supporters responsible for putting together the initiatives to prohibit Council from selling City-owned parkland and to force Council to re-zone Crab Cove from residential to open space, Ms. Spencer has bragged about gathering signatures for both ballot measures.

And to old-timers fearful of seeing Alameda turned into a congerie of condos catering to young and wealthy techies, Ms. Spencer has affirmed the value of Measure A and proclaimed her opposition to high-density housing.

We have no doubt that Ms. Spencer is expressing sincerely held beliefs.  Likewise, as our regular readers know, we agree with a lot of her critique of the policy decisions made by the Russo/Gilmore administration.  But we think that Ms. Spencer’s campaign goes beyond challenging what the Mayor and her confreres have done; it extends to how they’ve done it.

Ms. Spencer is running as the candidate of people who sense that the current rulers of City Hall don’t listen to the ordinary citizen.  They see Mayor Gilmore, Councilwoman Lena Tam, and City Manager John Russo extolling each other’s perspicacity – and belittling outsiders’ obtuseness – during Council meetings.  They see how any proposal offered by former IAFF Local 689 president and current Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi is greeted with enthusiastic approval – regardless of cost.  And yet, at the same time, they see how the Mayor and City Manager patronize (Ms. Gilmore) and disparage (Mr. Russo) the citizens who dare to voice a different view.

“You’re just ornery children” is the message they get from the Mayor.  “Yeah,” the City Manager seems to add, “and stupid children at that.”

The Big Question for Ms. Spencer is the converse of the one we had for Ms. Gilmore:  Are there enough disaffected voters from which to assemble a winning coalition?

We suggested above that, if voters are satisfied with the status quo, they’ll vote for Ms. Gilmore.  But it’s also possible they might not bother to vote at all.  And therein lies an opportunity for Ms. Spencer.

Historically, turnout in local elections in non-presidential years is lower than in presidential years.  (In Alameda, it was 69.02% in 2010 and 78.08% in 2012)  This year won’t be any different.  Nor is there any statewide race that will excite interest among the electorate.  (Can you even name the Republican running against Jerry Brown?).

If Ms. Gilmore’s supporters decide there’s no need to go to the polls, and Ms. Spencer is able to “mobilize” the various groups dissatisfied with the existing state of affairs, she could eke out a majority.

And here’s the wild card:  When she ran for re-election to the School Board in 2012, Ms. Spencer led the pack of nine candidates with 14,823 votes.  This was a higher total than that of any other candidate in a contested municipal race.  If Ms. Spencer’s base of admirers comes out this time determined to make her Mayor, the wild card may turn out to be her hole card.

Stewart Chen

Chen DelBono Bonta

Councilman Stewart Chen (center) and friends

Quick quiz:

Who made the following statements about “Alameda United Commercial, LLC,” the newly formed development group with whom the City has entered into exclusive negotiations for two parcels at Alameda Point:

  • “Unfortunately, I cannot take credit for introducing Alameda United Commercial LLC, or its principals, to the City.  I met Sal Caruso through a mutual friend, TW Starkweather, and Sal was the person who introduced Alameda United Commercial LLC to the City.” (E-mail to the Merry-Go-Round).
  • “At the last City Council meeting, we approved two Exclusive Negotiating Agreements with Alameda United Commercial.  I was the key swing vote in the decision and I was also instrumental in the recruiting process of the developer.” (Questionnaire seeking the endorsement of the Asian Pacific American Democratic Caucus).

Or how about these statements about Crab Cove:

  • “Alameda has nothing to do with the ownership of or use of the property. . . . The city would be more than happy to process an application from the park district, if and when it owns the land.” (Letter to the editor of the Sun prior to filing of the initiative to force the Council to re-zone the parcel to open space).
  • “The Council approved the citizens’ initiative – unanimously.  It’s now zoned open space.  And the Council, 3 out of 5 of us, took out the language that could suspend the citizens’ initiative.  The citizens have spoken; we listened.  We acted properly according to the citizens’ will.”  (Statement at the Sun/Alamedan candidate forum).

If you answered, “Councilman Stewart Chen,” to all four statements, you’re right.  Now, on AUC, perhaps one could draw a distinction between “introducing” and “recruiting” the developer.  Or, on Crab Cove, one could argue that a politician is entitled to change his mind as he learns more facts.  (After all, John Kerry voted for the Iraq war before he voted against it).

We would be inclined to be more forgiving had we not previously found that many of the “achievements” listed by Councilman Chen on his campaign Website lacked any support in the record.  (Interestingly, that list has disappeared from the “achievements” page).  There appears to be a pattern here of Dr. Chen saying almost anything – even if it’s not consistent with his previous statements – to get credit for supporting a cause dear to a particular voting bloc.  At some point, the slipperiness becomes so egregious that it begins to look like deception.

But voters aren’t fact-checkers, and, much to our disappointment, not everyone in Alameda reads the Merry-Go-Round.  So The Big Question for Dr. Chen is:  Does he have such a solid base of support that it doesn’t matter what he says?

Dr. Chen owes his third-place finish in 2012 to two groups:  the Alameda firefighters’ union, which not only endorsed him but spent $10,000 on last-minute mailers touting his candidacy, and the Greater Bay Area Asian Pacific American community, many of whose prominent members gave him kudos and cash and a lot of whom – at least those who live in Alameda – probably voted for him.

Nothing we heard Dr. Chen say at the campaign forums is likely to diminish his support from either group.  He regularly praises the public safety unions.  And he doesn’t have to remind voters that he is the only Asian Pacific American running for municipal office this year.

Jim Oddie

Oddie & Bonta

Candidate Jim Oddie (left) with his boss

Of all the candidates, Mr. Oddie is the only one never to have been elected to public office.  Yet, he included in almost every answer given during the forums a reference to how “we” solved a similar problem at the state level.  For example, asked about unfunded liabilities for retiree health benefits, Mr. Oddie described how “we” brokered a compromise by which the State, school districts, and the teachers’ unions all agreed to increase their contributions to the CalSTRS pension plan.

Since Mr. Oddie is the self-proclaimed champion of the “working family,” we couldn’t imagine he was using the royal “we” when he made these statements.  Instead, he must have been referring collectively to himself and State Assemblyman Rob Bonta, who has employed him as “district director” since December 2012.

Mr. Oddie surely will concede that he didn’t achieve all these legislative triumphs on his own.  Otherwise, we’d have to believe that Assemblyman Bonta was just sitting in the office playing “Angry Birds” on his iPhone  – or, more likely, out on the hustings raising money for Democratic party candidates – while Mr. Oddie was busy passing bills and cutting deals with elected officials.

In recent forums, Mr. Oddie has added anecdotes describing constituent services he has performed personally, like intervening with the DMV on a citizen’s behalf or expediting sewer repairs on Otis Drive.  At times he sounds just like a old-time Chicago ward boss, but at least now we’ll all know whom to call in similar circumstances.

Based on a letter to the editor in last Friday’s Alameda Journal, it turns out that the Otis Drive homeowners who sought and obtained Mr. Oddie’s services were none other than UFCW Local 5 communications director (and Planning Board member) Mike Henneberry and his wife, Solana, a candidate for School Board.  

Again, Mr. Oddie undoubtedly will admit that the cachet of his employer’s office had something to do with his successes.  Someone who got a call from “landlord-tenant attorney Jim Oddie” might hang up.  But if the same person got a call from “Jim Oddie from Assemblyman Bonta’s office,” she might ask, “What can I do for my good friend Rob?”

By emphasizing his connection to a popular figure, Mr. Oddie is doing nothing different than a politician who displays a picture of herself with Bill (or Hillary) Clinton on her office wall in an effort to bask in the reflected glow.  As one blog commenter recently put it, “The only thing that impresses me about Oddie is he has the strength to type up answers to questionnaires after holding on to Bonta’s coattails as hard as he does his fingers must be sore.”

The tie to Mr. Bonta hasn’t hurt Mr. Oddie’s fundraising, either.  The very first contribution Mr. Oddie got was $1,000 from Assemblyman Bonta’s campaign committee.  Since then, through September 30, Mr. Bonta’s campaign has ponied up another $4,000.  And we can only guess how much of the roughly $6,500 Mr. Oddie has received from unions – most of them outside Alameda – is thanks to Mr. Bonta.

So The Big Question for Jim Oddie is:  Couldn’t you do more for Alamedans by spending 100% of your time on your current job?

We’re not being entirely facetious.  A staffer who can get things done for his boss, and his boss’s constituents, brings value to the political process.  And not everyone gets to work the front of the house; someone has to do the cooking.  According to Steve Tavares of the East Bay Citizen, “district directors” for state legislators haven’t fared especially well when they’ve ventured into the electoral arena.  Maybe we’d all be better off if Mr. Oddie chose to forego the distraction of adding a seat on Council to his current responsibilities.

Frank Matarrese

Frank MatarreseOf all the candidates, incumbents and challengers, it is Mr. Matarrese who has offered new – or, at least, different – ideas about the issues facing Alameda.  Among other things,

  • On Alameda Point, he opposes development of a “Waterfront Town Center” and construction of 1,425 new housing units. Indeed, he doesn’t want any new housing built at the Point.  Instead, he says, the focus should shift to attracting commercial enterprises, in particular the maritime industry and “green” energy companies.
  • Similarly, he proposes scaling back residential development at the former Del Monte warehouse. Instead of the 410 new housing units in the current master plan, he suggests limiting the number of housing units to the “realistic  capacity” set forth in 2015-23 Housing Element (200 units) or its 2007-14 predecessor (150 units).
  • On the budget, Mr. Matarrese would end the practice of borrowing from Alameda Municipal Power and dipping into reserves to create the illusion of a “balanced” budget.  He would earmark any “one-time revenues” – like transfer taxes assessed when a development is sold – for funding capital improvements or reducing unfunded OPEB liabilities.  And, most controversially, he would not shy away from “painful” steps like renegotiating union contracts or cutting back on City services.
  • On open space, Mr. Matarrese supports transferring to EBRPD, free of charge, the City-owned land in the Northwest Territories on which the Park District has plans – and funds available – to create a regional park.  And he wants the City to remove an impediment to expanding Crown Beach by settling the lawsuit with EBRPD over Crab Cove.

We’re not convinced that every one of Mr. Matarrese’s proposals has merit.  (For example, we previously have expressed doubts about the economic feasibility of a commercial-only development at Alameda Point).  But our point is not that Matarrese is always right; it is that, of the three Council candidates, he is the one most likely to offer an alternative to the party line laid down by the Russo/Gilmore administration.  He would not vote to rubber-stamp the current development plans for Alameda Point and the northern waterfront.  He would not vote to accept any clever ruses devised by staff to deal with the budget deficit or unfunded liabilities.  And he would insist that labeling a parcel “open space” on a map is not the same as making it into a park.

If Mr. Matarrese charts this course, he won’t be a popular figure at City Hall.  We can hear Ms. Gilmore – if she manages to get re-elected – complaining that he’s thwarting the “community vision” (i.e., hers).  So The Big Question for Mr. Matarrese is:  If you’re elected, do you believe you can get your ideas adopted as policy and/or enacted into law?

We admit to a certain fondness for iconoclasts.  And we’re ardent fans of the “Great Dissenters” on the Supreme Court, from Oliver Wendell Holmes to Thurgood Marshall.  But sometimes we wonder:  What good is a politician if she’s always on the losing side?  Unlike Mayor Gilmore, we don’t believe that “working well with others” is a quality our elected officials must possess; “getting others to agree” is closer to the mark.

We weren’t following local politics when Mr. Matarrese last served on Council, so we don’t know the strength of his powers of persuasion.  But it is at least possible that he wouldn’t be tilting at windmills.  As we previously have pointed out, Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft has become increasingly willing to defy the Russo/Gilmore administration’s marching orders.  And Councilman Daysog is, well, Tony Daysog – impossible to predict.

All it takes is three votes.  We’re not saying that either Ms. Ashcraft or Mr. Daysog can be counted in the Matarrese camp.  In fact, we are pretty sure that the Vice Mayor and he do not agree about residential development.  But our sense is that both of the incumbents who are not running for re-election are reasonable people open to considering unorthodox points of view.

Who knows?  If Mr. Matarrese can make a compelling case, maybe he can turn the City in a different direction after all.


Oddie campaign disclosures: 2014 – 1st semi2014 – 1st P-E

Chen article & questionnaire response: 2013-09-12 Chen articleAPDCAC questionnaire

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in Alameda Point, Budget, City Hall, Development, Firefighters, Housing, Pensions and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Takeaways from the forums

  1. 2wheelsmith says:

    Your insights into the candidate’s strategies were helpful in understanding their future approach to governing. Not only are Frank Matarrese’s ideas new, they are also the most coherent, especially regarding development. Although I disagree with Mr. Matarrese’s preference for reducing the number of housing units along the Northern waterfront – I agree with his realistic go slow approach for a bigger development – that of Alameda Point. Slow development there is warranted for two reasons: 1) threat of flooding from global sea level rise and 2) the time needed to prove that we can transport thousands of new residents on the Northern Waterfront between home, work and school daily before adding thousands more at Alameda Point.

  2. tom says:

    My absentee vote is in….

    Anyone supported by the Police, Fire or Current City Council did not get my vote!

    May I suggest for Council positions only vote for Frank Matarrese….thus you will boost Frank and deny Chen or Oddie a vote. And help Matarrese more than a single vote for him!!!

    Hope we get some change on the Council and a new Mayor…


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