Labor Day came early for Alameda’s eminences of organized labor – or, should we say, champions of working families – last week when one of their number, former Alameda teachers’ union president Gray Harris, became the third union leader appointed to a local board in the last four years.
Ms. Harris, who now works as the “UniServ Director” for the state teachers’ union, was chosen as the Alameda Unified School District’s newest trustee. She joins two other union leaders serving on local boards: Mike Henneberry of the grocery workers’ union (appointed by Mayor Marie Gilmore to the Planning Board in 2011) and Jeff DelBono of the firefighters’ union (appointed by the Democrat-controlled Senate Rules Committee to the Water Emergency Transportation Authority in 2013).
The Merry-Go-Round has to wonder: Could this be a trend?
Typically, organized labor’s role in Alameda politics has been to supply cash and “boots on the ground” to those running for office. Campaign disclosure records show that, in 2014, the political action committee for Mr. Henneberry’s union contributed $97,174.80 to candidates and other political organizations, and the PAC for Captain DelBono’s union spent $74,520.50 on local campaigns. During the same election cycle, the Alameda teachers’ union formerly headed by Ms. Harris co-hosted separate fundraisers for the three candidates on the firefighters’ union’s slate and donated $2,500 to the IAFF Local 689 PAC.
We would be the last to accuse the unions of “buying” appointments for their leaders to boards and commissions by funding successful campaigns. (We’re told that Republicans do give money to a candidate with the expectation of later being appointed to a government position, but they usually insist on ambassadorships). But it is a fact that elected officials often can choose from among multiple applicants for an appointive office. And it is hardly surprising that they would be inclined to give the job to a political benefactor. What’s remarkable, at least to us, is how many of the local appointees are turning out to be union leaders.
Alameda’s Democratic party poobahs and union honchos came out in force last Tuesday to back Ms. Harris for the School Board seat that became vacant upon the death of Niel Tam. In fact, if you’d blinked, you might have thought you were back at the Council meeting in April at which the new public safety union contracts were approved.
State Assemblyman Rob Bonta, who’d appeared in person at the April Council meeting to endorse the union contracts, sent a letter supporting Ms. Harris, as did Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, who’d also endorsed the MOUs by letter. Back in April, Mr. Bonta’s factotum, Councilman Jim Oddie, read a speech from the dais extolling the deal with the unions; this time, he dispatched a letter singing the praises of Ms. Harris.
In addition, Alameda Democratic Club co-president (with Ms. Harris) Patty Osborne and communications chair Zac Goldstein, both of whom had appeared at the April Council meeting in support of the public safety union contracts, showed up at the School Board meeting to endorse Ms. Harris for the AUSD trustee position.
(Former Mayor Gilmore and Mayor Trish Spencer also made personal appearances, but we hesitate to describe Ms. Gilmore as a current Democratic party leader, and we know the appellation doesn’t fit Ms. Spencer).
And then came the phalanx of labor leaders, all of whom had urged Council to approve the MOUs with the public safety unions and now appealed to the School Board to pick Ms. Harris: Teamsters Joint Council 7 political director Doug Bloch; Teamsters Local 70 secretary/treasurer Marty Frates; Carpenters Local 713 marketing & political representative Andy Slivka; Teamsters Local 856 staff attorney/public policy coordinator Malia Vella, and the estimable Mr. Henneberry, the long-time communications and political director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5.
(Also delivering enconiums for Ms. Harris were two members of the teachers’ union bargaining team that, under her leadership, engaged in a contentious battle with the school district over a new contract in 2013).
Indeed, the only politically prominent labor organization without a representative endorsing Ms. Harris at the School Board meeting was the firefighters’ union. Ms. Harris had come to Council to support the public safety union contracts, and one might have expected IAFF Local 689 president DelBono to show up last week to return the favor. But he was conspicuous by his absence at the podium.
Interestingly, except for Mr. Henneberry, none of the union bigwigs who raved about Ms. Harris’s skills mentioned his or her day job. (They identified themselves simply as Alameda residents, alumni, or parents). But some of them saw fit to cite Ms. Harris’s party and labor affiliations as qualifying her to serve as a School Board trustee.
For example, Mr. Frates described Ms. Harris as a “player.” He went on: “We are very fortunate to have somebody like Gray who, politically, has really made herself available. She knows the city politicians, she knows the county, she knows the state, and she knows the federal.”
Later, Mr. Henneberry, who shares Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s penchant for mocking opposing views with a clever turn of phrase, took on anyone troubled by Ms. Harris’s union ties.
“There were comments made earlier tonight about her not being a good candidate because she was a union official and that it would be putting chickens in charge of the chicken coup,” Mr. Henneberry said. (Not to be picky, but Ms. Harris actually was asked about putting the fox in charge of the chicken coup). “I would contend that the problem with society today is there aren’t enough chickens in charge of the chicken coup, there’s too many Colonel Sanders in charge of the chicken coups.”
Against such firepower, what were the other four candidates to do? Ms. Harris’ primary rival, Anne McKereghan, could muster support only from the likes of the Rev. Michael Yoshii, senior pastor of the Buena Vista United Methodist Church and the City’s most respected civil rights leader; Bill Sonneman, retired Encinal High principal and president of the Alameda Education Foundation, and former AUSD Board president and AEF board member Margie Sherratt.
And, oh, from Mr. Tam’s widow, too. “The candidate should not bring an agenda to the position and should support the school district administration and the schools and the children and families for positive, constructive results,” Judy Tam told the Board. “I trust explicitly that Anne will continue Niel’s legacy, and I hope you make the right decision by placing your trust in her.”
When it came time for the Board to make a decision, Ms. Harris got votes from Board president Barbara Kahn and from Solana Henneberry, who was elected to the Board last November. Both had been endorsed by the teachers’ union, whose PAC funded Ms. Henneberry’s run to the tune of $19,023.41 for campaign materials. (Ms. Henneberry also received a $1,000 cash contribution from her husband’s union’s PAC, and the firefighters’ union PAC spent $3,868.47 on a walk piece for her). Board member Philip Hu, who originally voted for Ms. McKereghan, ended up changing his vote to break the tie.
(By the way, we don’t consider Ms. Henneberry, a special education teacher and technology specialist in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, to be a union leader simply because she’s married to one. We know only too well that it is usually a mistake, and a sexist one at that, to pin a label on one spouse based on the other spouse’s political opinions).
Since the Merry-Go-Round doesn’t regularly follow the School Board, we are in no position to opine about who was the best candidate to fill Mr. Tam’s seat. Unlike Mr. Frates, we don’t think Ms. Harris’ background as a Democratic party and labor leader qualifies her for the job – but, like Mr. Henneberry, we don’t think it disqualifies her, either.
Indeed, one might even argue that, as someone who spent 10 years as a classroom teacher, Ms. Harris’s credentials for the School Board slot were more impressive than the qualifications possessed by Mr. Henneberry and Captain Del Bono for the positions to which they were appointed.
At the time Mr. Henneberry applied for the Planning Board, which, among other things, reviews and approves all development projects in the City, he answered the question about his “qualifying experience” this way: “West Berkeley Area plan, Many grocery/retail projects at City Council and Planning Board level.”
Mr. Henneberry was appointed by Mayor Gilmore to fill the remainder of an unexpired term in 2011 and re-appointed by Ms. Gilmore for a full four-year term in 2012. Chosen as Board president this year, Mr. Henneberry usually can be found – at least at the Planning Board meetings we’ve watched – voting in step with the Board’s visionaries, John Knox White and David Burton.
We could find online no written application by Captain DelBono for the WETA board, which, among other things, oversees ferry service in the Bay Area. According to the Board minutes, chair Charlene Haught Johnson introduced him this way: Captain DelBono “and his family resided in Pleasant Hill, CA. He is employed by the Alameda City Fire Department as Captain/Paramedic and has over 20 years of experience in the emergency medical field. . . . [H]e has been a member of the Alameda Fire Department Water Rescue Boat Team for the past 13 years, is a current delegate for the 13th district, executive board member of the Alameda City Firefighters Association and the chief negotiator for the Association’s bargaining team.”
According to published reports, as a WETA board member Captain DelBono was instrumental in obtaining a $3 million federal grant to build a “central operations and maintenance facility” at Alameda Point. The Board minutes also show that he supported adopting a model Project Labor Agreement – which essentially turns every project into a union job – between WETA and the building trades unions, and giving former State Senator Don Perata a $90,000 per year contract for “strategic consulting services.”
Ms. Harris’s appointment to the School Board follows a brief period in which it appeared as if she intended to expand her involvement in local affairs beyond school matters.
Back in January, she applied for one of two vacant seats on the Planning Board. Under “qualifying experience,” she described herself as a “previous local business owner, president of local teachers association, president of city [D]emocratic club.” She had “worked with youth services” and was the “mother of two,” Ms. Harris wrote. “I will bring a unique perspective to the planning board.”
According to City Clerk Lara Weisiger, Ms. Harris withdrew her application before Mayor Spencer announced her nominations for the Board.
Since the election, Ms. Harris also has appeared at Council meetings, not just to endorse the public safety union contracts but also to support the “grocery workers retention” ordinance proposed by Councilman Oddie and backed by Mr. Henneberry. She also was one of the public speakers lauding former City Manager John Russo before his departure for Riverside.
Most interesting of all, Ms. Harris sent someone – whose name we didn’t catch – to the July 21 Council meeting to read a letter on her behalf. The subject was Mayor Spencer.
“We have not always agreed on every issue, but I have found her willing to meet and discuss things whenever necessary,” Ms. Harris wrote of Ms. Spencer, who was embroiled in the Filipino sister-city contretemps. “We have found ways to move forward collaboratively and are working together in the best interests of our city, and I’m confident that this, too, will be amicably resolved.”
Eight days later, Ms. Spencer reciprocated by appearing at the School Board meeting to support Ms. Harris.
Based on the available evidence, we’d say that, if political astuteness is a prerequisite to service on a local board, Ms. Harris is right up there with Mr. Henneberry and Captain DelBono.
AUSD trustee applications: Applications for AUSD trustee
WETA board minutes: WETA June 2013 Board minutes