For some time, the Merry-Go-Round has been wondering whom the Alameda firefighters’ union and its allies in organized labor will anoint to take down Councilman Tony Daysog in this November’s Council election.
During an Alameda political career going back to 1996, Mr. Daysog never has received an endorsement from the firefighters’ union, but he sealed his fate last April when he voted against the contracts that extended guaranteed minimum annual raises for the firefighters and cops through 2020.
By now, it’s become pretty apparent whom the unions have tapped for the Council seat now held by Mr. Daysog: a Teamsters’ Union lawyer and first-time candidate named Malia Vella.
On March 23, four unions are sponsoring a fundraiser for Ms. Vella at the Alameda Island Brewing Company on Park Street: the firefighters’ union (IAFF Local 689); Teamsters Union Joint Council 7 (the umbrella organization representing locals including Local 856, for which Ms. Vella works as a staff attorney); United Commercial and Food Workers Union Local 5 (for which Planning Board member Mike Henneberry works as communications and political director), and Operating Engineers Local 3.
Individual tickets will go for $50 a pop. Bernie Sanders might be happy with contributions at that level, but the unions sponsoring the Vella fundraiser are looking for donors who are, if not quite in the Clintonian sphere, a bit more well off: interested parties can become “silver” sponsors for $100; “gold” sponsors for $500, “platinum” sponsors for $1,000 and “diamond” sponsors for $2,500.
The fundraiser will add to the cash already funneled directly by organized labor into Ms. Vella’s campaign coffers: $5,000 from D.R.I.V.E., the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ Political Action Committee, on February 17. Other unions may have donated as well, but only contributions of $1,000 or more have to be disclosed before the first semi-annual filing on August 1.
This will be the fourth consecutive election in which the firefighters’ union and other labor organizations are funding a first-time candidate for Council. And their money matters. Aspiring office-seekers who are not widely known need to flood the island with campaign literature in order to gain name recognition. If the unions won’t supply the cash for the mailers and door hangers, the newbie will have to emulate Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and largely self-finance her campaign. Not everyone is able, or willing, to go that route.
Recent history proves the value of labor money: three of the four first-time candidates who got financial support from the firefighters’ union won seats on Council. And this has happened even though the successful candidates’ resumes – at least as they relate to prior governmental service – have become thinner over time. Ms. Vella extends the trend one step further.
The firefighters’ union’s first candidate making his maiden race for Council was Rob Bonta in 2010. Appointed to the Social Services Human Relations Board in 2004, Mr. Bonta moved after two years to the Economic Development Commission, where he served for four years. In the meantime, he was appointed to fill a vacant seat on the Hospital Board.
The IAFF Local 689 PAC contributed $5,000 in cash to Mr. Bonta’s campaign and included him in a slate mailer costing $13,624.34. Other unions chipped in another $3,150. Winning the most votes of any Council candidate, Mr. Bonta swept into office with the other members of the union team (incumbent Council members Marie Gilmore and Lena Tam).
In 2012, the firefighters’ union endorsed one candidate, Ms. Ashcraft, who twice had run unsuccessfully for Council, and two first-timers, Stewart Chen, D.C., and Jeff Cambra. Dr. Chen had served on the Social Services Human Relations Board for seven years and thereafter for two years on the Hospital Board. Mr. Cambra’s experience with City government was limited to hearing housing and building code appeals, but he also had been president of the Alameda City Democratic Club and president of the League of Women Voters.
Originally, the IAFF Local 689 PAC treated Dr. Chen and Mr. Cambra equally, contributing $500 in cash to each and spending $15,845.17 to print and distribute mailers in which both (as well as other union-endorsed candidates) were featured. But then, two weeks before the election, the union decided to throw its weight behind Dr. Chen, shelling out $10,000 for mail drops and door hangers on his behalf.
Dr. Chen won; Mr. Cambra did not.
In 2014, Dr. Chen ran for re-election with the firefighters’ union’s endorsement. This time, the union’s first-time candidate was Jim Oddie, Mr. Bonta’s former campaign manager and current district director. Mr. Oddie had applied – twice – for the Planning Board and once for the Hospital Board, but he never got the nod. Finally, then-Councilman Bonta picked Mr. Oddie for a seat on the newly formed Open Government Commission. (He attended two meetings before running for Council).
Despite his lack of experience in public office, Mr. Oddie’s political credentials were impeccable. In addition to working for Mr. Bonta, he had been president of the local Democratic Club. Perhaps more significantly, he had appeared before Council to criticize a proposal to limit campaign contributions by organizations like unions, and to endorse the contracts giving the public safety unions their first round of guaranteed minimum annual raises.
As in 2012, the IAFF Local 689 PAC originally treated its two endorsees virtually the same. It sponsored separate fundraisers for Dr. Chen and Mr. Oddie ($306.47 for food and drink for Dr. Chen’s supporters, $266.96 for Mr. Oddie’s), and spent $14,042.42 on slate mailers in which they were included. Later, it paid $1,809.34 for phone banking for the two Council candidates.
But, again as in 2012, the firefighters’ union eventually picked a favorite. This time, it was Mr. Oddie. Two weeks before the election, the IAFF Local 689 PAC shelled out $8,862.74 for printing and distributing mailers devoted exclusively to him.
Mr. Oddie won; Dr. Chen did not.
(The firefighters’ union shouldn’t get all the credit for Mr. Oddie’s victory. He also received cash contributions totaling $13,150 from other unions, including the Teamsters, food service workers, and operating engineers).
According to her Linked-In profile, Ms. Vella was graduated in 2006 from Wellesley College, which counts Hillary Rodham Clinton among its distinguished alumnae, and in 2011 from Santa Clara University Law School, which lists Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft on its own honor roll. In November 2012, a year after her law-school graduation, Ms. Vella became a member of the State Bar of California, to whom she is known as “Mary Hatsume Vella.” She worked as district director for State Assemblyman Bill Quirk for a year, then became an associate at a law firm called Olson, Hagel & Fishburn, whose website says it specializes in “political law.” After a year with that firm, she joined the Teamsters in June 2014.
Prior to 2013, Ms. Vella had not sought appointment to any City board or commission. That May, she applied for an opening on the Transportation Commission, but she wasn’t selected.
Three months later, Ms. Vella submitted an application for the Historical Advisory Board. Under “qualifying experience,” she wrote that she had been an “affiliate student” for “Course 4 Architecture” at M.I.T. and a “visiting student” in “brownsite redevelopment and planning” at the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London. In addition, she had taken design and engineering courses in college as well as architectural history courses from “noted American Architectural historians Alice Friedman & James O’Gorman.”
Mayor Gilmore appointed Ms. Vella to the HAB in September 2013. Since then, Ms. Vella has attended 10 of the 15 meetings held by the Board.
Her resume lists no other public office.
Instead, Ms. Vella has endeavored to raise her public profile in other ways. She was one of the many union officials who streamed to the podium to urge Council to adopt the public safety contracts extending the guaranteed minimum annual raises. She also was one of an array of union officials who spoke at the School Board in support of the appointment of former teachers’ union president Gray Harris to the Board.
More recently, Ms. Vella has delivered remarks before packed audiences at Council meetings about two issues close to the hearts of local activists and Inner Ringers: “tenant protection” and “complete streets.” She came out in favor of both.
Of her three appearances at Council meetings at which the “rent stabilization” ordinance was discussed, perhaps the most attention-getting was the one on February 16, when Mayor Trish Spencer twice had to admonish spectators to stop interrupting Ms. Vella with boos and catcalls. The first time came when Ms. Vella advised landlords that they could simply “sell one of your properties” if they needed funds for capital improvements. The audience grew restive again – indeed, the Mayor threatened to call the cops – when Ms. Vella lectured landlords that they should “make sure what your capital improvements and investments are going to need to be” and “budget” accordingly. Undeterred, she concluded by reminding them that, “There is no right to a profit.”
Two weeks later, Ms. Vella returned with a history lesson. “The purpose of government is to provide justice,” she told Council and the audience. “That’s what was discussed when people were actually writing the Constitution and talking about what kind of government we wanted. They talked about the purpose of government being justice.” Ms. Vella may have left out the other five goals set forth in the preamble to the Constitution, but her message to the Council members was clear: “We need to make sure that the Council is listening to voters and taking a step to make sure everybody stays honest.”
(When Ms. Vella sends out her first mailers, it will be interesting to see how, if at all, she addresses the tenant-protection issue. Thus far, Ms. Vella publicly has aligned herself with the Alameda Renters Coalition in demanding a rent cap based on the increase in the Consumer Price Index and a ban on “no-cause” evictions. But these are not the positions taken by Mr. Oddie and Ms. Ashcraft, two Democratic party stalwarts and Inner Ringers in good standing who voted for an ordinance providing less drastic provisions than the renters demanded. Which side will Ms. Vella choose? Duffy & Capitolo – or whomever she is using as campaign consultants – probably will tell her to dodge the question until they can poll on voters’ attitudes toward the initiative proposed by the Coalition.)
Ms. Vella also came to Council – twice – to speak in support of the proposal to revamp Central Avenue to add bike lanes. The first time, the meeting ended before she was called upon, and, she later reported, she got into a traffic accident returning to her home about a mile from City Hall. (Ms. Vella apparently had driven her car to the Council session. “I’m happy that I’m the one that was hit and not the cyclists,” she said). When she got her turn at the resumed meeting, Ms. Vella declared that “there is something very compelling” about “trying to protect our kids when they go to school,” “living up to the commitment we made to try to encourage alternate modes of transportation,” and “enforcing the speed limits.”
Even as she has increased her public appearances, Ms. Vella has begun using her Twitter account – usually filled with kudos for the Warriors and the Denver Broncos, photos of public figures, and attacks on Uber – to promote her political views. In particular, she has become a regular participant in the live commentary – the tone and content of which often resembles a Republican presidential debate – on Council meetings. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr. Daysog is one of her favorite targets. “Daysog still hammering away about mom and pop landlords,” she Tweeted on March 1, for example. “It never ends.”
We doubt that the firefighters’ union or its allies in organized labor really care what stance Ms. Vella takes on issues like these – as long as it doesn’t impair her chances of winning. Instead, their goal in financing her candidacy undoubtedly is to ensure that there’s a reliable third vote on issues that do matter to them. (Like what? We’re not privy to the unions’ current wish list, but we’d bet that it includes enacting an ordinance mandating “project labor agreements” – which require contractors to get their workers only through union hiring halls – for all public works projects in the City. For a while now, Councilman Oddie has been pushing staff to negotiate a model PLA with the building trades unions).
After the IAFF Local 689 slate took over in November 2010, the unions were able to count on three sure votes for four years: Ms. Gilmore, Mr. Bonta, and Ms. Tam from 2010 through 2012, and Ms. Gilmore, Ms. Tam, and Dr. Chen from 2012 through 2014. And they got the results they wanted. These are the politicians who started the ball rolling on the public safety contracts guaranteeing minimum annual raises every year from 2014 through 2020 (except for 2019) regardless of the City’s financial condition. They are also the ones who gave the green light to the new emergency operations center and fire station that will end up costing the City $14.5 million.
But the November 2014 election upset the apple cart. Although Mr. Oddie won, Frank Matarrese beat Dr. Chen for the other Council seat, and – horrors! – Ms. Spencer defeated Ms. Gilmore. Of the five current Council members, the Mayor and Mr. Daysog are not known as ardent supporters of the public safety unions, and only Mr. Oddie can be trusted to vote their way every time. Mr. Matarrese and Ms. Ashcraft frequently furnish the other two votes needed for a majority, but neither is 100% reliable. For example, the two Council members voted against appropriating $457,000 from the General Fund to cover construction cost overruns for the new EOC and fire station. If Ms. Vella is elected, the unions will only need to get either Mr. Matarrese or Ms. Ashcraft, and not both of them, to get to a majority.
And that, dear readers, is why your mailbox is going to fill up this fall – if not sooner – with “Vella for Council” literature.
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