Let the campaign begin!

The campaign season is now officially open in Alameda, and the Merry-Go-Round is ready to rumble.

Votes for rent

We’ve always regarded Alameda firefighters’ union president Jeff DelBono as the shrewdest political operator around town.  (For a while, he had a rival in former City Manager John Russo, but Mr. Russo’s departure for Riverside left the decks clear.)   Now, it looks like Captain DelBono may have come up with another winning strategy.

The hottest political issue in the City these days, of course, is rent control, with the ordinance adopted by Council and the initiative sponsored by the Alameda Renters’ Coalition competing on the November ballot.

One might suspect that the firefighters’ union wouldn’t care much about a local housing issue.  After all, fewer than 10 per cent of the firefighters and police officers employed by the City actually live in Alameda.  (Human Resources Director Nancy Bronstein told us that of 181 sworn public safety personnel, 15 employees gave an Alameda home address.) Moreover, the firefighters who do live here fall well outside the ranks of impecunious renters who tell their stories at Council meetings.  Based on the data published by Transparent California, the average pay package, including salary and benefits, for an Alameda fire captain in 2015 was $267,460.70; for a fire apparatus operator, it was $250,984.60, and for a firefighter it was $213,789.

But guess who was one of the five signatories on the ballot argument in favor of the ARC initiative?  Why, it was Capt. DelBono himself!  Indeed, of the five people who signed the argument, only Catherine Pauling has a reputation as a tenants’ advocate.  The majority of signatories are past or present union honchos:  in addition to Capt. DelBono, the argument was signed by Josie Camacho, executive secretary/treasurer of the Alameda Labor Council, and by former Alameda teachers’ union president (and current School Board member) Gray Harris.

By signing the ballot argument, Capt. DelBono and his two co-signers proclaimed that organized labor is squarely in the renters’ camp.  They’re unlikely to stop there.  The Local 689 union hall, which already served as ARC’s unofficial headquarters during the signature-gathering campaign, is an ideal venue for phone-banking.  And we wouldn’t be surprised if Capt. DelBono manages to find a few bucks in the union PAC’s kitty to pay for pro-initiative mailers and robocalls (although the prospect of an army of off-duty firefighters marching down the street to sell the initiative door-to-door is somehow disconcerting.)

What’s in it for the firefighters?

Well, the ARC initiative is not the only item on the November ballot.  Alameda voters also will choose two Council members – and, as we’ve previously discussed, the firefighters’ union desperately wants one of them to be Teamsters’ union lawyer Malia Vella.  If Ms. Vella is elected, she will join Councilman Jim Oddie as a dependable defender of the public safety unions’ interests.  Together, they’d need just one more vote to ensure that the firefighters’ salaries and staffing levels remain secure for the foreseeable future.

But the 32-year-old Ms. Vella is a first-time candidate – her only prior experience in public office consists of two years on the Historical Advisory Board.  All of the cash doled out by organized labor (see below) may buy her name recognition, but it won’t necessarily get her enough votes to bump off the two incumbents running for re-election.  In that case, it makes eminent sense for Ms. Vella’s campaign strategists to target a specific bloc of voters who are motivated to go to the polls for another reason this November.  And we imagine Capt. DelBono knows exactly who those voters are.

If ARC does its job – and we fully expect it will – Alameda renters will turn out in droves to support the rent-control initiative.  According to the American Community Survey, there were 15,916 “renter households” in Alameda in 2014; the survey doesn’t say how many registered voters these households included, but ARC will be trying to get every last one of them to vote for the ballot measure.

Ordinarily, there’d be no reason for the renters drawn to the polls by the ARC initiative to follow the public safety unions’ lead in the Council race.  (In fact, if the renters knew how much firefighters are making, they might balk at the notion of going along with a group of one-percenters.)  But if the initiative’s backers can be persuaded that the firefighters are on their side in the rent-control battle, they might be inclined to vote for the union’s candidate for Council, too.

There’s nothing mysterious – or nefarious – about the firefighters’ union’s support for the ARC initiative.  It’s simply the politically shrewd thing to do.

More on Malia

And speaking of Ms. Vella:

She filed her semi-annual campaign disclosure statement on August 3 and amended it a week later.  Whatever Ms. Vella may lack in experience as an office-holder, she is no slouch as a fund-raiser.  And the identity of her financial backers dispels any doubt about who’s pushing her candidacy.

Ms. Vella reported receiving $33,953 in monetary contributions between January 1 and June 30.  This is about three times the total raised by Councilman Oddie during the same period in 2014, and it exceeds even the amount raised by current State Assemblyman Rob Bonta in the first six months of his Council run in 2010.  Indeed, it may be the most money ever collected by a Council candidate in the first half of an election year.

More than two-thirds of Ms. Vella’s war chest came from organized labor.  The Alameda Labor Council forked over $4,200, and union political action committees kicked in a total of $20,500.  The Teamsters led the PACs with contributions totaling $8,000, but PACs run by the operating engineers, sprinkler fitters, service employees, carpenters, painters, iron workers, transit workers, and electricians unions also wrote checks.  Individual union honchos added another $700.

(By way of comparison, Mayor Trish Spencer raised and spent all of $9,477 on her successful 2014 mayoral campaign.)

Consistent with its usual practice, the firefighters’ union is holding its financial firepower for later.  The IAFF Local 689 PAC spent $285.67 on food and drink for a campaign kick-off event for Ms. Vella, but it has made no monetary contribution as yet.  We expect that, as in the last two elections, the union will wait until after the last round of pre-election disclosure statements have been filed to pay for printing and distributing campaign literature for its favored candidate ($10,000 for Stewart Chen, D.C., in 2012, and $8,872.64 for Mr. Oddie in 2014).

Of the $7,500 in monetary contributions from individuals Ms. Vella reported, only $1,550 came from Alameda residents.  Two politically well-connected Alamedans and two union officials who live in the City accounted for about half of this total.

Ms. Vella also submitted a candidate statement in which she described herself as a “native Alamedan.”  According to a laudatory profile published in Alameda Magazine, this is true – Ms. Vella was born in Alameda – but she moved to San Leandro when she was five years old and took up residence again in Alameda only in 2011.  Within two years, she applied for appointment to the Transportation Commission and the Historical Advisory Board.  (Former Mayor Marie Gilmore ended up giving her the latter post.)

The profile contains another interesting tidbit:  “today [Ms. Vella] lives with her high school sweetheart in the [Alameda] house that her great-grandparents lived in.”  The article doesn’t say if Ms. Vella owns or rents, but if it’s the latter and the house has stayed in the family, we wonder whether Ms. Vella delivers, in private around the family dinner table, the same lecture to landlords she gave in public before the packed crowd of potential voters at Kofman Auditorium on February 16.  (“You have the ability to sell one of your properties if you need to to generate funds.”)  In any event, she probably runs little risk of being forced to move out of her home as the result of a no-cause eviction or an excessive rent increase.

Lena, too

The late entry of former Councilwoman Lena Tam into the Council race is puzzling – and potentially game-changing.

First elected in 2006, Ms. Tam was a member of the IAFF Local 689 slate (with Ms. Gilmore and Mr. Bonta) in 2010, when the firefighters’ union flexed its political muscle for the first time.  (The firefighters contributed $26,800 in cash to their three candidates during that election cycle and shelled out another $19,898.15 for mailers and robocalls.)  She joined her slatemates in cashiering the union’s nemesis, Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant, as their first official act, and thereafter was a stalwart supporter of organized labor’s agenda.  She termed out in 2014.

This year, of course, the firefighters’ union has anointed Ms. Vella as its favored candidate.  Moreover, the union endorsed Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, who is running for re-election, in 2012, and it already has played host to a campaign fundraiser for Ms. Ashcraft this time around.

But only two seats are open on Council.  So how does Ms. Tam fit in? And where’s her support coming from?

The candidate statement Ms. Tam submitted suggests that she is re-positioning herself to appeal to a constituency new for her.  Identifying her occupation as “engineer, environmental and park advocate,” she says she “advanced environmentally and economically sustainable plans at Alameda Point” and “helped secure funding to protect our open space at the Jean Sweeney Park and Chuck Corica Golf Course.”

Frankly, we don’t recall the “environmentally and economically sustainable plans” Ms. Tam proposed for Alameda Point.  (We do remember her suggesting that a Project Labor Agreement, in which all construction workers must be hired out of union halls, “made sense” for the site.)  And her devotion to “protect[ing] our open space” at the golf complex will come as news to veterans of the golf wars who recall her describing Ron Cowan’s plan to rip up the par-three course and turn it into a housing development as a “concept worth exploring.”

Nevertheless, we suppose it’s possible that, in the two years since she left Council, Ms. Tam has developed a whole new set of interests.

Ms. Tam’s entry into the race may complicate matters for the Inner Ring.  They surely will back Ms. Vella – her website lists Ringleader John Knox White as one of her prominent endorsers – but who gets their blessing for the other slot?

Based on their past performance, both Ms. Ashcraft and Ms. Tam can make legitimate claims on the loyalty of Those Who Know Best.  But the case for Ms. Ashcraft may be stronger.  From the time she served on the Planning Board, Ms. Ashcraft has displayed her allegiance to the dogma that building more market-rate housing lifts all boats.  And if the Inner Ringers are planning to put up Ms. Ashcraft for mayor against Ms. Spencer in 2018, she would be better positioned to run as a sitting Council member than as a recently defeated Council candidate.

At the same time, Ms. Tam developed a following of her own among Alameda voters in her eight years on Council.  Putting the Inner Ring’s dilemma to one side, the potential exists that she and Ms. Ashcraft will split the vote of those people who have fallen in behind Ms. Vella but are disposed toward either Ms. Tam or Ms. Ashcraft for the other open seat.  If that happens, the door will open wider for Councilman Tony Daysog to win re-election or even for newcomer Jennifer Roloff to sneak onto the dais.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if Ms. Tam’s candidacy ends up costing her old friend Ms. Ashcraft her Council seat?

Advice not taken

Remember City Attorney Janet Kern’s public slapdown of City Treasurer Kevin Kennedy and City Auditor Kevin Kearney when they pleaded with Council to take more time to analyze, and to inform the public about, the potential fiscal consequences of the new six-year public-safety-union contracts presented by former City Manager Russo as his parting gift?

According to the City Attorney, the Treasurer’s sole duty under the City Charter is to recommend investment policy; the Auditor’s sole duty is to arrange for annual audits.  Messrs. Kennedy and Kearney should stick to the duties set forth in the Charter, Ms. Kern solemnly intoned.  “Just to be clear,” she said, any advice by the Kevins “beyond investment advice and auditing is above and beyond what they are authorized to do.”

This November, for the first time in many years, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Kearney will be facing opposition in their campaign for re-election.  But it appears that the candidates seeking to oust the incumbents aren’t listening to the law laid down by Ms. Kern.  At the least, they don’t appear eager to be fitted with the City Attorney’s straitjacket.

“As a financial professional, I know how to balance budgets, make prudent investment decisions and help individuals and organizations plan sensibly for the future,” says the candidate statement submitted by Mr. Kennedy’s opponent, Jeff Bratzler. “As your Treasurer, I will serve with objectivity and integrity. The City Council needs the ability to prioritize based on accurate projections and sound financial planning.”

Similarly, former School Board member Mike McMahon, who is seeking Mr. Kearney’s job, avers in his candidate statement that “I am running for City Auditor to develop a higher level of transparency and civic engagement regarding city finances.”

We doubt that either Mr. Kennedy or Mr. Kearney would disagree with these aspirations for what the Treasurer and Auditor are supposed to do.  Nor, we suspect, would many Alamedans (outside the Inner Ring) dispute that the Treasurer and Auditor serve the public interest by acting as fiscal watchdogs in addition to performing their specifically enumerated Charter duties.  The only issue for the voters should be whether the incumbents’ demonstrated record of vigilance entitles them to another term.


Ballot arguments: Ballot arguments on ARC initiative

Malia Vella candidate statement: MailaVellaCandidateStatement

Malia Vella campaign disclosure statement: Vella 460-Amendment

Lena Tam candidate statement: LenaTamCandidateStatement

Jeff Bratzler candidate statement: JeffBratzlerCandidateStatement

Mike McMahon candidate statement: MikeMcMahonCandidateStatement

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in City Hall, Firefighters and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Let the campaign begin!

  1. carol says:

    Strange that her campaign statement spells Filipino “Philipino”, when she is one. I have been to every Philippines Independence Day fete at Alameda City Hall since inception, but I don’t recall seeing or hearing from Malia Mary Vella at any of them.
    Isn’t it great how candidates embrace their heritage once they start running for office?

  2. RJS says:

    Typically clear and concise dissertation. Thanks for your insights, Robert.

    I guess we know who has the big money, here.

  3. Steve Gerstle says:

    When we first moved here about 20 years ago, my dad told me that he was at Alameda NAS during the war. I asked him what he remembered of it. He said that all he remembered was a street not far from the base with a lot of bars. I frequent those bars on Webster Street. Who knows, I may be sitting on the same bar stool and drinking out of the same beer glass as my dad. I believe that this makes me a native Alamedan. I am considering a run for mayor. My general level of intoxication matches that of many Alamedans and this makes me a man of the people. Perhaps the bartenders’ union could finance my campaign. I would model my campaign on this one.

  4. David says:

    It’s worth nothing that Jeff DelBono and Gray Harris are romantic partners. No crime there, and people are surely free to partner with whomever they choose.

    However, it informs they public when they are aware of such a concentration of power. “Power” being Harris’s vote on the school board and attendant privileges, and the firefighters union money, free labor, and phone-banking hall. And indeed, they did use the union hall for phone banking in 2014.

    Surely the firefighters union aims to not only elect Malia Vella, but Gray Harris as well. Remember that Harris was appointed, not elected to the school board last year.

  5. David says:


    “It’s worth nothing…”


    “It’s worth noting…”

  6. Steve Gerstle says:

    92 percent of our police and fire personnel do not live in Alameda. The City Manager lives in Berkeley and the Police Chief in Danville. Do any of our top brass live in Alameda? Where does the Fire Chief live? City Attorney, etc.? These are good paying jobs with great benefits. If we are paying the taxes, seems like we should be getting the jobs.

  7. wordist45 says:

    The RRAC, A Deeply Flawed Organ

    The RRAC (“Rent Review and Advisory Committee”) is a tribunal of five mayoral appointees with authority to mediate disputes between landlords and tenants. It is a throwback to British feudalism where the nobility of a region had judicial powers delegated by a monarch, represented in this case by the mayor. Ironically, even the name RRAC recalls a mechanism of medieval torture.
    The RRAC holds renters up for public scrutiny, requiring they stand before them at a podium and justify their resistance to a rent increase or an eviction, often revealing sensitive details of personal circumstances and finances. This intimidating forum exploits the inherently weak negotiating position of tenants who, once they have moved in and settled, are vulnerable to landlord retaliation if they complain.

    Of the 130 rent increase cases filed in the three months ended September, 27 tenants (21%) canceled and moved out rather than face the RRAC.

    Per the City web site:
    “The Rent Review Advisory Committee (Committee) is comprised of five volunteer members: two owners, two renters, and one homeowner. Members are not advocates for tenants and landlords, rather the Committee acts as a third-party mediator of rent increase disputes. The Committee members are nominated by the Mayor and confirmed by the City Council.

    Common factors under consideration by the Committee include but are not limited to:
    • the frequency, amount and the presence or absence of prior rent increases
    • the landlord’s costs of operation
    • any increases or decreases in housing services since the last rent increase
    • the financial impact on the tenant
    • the landlord’s interest in earning a just [emphasis mine] and reasonable rate of return on the landlord’s property”

    The word “just” leaps out at me. I have never heard of a “just rate of return,” and it’s a term with sinister implications of political cronyism. What criteria confers this right to “just” rate of return? Family name. Political party? Political donor status? “Just” reeks of classism, cronyism.

    A key concern about the RRAC is vulnerability to political influence. RRAC appointees are beholden to the mayor who appoints them, and mayors tend to be biased toward the rich and powerful who can donate large sums for their re-election. Tenants are aware of this and avoid the RRAC because they fear they won’t get a fair hearing. They also fear landlord retaliation. I learned of this during my eight weeks of petitioning.

    Another concern is that many of the RRAC’s decisions are non-binding and can result in expensive mediation that many renters cannot afford. Furthermore, since the mediators files are sealed, the process can be abused and housing discrimination laws skirted. An elected Rent Board’s files are subject to public record requests. Mediation files are not.

    During the first two months of operation, the RRAC ‘s average approved rent increase was almost 8%. In September that average rose to 10.5%, far above the advertised 5% limit. At 8%, rent doubles in 9 years, a disaster for many families.

    Landlords may have learned to game the system by going in with double what they want and settle for half, giving the false impression of an arms-length negotiation. No wonder they love the RRAC. It fills pockets and flatters egos. If the RRAC is so effective, as Councilmember Daysog has emphasized, how about sending those 27 families a customer satisfaction survey?

    It is time for a change.

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