Ashcraft agonistes

The Merry-Go-Round wouldn’t have wanted to be in Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft’s shoes in the waning hours of Tuesday night as Council debated whether to adopt a resolution urging a “Congressional investigation regarding the impeachment of President Donald Trump.”

During the Council discussion, the resolution’s co-sponsors, Vice Mayor Malia Vella and Councilman Jim Oddie, had supported it, and the other two Council members, Mayor Trish Spencer and Councilman Frank Matarrese, had opposed it.  It thus appeared that it would be up to Ms. Ashcraft to break the tie and decide the fate of the proposal.

When her turn came, Ms. Ashcraft declared that she would not vote against the resolution but neither would she support it.  A “symbolic resolution, as well-intended as it is, is not going to have the impact that we need it to have,” she said.  Moreover, she expressed “concern” that “the staff time to carry out this very important but symbolic gesture will take time away from other pressing business that the Council and the City will need to address.”

With the resolution headed for defeat, Mr. Oddie reclaimed the floor.  Turning his back to his colleagues, Mr. Oddie addressed his remarks directly to the audience, which, at that late hour, consisted largely of an arsenal of Alameda’s most avid anti-Trump advocates.

Mr. Oddie’s speech was noteworthy mainly for his assertion that there was no difference between the City asking Congress to investigate impeaching the president and Council sending a letter to the F.A.A. complaining about noise generated by planes at the Oakland Airport.  Moreover, in his eagerness to suggest the breadth of the dump-Trump movement, Mr. Oddie incorrectly identified Nashville, Tennessee – which he branded a Red State city even though a Democrat has represented it in Congress for eight terms and Hillary Clinton got 59.14 per cent of its vote – as another municipality whose leaders had rebuked Trump.  (In fact, a week after the election, Nashville city council members had signed a resolution reaffirming, without mentioning the president-elect, the city’s commitment to equal justice.)

None of this mattered to the spectators.  When Mr. Oddie finished his oration, the crowd burst into cacophonous applause, which went on for a full 23 seconds.

For half of that time, Ms. Ashcraft looked directly at Mr. Oddie, then she cast her eyes down at her iPad.  One can only imagine the thoughts coursing through the portion of her brain given over to political calculus.

During her own remarks, Ms. Ashcraft had attempted to assure the audience of her pedigree as a liberal Democrat.  She was no less “appalled” by the president than they were, she averred.  And, as she is wont to do, she reminded them that in 2008 she had traveled to “three different states” to work for the Obama campaign.

Moreover, Ms. Ashcraft made it clear that she was not opposing the resolution, just “abstaining.”  This kind of vacillation wouldn’t have won her any plaudits from the non-partisan Institute for Local Government, which advises officeholders that

It may be tempting to abstain because of concerns about making an unpopular decision or simply not knowing which decision is best. Nevertheless, making decisions is what officials are elected to do. It is manifestly unfair — and unethical — to abstain or otherwise put one’s colleagues in the position of taking the heat for a necessary but unpopular decision.

But the ILG doesn’t control any votes in Alameda, and perhaps she figured that local Democrats, even the lefties, would cut her some slack.

Now, having sat through the ovation for Mr. Oddie, Ms. Ashcraft may have begun having second thoughts:  If the vote deadlocked at 2-to-2 and the motion to adopt the resolution failed because she hadn’t voted yes, the punishment the ideologues might dole out could be dire indeed.  Maybe the group calling itself “Alameda4Impeachment” would go after her on Facebook.  Or, worse, maybe during the 2018 mayoral race she would become the latest victim of the smear tactics used to bring down Councilman Tony Daysog in the last election.  (We can see the headline on the hit piece now: “Ashcraft Helps Spencer Keep Trump in Office!”)

Whatever Ms. Ashcraft was thinking, when Ms. Vella formally moved to adopt the resolution, Ms. Ashcraft grabbed her microphone and asked to be recognized.  Gazing over at Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie, and speaking softly, she inquired, “To the authors of this measure, would you consider a simplified resolution directed to our Congressional representative [Congresswoman Barbara Lee] asking that she support an investigation into impeachable offenses at such time as she felt appropriate to bring it?”

This was a strange suggestion coming from Ms. Ashcraft.  After all, her nemesis, Mayor Spencer, had been the first to urge Council to defer to Ms. Lee and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the issue of impeachment.  (Ms. Spencer said she would “support the efforts” of the two Bay Area Congresswomen.)  And, in her own remarks, Ms. Ashcraft had dismissed the notion of Council giving direction to the House Democratic leadership.  “I don’t think we need to lean on Barbara Lee,” she said.  “When Congresswoman Lee and Nancy Pelosi feel it’s time for cities to get together and be heard, we can revisit this.”

Now, it appeared, Ms. Ashcraft still wanted to wait for Ms. Lee (or Ms. Pelosi) to take action – but she was willing to give them a little nudge in the meantime.  And she admitted that the reasons for changing her tune were purely pragmatic.  “I’m not trying to wordsmith your measure,” she told Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie.  “I’m trying to see if there is something that can be salvaged.”

Facing the risk of an embarrassing setback in her effort to show she is not solely an agent of organized labor, Ms. Vella leapt at the lifeline extended by Ms. Ashcraft.  Mr. Oddie was more reluctant to jump on board, continuing to insist that the resolution be directed, or at least sent, to other Congressional leaders besides Congresswoman Lee.  And, of course, this being a meeting of the Alameda City Council with midnight fast approaching, further “wordsmithing” was inevitable.

Without so much as a nod to the Brown Act requirement to conduct business only in a public meeting, Council “took a recess” to draft the resolution.  After 20 minutes in closed session, the Council members reappeared on the dais and, after making yet one more tweak, unanimously adopted a resolution citing “reports” and “information” alleging wrongdoing by Trump and vowing “to support Congresswoman Barbara Lee and others to investigate whether such violations occurred and are sufficient grounds for the impeachment of Donald J. Trump, President of the United States.”

(We should note that, unlike her colleague in the California Democratic House delegation, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Ms. Lee has not actually called upon Congress to begin an impeachment investigation.  At Tuesday’s meeting, Ms. Vella read what she said were direct quotes from Ms. Lee implying otherwise, but her source turned out to be the East Bay Citizen.)

Political purists that we are, we wish that Ms. Ashcraft had stood fast to her original position.  She was surely right to characterize the resolution proposed by Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie as a “symbolic gesture” with no practical impact.  Equally true was her observation that Congresswoman Lee and the Democratic leadership don’t need any shove from the Alameda City Council to speak out against Trump.  (At the end of the meeting, Ms. Vella proclaimed that our Council had given Ms. Lee evidence she could show her colleagues that her constituents support her – as if the Congresswoman were a child needing a note from her mother to convince her teacher that she truly had been ill.)

But it’s probably too much to expect Ms. Ashcraft – or any politician – to stick to what makes sense and disregard what gets applause.  Through her efforts she saved Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie from the sting of defeat, and, presumably, their gratitude will follow. In the meantime, she might have made a few new friends – or at least she didn’t create any new enemies.  We suppose that’s an achievement, of sorts.  But we still wouldn’t want to be in her shoes.


Vella/Oddie referral: 2017-03-07 Vella-Oddie referral re Trump

Council resolution: Resolution 15242 – Trump

Institute for Local Government, “Deciding When to Step Aside From the Decision-Making Process: Abstentions and Disqualifications”: CLC article re abstention (Part 2)

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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5 Responses to Ashcraft agonistes

  1. Steve Gerstle says:

    We should have two city councils. City council “A” would be the local public service track and would deal with issues like transportation and public safety. City council “B” would be the higher office track and concern itself with issues having to do with the U.S. military, coal, impeachment and spaceflight. Depending upon the issue, residents would address concerns to either Council “A” or Council “B.”

    • RJS says:

      Now, THAT is a great idea! Separation of intent and powers! Wonder why the founding fathers didn’t think of this. What ever happened to the concept that serving the public good was sufficient principled action to merit sustained public office?

  2. Steve Gerstle says:

    We got our own way of talking.

  3. anonymous says:

    In reaching its decision, the Council achieved the greater good however imperfect this was done. Still I find myself troubled by what you wrote, “At Tuesday’s meeting, Ms. Vella read what she said were direct quotes from Ms. Lee implying otherwise, but her source turned out to be the East Bay Citizen.” Let’s hope this was a momentary lapse and not indicative of something deeper.

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