The candidate had been praised by one long-time co-worker for her “steadfast commitment to equality, justice and fairness,” and extolled by another as “hard-working” with a “real attention to detail.”
She had been endorsed by both business – the owner of a scientific technology company – and labor – the political coordinator for the carpenters’ union – as well as by the Sierra Club.
She had researched the legal and environmental issues raised by two proposed development projects and spoken before Council (and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission) about them.
And she had pledged to “represent a diverse cross-section of our community.” “I reach across the aisle,” she said. “I listen.”
By any objective measure, this was a candidate who would seem to be well-suited for the position for which she had been nominated by Mayor Trish Spencer: a four-year term on the Planning Board.
So why didn’t any of the members of the Triumvirate now running City Council – Malia Vella, Jim Oddie, and Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft – give Pat Lamborn their vote?
According to Ms. Vella, the issue was “diversity.” But it wasn’t “diversity” in the usual sense of broadening the membership of a body to include more than just white males. In fact, Ms. Lamborn’s appointment would have represented a step in that direction, since only one woman – Sandy Sullivan, another Spencer nominee – currently serves on the seven-member Planning Board.
But Ms. Vella wasn’t looking to put another crack in the glass ceiling. Instead, what she wanted for the Board was . . . a tenant. And that Ms. Lamborn was not.
We often find it difficult to grasp Ms. Vella’s point, so we’ll just quote her own words:
I’ve heard a couple of speakers mention the diverse cross-section of our community. I’m really interested in who has a seat at the table as opposed to who’s going to be reaching out to people. I think it’s one thing to reach out to people, it’s another thing to actually have our Planning Board reflect our overall community. Diversity comes in many different ways, and I think there’s a lack of economic diversity on our Planning Board. I think there’s a lack of representation of tenants on our Planning Board, which is particularly concerning to me when we talk about speaking across divides, and we talk about the importance of our Housing Element, and making sure that a certain viewpoint actually has a seat at the table.
And this is particularly important where such a broad portion of our community are renters, and we’re seeing families getting displaced every single week, and we’re seeing and hearing about families getting evicted or served with eviction notices, and we’re seeing the impact of the housing shortage. In particular, there seems to be this feeling out there that if you’re a renter you’re somehow not a permanent resident of our community, and I got asked that question repeatedly when I was going door to door last November: Are you a homeowner? Or are you are a renter? If you’re not a homeowner, I don’t know if I can vote for you because I don’t know if you’re really going to be here in the long term, if you’re really going to be a part of our community. We have a lot of really long-term renters here. And this conversation around housing units and what housing looks like, I really want to make sure that they have a seat at the table, not so that there’s somebody there pledging to reach out to them, but so that they actually are part of the discussion.
And I also think that it’s important, we do have applicants that are currently on the list that are renters, they are young, they are long-time members of our community, I would love for them to have a seat at the table. This isn’t a statement against Mr. Teague or Ms. Lamborn but I do want to make sure that [when] we’re talking about a diverse cross-section of our community we’re looking at that aspect of things because it is so relevant to the conversation our community is having, just like every other community. And so when we have two appointments I really want to look at trying to balance that aspect out and so for that reason I will not be supporting the nomination of Mr. Teague [or Ms. Lamborn].
This was identity politics run amok. Not only, Ms. Vella seemed to be arguing, should the voice of the tenant community be heard by the Planning Board, a member of that community actually must sit on the dais. And if a nominee wasn’t a renter, she didn’t belong on the Board. By taking this position, Ms. Vella went beyond pandering to the base upon which she is seeking to build her political career; she now embraced the extraordinary proposition that a person’s residential status should determine her right to hold office. Denying a seat on a City board to a nominee simply because she isn’t a tenant is no different than denying a ballot to a citizen because he isn’t a property owner. And that practice stopped years ago.
True “progressives” – and by that we mean people like Bob LaFollette and Hiram Johnson – would have been appalled by Ms. Vella’s stance. But at City Hall, like a puppy hearing his master’s voice, Mr. Oddie nodded his head. “I think the Vice Mayor’s comments are very eloquent,” Mr. Oddie declared, “and I agree with pretty much everything she said.”
(Mayor Spencer was – understandably – nonplused. When the Council majority rejected her two Planning Board nominees back in July, neither Ms. Vella nor Mr. Oddie had cited tenant status as a sine qua non for Board membership.)
The Merry-Go-Round can’t discount the possibility that Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie actually believe, as a matter of public policy and not just political expediency, that one or more seats on City boards and commissions should be reserved for tenants as if they were parking spaces set aside for Council members in the City Hall parking lot. Indeed, we wouldn’t be surprised to discover that there are other demographic attributes, as-yet undisclosed, that a nominee must possess to get support from these two. So much for judging people based on the content of their character.
When time came to vote on the Lamborn nomination, Mr. Oddie said no, but Ms. Vella allowed herself to be counted as having “abstained,” which has the same effect as a no – but which spared her the indignity of having to explain to her bosses at Teamsters Local 856 why she had voted against a union organizer.
But what about the third member of the Triumvirate, Ms. Ashcraft, who cast the decisive vote against Ms. Lamborn? As much as she would like to lock up the tenant advocacy groups for her expected run for mayor next year, she couldn’t bring herself to sign onto Ms. Vella’s and Mr. Oddie’s . . . rationale, and she ended up voting for Alan Teague, despite the absence of a renter’s halo on his head. So what explains her opposition to Ms. Lamborn?
One thing we know for sure: Ms. Ashcraft herself didn’t explain it – or even try to. She simply said no when it came time to vote on the Lamborn nomination.
So we’re left to speculate. Unfortunately, the only explanations for Ms. Ashcraft’s decision we can come up with are cynical ones.
Ms. Ashcraft, of course, doesn’t like Ms. Spencer, and, in any event, the incumbent will be her opponent in the mayoral race. There was nothing for Ms. Ashcraft to gain politically by handing Ms. Spencer a victory on her Planning Board nominations. Indeed, by voting for one of the Mayor’s nominees and not the other, Ms. Ashcraft made it clear that she would be holding the trump card over anything Ms. Spencer wanted done during the remainder of her term. And it must have been fun for Ms. Ashcraft to hear Ms. Spencer thank her for supporting Mr. Teague – and then turn around and vote against Ms. Lamborn.
Moreover, even though Mr. Oddie saw fit to ask the City Attorney for “clarification” about the consequences of filling only one opening on the Planning Board, Ms. Ashcraft knew full well why Council couldn’t approve both of Ms. Spencer’s nominees: Inner Ringleader John Knox White immediately would lose his holdover seat, and, even if Ms. Ashcraft was elected mayor, there would be no vacancy left for her to fill by re-appointing him. We’re not convinced that Mr. Knox White actually has any significant following among Alameda voters – as distinguished from those who write blogs or post tweets – but we’re pretty sure that Ms. Ashcraft would want him and his publicists inside the tent, not outside, during her next campaign.
Both of these explanations are plausible, but they can’t tell the whole story, because they apply to any split decision by Ms. Ashcraft. The question remains: If she was going to vote for only one nominee, why wasn’t it Ms. Lamborn?
Consider the following possibilities:
Since Ms. Ashcraft was elected to Council, Ms. Lamborn has appeared twice to speak before the body. One occasion was the appeal by the hotel and restaurant employees’ union – for which Ms. Lamborn worked for 30 years – of a Planning Board decision approving a non-union hotel project on Harbor Bay Isle. Only Mayor Spencer voted with Ms. Lamborn and her union; Ms. Ashcraft joined the majority in denying the appeal. (Ultimately, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission killed the project anyway.)
Ms. Ashcraft may not have held Ms. Lamborn’s role in these events against her. But a year later Ms. Lamborn appeared again before Council to urge overturning another Planning Board decision. This time the project wasn’t a hotel opposed by unionized hotel workers; it was a high-end senior assisted living facility proposed by a politically well-connected development group. (Becca Perata’s PR firm created a video touting the project and played it for Council.) Once again, Ms. Ashcraft voted in favor of the developer. But this time Ms. Lamborn and her allies got not just Ms. Spencer but Councilmen Frank Matarrese and Tony Daysog on their side, and the decision was reversed.
It’s probably not a coincidence that, shortly thereafter, an entity with the same business address and the same officers as the developer of the Harbor Bay project contributed $10,000 to “Alamedans United,” the PAC whose purpose was to elect a slate of candidates that included . . . Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft. Somehow, we suspect the players involved with the project would not have been pleased to see Pat Lamborn sitting on the Planning Board. And they might be reluctant to give money to a candidate who helped put her there. At least a politically savvy office-seeker might think so.
Of course, Ms. Ashcraft may not include developers among those with whom she consults about issues coming before Council like Planning Board appointments. But, as she freely admits, she does talk to – and listen to – housing advocacy organizations. We don’t know what, if any, conversations Ms. Ashcraft had with the housing advocates about Ms. Lamborn’s nomination, but we do know this: Those organizations played an unprecedented role in the process of selecting the new Planning Board members – and they didn’t support Ms. Lamborn.
A week before Council was to vote on the nominations, Patricia Young of the “Alameda Home Team” invited Ms. Lamborn and Mr. Teague to a “gathering of local concerned citizens and representatives of local non-profits.” The event wasn’t intended simply as a meet-and-greet; the purpose was to grill the nominees on issues important to the hosts. The meeting wasn’t advertised, nor was it open to the public.
According to Renewed Hope’s Laura Thomas, whom we contacted because Mr. Teague had thanked her by name at the Council meeting for arranging the meeting (the credit really belonged to Ms. Young and Kate Quick of the League of Women Voters, Ms. Thomas told us), representatives from the Alameda Home Team, Renewed Hope, and the Alameda Point Collaborative questioned the nominees. Local gadfly – our words, not Ms. Thomas’s – Jon Spangler also “was present of his own accord or in support of us all.”
At the meeting, each nominee was asked 14 questions and was allowed two minutes per question to answer. According to Ms. Thomas, the questions covered, in addition to background and personal skills, the nominee’s understanding of:
- staff’s role in the planning process;
- the housing crisis;
- the City’s Housing Element;
- density bonus and inclusionary housing policies;
- sources of financing for affordable housing, and
- “redlining and Prop. 13’s role in producing the housing shortage.”
After the interviews, the Alameda Home Team and Renewed Hope – but apparently not APC – came up with recommendations to make to Council. Renewed Hope decided to oppose both candidates. Based on the comments made at the Council meeting by Home Team leader Angela Hockabout, this was her organization’s original decision as well. But then, Mr. Teague was “able to answer any of our concerns beyond a reasonable doubt” in a follow-up conversation, and the group decided to endorse him, but not Ms. Lamborn, for the Board. This ended up to be exactly the same distinction Ms. Ashcraft drew when it came time for her to vote on the nominations.
At the Council meeting, no one, on or off the dais, identified any statement made, or position taken, by Ms. Lamborn with which the housing advocates disagreed. (The only comment about her came from Renewed Hope’s Doyle Saylor, who said that his group “concluded quickly that Pat Lamborn is not qualified going into the Planning Commission to understand the issues of affordable housing required to judge development projects on the dire needs of affordability grounds” – whatever that means.) And since neither an audio-tape nor a transcript of the interviews has been made public, we have no way to assess which remarks by Ms. Lamborn may have cost her the Alameda Home Team endorsement.
As private organizations, Renewed Hope and the Alameda Home Team owe no duty to explain their decisions to the public. But Ms. Ashcraft is an elected official, and, in our view, she most certainly does have such a duty. If Ms. Ashcraft voted against Ms. Lamborn simply because she wanted to avoid displeasing the housing advocacy groups by supporting a candidate both of them opposed, the public ought to know that. And if she voted against Ms. Lamborn because the nominee flunked some sort of litmus test favored by the housing advocates, the public ought to know what the test is and why Ms. Ashcraft believed Ms. Lamborn didn’t measure up.
Instead, all we got was silence.
One final word. We are convinced that Pat Lamborn sought a seat on the Planning Board not to promote an agenda but to serve her community. She didn’t get that chance because, from all that appears, the skills, talents, and, yes, empathy she could bring to the Board were sacrificed to the political ambitions of the clique now running the show at City Hall. That’s truly a shame. We can only hope that Alameda voters have long memories.
Applications: Lamborn and Teague – Redacted