Last week, the Merry-Go-Round reported how, according to the report by public-agency lawyer Michael Jenkins, Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft refused to join the offensive mounted by Alameda firefighters’ union president Jeff DelBono to get his hand-picked candidate appointed fire chief.
Today, we’ll turn to the price Ms. Ashcraft already has paid, and may have to continue to pay, for her intransigence.
For us (and, we suspect, for her), the primary issue is this: Will her disobedience destroy her chance of realizing her long-held dream of becoming Mayor of Alameda?
There’s no question that Ms. Ashcraft’s contumacious conduct has placed her on Capt. DeBono’s sh.. – er, enemies – list. Indeed, immediately after the Jenkins report was released to the public, one of the union’s house organs, the East Bay Citizen, told its readers that “Ashcraft is persona non grata to the firefighters and the rift appears irreparable.”
But we’re not so sure that the antagonism of the firefighters’ union president will be fatal to Ms. Ashcraft’s political ambitions. In fact, for the reasons laid out below, we think she may well be able to pull off the rare feat of defying Capt. DelBono – and getting away with it.
First, a refresher.
According to the Jenkins report, when Fire Chief Doug Long announced in April 2017 that he would be retiring in September, Capt. DelBono decided that he wanted to put IAFF Local 689’s immediate past president, Domenick Weaver, in the job. He thereupon orchestrated what the report called a “chorus of pressure” to force City Manager Jill Keimach to appoint Capt. Weaver. To that end, the union president sought to enlist the three politicians at City Hall upon whom organized labor regularly relies to advance its agenda: Councilman Jim Oddie, Vice Mayor Malia Vella, and Ms. Ashcraft.
Mr. Oddie jumped on board – with both feet.
Ms. Vella, whom Capt. DelBono “lightheartedly” called “one of his children,” cooperated – to an extent. (How far she went depends upon whether you believe Ms. Keimach’s description of Ms. Vella’s actions – the Vice Mayor warned of the danger to “labor peace” if Ms. Keimach didn’t select Capt. Weaver – or Ms. Vella’s own innocuous version of events. Mr. Jenkins apparently chose to believe Ms. Vella.)
But Ms. Ashcraft . . . resisted.
Early on, the Jenkins report discloses, Capt. DelBono personally made it clear to Ms. Ashcraft in two separate meetings that the firefighters’ union wanted Capt. Weaver to be made fire chief – and Ms. Ashcraft to push his candidacy with Ms. Keimach. In addition, an IAFF Local 689 official asked her to write a letter of recommendation – as Mr. Oddie and his boss, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, had done – for Capt. Weaver. And, at the request of a union official, Ms. Ashcraft met with the anointed candidate so that he could make his case face-to-face.
According to the Jenkins report, Ms. Ashcraft declined to take part in the “chorus of pressure” directed by Capt. DelBono. She didn’t write the requested letter of recommendation, nor did she arrange to sit down with Ms. Keimach to boost Capt. Weaver’s candidacy. Her only involvement in the selection process was to tell the City Manager that Capt. Weaver wanted to meet with her. But even then, the report states, “Councilmember Ashcraft explicitly said that she was not lobbying for a candidate.”
Ms. Ashcraft knew the risk she was taking in not playing ball. The report relates that, after her first meeting with Capt. DelBono, he called Ms. Ashcraft’s political consultant, Doug Linney, and complained that the Councilwoman “was not helping IAFF and was being very difficult.” It then notes, in a bit of an understatement, that Mr. Linney “recognized the importance of maintaining a good relationship with IAFF for any of Ashcraft’s future political campaigns. . . .”
Ms. Keimach ended up picking Edmond Rodriguez. And now, for Ms. Ashcraft, the chickens are starting to come home to roost.
It began in March when Capt. DelBono filed a claim with the City alleging that he had been the victim of “false and malicious accusations of crimes and wrongdoing” by Ms. Keimach, various City employees – and Ms. Ashcraft. He later submitted an amended claim in which he charged that the Councilwoman had made “false, malicious, and reckless accusations” about him at two different coffee shops in November 2017 and on February 7, 2018, respectively, and at City Hall in February 2018.
(The amended claim identifies PR agent Becca Perata as a “witness” to the first incident, Chief Rodriguez as a “witness” to the second, and assistant city attorney Alan Cohen as a “witness” to the third. We asked all three to tell us and our readers what they had heard Ms. Ashcraft say. All three ignored our emails.)
Under state law and the Municipal Code, Council has 45 days to respond to a claim filed against the City. If it rejects the claim, the accuser has the right to sue.
The City has not publicly announced any decision on the DelBono claim. But, in a perverse way, we wish Capt. DelBono gets the green light to sue. If he files his claim in court, the defendants, most assuredly, will file a motion under what is known as the anti-SLAPP statute. (“SLAPP” is an acronym for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”) Under that law, if the claim arises from “protected activity” by the defendant – which includes making statements “in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest” – the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show a probability of prevailing on the merits. If the plaintiff can’t do so, the court will grant the motion, dismiss the case, and order the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s costs and attorneys’ fees.
We don’t know, of course, whether Capt. DelBono is willing to take that chance, but, if he is, he can force Ms. Ashcraft to spend time defending a lawsuit in the middle of her mayoral campaign.
But that isn’t the only punishment Ms. Ashcraft can expect for her temerity. IAFF Local 689 endorsed Ms. Ashcraft when she ran for Council in 2012 and for re-election in 2016. We doubt she’ll get the nod from the firefighters’ union this time. (Which brings up an interesting question we’ll save for another day: If not Ms. Ashcraft, on whose behalf will Capt. DelBono expend his union’s substantial resources in the mayor’s race? Already, his online publicist appears to be floating trial balloons for a mayoral run by Ms. Vella.)
Likewise, Ms. Ashcraft is unlikely to receive any campaign contributions, directly or in-kind, from IAFF Local 689. No fundraisers, no phone banks, no “boots on the ground.” In addition, if Capt. DelBono and other labor leaders put together another political action committee along the lines of 2016’s “Alamedans United,” none of the funds they collect from their union friends – organized labor put $42,555.95 into the PAC in 2016 – is likely to be spent on mailers vouching for Ms. Ashcraft’s virtues.
But, still: As we see it, all is not lost for Ms. Ashcraft. We’ll offer three reasons for that conclusion.
First, Ms. Ashcraft doesn’t need IAFF Local 689’s money.
Mayoral campaigns can be expensive – but, especially for a candidate whose name already is familiar to electorate, they don’t have to be.
Take the last two mayoral elections. In 2010, Marie Gilmore spent $75,827 (of which $16,300 came from organized labor) on her campaign and got elected mayor. In 2014, Ms. Gilmore shelled out a similar amount – $68,956 (of which the unions supplied $10,430) – on her re-election campaign, only to lose to Trish Spencer. Ms. Spencer spent only $12,623, but the primary reason she was able to run such a parsimonious race was that she already was well-known, having served two terms on the Alameda Unified School District Board.
Ms. Ashcraft should be able to count on similar familiarity to the voters this November. Her public career began in 2000, when she co-chaired the drive to build the new main library. The same year, she was appointed to the Alameda Hospital Board of Directors. Since then, she has run for Council four times, losing in 2004 and 2010, then winning in 2012 and 2016. In the meantime, she served on the Planning Board from 2006 to 2012.
As a result, Ms. Ashcraft won’t need to inundate the electorate with introductory mailers financed by the unions, as Mr. Bonta, Mr. Oddie, and Ms. Vella did. But if she decides to mount a “robust” campaign anyway, she won’t have to trek to IAFF Local 689 headquarters on Clement Street to get the funds.
She can start at home. In her four Council races, Ms. Ashcraft (and her lawyer husband, Howard) contributed or loaned significant amounts of their personal funds to her campaign: $10,775 in 2004, $46,500 in 2010, $30,616 in 2012, and $25,150 in 2016.
Moreover, running as an incumbent, Ms. Ashcraft got a total of $18,331 in cash contributions from 103 individual Alameda residents in 2016. (By comparison, in her 2012 campaign, she raised $8,925 from 49 Alamedans.) If Ms. Ashcraft manages to attract a similar level of financial support from individuals for her mayoral run, it would offset the loss of union money and reduce the need for self-funding. And it leads us to the second reason that Ms. Ashcraft may be able to do without the firefighters’ union:
In a city where 57.3 percent of registered voters are Democrats (and 26.2 percent state no party preference), Ms. Ashcraft doesn’t need an endorsement by Capt. DelBono or his union to establish her credentials as a loyal and reliable Democrat.
Take a look – you’ll need to use the Wayback machine to do it (or click on the PDF below) – at the list of endorsers for Ms. Ashcraft’s 2016 mayoral campaign. Sure, you’ll find labor leaders like Marty Frates of the Teamsters Union, Gray Harris of the teachers’ union, and Mike Henneberry of the grocery workers’ union. But you’ll also see a veritable “Who’s Who” of the rest of the local political establishment, actual and wanna-be, including its self-proclaimed “progressive” wing.
There are the long-time – and we mean no disrespect by that term – activists like Luci Gigli (of BikeWalk Alameda), Helen Sause (of the Alameda Home team), Anne Spanier (of the League of Women Voters), Kathleen Woulfe (of the Alameda Boys and Girls Club, among others), and Rev. Michael Yoshii (of the Buena Vista United Methodist Church). There are also a host of Alamedans who once held public office like former Mayors Bill Withrow and Bev Johnson, five former Planning Board members, three former School Board members, and one former Hospital Board member.
But the list also includes Alamedans who’ve made a name for themselves not as elected or appointed officials but as polemicists or promoters, like Alameda’s own King of Tweets, Brian McGuire; Alameda City Democratic Club co-president Gabrielle Dolphin; Alameda Renters Coalition founder Angela Hockabout; and Karen Bey.
In addition, there’s even a sprinkling of – gasp – business people like Brad Shook (of the Bladium), Dennis Pagones and Maureen Shandobil (of Harbor Bay Realty), and Kari Thompson (of the Chamber of Commerce).
Will all of these worthies desert Ms. Ashcraft in her hour of need, just because Jeff DelBono and the firefighters’ union have turned against her?
We don’t think so, but we’ll get a better idea when we see what the leader of Alameda’s Inner Ring, John Knox White, does.
Mr. Knox White announced his candidacy for Council in March. During the last several years, he has made special appearances at Council meetings to stand up for IAFF Local 689 priorities such as extending the guaranteed minimum annual raises for firefighters and cops and increasing the fire department’s authorized head count. For that reason, we suspect he may be banking on backing from Capt. DelBono and the firefighters’ union for his Council bid, and he may want to avoid doing anything to jeopardize it.
By the same token, Mr. Knox White and Ms. Ashcraft seem to be cut from the same political cloth. On local issues, both are fervent believers, to cite one example, in the desirability of maximizing residential development at Alameda Point and along the northern waterfront, and the use of “transportation demand management” programs to handle the resulting traffic congestion. Moreover, neither is known as a rabble-rouser but rather as a rigorous (if not always astute) reader of staff-prepared materials.
It is thus not surprising that Mr. Knox White endorsed Ms. Ashcraft in her last two campaigns and, until l’affaire Oddie et Vella, it was reasonable to suppose that he’d support her for mayor as well. But if Mr. Knox White decides to placate Capt. DelBono by throwing Ms. Ashcraft into the shallow waters at Crown Beach, it’s possible he’ll set off a stampede of longstanding loyalists away from her.
Finally, as a savvy and experienced politician, Ms. Ashcraft (and her equally savvy and experienced political consultants) can be expected to know which way the popular winds are blowing – and to trim her sails accordingly.
Unlike Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie, Ms. Ashcraft hasn’t spent her time seeking to vault into the vanguard of the “resistance” movement by submitting self-righteous, and self-aggrandizing, Council referrals like those calling for the impeachment of Donald Trump or the closing of City bank accounts with the Wells Fargo Bank. (She did, of course, vote in favor of those referrals.) But she took the lead on an issue that actually affects her constituents’ daily lives: rent control.
We’ve told the story before. The rent stabilization ordinance passed by Council in March 2016 and ratified by the voters that November provided for an annual review to consider any necessary revisions. In its April 2017 report, City staff proposed a handful of “administrative and clarifying” amendments, and Council diligently worked through the list at its April 4 meeting. When the discussion turned to the provision limiting the permitted number of “no-cause” terminations (e.g., terminations of tenancy upon lease expiration or after service of a statutory notice-to-quit), Ms. Ashcraft spoke up.
“Rather than closing loopholes about when we can exercise no-cause terminations,” she declared, “I’m going to submit that it’s time to eliminate no-cause evictions.”
This started the ball rolling, and Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie quickly picked it up and ran with it. In June 2017 Council passed an ordinance prohibiting no-cause terminations. A landlords’ group then got enough signatures to put a petition for repealing the new law on the ballot, and Council voted to rescind it instead. But this November’s ballot will contain another landlord-sponsored initiative to incorporate the rent stabilization ordinance as originally enacted – i.e., without a ban on no-cause terminations – into the City Charter. If the initiative passes, it will take a subsequent vote of the people to impose a ban.
The conventional wisdom is that a candidate wastes her time trying to appeal to tenants because “renters don’t vote.” Ms. Ashcraft’s own political consultant, Mr. Linney, echoed this view at a recent League of Women Voters forum. (You didn’t think we were listening, did you, Mr. Linney?) But the fact is that, according to the 2016 American Community Survey, 54 percent of Alameda households are renters. If Mr. Linney can figure out a way to mobilize these potential voters, Ms. Ashcraft’s performance on the no-cause issue would give her a tailor-made argument to go after their votes. After all, it was Ms. Ashcraft, not “Just Cause Jim” Oddie, who initiated the move to make the rent stabilization ordinance more pro-tenant. Especially in a multi-candidate race, the enthusiasm of a committed group like the renters may allow Ms. Ashcraft to overcome the effect of Capt. DelBono ordering his firefighters to keep their boots off the ground.
Let us be clear. The purpose of this column is not to endorse Ms. Ashcraft for mayor. (The Merry-Go-Round isn’t in the endorsement business anyway.) Rather, it is to suggest that Ms. Ashcraft may be sufficiently . . . resilient (to pick a word that she probably uses herself) to push back against the vindictiveness of Capt. DelBono and his cadre. In that mission, at least, we wish her good luck.
Ashcraft 2016 endorsements: Endorsements – Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft for Alameda (2016)
Campaign disclosure statements can be found on the City website at http://docs.ci.alameda.ca.us/WebLink8/Browse.aspx?startid=310100&row=1&dbid=0