Maybe it’s because we just got back from Ashland, but every time we think of John Knox White and his nascent campaign for Council, a scene from Henry V flashes before our eyes.
It’s October 25 (St. Crispin’s Day), and the King, who looks nothing like Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh but rather a lot like Mr. Knox White, is standing not on the back of a wagon like in the Branagh movie, but on top of Mount Trashmore, addressing his troops.
At his feet are not Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester, but Burton and Bonta, Quick and Murphy, Linney and Moehring (with McGuire and Spangler chattering away on the periphery).
And we hear the King speak these words:
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Our imagination may be getting the better of us, but the scene we envisioned has its roots in a question that arose from reviewing the roster of Mr. Knox White’s contributors and endorsers: Does the cohort of Democratic party stalwarts and political activists who have declared their allegiance to Mr. Knox White – his own “band of brothers” (and sisters) – command sufficient firepower to carry him to victory this November, especially when a legion of Alamedans whom he has alienated over the years will take arms against him?
As the Merry-Go-Round sees it, there are three distinct groups of local voters who, based on their prior experiences with Mr. Knox White, are likely to be disinclined to vote for him under any circumstances. They triumphed over him in the past, and they may well be eager to see him defeated again.
The first group consists of the Alamedans who succeeded in trouncing the ballot measure that would have approved the development agreement proposed by SunCal for Alameda Point.
After Mr. Knox White sold his Brooklyn row house and moved to Alameda, the hottest topic on the local political scene was the redevelopment of the former Naval Air Station. The master developer originally selected for the project pulled out, and the City entered into an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement with SunCal, a developer based in Irvine with projects across the country. SunCal submitted its own master plan in December 2008.
The plan called for constructing 4,346 new housing units on the site, of which 1,000 would be “high density” multi-family units in buildings up to five stories tall and another 923 would be “medium high density” units, including duplexes and townhomes in buildings up to three stories tall. Since the City Charter banned multi-family housing and limited residential density, SunCal requested, and the City agreed, to ask the voters to waive the Charter restrictions and approve the other terms of the development agreement.
During this process, Mr. Knox White supported SunCal every step of the way. We know this from the posts published in his blog, which he took down after announcing his candidacy for Council but from which, it so happens, we had previously copied relevant entries, and from his comments posted on Blogging Bayport Alameda.
To Mr. Knox White, the SunCal plan represented a “a very good, sustainable (environmentally and economically) vision for Alameda Point.” The initiative was “not perfect,” he wrote, but it contained “the protections the city needs to move forward in developing Alameda Point” and “a vision supported by 4 city council members, the chamber of commerce, every media outlet that has made an endorsement and most community groups that have taken a public stance.”
In his pro-SunCal blog posts, Mr. Knox White laid out a couple of themes that would become familiar when he later sat on the Planning Board and championed a host of other development projects.
Prominent among them was that the City of Alameda had the duty to “absorb” its “fair share” of the unmet housing needs of the entire Bay Area, not just the needs of its own residents. “[W]e can’t pretend,” he wrote, “that we don’t live in a larger area and that our decisions have zero effect on regional growth patterns. To become myopic is to continue a problem with sprawl that has been occurring and speeding up for 50 years.”
For this reason, Mr. Knox White argued, redevelopment of the base should focus on maximum residential construction. Indeed, he went out of his way to disparage other objectives. Commercial uses? “Perhaps we can change the city’s motto from ‘City of Homes and Beaches’ to ‘City of low lying office parks and business condos.’ It’s catchy!” Historical preservation? “We need to decide, and I’d suggest that never [sic] 15 years of public process already has, whether we want to create a WWII ‘Historic Williamsburg’ without the reenactors, something that could very well become a big drag on city finances and is probably financially infeasible due to the infrastructure and clean-up costs.”
At the same time, he dismissed objections that development like that he favored would create unbearable traffic congestion. The “transportation demand management” strategies proposed by SunCal actually would reduce island-wide commute trips, and any additional delays at the bridges and tubes would be “not insignificant” but “not catastrophic either.” “Real-world data” from academic studies, he asserted, backed up his position.
The voters didn’t share Mr. Knox White’s “vision.” At a special election held in February 2010, the SunCal initiative was resoundingly defeated, with 13,797 Alamedans (85.4 per cent) saying no.
The second bloc of voters in the #NeverKnoxWhite camp consists of the Alamedans who succeeded in forcing the City to keep land along the southern shoreline out of the hands of another developer.
That developer, Roseville-based Tim Lewis Communities, had entered into a contract to purchase 3.89 acres of land deemed “surplus” by the federal government. Tim Lewis requested that the City zone the parcel for residential use, and Council complied. The developer then submitted a plan to build 48 new single-family homes on the site. The East Bay Regional Park District, which wanted the land itself to expand the Crown Beach state park, sued to block the transaction.
As the suit was pending, a group of citizens calling itself the “Friends of Crown Beach” entered the fray. The Friends included veterans of the “Save the Mif” campaign, which had killed a proposed swap of the City-owned par-three golf course to developer Ron Cowan, and the “Protect Our Alameda Parks” movement, which had convinced voters to pass a Charter amendment prohibiting the disposition of any City-owned parkland without a vote of the people. This time, the park supporters prepared a ballot measure requiring the City to re-zone the shoreline parcel to open space.
In this battle Mr. Knox White chose sides against the Park District and the Friends of Crown Beach. He ridiculed the EBRPD suit as “frivolous” and “bogus,” opining that the District’s “legal arguments are never going to hold up in court.” (Mr. Knox White’s undergraduate degree is in psychology; as far as we know, he never attended law school.) Even if EBRPD somehow did manage to prevail, he asserted, the result would be litigation by Tim Lewis and the State of California “that could easily be filled [sic] and won.”
Mr. Knox White had no kinder words for the proposed ballot measure. If the parcel were re-zoned as open space, he contended, the Park District “does not have the money” to buy it, and the City “will be on the hook” to “cover the $3 million price tag for the land.” Accordingly, a vote for the ballot measure “is a vote to take money from Alameda’s General Fund or Parks budget.”
Once again, the park supporters prevailed. The Friends obtained more than 6,000 signatures on their petition, enough to qualify the initiative for submission to the voters. Council responded by adopting it as an ordinance, which took the measure off the ballot and removed it as an issue in the upcoming mayoral and council races. At the same time, Council adopted a “companion ordinance” to “protect” the City against the retaliatory lawsuits Mr. Knox White and others predicted inevitably would ensue.
The Park District then dismissed its suit. Thereafter, none of Mr. Knox White’s warnings came true. EBRPD, not the City, in fact ended up buying the property from the feds, and it paid $2.2 million, not $3 million. And neither Tim Lewis nor anyone else ever sued.
The third group unlikely to vote for Mr. Knox White consists of the Alamedans who gave Trish Spencer her upset victory over Marie Gilmore in the 2014 mayoral election (and who still regard Ms. Spencer as their best friend at City Hall).
Mr. Knox White has reviled Ms. Spencer for years. We can’t be sure about the source of his hostility, but it seems to stem from a disagreement between the two of them over the contents of an anti-bullying curriculum for the Alameda public schools in 2009. In debating the issue, Mr. Knox White didn’t limit himself to rebutting Ms. Spencer’s arguments. Rather, in an op-ed posted on SFGate.com, he accused Ms. Spencer, who was then a School Board member, of “using the same talking points” as an “explicitly homophobic group.” He never directly called her a bigot – maybe she just was not sufficiently “self-aware,” he wrote – but her words and actions “mirrored” those who were.
Needless to say, Mr. Knox White did not endorse Ms. Spencer for mayor in 2014. In a piece on his blog, he decried, once again, Ms. Spencer’s “well-known siding with the radical religious right in standing up against the LGBT community.” In addition, he described her as a woman “of very few accomplishments” who used a “creepy” campaign slogan, “ramble[d] through generalities” in response to a candidate questionnaire, and believed that “nothing in town should ever change.”
Like many others, Mr. Knox White was shocked when Ms. Spencer eked out her victory over Ms. Gilmore. But in his view the win had nothing to do with Ms. Spencer’s virtues; rather, the problem was that Ms. Gilmore had “allowed Spencer’s supporters to paint her with a factually inaccurate brush.”
After Ms. Spencer became mayor, Mr. Knox White returned to the refrain that she was anti-gay. The City annually has proclaimed an “LGBTQ Pride Month,” but when the ceremony for issuing the proclamation was announced in 2017, Mr. Knox White went on the attack. He informed his Twitter followers that “our mayor stood with anti-gay bigots to stop protections for gay youth in our schools,” and urged them to attend a “parallel photo op” being “organized for those who want to attend [the City-sponsored LGBTQ event] but don’t want to feel like they are condoning or ignoring the Mayor’s past acts.”
We suppose it’s possible that Mr. Knox White isn’t misrepresenting Ms. Spencer’s attitude toward LGBTQ people. (She says he is.) But, if so, what does that say about the 10,488 Alamedans who voted to make her mayor? Since Ms. Spencer’s anti-gay bias was so “well-known,” maybe they’re all ignorant bigots, too. In any event, they’re not likely to be John Knox White voters this November. Of course, if he’s right about the mayor and her supporters, he probably wouldn’t want their votes anyway.
Ordinarily, one might argue that enough time has passed that the Alamedans who locked horns with Mr. Knox White over SunCal and Crown Beach, and who admire, rather than despise, Ms. Spencer, no longer bear any grudge toward him. We’re reluctant to accept that conclusion, for two reasons.
First, each of these battles had a symbolic as well as a pragmatic significance to a lot of people on the side that ultimately won. The SunCal fight was over whether Alameda should be “transformed” – ironically, “TransForm” is the name of the company Mr. Knox White worked for – into a haven for high-density, high-rise housing development. The Crown Beach dispute was over whether government-owned land should be developed for private profit – or preserved for public use. And the mayoral election was about whether the City should be run for the benefit of public-safety union members and real-estate developers or the citizenry as a whole.
We’d be the first to admit that there is more than a little bit of hyperbole in each of these characterizations. But for those Alameda voters who ascribe to one or more of them – and we suspect quite a few do – it will be difficult to forgive Mr. Knox White for taking the opposing side. And they surely won’t be inclined to cast their ballots for him.
The other reason why many of the Alamedans who tussled with Mr. Knox White over policy issues are likely to scorn his bid for office is one of his own making. We haven’t read all of his tweets (or any of his Facebook entries), but we’ve reviewed enough of his other writings to see that he often resorts to ad hominem attacks on the intelligence, character, and motives of his adversaries – and not only Ms. Spencer – that are guaranteed to offend their targets.
For example, after a group of citizens formed an organization to oppose the SunCal plan, Mr. Knox White laid into them on his blog: “This group is making up their own facts, pretending to present a vision, while admitting they do not have one, and attending public meetings with the sole intent to vilify people at the meetings.” Similarly, during the Crown Beach debate, Mr. Knox White accused the citizen signature-gatherers for the initiative of misleading the public. When one Friend rallied to their defense, Mr. Knox White promptly chastised her: “You’re [sic] response is a problem, it obfuscates the impacts of the ballot measure, which without a doubt will pass, and is neither honest, open or transparent.”
Take note that, in both of these examples (and we can easily find others), Mr. Knox White was directing his contempt at private citizens, not public officials. Maybe it’s true that those who don’t agree with him are either stupid or venal (or that those who supported Ms. Spencer are homophobic). But we don’t think that the voters being assigned to this basket of deplorables enjoy being told that that’s what they are. As a result, we’re pretty sure they won’t be running to the polls to vote for their accuser.
As Mr. Knox White looks out over the battlefield for the November election, he’ll see an army lined up against him far larger than the one that confronted King Henry at Agincourt. But he need not despair just yet. Remember how the play turns out? The beleaguered monarch and his band of brothers emerge victorious in the end.
We don’t know whom Mr. Knox White has retained as his campaign consultant – his semi-annual campaign disclosure statement didn’t list any payments for such services – but maybe his advisors can find a few longbows for his troops to fire against his foes. All we can say is that they better have pretty good aim.
Note on sources:
Mr. Knox White’s blog was called, “Stop, Drop, and Roll” and could be found at http://www.johnknoxwhite.com. Now, that url takes you to his campaign website. His Blogging Bayport Alameda comments are still accessible at https://laurendo.wordpress.com/.