Traditionally, Labor Day marks the beginning of the political campaign season. The Merry-Go-Round missed the kickoff by a week, but we’ll try to make up for it today by commenting about a couple of the actors in our local political drama.
Of the two candidates running for elective office for the first time, the more intriguing – and appealing – one to us is Alameda trial lawyer Robert Matz.
For one thing, Mr. Matz comes across as a, well, real person. The bio on his website contains the usual information about his educational and employment background. But it also tells voters that Mr. Matz became interested in politics as a result of watching his mother knock on doors campaigning for a seat on the Library Board in Brookfield, Illinois, and that he started coaching Little League and basketball teams in Alameda because his father had been his own Little League coach.
These are the kind of humanizing details that other candidates would have to pay their consultants to invent.
More importantly, Mr. Matz appears willing to take firm positions on political issues, and his views don’t place him neatly in one camp.
Take rent control as an example.
According to his website, Mr. Matz opposes Measure K, the local initiative designed to put the rent stabilization ordinance passed by Council into the City Charter in haec verba. Aha, one might think, here’s another candidate out for votes from members of the Alameda Renters’ Coalition, which denounces the measure as the devil’s (or his archangel, Don Lindsey’s) handiwork.
But then, in the very next bullet point, Mr. Matz declares that he opposes the state initiative to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Act, which prohibits municipalities from applying rent control to single-family homes and apartment buildings built after 1995. By opposing the measure, Mr. Matz finds himself on the same side as Lucifer Lindsey and the rest of the hated landlords, who, it is claimed, are spending millions to defeat it.
From a political standpoint, these positions appear to conflict. We suppose it’s possible that Mr. Matz simply can’t decide which interest group he should pander to. But maybe not. There are different legitimate reasons for opposing each measure, and Mr. Matz may be one of those people, rare in politics, who’s capable of evaluating every issue on its own merits.
Either way, he deserves credit for going on the record. Want to know whether mayoral candidate Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft or Council candidate John Knox White – should we start calling them the Trinomials? – supports repealing Costa-Hawkins? You’ll need to wait for them to show up on your doorstep to inquire, because there’s no answer on their websites.
It’s still early in the campaign, but Mr. Matz seems to be doing something right. A day after portraying him – with, typically, no factual basis whatsoever – as a political naif with “bad advisors,” Blogging Bayport Alameda devoted an entire post to bashing the candidate for telling the “Alameda Progressives” that our City Council should spend its time trying to fix local problems rather than grandstanding on national issues. The next day the blog went back at him once more.
Mr. Matz thus finds himself in the select company of people like Mayor Trish Spencer and former Councilman Tony Daysog, whom the enlightened elite and their acolytes despise – but a lot of ordinary Alamedans vote for anyway. It could be a good omen for him.
A few weeks ago, after we had ignored Mr. Matz in a column about fund-raising by Council candidates, we promised him that we’d start paying more attention to his campaign. It was a promise offered as penance. But now we’re glad we made it, and we urge our readers to take a look at Mr. Matz as well.
John Knox White
The other first-time candidate, of course, is Inner Ringleader and former Planning Board member John Knox White.
We recently commented that Mr. Knox White had lined up an impressive retinue of local Democratic party bigwigs and self-styled activists – his own “band of brothers” (and sisters) – to endorse his candidacy, and now it appears he’s added the Alameda firefighters’ union to the list. (Unlike Mr. Matz, Mr. Knox White does not have a tab labeled “Platform” on his website, but he does have one called “Endorsements.”)
Mr. Knox White was the only office-seeker other than embattled Councilman Jim Oddie able to pass the demanding test devised by IAFF Local 689 president Jeff DelBono, who told the East Bay Citizen that, “We have high standards when it comes to endorsing candidates that are going to make sure the community is safe.” (Kind of reminds you of the fella – what’s his name, again? – who brags that he picks only the “best people” for his Cabinet.) Presumably, Mr. Knox White earned extra credit because he previously had demonstrated his loyalty to the union by speaking before Council in favor of the contracts guaranteeing annual wage increases for public-safety-union members through 2021 (except for 2019), and the resolution creating a fire-prevention bureau staffed with union firefighters (and now supervised by Capt. DelBono) that costs the City $1 million a year.
Still, the firefighters’ union may have a special reason for wanting to put candidates whom it can control onto the dais this time, since negotiations with the public-safety unions for a new contract are likely to begin during the next Council’s term, and it would be a shame not to get another guaranteed raise before the City runs out of money. For that reason, we wonder whether the union sought, or obtained, any kind of future commitment from Mr. Knox White in exchange for its endorsement. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Somehow, however, we doubt that Mr. Knox White would sign a loyalty oath. Whatever other flaws the Inner Ringleader may have, he does not lack self-confidence, and we just don’t see him willing to take orders from Jeff DelBono. Imagine the conversation that would have taken place had Mr. Knox White been sitting on Council when Fire Chief Doug Long announced his retirement: “John, it’s Jeff,” says the union honcho. “I want Dom Weaver to be the next fire chief. Lean on Keimach and get her to do the right thing.” To which Mr. Knox White replies: “Jeff, I really want to engage the community about this, and you’re a valuable part of my outreach. But everyone knows that the City Charter prevents me from interfering with the appointment. Marilyn told me she was sure you’d understand.”
For those paying attention to PACs, there’s a new big-money contributor on the scene: the Alameda Police Officers Association Political Action Committee.
Historically, the APOA PAC has not showered candidates running for office in Alameda with cash. During the last election cycle in 2016, the PAC disbursed only $7,577.75, which included accountants’ fees, from its treasury. The PAC paid for food and drinks for fundraisers for Council candidates Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Malia Vella; it also gave Ms. Ashcraft $750 in cash. (State Assemblyman Ron Bonta got $1,000.)
But the primary beneficiary of funds from the APOA PAC last time was the IAFF Local 689 PAC, to which the police-union PAC contributed $3,000. This year, a similar PAC-to-PAC transfer occurred, but the amount went up – to a cool 10 grand.
Those of us who grew up watching TV shows highlighting the pre-9/11 rivalry between the police and fire departments in New York City – where have you gone, Dennis Leary? – may consider it odd that our local cops are choosing to put so much of their political cash in the hands of the firefighters. But maybe, as we keep hearing from those who aren’t pushing high-rise residential development projects, Alameda really is different from New York.
In any event, the Alameda cops and firefighters traditionally have cooperated with each other when it comes to negotiating public-safety-union contracts, and whatever raises the firefighters manage to get their friends on Council to sign off on, the cops are given as well. So maybe the APOA has grown comfortable with allowing IAFF Local 689 to take the lead.
Still, we couldn’t help but wonder why, for this election, the police union decided to give the firefighters so much more to play with. So we asked, and Officer Jeffrey Park replied:
This year, we identified an opportunity to support two candidates running for city council. These candidates are also being supported by other groups including IAFF. Because we lack the people resources to be involved in this process, we have decided to provide financial support. The contribution to the firefighters’ PAC allows us to provide support with the resources we have.
A Better Alameda
Speaking of PACs . . .
A Better Alameda, the citizens’ PAC sponsored by the Alameda Citizens Task Force, is now up and running, and what is interesting to us is how the local Democratic party establishment (and its hangers-on) have reacted to the new organization.
Mayoral candidate Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Council candidates Jim Oddie and John Knox White all refused to fill out the questionnaire prepared by A Better Alameda. We suppose they would claim that they don’t like “slanted” questions, although it’s hard to discern the bias in seeking a candidate’s opinion about whether the 15% requirement in the inclusionary housing ordinance “adequately addresses our affordable housing needs” (Question No. 15) or whether there is “any current need to amend” the rent stabilization ordinance (Question No. 23).
As a student of political history, we think there may be a simpler explanation for the decision by the three candidates to snub the ACT PAC. If we remember Professor Blum correctly, Franklin Roosevelt never mentioned any of his opponents by name on the theory that the most effective way to minimize the influence of an adversary is to act like he doesn’t exist. Ms. Ashcraft and Messrs. Oddie and Knox White, all of whom (we assume) are being advised by political consultants, may just be following this familiar path.
The bloggers and tweeters who promote the “progressive” agenda have displayed no similar reticence. Indeed, Blogging Bayport Alameda devoted not one but four posts to disparaging the ACT PAC’s questionnaire. Perhaps the most amusing attack came in the second installment when A Better Alameda was chastised for including a section asking candidates about “Donations,” by “which I think they mean ‘Contributions’ since a ‘donation’ typically carries with a connotation that it’s for charity or something like that.”
The blog’s favorite candidate, Mr. Knox White, must have been absent when this grammar lesson was dispensed, for the homepage on his website asks supporters – twice – to “Donate” to his cause. Or maybe he’s actually running a charity and not a campaign after all.
We hesitate to get in line behind commentators like this, but we feel compelled to offer A Better Alameda a critique of our own. For one thing, we think the group could have done a better job of explaining why it endorsed Trish Spencer over Frank Matarrese for mayor. According to the ACT PAC’s website, “Mayor Spencer has more consistently cast votes that demonstrate” the qualities the PAC is looking for (i.e., making “decisions in the best interest of the community as a whole based on careful and critical evaluation of the staff recommendations rather than rewarding those with the most political influence.”) Examples and analysis, please.
Moreover, we were disappointed that, although A Better Alameda posted the questionnaire, it didn’t publish the responses received from the five candidates who accepted the challenge of providing answers. Perhaps the candidates were promised confidentiality, but, if so, they shouldn’t have been, and now they should be asked for permission to make their responses public. We fully realize that this may lead to the sort of cherry-picking that Mr. Matz recently has had to endure, but we’d rather read the candidate’s own words than a partisan “summary” of them.
If we were in the bookmaking business, the Council candidate for whom we’d have the hardest time setting the odds is Jim Oddie.
On the one hand, Mr. Oddie brings certain advantages to his bid for re-election:
- He’s an incumbent, although that isn’t as important as it used to be (see Chen, Stewart in 2014 and Daysog, Tony in 2016).
- He is extremely well-funded. Mr. Oddie got $24,045 in cash contributions, 68 percent from organized labor, in the first six months of 2018, to go with $26,300 received in the last six months of 2017. The bulk of this money apparently went to pay legal fees to San Francisco defense lawyers, but some remained for the campaign. Moreover, as Steve Gerstle has reported, Mr. Oddie has taken in another $21,000 since the last semi-annual report was filed, including $5,000 from the Alameda firefighters’ union. (The next round of campaign disclosure reports is not due until September 27, so there may be other contributions for which early reporting is not required.)
- He has re-invented himself as “Just Cause Jim” and is ramping up the rhetoric to reinforce his reputation as the tribune of the tenants. For example, according to the East Bay Citizen, Mr. Oddie used his speech before the City of Alameda Democratic Club to castigate what he called the “landlord/realtor oligarchy.” (We’ll need to get a guidebook to determine if this group consists of the same villains whom Club co-president Gabrielle Dolphin identifies as “investors from China” and “international conglomerates.”)
Yet, for all these advantages, Mr. Oddie does face one nagging problem: the Jenkins report about his illegal interference in the process by which City Manager Jill Keimach selected the City’s new fire chief. The report’s conclusion cannot be clearer: “Councilman Oddie violated Section 7-3 of the Alameda City Charter by attempting to influence the City Manager’s appointment.”
By reading the version of the scandal concocted by the East Bay Citizen, we’ve got a pretty good idea of how Mr. Oddie is going to try to spin this finding. All he did was to write a letter of recommendation for a “specific fire chief candidate,” he’ll say. That was no big deal, just a technical violation of a Charter provision upon which Mr. Jenkins himself “cast doubt” and “urged . . . should be amended.” (The quoted language was used by Steve Tavares in his recent piece.)
Left unsaid in this version is that the “specific fire chief candidate” whom Mr. Oddie endorsed happened to be the former firefighters’ union president whom the current union president told Mr. Oddie he wanted to get the job. Moreover, Mr. Jenkins found that letter-writing wasn’t the only act taken by the Councilman to carry out his marching orders. Among other things, at a meeting between Mr. Oddie (and Ms. Vella) with Ms. Keimach, Mr. Oddie “advanc[ed] arguments in favor of Weaver that introduced considerations beyond candidate qualifications, such [as] satisfying the councilmembers or IAFF, that were meant to influence her appointment decision.”
Likewise, Mr. Jenkins didn’t actually “cast doubt” on section 7-3, but instead acknowledged, with evident approval, its purpose of “eliminat[ing] corrupt influences such as political patronage or conflicts of interest” and “preserv[ing] the professional administration central to a manager-council form of government.” The only suggestion he made was to revise the language in order to “delineate with specificity the types of conduct that constitute a violation of this section.”
This may seem like so much hair-splitting, but there’s one part of the Jenkins report Mr. Oddie may not be able to wriggle away from, and that’s his conversation with Police Chief Paul Rolleri in which Mr. Oddie told the chief that City Manager Keimach “better do the right thing” and “there were already two councilmembers ready to fire her if she did not.”
According to the East Bay Citizen, the City of Alameda Democratic Club ruled the topic of the scandal off-limits when it held its endorsement meeting with the Council candidates. (Mr. Oddie is a past co-president of the Club.) But other, supposedly non-partisan groups – are you listening, League of Women Voters? – might not be so accommodating. Surely, someone out there would like to display her cross-examination skills and go after Mr. Oddie like Senator Kamala Harris did Judge Kavanaugh: So, Councilman, is Chief Rolleri telling the truth? If he isn’t, what reason does he have for lying? And if he is telling the truth, can we expect similar behavior from you if we give you another term?
That would be some show. And after it took place, we might be more amenable to quoting the odds of Mr. Oddie getting to keep his seat.