The Merry-Go-Round faced a difficult choice Wednesday night:
Should we tune into day three of the Democratic national talk show and watch Elizabeth, Hillary, and a host of other Trump trashers and Biden backers? Or should we sign into the Zoom meeting of the City of Alameda Democratic Club and listen to Malia, Jim, and their three challengers for the Alameda City Council?
Of course, you know which choice we made.
So today we’ll offer a few comments about the Democratic Club meeting that resulted in – quel surprise – endorsements for the two incumbent Council members. (Don’t worry; we recorded the convention, too.)
Much ado about . . . nothing?
We’ve been told that, for the Democratic Club’s endorsement meeting in 2018, the moderator explicitly banned any discussion about the scandal then roiling the City: the effort by Council members Oddie and Vella to steamroller City Manager Jill Keimach into giving the fire chief’s job to the candidate hand-picked by the Alameda firefighters’ union.
No similar ban was imposed this year – but there wasn’t any question, either, about the events that led the Alameda Civil Grand Jury to find that both Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella had violated the City Charter. There was, however, a question about “events” the incumbents would “like to do over,” and we got a preview of what the two Council members would say if they were confronted directly about their shenanigans.
Neither Mr. Oddie nor Ms. Vella apparently believes that absolution must be preceded by confession. (Maybe only the Catholic Church still does.) At least, neither admitted to any misconduct. Instead, Mr. Oddie tried to characterize the actions that the Grand Jury found violated the Charter as a failure to “stay in my lane” – a slip-up, he vowed, he would never make again. Ms. Vella wouldn’t go even that far: all she did, she suggested, was to attend one meeting with the City Manager, which she would not have done “if I had known everything that was swirling [around].” (Maybe the topic of selecting the fire chief never came up when she and Mr. Oddie were driving together to firefighters’ union boss Jeff DelBono’s wedding.)
We will give Mr. Oddie this much credit: reading from a script, he made what passes these days as an apology among politicians (or celebrities). “Some will judge me solely on that incident and never vote for me; that’s your right,” he declared. “Some disagree with me politically – they’ll use those events as a cudgel; that’s part of politics. Others were justifiably disappointed in me and I’ve worked hard to regain your trust. So I will ask them and everyone else who doesn’t fall into the first two buckets to evaluate me on my entire record.”
If Mr. Oddie had committed an offense against an authority higher than the Alameda City Charter – like, say, the strictures of the #MeToo movement – this might not be good enough. But it may suffice to mollify those of his “progressive” supporters who are unconvinced of his integrity. Everyone else would be well-advised to read the Jenkins and Grand Jury reports.
There’s no “New Trish”
Often, politicians who lose a race re-invent themselves when they decide to run again. For example, those of us of a certain age remember the more statesmanlike, less combative “New Nixon” who emerged in 1968 to win the presidential race he’d lost eight years earlier.
Trish Spencer lost the mayoral contest in 2018 and now is seeking a Council seat. But if her performance at the Democratic Club meeting is any indication, Alameda voters won’t see any “New Trish” this year.
As mayor, Ms. Spencer often was unpredictable. (The Twitter trolls use a harsher word.) That isn’t going to change. “I don’t know how I’m going to land on an issue until it comes up that night,” she told the audience. “I really don’t.”
Likewise, she frequently was contrarian. (Ditto.) That isn’t going to change, either. “I am not married to having to have unanimous votes because, sadly, unanimous votes are not always the right votes just because they’re unanimous,” she declared. “Sometimes we could do better.”
And, occasionally, she could be a little, well, single-minded: Having made a point, she would hammer it over and over again. That is likely to continue as well. When the candidates were asked a series of questions about police reform, Ms. Spencer noted in each answer that, as mayor, she had proposed what she called a “citizen police oversight committee,” implying that this was her preferred solution now, too.
Ms. Spencer liked to call herself the “People’s Mayor,” and she solidified that sobriquet Wednesday night. One example: The moderator asked all of the candidates if they supported changing the name of Calhoun Street. (Note to Rasheed Shabazz: Yale beat you to it three years ago – for an entire residential college, no less.) Everyone unhesitatingly said yes – except for Ms. Spencer. “I’d want to hear from the people who live on the street” before taking any action, she said. When the moderator pressed her for a yes or no answer, she stuck to her guns.
This response probably didn’t go over well with the Democratic Club audience because it represents the antithesis of the “progressive” approach to decision-making. (“We determine what’s right and good; who cares what the less enlightened folks think?”) But Ms. Spencer wasn’t likely to get many of their votes, anyway. And she didn’t: only nine of the 83 Club members who took part in the endorsement process cast a ballot for her.
Nevertheless, those Alameda voters who don’t agree that our local “progressives” have all the answers – and who resent them trying to impose their superior “vision” on the rest of us – may find Ms. Spencer’s people-centric approach appealing. If changing a street name would interfere with the delivery of mail like social security checks to those who live on that street, maybe symbolic gestures ought to take a back seat to real-life impacts. At least those impacts are worth considering before rushing to repaint the street signs.
The newcomers’ dilemma
Both Gig Codiga and Amos White are running for municipal office for the first time, and we were interested to see how they would seek to distinguish themselves from the incumbents (beyond the obvious point that neither had ever violated the City Charter).
To us, it appeared that Mr. Codiga has chosen to run what amounts to a retro campaign. Right out of the box, he identified the same issues – “over-development” and traffic congestion – that we’ve heard cited for many years as the major problems facing the City. He defended Measure A and decried “demonization” of the police. Indeed, almost every position Mr. Codiga took could have been – and probably was – espoused by legendary Alameda officeholders like Lil Arnerich and Doug deHaan.
The picture of an idealized Alameda painted by Mr. Codiga may well resonate with a lot of voters. Quite a few people stayed or moved here – including recent arrivals – not because they wanted an quick commute to San Francisco but because they were looking for (as he put it) “a place where you can raise your kids safely,” “a place where your neighbors know one another,” “a place where many charming neighborhoods and homes representing every decade of Alameda exist,” and “a place that continues a positive legacy of Alameda history and welcomes new cultures and ideas.” At the same time, Mr. Codiga should be prepared to be vilified in the blogs and social media – if he hasn’t been already – like anyone these days who dares to find any merit in the past: at best, he’s a troglodyte; at worst, a racist.
Before the meeting, we expected Mr. White’s theme would be “racial justice.” He marched to protest the killing of George Floyd. And since the Mali Watkins incident, he has peppered the editor of the Alameda Sun with letters demanding that the police officers involved in the incident be “taken off the streets and relieved of their duty” pending an “immediate investigation”; urging Council either to “reallocate APD funding to community support program services” or “enact an immediate 50 percent reduction in APD’s budget and reallocate funding for community support programs”; and proposing (and demanding that Council adopt) a resolution declaring racism to be a “public health emergency” that was similar but not identical to the resolution later proffered by Mr. Oddie and Vice Mayor John Knox White.
At the Democratic Club meeting, Mr. White did not abandon his commitment to racial justice. But he was far less proscriptive than he had been previously – or than “progressives” usually are. As a “community organizer,” Mr. White said, he had learned that the “key to success” is that “you go to where the constituents [are], you listen to them first in their spaces where they feel safe, and [you] learn their ways and what [their] interests are.” Only then, he suggested, can you devise appropriate policy solutions.
This emphasis on “listening” to others permeated Mr. White’s remarks throughout the evening. What should Council do to maintain necessary services in a “fiscally responsible” way? “We should lead with . . . following what our staff give us,” he said. What should Council do to assist the homeless and “most vulnerable”? “We need to listen to our boards and commissions and take their recommendations seriously,” he declared. And in his closing statement, he pledged: “I will always listen first.”
If the three challengers sounded any common theme, it was this one. “I try to listen to a lot of different voices,” Ms. Spencer said at the outset. For his part, Mr. Codiga promised that, if elected, he would be a “servant leader” who would “respect” and “listen to” all Alamedans, not just those with the “loudest voice.”
The distinction with the incumbents wasn’t made explicit, but it was there for all to see. Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella, it can be argued, do “listen” – but only to those who can deliver money or votes, like the Alameda firefighters’ union or the Alameda Renters’ Coalition. And the voice they hear – and follow – is often not the one promoting pragmatic compromise but the one insisting on ideological purity. Ms. Spencer and Messrs. Codiga and White claim they’ll be more – what’s the word? – inclusive.
Telling Oddie and Vella apart
In addition to being interested in how the challengers would seek to distinguish themselves from the incumbents, we also wanted to see whether the two Council members would try to draw a distinction between themselves. After all, we do not recall a single instance in the last four years – Ms. Vella was elected in 2016 – in which she and Mr. Oddie have taken opposite sides on any significant issue.
More often than not, Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella echoed each other at the Democratic Club meeting. Both ticked off the same accomplishments of the “progressive” Council on which they sat: Imposing a rent cap; banning no-fault evictions; re-zoning property on McKay Avenue for the “respite center”; funding the pension/OPEB trust (until this year); adopting the Climate Action Resources Plan and the Transportation Choices Plan. (Extra credit if you can describe either plan in 25 words or less.) Likewise, both lauded Council’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the moratorium on evictions and the $600,000 grant to small businesses. And both, of course, endorsed the process created by Council to come up with ideas for police reform. (Both Council members – and Mr. White as well – stated that this process involved “centering BIPOC voices,” which sent us running to our wokeness dictionary. We’ll still not sure we grasp how one “centers” a voice.)
Nevertheless, there were subtle, but perhaps telling, differences between the two incumbents. For example, Ms. Vella boasted, three times, about her role in “demilitarizing” our local police. Other than voting for a motion that included barring APD from spending money to “purchase, procure, or maintain military grade equipment (Tear Gas, armored vehicles, etc.)” – which it wasn’t doing anyway – we don’t know what she meant, and Mr. Oddie made no similar claim. Likewise, Ms. Vella went out of her way, twice, to condemn Police Chief Paul Rolleri – she didn’t use his name, but it was clear whom she was talking about – for allegedly misleading her about the Watkins incident. Mr. Oddie refused to pile on; the Council’s Code of Conduct, he noted, forbade Councilmembers from criticizing any department head.
We don’t intend to give the impression that Mr. Oddie rallied to the defense of the embattled police department before the Democratic Club. He tried that once at a Council meeting and got a tongue-lashing from Mr. Knox White. But neither did he declare, as Ms. Vella did, that “I’m more concerned about our police being weaponized against Alamedans and people of color than I am about their ability to provide services. When you are a wealthy, white individual, you are getting a level of service, not just here but all over America, that is unmatched for other communities. That’s what we’re working on
here. . . .”
This wasn’t the only time when Ms. Vella seemed to us to have gotten a little carried away. Twice, she put high on her list of accomplishments “breaking ground at Alameda Point when everyone told us that it wasn’t going to be possible – not only that but also getting the Seaplane Lagoon ferry terminal there.” Now it’s true that physical groundbreaking – in the sense of ceremonial shovels hitting the dirt – occurred during Ms. Vella’s tenure in office. (For all we know, she might have wielded one herself.) But it was a previous Council that approved both the Site A development plan (in June 2015) and the Seaplane Lagoon ferry terminal plan (in April 2016). Ms. Spencer was mayor at the time and voted for both plans. As between the two of them, Ms. Spencer would seem to be more entitled to claim credit than Ms. Vella.
(Embellishment of the facts appears to be a habit of Ms. Vella’s. On the ballot, and at the Democratic Club meeting, she identified herself as a “college professor.” When we followed up, Ms. Vella told us that she had taught two courses – PPOL 210: Policy and Economic Analysis and PPOL 139/GOVT 139: Ethical Reasoning in Public Policy & Public Politics – “more than once” at the Lokey School of Business and Public Policy at Mills College. She then chastised us for purportedly “question[ing]” the “credentials” of a “woman of color.”)
Ultimately, though, with Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella, it’s to-may-to versus to-mah-to. If a voter considers herself a “progressive,” she can find plenty to like in either of them. And that’s exactly how the endorsement meeting turned out: 62 votes (out of a possible 83) for Ms. Vella, and 58 for Mr. Oddie, which enables both of them to slap the CADC logo next to the union label on their campaign literature.
Oh, in case you missed it, the Democrats nominated Kamala Harris for vice president that night, too.
Facebook users (or those married to one) can find the video of the endorsement meeting on the City of Alameda Democratic Club’s page.