If either Gig Codiga or Amos White wins election to Council this November, he will have achieved a feat remarkable in recent Alameda political history: Victory by a candidate who has never appeared on any Council ballot before and who wasn’t backed by union money.
Going back to 2012, 10 Alamedans have sought seats on Council for the first time. (Trish Spencer ran for mayor in 2014, of course, but she had never run for Council, so she doesn’t make our list.) Of those newcomers, only the ones funded, directly and indirectly, by organized labor, won their races:
- In 2012, five candidates ran for Council for the first time. A handful of unions initially made relatively small cash contributions to two of them (Stewart Chen, D.C. and Jeff Cambra), but, just days before the election, the Alameda firefighters’ union PAC shelled out $10,000 for “mail drop pieces” supporting Dr. Chen, who then managed to eke out a third-place finish and was appointed to the seat left vacant by Rob Bonta. Mr. Cambra finished fourth. The three who didn’t get any union money (Jane Sullwold, Gerard Dumuk, and Joana Weber) finished fifth, sixth, and seventh in a seven-person race.
- In 2014, there was one first-time candidate (Jim Oddie). Funded in part by $23,544.90 in union cash contributions, he finished second and won one of the two open seats.
- In 2016, two candidates ran for Council for the first time (Malia Vella and Jennifer Roloff). Funded in part by $32,650 in union cash contributions, plus $19,303.94 in “independent expenditures” from the union-funded PAC calling itself “Alamedans United,” Ms. Vella finished first. Ms. Roloff, who got no union money, finished fourth in a five-person race.
- In 2018, there were two first-time candidates (John Knox White and Robert Matz). Mr. Knox White got $4,399 in cash contributions from unions, and the IAFF Local 689 PAC spent $6,417.98 in support of his campaign. (This amount includes a $385 monetary contribution, which, inexplicably, does not show up on Mr. Knox White’s own filings.) He finished first. Mr. Matz got no union money; he finished fourth in a five-person race.
The record thus shows a clear correlation between union cash and success for first-time candidates since 2012. It is no mystery why that would be so: A lack of name recognition is the major hurdle a newcomer must overcome in her quest for a Council seat. If a candidate isn’t already well-known, she has to find a way to get people to remember her name when they see it on a ballot. And the most effective ways to reach the most voters are also the most expensive. With union money, a first-time candidate can pay for far greater public exposure than her own resources would enable her to achieve.
There are, of course, ways to gain a measure of name recognition without having to spend any money (the candidate’s or the unions’).
To start with, a segment of the electorate may already be familiar with a first-time candidate as a result of his or her prior involvement with controversial issues. For example, her fellow golf warriors probably knew a bit about Ms. Sullwold because she had led the fight to thwart the Gilmore administration’s scheme to sell off one of the City’s golf courses to real estate developer Ron Cowan. Likewise, what later became the “Build, Baby, Build” crowd may have first seen a kindred spirit in Mr. Knox White when they read the posts on his blog, “Stop, Drop and Roll,” promoting the SunCal plan to build 4,346 new, mixed-density housing units at Alameda Point.
If a potential first-time candidate hasn’t caught the electorate’s eye during previous battles, there are avenues available for her to gain public exposure before running for Council.
One of them requires political connections: appointment by the Mayor, with confirmation by Council, to a City board or commission.
The Planning Board is the gold standard. While serving on the Transportation Commission, Mr. Knox White applied to move up to the Planning Board in January 2008. He resubmitted his application in June 2009, but then Mayor Beverly Johnson never picked him. Instead, Mr. Knox White had to wait for Marie Gilmore to become mayor before he got the nod in February 2012.
Mr. Oddie wasn’t so lucky. He submitted his application for the Planning Board six months after Ms. Gilmore took office, but she passed him over when a seat became vacant, and he didn’t renew his application when it expired. Mr. Oddie did manage to add a City post to his resume when his then boss, Mr. Bonta, appointed him to the newly formed Open Government Commission in February 2012.
Ms. Vella set her sights lower. Initially, she applied for the Transportation Commission, but she wasn’t selected, and she had to settle for a seat on the Historical Advisory Board, to which Ms. Gilmore appointed her in September 2013.
Two other first-time candidates also served on a less prominent City board or commission: Dr. Chen, who was a member of the Social Services Human Relations Board for two terms beginning in 2001, and Ms. Sullwold, who was asked by Mayor Johnson to apply for a seat on the Golf Commission in 2005. (Dr. Chen also sat on the Hospital Board before running for Council. Mr. Oddie twice applied, and was turned down, for vacancies on the same Board.)
Neither Ms. Roloff nor Mr. Matz ever held (or, as far as we know, applied for) a Board or commission slot. And neither has Mr. Codiga or Mr. White.
Political appointments aren’t the only avenue for a potential first-time candidate to get public exposure. There are also a variety of civic organizations in which she could play a leadership role, and a few of the newcomers availed themselves of this opportunity.
A couple of first-time candidates had been leaders in politically oriented organizations: Mr. Cambra was a past president of the Alameda League of Women Voters, and Mr. Oddie was president of the City of Alameda Democratic Club in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2008, and co‑president in 2012. Other first-time candidates had worked with non-profit organizations with no political agenda. For example, Ms. Roloff served on the board of Clausen House, which provides services for developmentally disabled adults, from 2004 through 2013, and Mr. Matz has been active with youth baseball, basketball, and boxing groups.
Of the two first-time candidates running this year, one appears to be following the Roloff/Matz model: Mr. Codiga, who was president and a board member (for 40 years) of the Northern California Boys and Girls Club as well as a basketball and soccer coach. (He also served two terms on the School Board in the 1980s.)
Mr. White’s civic activities have been more explicitly political. He first came to public attention when he tried to run for Council in 2018 – and then missed the deadline for filing his nominating petitions. Since then, he has become involved, to one extent or another, with local civic organizations like CASA (which lobbies for making Alameda less amenable to automobiles and more friendly to bikers and pedestrians), and the Carnegie Library Innovation Hall group (which proposed a plan to renovate the Carnegie Library but abandoned its efforts last November). More recently, he became affiliated as an “organizer” with “ACLU People Power,” which describes itself as being “at the forefront of some of the most important civil liberties fights of our generation.” Finally, Mr. White appears to have created civic organizations of his own, including one called “100,000 Trees for Humanity.”
(Since the campaign began, Mr. White has been accused of exaggerating his role with some of these groups, but, given the source of the allegations, we can’t attest to them.)
Working with political or non-profit organizations may enable a potential first-time candidate to make a name for herself with fellow group members. But what about a broader audience?
One strategy to obtain wider name recognition is to start making regular appearances to speak at public meetings. Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella offer a classic roadmap. In both cases, the future candidate managed not only to become known to the electorate but also to solidify his or her status among interest groups whose support he or she would later solicit.
For example, when then Councilman Doug deHaan urged his colleagues in May 2012 to take up the long-deferred campaign finance reform ordinance that would limit campaign contributions by individuals or organizations (including organized labor), Mr. Oddie appeared before Council to denounce the proposed law. Previewing the penchant for hyperbole that he would later display as a Councilman, Mr. Oddie compared the ordinance to “armored police vehicles rumbl[ing] through the city of Oakland down Broadway picking up protestors.” Really.
Six months later, Mr. Oddie interjected himself into a long line of politicos and union leaders who appeared before Council to praise the new public safety union contracts that gave the firefighters and cops guaranteed annual pay raises. Again, his listeners got an advance look at his rhetorical style. It wasn’t enough for him to extol the City’s public-safety workers; he also was moved to disparage anyone who didn’t subscribe to organized labor’s agenda as “attacking working families and attacking our bargaining units.”
Similarly, Ms. Vella was one of the many union officials who streamed to the podium to urge Council to adopt the public safety union contracts extending the guaranteed minimum annual raises in 2015. She also earned points with Alameda firefighters’ union boss Jeff DelBono by publicly endorsing his later wife, Gray Harris, for appointment to the School Board. And she ingratiated herself with Mr. Knox White by speaking, twice, at Council meetings in favor of the “complete streets” plan he was pushing for Central Avenue.
But Ms. Vella also found new interest groups to go after. She spoke at three meetings at which Council was considering a rent-stabilization ordinance. Each time, she came down squarely in favor of rent control and evictions only for “just cause.” Her remarks previewed the preference for aphorisms rather than analysis that would characterize her conduct as a Councilwoman. “There is no right to a profit,” she declared at one meeting. “The purpose of government is to provide justice,” she proclaimed at another.
Of course, we can’t gainsay the possibility that Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella were motivated to speak publicly out of a civic-minded devotion to the greater good. It is perhaps just a coincidence that the content and timing of their remarks established a favorable reputation in certain circles that would redound to their benefit when they announced their candidacies.
Of the two first-time candidates running this year, only Mr. White has made an effort similar to Mr. Oddie’s and Ms. Vella’s.
Since 2018, he has spoken three times at Council meetings (once on climate change and twice on police reform), and sent six letters to the editor of the Alameda Sun, including one printed before the Grand Jury report finding that Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella had violated the City Charter. In that letter, Mr. White condemned Mr. Oddie and demanded that the Councilman “should resign from office effective immediately or, if necessary, for the City Attorney to officially uphold the charter and remove him.”
But unlike Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella, Mr. White hasn’t kept his public positions consistent in his progression from citizen to candidate. For example, in both a letter to the editor and an appearance before Council after the Mali Watkins incident, Mr. White called for a 50 percent reduction in the Alameda police department budget. We didn’t hear him repeat that demand at any of the recent candidate forums, and it isn’t on his website.
As for Mr. Codiga, we could find no public comments at Council meetings or letters to the editor in advance of his campaign.
Which brings us to the strategy considered most effective for a first-time candidate to gain name recognition among the general public: mailers and other advertising material like lawn signs. And this is where the unions come in. Designing, printing, and mailing brochures – especially if they’re of the multi-color, multi-page variety – ain’t cheap, and it helps to have union money available to pay the tab.
Mr. Bonta probably created the model for this approach when he first ran for Council in 2010. (We remember getting more mailers from Mr. Bonta than solicitations from credit-card companies.) But Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella proved to be dutiful imitators when they decided to do the same.
The campaign finance disclosures show that, in his 2014 race, Mr. Oddie spent $41,850.25 on campaign literature (which may include lawn signs as well as mailers) and another $10,000 in postage. Two years later, Ms. Vella beat even this high-water mark: She spent $42,188.99 on campaign literature and $12,063.61 on postage. In addition, she dropped another $8,600 on digital ads and $1,310 on robocalls.
These amounts include only funds spent directly by the candidate’s campaign committee. Both Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella also were featured in mailers distributed by the firefighters’ union, which spent $25,028.21 in 2014, and $16,044.88 in 2016, on campaign literature. (The latter was also the year in which Ms. Vella and other union-backed candidates benefited from the “independent expenditures” made on their behalf by “Alamedans United.”)
If an Alameda voter didn’t know who Jim Oddie or Malia Vella was when she encountered their names on the ballot for the first time in 2014 or 2016, it wasn’t for lack of money spent by the candidates and their union supporters to introduce themselves.
Thus far, neither Mr. Codiga nor Mr. White has engaged in promotional activities at anywhere near the level of Mr. Oddie or Ms. Vella.
In their recent campaign filings, neither candidate reported spending any money on campaign literature. Nevertheless, we did get a two-sided mailer from Mr. Codiga and a half-size card from Mr. White. (We expect the associated payments will show up on later reports.) In addition, the “A Better Alameda” PAC has sent out a mailer endorsing Mr. Codiga and Mr. White (as well as former Mayor Spencer).
Money may be the problem. Through the filing period ended September 24, neither Mr. Codiga nor Mr. White had received a dime from organized labor. The chart below, prepared by Allen Mann for the League of Women Voters, presents the story graphically:
If you don’t get it, you can’t spend it.
Will Mr. Codiga or Mr. White beat the odds and get elected to Council as a first-time candidate without the benefit of having had union money available to pay for what it takes to secure widespread name recognition? We don’t know.
But we do hope – and believe – that Alameda voters will greet with only appalled laughter one of the messages paid for by the firefighters’ union PAC in support of Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella. If you haven’t gotten the text message or the robocall, maybe you’ve seen the mailer: it’s the one where Alamedans are urged to re-elect the two union favorites because they alone have the “Experience” necessary to “LEAD in ANY Emergency,” especially “Fire Hazards” from which “NO Community Is Immune.” Presumably referring to the other candidates in the race, it proclaims, “Now is NOT the time for training wheels.”
We were amused in 2018 when two of Mr. Oddie’s mailers trumpeted his purportedly extensive efforts to improve traffic conditions throughout the city – one even gave him the sobriquet of “Traffic Buster.” What popped up in our mind at the time was an image of Mr. Oddie standing in the middle of the street, attired in a safety vest and holding flags in each hand, waving cars through an intersection toward the Webster/Posey tube. Equally funny was his attempt to take credit for the City’s paving streets and repairing sidewalks. This time, we imagined Mr. Oddie outfitted with a hard hat, gloves and protective glasses and spreading tar on the road surface with a broom, a bulldozer following behind to smooth it out.
The latest message from the firefighters’ union is crowding those images out of our consciousness. Replacing it is a scene where wildfires break out all over Alameda – “NO Community Is Immune” – and a bell clangs in the homes of Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella. Each of them stops what he or she is doing – Ms. Vella hands her infant son to her husband – and, having donned full protective gear, grabs a garden hose and rushes out the door to save the city from the inferno. In the meantime, Mr. Codiga and Mr. White are blithely pedaling down the street on their training-wheel-equipped bikes, ignorant of the danger and incapable of saving themselves or others.
To twist a phrase from Abraham Lincoln: If you can’t laugh at such nonsense, all you can do is cry.
Campaign finance disclosures are available on https://www.southtechhosting.com/AlamedaCity/CampaignDocsWebRetrieval/. We also recommended the League of Women Voters campaign funding pages (https://www.lwvalameda.org/alameda-campaign-finance-review.html) and election guru Mike McMahon’s election pages (http://www.mikemcmahon.info/election20.htm#contributionsSept16).
Candidate bios can be found at http://www.smartvoter.org/voter/archives.html and https://votersedge.org/en/ca/page/elections-archive.