Money to burn

The November 2020 election will truly be a record-setting one in Alameda.

And, no, we’re not talking about voter turnout, which may set a record of its own.

Instead, we’re referring to the amount of money the Alameda firefighters’ union is spending to get its favored candidates, Jim Oddie and Malia Vella, re-elected to City Council, where, in all probability, they will be charged with approving the next round of public-safety union contracts.

According to its campaign finance disclosure reports and subsequent supplemental filings through October 28, the firefighters’ union PAC thus far has spent $35,530.52 to get Mr. Oddie re-elected and $35,530.55 to get Ms. Vella re-elected – a grand total of $71,061.07.  Of this sum, $49,484.21 was donated to the two Council members’ respective campaign committees or paid to third parties on their behalf in the last two weeks – i.e., after October 17, the last date covered by the final pre-election report.

And, you know what?  The most recent expenditure reported by the union PAC in its latest supplemental filing occurred on October 27, a full week before Election Day.  For all we know, the spending has continued, and the ultimate totals will be even higher.

The amount spent to date by the firefighters’ union PAC on behalf of Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella is extraordinary.  It is more than twice the amount that the union-founded and union-funded PAC calling itself “Alamedans United” spent on the two Council candidates it backed (one of whom happened to be Ms. Vella) in 2016.  Moreover, it is greater, by a factor of three or four, than the amount the firefighters’ union PAC itself has spent in any Alameda mayoral and/or council election since it was formed in 2011.

Here’s a chart with the data:

Not only is the amount spent by the firefighters’ union PAC to re-elect Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella exceptional compared to prior union spending, it also stands out compared to historical spending by the mayoral and council candidates themselves.  In fact, the firefighters’ union PAC has spent more on Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella this year than any candidate for mayor or council has spent on his or her own campaign since 2012.  (Except, that is, for Mr. Oddie, who holds onto his title as the biggest spender of all.)

Here’s a chart with the data:

What has all this cash bought for Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella?

Well, if you don’t know, you haven’t been checking your mailbox or your smart phone very often.  At our household, so far we’ve gotten five mailers and a door hanger touting Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella that were paid for the firefighters’ union PAC.  And, despite our spam blocker, one text message to the same effect has gotten through as well.

Now, we shouldn’t complain.  Frankly, some of the firefighters’ union PAC’s mailers are a hoot.

In a recent column, we mentioned the mailer with pictures on one side of fires blazing away and the warning, “As Fire Hazards Increase, NO Community Is Immune.”  Turn it over and you’ll be told that, “When Seconds Count, Experience Matters” and that Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella are “Ready to LEAD in ANY Emergency.”  We couldn’t stop chuckling as we imagined Mr. Oddie or Ms. Vella wearing a fire chief’s hat and barking out orders to a team of firefighters.  Apparently, however, the PAC considers this pitch so effective that it used the same motif on its Oddie/Vella door hanger.

Our other favorite mailer is the one whose theme is that Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella will “Ensure the Health & Safety of Every Alamedan.”

This mailer contains a checklist of the accomplishments qualifying the two candidates to fulfill the stated mission.  Mr. Oddie, we were surprised to learn, “Kept Alameda Hospital open” (in fact, he neither had, nor exercised, any authority over the hospital), and “Installed crossing lights for pedestrian safety” (now that we know he has this skill, we wish he would do something about that light at Constitution and Atlantic, which takes forever to change to “Walk”).  His other two cited accomplishments are that he “Helped establish [the] Emergency Operations Center” and “Advocates for [the] Community Paramedicine Program.”  These are two of the fire department’s (and the firefighters’ union’s) prized projects, and Mr. Oddie did indeed vote to keep funding both of them, even as the former ran over budget and the latter lost its grant from the County.

But poor Ms. Vella.  Her four health-and-safety-related accomplishments are that (1) she was born at Alameda Hospital, (2) she is the granddaughter of an Alameda Naval Air Station veteran, (3) she is a “Spectrum Community Boardmember,” and (4) she “serves on the Alameda Family Services League.”  We admire Ms. Vella for taking pride in her birthplace and heritage, and Spectrum Community Services, Inc. does provide meals at the Mastick Senior Center.  But the citation to Alameda Family Services is curious, since the list of board members on its website doesn’t include Ms. Vella.  Oh well.

Look through the mailers one more time, and you’ll find the real source of the firefighters’ union’s affection for the two Council members.  “Voting for Vella & Oddie,” one mailer advises, “will . . . Recruit & retain experienced firefighters.”  (And, it might have added, make sure they’re paid well, too.)

So that’s what the firefighters’ union PAC has been spending its $70,000+ on.  Still and all, we wonder:  why is it breaking so many records in 2020 ?

After all, both Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella are incumbents running for re-election, and incumbents win more often than not in Alameda (but not always – just ask Stewart Chen, Tony Daysog, or Trish Spencer).

Moreover, both of the firefighters’ union’s candidates like to portray themselves as “progressives,” and, presumably, the “blue wave” coursing across the country would sweep them back into office anyway.

And both are prodigious fundraisers in their own right:  they don’t need the firefighters’ union PAC’s dough when they’ve got the rest of organized labor filling their coffers.  (Through October 17, Mr. Oddie raised $49,696, 36 percent of it from unions other than IAFF Local 689, and Ms. Vella raised $38,208, 82 per cent of it from similar sources.)

So, as Joe Biden might say, what’s the deal?

Two possibilities come to mind.

First, maybe the results from the opinion polls commissioned by the firefighters’ union PAC – we have to believe that some of the money it is paying to political consultants goes for that purpose – haven’t been positive for Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella.  Could it be, for example, that a lot of Alameda voters actually remember that the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury found that both of them had violated the City Charter by trying to pressure former City Manager Jill Keimach into selecting the former firefighters’ union president as fire chief and thereby “damaged public trust in government at a time when such trust is so important”?

And even if that it’s not the case, maybe the three other candidates running for Council are more formidable than the Oddie/Vella team originally thought:  Trish Spencer, of course, is a former mayor and school board member; Amos White has positioned himself at the forefront of the local movement for racial justice; and Gig Codiga is a native Alamedan who served on the Northern California Boys and Girls Club board for 40 years.

The second explanation is less speculative.  As we said at the beginning, there is one matter on the horizon in which the firefighters’ union is sure to take a keen interest:  the next round of public-safety union contracts.  Whenever those contracts come before Council, the union can count on Vice Mayor John Knox White to vote to keep its members (and its bosses) happy, but it needs two more votes to get the MOUs approved.  And those votes aren’t going to come from current Councilman Daysog or from Ms. Spencer or Mr. Codiga.  Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft is by no means a sure supporter, and Mr. White . . . well, he’s an unknown.

In theory, even if Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella lose on November 3, the firefighters’ union could try to push through the next round of public-safety union contracts between then and the swearing-in of the new council in December.  But that would require City Manager Eric Levitt to go along with the scheme, and we’ve never heard him compared to Mitch McConnell.  Indeed, even Mr. Knox White may be hard-pressed to explain to his “progressive” followers why two Council members whom the voters just turned out of office should be allowed to make a decision with such far-reaching financial consequences for the City.  (Imagine what Chuck Schumer would say!)

To pass the smell test, the decision on the next round of public-safety union contracts will need to await the next Council.  And for the firefighters’ union to guarantee an outcome to its liking, Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella must still be sitting on the dais – which means they’ve got to be re-elected.  Shell out $70,000+ now to get millions for firefighters’ union members in the future?  It probably seemed like a no-brainer for those running the PAC.


Campaign finance disclosure reports for elections prior to 2018 are available on the City website (  Later filings can be found at

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in City Hall, Firefighters and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Money to burn

  1. Reality says:

    I don’t disagree that Vella and Oddie are perhaps the two candidates most favorable to the unions. But the city council does not negotiate these contracts, they only approve them. It is the city manager that has the most control over firefighters, and the firefighters have never forgotten the time City Manager Gallant laid off or demoted numerous firefighters and closed down fire station #5 over 10 years ago based on a very flawed ICMA report put out by a for-profit organization. That would explain why we have a politically involved fire union today: “never again.”

    That said, a significant factor for the increase in funding has to do with the pandemic. With everyone sheltering and social distancing, the old campaign norms went out the window. The most effective way to reach voters has been by mail and by phone, and that costs money. This amount of money still pales in comparison to when the out-of-town corporate investors – with Trish Spencer’s backing, of course – poured an astonishing $668,000 into Measure K just 2 years ago. Thankfully, the voters stopped them and also threw Trish Spencer out as her punishment.

    • Really says:

      “A significant of the funding was due to COVID”

      Nope. The significant amounts spent on Vella and Oddie were to cover up their Grand Jury transgressions and resultant financial disaster which resulted in the resignations of three city officials and $1 M in costs. The Bonta Machine should have cut them loose and run someone else.

  2. Continually Municipally Disappointed says:

    Hilariously written and utterly infuriating. Here’s hoping Alamedans are ‘woke’ enough to make this change tomorrow!

  3. Mike McMahon says:

    Of the 52,328 registered Alameda voters, 36,876 (70.5%) ballots have been received by the ROV. If you assume an 85% turnout that means approximately 7600 ballots left to be received. The biggest unknown going into tonight will be how many ballots will be processed and how the results be reported. 75% (24,000) of all registered Democrats have voted, 64% (8300) of all registered NPP voters and 63% (3500) of all registered Republicans have voted.

  4. Mike McMahon says:

    The ROV is reporting 40,043 ballots have been received. The ROV has processed approximately 22,000 ballots. Based upon the March 2020 election, it is possible another 4000 ballots will be received today. So big picture around 45,000 ballots will need to be tabulated. For City Council, Malia Vella has been reelected. For second place, the race appears to be between Trish Spencer and Amos White. Right the margin between the two candidates is 34 votes. So it will be next week before we know the winner for second place. For School Board, Jennifer Williams has been reelected and Heather Little has been elected. The race for third place appears to be between Beth Aney and Megan Sweet. The margin between the two candidates is 47 votes. The initial margin between was 234 votes so Megan is trending right now

  5. Mike McMahon says:

    Election Day ROV Update #1, November 5: Approximately 3800 -4000 votes were counted. In City Council race Amos White moved back in second place with a strong showing getting the same number of votes as Malia Vella in this batch of tabulated votes. In School Board race , Beth Aney extended her lead for third place and her lead is larger than the initial count. Verna Castro moved closer to Megan Sweet.

  6. Mike McMahon says:

    ROV Vote Update #4, Nov 8: With another 2600ish ballots tallied we are about 85%-87% done processing ballots. The races for the last spots for City Council and School Board have gotten closer. Amos White is leading Trish Spencer by 39 votes. Beth Aney is leading Megan Sweet by 105 votes. I estimate between 7000 to 8000 ballots left to be processed.

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