Six for Council

Six candidates – three with familiar names and three newcomers – are running for Council this November in an election that could shift the direction of City policy in the next four years.

Since 2018, Council has been controlled by a “progressive” majority, consisting (from 2018 to 2020) of Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Council members Jim Oddie, Malia Vella, and John Knox White, and (from 2018 to the present) of Mayor Ashcraft, Ms. Vella, and Mr. Knox White.

Among other things, this coalition enacted an agenda imposing rent control and banning no‑cause evictions; requiring a union‑friendly project labor agreement on all construction projects of a certain size on land leased by the City or sold to a developer, not just public‑works projects; and approving anti‑automobile (or, if you’d like, pro‑bike‑and‑pedestrian) projects on Central Avenue, Otis Drive and Grand Street.  It also tried, unsuccessfully, to get Alameda voters to repeal Article XXVI of the City Charter, which prohibits multi‑family housing and limits residential density.

Mr. Oddie’s failure to win a full term in 2020 and Mr. Knox White’s decision this year not to seek reelection had the effect of breaking up this old gang of theirs.  The “progressive” majority thus will need to reconstitute itself if it wants to retain control.  But that may not be so easy.

Ms. Vella’s term has two more years to run, and if Mr. Oddie overcomes the stigma of having been found by the Alameda County civil grand jury to have violated the Charter by maneuvering to get the firefighters’ union’s designee appointed fire chief, the “progressive” coalition will be only one vote away from a majority.  But if voters’ memories aren’t as short as Mr. Oddie and his backers hope, Ms. Vella will be looking for company.

Either way, Ms. Ashcraft could play a key role.  From 2018 through 2022, the Mayor often voted with the “progressive” bloc, and she could join Ms. Vella (and Mr. Oddie, if he gets elected) on the left wing again.  But, as we noted in our column after Mr. Knox White’s announcement, Ms. Ashcraft didn’t always kowtow to the “progressive” savants, most notably on issues involving recreational cannabis and police reform.

Moreover, there is no guarantee that Ms. Ashcraft will be around to ally herself with the unabashed “progressives.”  Councilwoman Trish Spencer is running to regain the mayor’s chair she lost to Ms. Ashcraft in 2018, and it would be foolish to minimize her chances.  (Just ask Marie Gilmore.)

We fully expect Ms. Spencer to be the target of a venomous smear campaign on social media.  It also wouldn’t surprise us if the firefighters and construction‑trades unions pay for hit‑piece mailers against her (as they did, through the “Alamedans United” PAC, against Mr. Daysog in 2016).

The conventional wisdom is that negative campaigning works.  But we wonder how true that is any more.  Whatever genius came up with the idea of trying to persuade voters to pass Measure Z by suggesting that anyone who opposed it was a racist may still be around to mount a similarly mean‑spirited – and ill‑founded – name‑calling offensive against Ms. Spencer.  If so, he may be in for a surprise when it backfires.

Now let’s approach the issue from the opposite side.

After Ms. Spencer was elected to Council in November 2020, she and Councilman Tony Daysog formed a loyal opposition to the “progressive” ruling faction.  From January 2021 through February 2022, the two of them voted “No” on 37 contested motions on which the Ashcraft‑Knox White‑Vella triumvirate prevailed.  We haven’t updated the data, but we’re confident that Ms. Spencer and Mr. Daysog have kept up their role as dissenters.

What would it take to create what we’ll call a moderate or middle‑of‑the road – there are no “conservative” or “right wing” politicians in Alameda – majority?   Let’s run through the scenarios.

Suppose Ms. Spencer loses the mayoral race.  She would still retain her seat on Council for the next two years.  If Mr. Daysog wins his own bid for reelection, and a candidate whose views align more with Ms. Spencer and Mr. Daysog than with Ms. Vella wins the seat vacated by Mr. Knox White, the moderates now would have a three‑person majority.  If Mr. Daysog loses, two middle‑of‑the‑road candidates would need to get elected to achieve that result.

Now suppose Ms. Spencer wins.  In that case, the third‑place finisher in the Council race would fill her Council seat for the next two years.  And here is where it gets complicated.

If two of the top three finishers are moderates (even if one of them is not Mr. Daysog), the moderates would gain control.  But if two of the top three finishers are “progressives” (even if one of them is not Mr. Oddie), the “progressives” would remain in charge.

Given the name‑recognition factor that is so important in Alameda, it’s probable that either Mr. Daysog or Mr. Oddie (or both) will take one of the top three spots.  In that case, control will turn on the order in which the rest of the candidates cross the finish line.

Ready to place your bets?

The campaign, of course, is just beginning, and it’s probably too soon to assign any of the candidates other than Mr. Daysog and Mr. Oddie to any particular camp.  Indeed, only two of them – Paul Beusterien and Bill Pai – have put up websites so far.  Nevertheless, we would lose our punditry license if we didn’t scan the public record for hints about the political leanings of the four candidates who come before the voters lacking a track record as a Council member.

We’ll start with Tracy Jensen.

Ms. Jensen’s made her political debut when she ran successfully for the Alameda Unified School District board of trustees in 2002.  She was re‑elected in 2006, and then ran for Council in 2008 and 2010.  Her main claim to fame was that, as an AUSD trustee, she voted to adopt a controversial anti‑bullying curriculum (“Lesson 9”) for elementary‑school children.  But she came in third in 2008 and sixth in 2010.

She then ran for the Alameda Healthcare District board in 2012 and lost.  But she was appointed to the board in 2013, and garnered the most votes of any candidate when she ran for a full term in 2014.  She has served on the hospital board ever since.  She also has been the Alameda Healthcare District’s designated representative on the Alameda Health System board of trustees since 2014.

Ms. Jensen’s support for Lesson 9 may have won her plaudits from “progressives” back in 2009, but we doubt that, having happened so long ago, it will resonate much with voters this year.  For similar reasons, Ms. Jensen’s opposition to Measure B, the SunCal initiative that was on the ballot in 2010, won’t matter a lot to the current electorate, either.

Ms. Jensen does not appear to have spoken publicly about any of the hot‑button issues animating Alameda politics in recent years.  (At least our search for public comments made by her at Council meetings and letters to the editor submitted by her to the Sun since 2020 came up empty.)  Likewise, we can’t say whether Ms. Jensen’s service on the hospital board will predispose her toward one side or the other if she is elected to Council.

We will be interested, however, to see if she reprises one of themes she set out in her 2010 Council campaign.  “The City Council must stop the contentious communication and partisan decision‑making,” she wrote in a questionnaire for Alameda Patch.  “The role of the City Council is to share information, inform debate and make decisions that best address the City’s mission.”

Of the three newcomers, Mr. Beusterien and Mr. Pai have a lot in common.  Both are employed in the tech industry (Mr. Beusterien is a software engineer for Google; Mr. Pai is “director, strategic accounts” for a “talent management” software company called Cornerstone OnDemand).  Both have lived in Alameda for more than 20 years (Mr. Beusterien, since 2001; Mr. Pai, since 2000).  And both have served on the board of the Community of Harbor Bay Isle Owners’ Association, the umbrella organization for 20 Harbor Bay homeowners’ associations (Mr. Pai is serving his second term as CHBIOA president; Mr. Beusterien has been vice president since 2015).

As CHBIOA officers, Messrs. Beusterien and Pai got involved in the recent debate over the move to change the General Plan and zoning ordinances to put more housing on Harbor Bay Isle.  Back in May 2021, the CHBIOA board passed a resolution, signed by Mr. Pai as president and Mr. Beusterien as vice president, objecting to any rezoning of “Commercial Areas” at Harbor Bay for residential use.  The resolution did not define “Commercial Areas,” but its text suggests that primary focus was the Harbor Bay Club.  If so, CHBIOA got its wish, for neither the General Plan 2040 nor the draft Housing Element changed the land‑use designation or zoning classification of the Club.

What is more interesting for purposes of predicting their policy preferences if elected to Council is what both men have had to say about “upzoning” the city’s residential districts (R‑1 through R‑6) to permit multi‑family housing and to increase the maximum permissible density in four of them (R‑3 through R‑6), as the draft Housing Element proposes to do.

Mr. Pai spoke in opposition to this proposal during public comment at the Council meeting on November 30, 2021, and his website makes his position clear:  “I will seek to remove the vastly increased density proposed for all of our old established residential neighborhoods and provide the 270 new units projected for them in other vacant or under‑utilized land in the city.”

For his part, Mr. Beusterien sent a letter to the editor of the Sun, published in the July 7 edition, in which he described the upzoning proposal as “especially egregious” and “encourage[d] the council to reject” it. More recently, Mr. Beusterien restated his position at the invitation of a commenter to an online hit piece:

I’m supportive of adding housing to Harbor Bay Landing [shopping center] as long as the supermarket, pharmacy, and other retail [are] retained. My issue with the 270 [additional units resulting from the proposed upzoning] is that it is being used as reason to invalidate Article 26 for a large part of Alameda shortly after being reaffirmed by the voters in Measure Z without clear communication of why it is needed to meet the 5353 [RHNA] requirement. There might . . . continue to be a housing shortage in eight years, but dynamics like an economic recession and increasing remote work might change that.

What, if anything, the next Council can do about this situation is an open question.  By submitting a draft Housing Element to the state that contained a “program” for residential rezoning, City Planner Andrew Thomas cleverly set up a scenario in which, if the state approves the draft, he can argue that the next Council has no choice but to make all of the zoning changes proposed therein, including upzoning the residential districts.  Based on their public comments, we’d expect Messrs. Beusterien and Pai, if elected, to challenge that argument – or to try to find a way around it.

Favorable references to “old established residential neighborhoods” (Mr. Pai) or
Article XXVI (Mr. Beusterien) amount to the kiss of death for these two candidates among “progressives” and their shills, who’ve already started sliming both of them.  But it would be a mistake for an open-minded voter to slap a derogatory label on either man.

For example, Mr. Pai has spoken during the public‑comment period at Council meetings in favor of approving the Encinal Terminals project with its 589 new housing units and of increasing the number of units planned for Site A at Alameda Point from 800 to 1,300.  These are hardly the views of an anti‑development diehard.

Similarly, Mr. Beuerstein long has supported adopting a ranked‑choice voting system for Alameda.  He wrote a letter to the editor of the Sun, published in March 2021, endorsing the idea, and it is one of the planks in his platform.  Senator Lisa Murkowski isn’t the only one who likes RCV; a lot of “progressives” do, too.

The other newcomer, Hannah Groce, is something of a mystery.  Her LinkedIn page states that she holds two bachelor of arts degrees, one from Mount Holyoke College in “classics/African American studies” and the other from Howard University in “classics‑Greek.”  It also states she worked full‑time as a “specialist” for the Alameda Housing Authority from September 2017 through June 2022 – and full‑time as an “RSC” for the Oakland Housing Authority during part of the same period (November 2019 through May 2022).

According to the LinkedIn page, Ms. Groce’s current occupation is as a full‑time “fellow” with “Partnership for the Bay’s Future” and a “co‑founder and director of development” for the “Hip Hop Education Project.”

The home page on the former organization’s website describes it as a “collaborative effort focused on advancing housing solutions, [which] works to produce, preserve, and protect affordable homes in the Bay Area, and to ensure our region remains a diverse place where all people are welcome and can thrive.”  The website contains photos of a 12‑person “team”; Ms. Groce is not among them.

The Facebook home page for the latter organization states, “We help young people go from struggling students to mathematical innovators and community activists.”  It continues:

We love hip hop (the real one) and so do you (statistically, it’s likely). Though we don’t agree with him on everything, Kanye is right when he talks about hip hop as a thing that get’s people going. Our founders thought ‑ what if we used hip hop critical social theory and hip hop energy to empower youth to change their communities. So they created The Hip Hop Education Project. We’re active in Providence, RI and Oakland, CA and we’re all over the internet.

The only reference we could find to Ms. Groce’s involvement with local civic issues is that she was a member of the “systemic and community racism/anti‑racism” subcommittee working under the police‑reform committee appointed in 2020.  The subcommittee made a number of recommendations, including that the City

  • “offer anti‑racism training for businesses led, at least in part, by Black or POC facilitators”;
  • “develop a city‑wide online reporting and feedback system . . . for residents and visitors to report instances of perceived racial bias, discrimination, abuse of power, and racism that occur in Alameda”; and
  • “invite residents and visitors to Alameda to share stories that capture historic and current incidents of racism (personal and systemic) within the city.”

As far as we know, the City has not adopted any of these recommendations, and, if Ms. Groce is elected to Council, she could be expected to endeavor to put them into place.  We will not fall into the trap of branding a person as “anti‑police” simply because she served on a police‑reform subcommittee.  Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to assume that, if Ms. Groce is elected, Ms. Vella may find a sympathetic ear the next time she expresses her disdain for the Alameda police department.

As the campaign forums are held this fall, we should get a better idea of where the candidates fit on the political spectrum.  We also will be eager to see which candidates the various political organizations like the City of Alameda Democratic Club and the Alameda Citizens Task Force, and labor organizations like the Alameda Labor Council, believe reflect their values.  The only prediction we’re willing to make is that Mr. Oddie has a leg up on getting the nod from the Democratic Club.  He is, after all, the group’s president.

About Robert Sullwold

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

16 Responses to Six for Council

  1. Continually Municipally Disappointed says:

    SO nice to have you back! Thank you for this roundup before the next mailbox deluge.

  2. stkaney says:

    I always enjoy reading your informative blogs! Thanks!

  3. dick rudloff says:

    Thank you ery much for the information on the candidates. It was quite helpful and emcouraged me to watch what happens next. Dick Rudloff

  4. Publius says:

    RCV is a solution in search of a problem. If we must reform our voting, we’d be better off to switch to 50% + 1 and a runoff if necessary. That way we’d get clear winners with clear mandates. RCV means we end up with everyone’s 2nd or 3rd choice — Jean Quan, anyone?

    • Paul Beusterien says:

      RCV is not about choosing good or bad candidates. Any voting system can pick a bad candidate. RCV is about better representing the will of the voters. In 2010, when directly compared, voters chose Quan over Perata. More on this and other RCV misconceptions on the League of Women Voters site at https://www.lwvalameda.org/ranked-choice-voting.html

      • Publius says:

        RCV assumes that a second or third choice has meaning or value, which is far from assured.
        A first place vote means the voter wants that person to win. A second place vote means……what? Voter may not know a thing about the candidate but instructions say to choose more than one. Voter may dislike the candidate but is following instructions. There are a host of possible poor reasons for a second place vote, but a first place vote means one thing.
        But I have no illusions of changing your mind. In my experience RCV proponents are True Believers who will never change their mind (on that subject).
        That said, odds are good I will support you anyway, Paul.

    • Jean Quan's Revenge says:

      I am personally in favor of RCV. Although we are more likely to end up with milquetoast moderate candidates, we are also less likely to end up with fringe candidates who somehow keep squeaking in by the slimmest of margins through vote-splitting scenarios, like when Amos and Oddie split the progressive votes and Trish got in with barely 40 votes. It makes sense to have candidates who better represent the majority viewpoint of the city.

  5. Publius says:

    If I may digress, I’m curious what others think about switching to district elections vs the current all seats at-large system. Right now I’m agnostic and ambivalent but I can be swayed by a solid argument.

    Anyone care to chime in?

    • Irene says:

      One can still get elected without majority support in district elections. Also, often times there are uncontested races in districts because there is only one person who wants to run in that neighborhood. The Alameda League of Women Voter’s writes this on their website:

      Alameda’s current “winner-take-all” plurality elections allow candidates to win without the support of most voters. This would also be true if a plurality-by-district system is used. While district elections offer some benefits, when officials represent a small area of the city under district elections, they often fight for policies that favor that area rather than the entire city, and lines need to be redrawn as populations shift. Therefore we recommend at-large proportional RCV [ranked choice voting] for Alameda, not districts. https://www.lwvalameda.org/ranked-choice-voting.html

  6. Mike McMahon says:

    For a preview of what the candidates will be presenting to voters here is a link to the PDFs for city race for City Council. I am sure you will be following up this post with an analysis of Compensation for serving on the City Council and there are the PDFs of the measure also. BTW interesting signors for the arguments. http://www.mikemcmahon.info/election22.htm#PDF
    As for the Mayoral race, the 2014 race was a function of low voter turnout due the reeelection of Jerry Brown and the one on one race between Gilmore and Spencer. The 2018 election with three candidates (Ashcraft, Spencer and Mataresse) was highly contested and a different outcome for Ashcraft.

  7. Election Time! says:

    I love how the blog went way out of his way to brand people as “progressives” with quotation marks to insinuate they have lost their way and are out of steps with actual progressive democrats, and then calls Obama and Biden moderates, and Trish and Daysog are also moderates. That sounds like embarrassed conservatives to me.
    And the Biden White House had this to say – “Exclusionary zoning laws place restrictions on the types of homes that can be built in a particular neighborhood… exclusionary zoning laws, which have played a role in causing racial disparities in the housing market. …Indeed, policies and practices exist today that are seemingly non-discriminatory on their face but still negatively affect many families of color, especially Black families.” But OMG Biden is calling us racists too because we benefit from these policies and we refuse to understand nuances.
    And then Trish skipped town to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration. But sure, let’s all clap very hard together and believe that Trish Spencer is an Obama moderate.

    • Publius says:

      Perhaps the quotes around progressive are a sardonic note that none of them can claim much progress on their records.

      As for Obama & Biden’s labels vs Jason’s bete noire duo, adults are able to discern that local & national politics are different things with different pressure groups, different labels and different constituencies. Life gets more complex after high school.

    • StopSinkingOurCity says:

      YIMBY really means Yes in Middle-class Backyards and Especially Yes on Marginized Backyards. They are the true NIMBYs as in No in Mega-million Backyards. Don’t be fooled by these fauxgressives. Vote for candidates willing to keep our beloved city safe, friendly and solvent. So tired of their crocodile tears.

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