End of Year Piece: PACS for Polluters and Gentrifiers Find Labor Allliances; the Police Commission Puts the We in its Woes; and Tuff Sheds Move to East Oakland

Posted on December 29, 2018

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2018-12-17_14-58-112018 was a big year for Oakland news, but there were several news stories with potential effects that will be felt for years to come that also occurred with less or disjointed attention. I chose to focus on three areas of reporting and analysis this year: the city’s homeless management regime, the Police Commission’s first flight after enabling ordinance and the refraction of big power and money dynamics in the ordinarily invisible District 6 city council election. Though others reported on these areas and often did it well, the lack of consistent, continuous focus is glaring, and I’ve tried to respond to that.

These are some end of year final observations and takeaways from my reporting in places local media did not do a good job of following consistently and didn’t make necessary connections.

California’s Building and Trades Unions Flirt with the Darkside

I did a few deep dives into the institutional attack on Oakland’s District 6 council person, Desley Brooks. Beginning early in the year, Libby Schaaf and her allies in both city government and local media dug deep into Brooks and hit bone, manufacturing, inflating and exploiting at least two scandals with lots of help from media enablers exploiting misognynoir tropes. This was followed by an unprecedented flow of money wrangled by Schaaf-allied developers, affluent Schaafites and regional trades unions in two separate independent expenditure committees. The combination was impossible to overcome and Brooks subsequently lost the election. I did a lot of reporting on that which you can find elsewhere on this site in pieces headlined with Brooks or District 6.

One significant takeaway is that institutional concerns and big money can co-opt ranked choice voting from its popularizing intent and that’s what happened in District 6. Schaaf, her political machine and institutionally allied media spent months attacking the incumbent’s reputation. In such a manufactured environment of negativity, apparently at least two of the candidates needn’t be serious contenders. Only Middleton and Taylor ran serious campaigns. Whittaker and Rodriguez invested few resources and didn’t campaign. Whittaker was ethereal during the campaign and didn’t even spend all of her small campaign fund; Rodriguez used the same campaign company as Middleton and raised less than ten thousand dollars.

But another take is co-valent and goes well beyond the District 6 race–the rise of Trades Unions and their regional councils as heavy-hitters in hyper-local elections. Regional trades and construction unions raised unprecedented money to oust Brooks, and that’s well-documented. Almost every major trades-union that gave money in the 2018 election cycle in Oakland invested more money in the anti-Brooks PACs than they did to any single candidate they supported.

But the Trades’ assault was by no means unique to Oakland. The State Building and Construction Trades Council of California–a representative political affairs coordination body for these trade and construction unions–used its regional members’ cash to wrangle outcomes in small fiefdoms not at all accustomed to big pockets and dirty tricks. Though individual unions were involved regionally, SBCTCC–which collects funds from dozens of unions statewide to fund their political PAC ops–was a unifying factor in at least three California races. And in all three cases, they rallied and organized union locals into the funding.

In Oakland, Benicia and the 58th Assembly district [comprised heavily of Latino portions of suburban Los Angeles County] SBCTCC arrived with unprecedented funds, robocalls, mailers and push polls. The SBCTCC and its members did not bother trying to hide their alliances: energy corporations in Benicia and 58th Assembly District; and in Oakland, the market rate super-heated construction sector.

In Benicia where Valero Energy’s plant casts a large shadow, SBCTCC was the major donor to Valero’s PAC dedicated exclusively to beating city council candidate, Katie Birdseye. In the 58th Assembly District, SBCTCC coordinated and heavily funded an anti-Cristina Garcia PAC, using hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising and mailers against Garcia. In Oakland, the SBCTCC joined its constituent members’ donations to Jose Dorado’s PAC, adding funds those unions had contributed to SBCTCC for their statewide campaigns to bolster the attacks on Desley Brooks. The appearance of one Concord-based union’s money in both the anti-Garcia and anti-Brooks’ PAC suggest that SBCTCC was also involved in a fair amount of organizing and direction of funds.

Benicia City Council Candidate Kari Birdseye:

Benicia’s city council race stands out for the unprecedented money that was brought to bear against a first-time candidate. On paper, environmentalist Kari Birdseye is far from an eco-radical, having worked for the mainstream EarthJustice, and then several years on Benicia’s Planning Commission. Birdseye ran on a fairly typical progressive Democrat platform that included strengthening city oversight of Valero.

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There’s no doubt that Valero initiated Working Families for a Strong Benicia to oppose Birdseye based strictly on fears of the bolstered city oversight Birdseye suggested. And its clear that SBCTCC got involved in the PAC on behalf of the unions that work in Valero’s spectrum of the energy sector. The PAC raised 195k from unions to ensure Birdseye’s loss–an almost unheard level of funds in a city election involving only 28,000 residents. Working Families spent the funds on an extraordinary gamut of electoral tricks to ensure Birdseye’s loss–push polls, phonebanking, canvassing, robocalls, and mailers.

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A Push Poll Commissioned by Working Families PAC Directly Targetting Kari Birdseye

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Social Media Ad Buy by Working Families

SBCTCC donated over 40k of those funds, the most of any single contributor, including Valero. SBCTCC and other regional trades unions act was naked and impossible to characterize in any other way–it was a political pirate expedition free of principles against a candidate with a substantial history of fighting climate change and corporate pollution.

Cristina Garcia, Incumbent in the 58th Assembly District:

Though Assembly Person Cristina Garcia struggled with her share of scandal, she also sits on the state’s resource board. Garcia is a typical Democratic party booster of mainstream environmental regulation, but has also gone further, linking climate degradation to its impacts on communities of color. SBCTCC undertook a similarly unprincipled but even more robust attack on Garcia in the 58th Assembly District, founding a behemoth PAC to unseat the incumbent and donating 250,000 dollars to it, which made it the largest single donor to the PAC. Working Californians Against Corruption Opposing Cristina Garcia[…] was run by SBCTCC and raised over a million dollars specifically to defeat Garcia and it was almost entirely from construction and trades unions.

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Working Californians gave Garcia the business with a a relentless $900,000 worth of mailers, radio and newspaper ad buys, robocalls, social media ad buys, calls, canvassing and research. Though SBCTCC claimed in its parallel public relations attack that the scandals were their main concern, it’s just not credible, especially given their attack on Benicia’s Birdseye. Clearly, SBCTCC’s main bone with Garcia was her environmental platform and rhetoric.

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SBCTCC subsists on donations from its member trade unions across California. If the individual northern california union locals that attacked Desley Brooks had any reservations about how their money was spent by SBCTCC elsewhere–as direct contributions to the anti-Garcia and anti-Birdseye PACS, for example–they didn’t make it known. Sheet Metal Workers 104 which contributed to the anti-Brooks PAC, gave SBCTCC over 30k all the way through Garcia’s mid-year primary election day and beyond to the Benicia and Oakland election in November–likewise, Sprinkler Fitters 483 gave tens of thousands.

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And in one sign among many that the attack on Garcia was, like the attack on Brooks, purely on behalf of the corporate industries they work in, The United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 342, headquartered in Concord, donated to both the PAC against Brooks and the PAC against Garcia.

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In all, and in various levels of coordination, local industry-dependent unions spent well over a million dollars in defenseless districts to rig the outcome in the favor of their favored corporate benefactors and to the detriment of local residents. Garcia survived the assualt, but both Brooks and Birdseye lost their respective elections. There’s no doubt that the SBCTCC’s expenditures played a great role in those defeats.

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A Representative of SMW 104 argues that the city should include PLA’s for all Public Lands sales. SMW 104 donated significant $ to oust Desley Brooks, and to State Building and Construction Trades Council, which started and funded two PACS against environmental-branded candidates in California

As both climate change and gentrification leave the niche and become increasingly mainstream electoral concerns–these local trade unions are stepping up their game. Perhaps just as disturbing is the level of misdirection that the Trades unions relied on  based on their reputation as social benefit. The smearing and personal attacks camouflage their self-interested connection with polluters and gentrifiers. Like the residents of District 6, the voters in these areas are simply in the unions’ way.

Schaaf Administration’s Homelessness Regime Turns to East Oakland

This year, I wrote extensively about the legislative steps city staff undertook at the direction of Libby Schaaf to expand the Tuff Shed encampments as the city’s over-arching emergency response to homelessness. Initially, these camps were openly an attempt to mollify affluent residents in downtown and adjacent gentrified districts by creating a “resolution” to existing camps, while appealing to liberal ideas of compassion. The Tuff Sheds that eradicated the Northgate encampment changed the calculus, however. In the process of appearing to “honor” a promise to activists who called themselves “the Village”, the city administrator’s office gave Village permission to run an already existing camp at 12th street and 23rd avenue, under the 23rd avenue overpass.

Some of the overflow from the eradication of the Northgate encampment–which numbered well over a 100 residents–soon arrived in East Oakland in the city-sanctioned camp at 23rd avenue. Either with the pull of the Village, or with the instruction of the city, or even some combination of both, the 23rd Avenue encampment which initially numbered no more than 20 people, swelled to the breaking point.

It’s at this point that the city dumped the initial rationale for its homeless management program. Rather than satisfying affluent residents by targetting an existing camp they’ve complained about, the Tuff Sheds in East Oakland serve to shuffle the homeless population into areas where residents are voiceless. The city’s homelessness czar, Joe Devries and his team never reached out to communities adjacent to the 23rd avenue sanctioned encampment. It was in many ways, a transfer of downtown’s homeless people to East Oakland, where no sensibilities had to be observed.

As a public works project on the 23rd Avenue overpass will force the removal of the encampment in January, Devries planned to transfer the 23rd Avenue encampment to a Tuff Shed camp in the Fruitvale economic corridor, on city land that it had promised through an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement to the Native American Health Center to build affordable housing. At the council meeting where Devries sought council permission to do so, it became clear that the city hadn’t contacted NAHC at all and that the org’s management vigorously opposed it.

Though Devries was successful in passing the legislation over the objections of NAHC, the city later was overwhelmed by that community’s resistance to the site and the obvious visuals and ironies. Forced again to try to find an East Oakland community lacking the influence to object, the city chose the former site of the Miller Library.

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Its worth noting that the city has been historically indifferent to the Dubs–the area around Miller Library–where the new Tuff Sheds will be placed. The city abandoned the library that used to stand on the lot for 20 years, with no security apparatus, guard, alarm or maintenance. The building caught fire twice in one year, and then finally, as the city recouped a 1 million dollar insurance policy from the second fire, it burned down to the ground.

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The city also plans to eradicate at least two RV encampment areas in East Oakland. In one, in the Deep East, it will proceed by forcibly moving vehicles to an adjacent city owned site with amenities. But in the other, adjacent to Fruitvale, the city will replace an existing camp on city land. It’s a sizeable encampment of tents and structures, not just RV’s and it’s not clear how the city will proceed. There’s no timeline yet for either of these actions.

The Oakland Police Commission’s Struggles Against the City [and Itself]

No City of Oakland policy has been as initially celebrated and progressively disappointing and frustrating as the Oakland Police Commission. Passed by an overwhelming 84% of Oakland voters as a city council ballot initiative in 2016, it took nearly two years of wrangling with the Oakland city attorney and city administrator before it could be legally enabled by a city council ordinance in July.

But the Commission has experienced a wearying institutional obstacle course since the enabling ordinance, along with other problems self-generated. Two Commissioners have left the body within its first 4 months of official operation. Though Mike Nispero’s resignation letter stated he was moving out of Oakland and thus now fails to meet the minimum standard for a Commissioner, it’s not clear when he became aware he would move, or really, if he has even left. Andrea Dooley, an alternate commissioner chosen by Schaaf, was clearer about her departure, claiming that she was leaving due to both the city’s failure, and what she also described as the Commission’s disorganization. Both Commissioners Ginale Harris and Mubarak Ahmad have been vocally critical of the city’s roadblocks, with Ahmad publicly denouncing the body as a “kangaroo commission” at a September meeting.

And to add a complicated ripple to the chaos, Commissioner Jose Dorado, the former treasurer for Noel Gallo’s 2016 campaign, founded an independent expenditure committee specifically aimed at ousting Public Safety Committee member, Desley Brooks. The PAC raised an unprecedented sum and doubtless tilted the scales against Brooks in the District 6 election.

The Commission was given a preview of the potential consequences of Dorado’s political gaming almost immediately. OPD, with the help of the City Administrator, bypassed the Commission and slid two major legislative items directly to the Public Safety Committee–several federal law enforcement agency MOU’s as well as new policies for interacting with residents on conditional release. With the political onslaught causing Brooks to all but disappear from her committee and council participation, the Commission was left with no public advocate on council.

In this regard, Public Safety Committee member Noel Gallo’s behavior during the Public Safety Meeting vote for the OPD conditional release procedural change is notable. Though Gallo was the initial champion of the community movement’s version of the police commission, he sat silently while the OPD brought their proposed changes–which excluded the language that the commission had inserted during their review. Gallo could have used his committee vote both symbolically and effectively, by voicing his disapproval of the line-jump by voting no, which would have also caused the item to have been introduced as non-consent at a subsequent city council meeting.

Non consent city council items have to be presented and discussed separately with community input–the focus is much more keen, and it allows affected communities to show up in en masse effectively. Gallo’s leadership on the issue may have swayed the committee in the first place to down vote the proposal, and certainly would’ve informed the full council that the committee had doubts. While it can’t be known what Brooks would have done, her past actions certainly indicate she would have voted no in favor of the commission.

But Gallo said nothing and voted with the other committee members unanimously in favor. Later, after even Commissioners appeared at the subsequent Council meeting vote to decry the process, Gallo relented and agreed to broker a meeting between Commissioners and the police–in itself an unsatisfying outcome that suggests the Commission’s impotence. In this regard, it’s impossible to know what Dorado’s goals are. He has argued convincingly for the Commission’s role and did so on this issue during full council. But his past alliance with Gallo, who failed to support the Commission, and his opposition to Brooks who did, leaves many unanswered questions about what he is doing there.

The Commission was subsequently unable to affect the new stealth OPD contract, nor the MOUs with DEA, Marshals and ATF. Both Kalb and Gallo, who wrote the legislation for the Commission stood by as the Commission’s intended role was usurped by police and City Administrator–who even manipulated council rules to introduce the OPD labor contract with little notice. Kalb denied the Commission should have a role in contract negotiations with OPD in the preface to his positive vote for the package, which included a 12% COLA raise over 5 years.

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There’s even more–it’s almost too much to recount in an end of year thingy. In November, the commission fired its Community Police Review Agency liaison after his almost contemptuous refusal to recognize the commission’s authority and reveal his own records from past police investigations; the Commission also had to replace its legal counsel as the previous counsel appointed by the City Attorney resigned from the position. The Commission continues to struggle with issues of process and against mandated city roles that hamper its independence. Meanwhile, it flounders without staff or training and its oversight of OPD continues to backlog.

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