Last October, Carolyn Thomas-Russell, the executive director of one of the Bay Area’s most noteworthy nonprofit organizations, met 18th Assembly District candidate Joel Young for the first and only time, she said. Thomas-Russell was among a large group of supporters at Everett & Jones restaurant in Oakland’s Jack London district for an annual event held by her nonprofit, A Safe Place, which helps victims of domestic violence. Young spoke at the time about his aspirations for replacing termed-out Assemblyman Sandré Swanson in Sacramento, and recounted his own story of allegedly being victimized by an ex-girlfriend. Thomas-Russell listened to Young’s pitch and wished him luck. However, other than a few invitations from the Young campaign to attend a fundraiser, for which she said she did not respond, Thomas-Russell never paid much attention to Young or their conversation — that is, until three weeks ago.
Thomas-Russell, who has run the Oakland domestic violence center for the past 27 years, said she was shocked to learn from colleagues that Young was trumpeting her endorsement of him in the Capitol Morning Report, a widely read publication based in Sacramento. Thomas-Russell was livid, because she said she never endorsed Young. “I don’t want him to think he can make a connection between me and the agency,” Thomas-Russell said of her nonprofit. “We have never endorsed candidates for political office,” she continued in a statement last week, referring again to A Safe Place. “We do not endorse any candidate for the California State Assembly.” She said Young contacted her May 2 and apologized. “He assumed it would be okay when we talked in October,” Thomas-Russell said. “But he put the blame on his staff.”
Mark Goodwin, Young’s campaign manager, said Thomas-Russell has periodically advised the candidate on women’s issues and claimed that, despite her protestations, she supports Young and once participated in a group formed in the wake of his domestic violence allegation last summer called, “Women for Joel.” Goodwin said Thomas-Russell’s worry over the endorsement stemmed from her agency’s nonprofit status, which prohibits it from endorsing political candidates.
But Thomas-Russell was adamant that she never endorsed Young, and said the controversy has taken time away from her work helping victims of domestic violence. “This is what we do not want — he says, she says — this is becoming petty and a waste of my time,” Thomas-Russell wrote in an email last week. “How can you tell someone ‘no’ and they keep saying ‘yes?'”
Her meeting with Young in October was brief, Thomas-Russell said, but informative. After introducing himself, Young applauded her agency’s work and suggested meeting a week later to discuss his campaign. When she mentioned the program would soon begin offering services for battered men, Young told her about an incident that took place in March 2011. He was accused at the time of striking his girlfriend in the face after she slapped him when she caught him in bed with another woman. Young, according to Thomas-Russell, portrayed himself as the victim and said he was “stabbed” by the ex-girlfriend. “I was just listening,” she said last week. “I hear these stories all the time.”
Court documents in the case contain a photo taken by Young showing a small scratch on his torso, which he presumed at the time was produced by a key. “He told me about being stalked by an ex-girlfriend who broke into his apartment when he was sleeping with another woman,” recounted Thomas-Russell, “Then he said that woman ran out and the other woman talked with him and then took a shower. I remember thinking, ‘This whole situation is not consistent. It doesn’t make sense.'”
The timing of Thomas-Russell’s encounter with Young in October also is telling. Securing the backing of a noted opponent of domestic violence might have helped Young stanch the wave of supporters fleeing his campaign after the Express had published an account of Young’s domestic violence case the previous month. The article detailed the injuries that Young’s ex-girlfriend received during the incident, along with statements by an Alameda County Superior Court judge, doubting Young’s story that he was the victim and that he had merely restrained her while trying to defend himself. “The injuries she sustained go well beyond the reasonable need to self-defend,” said Judge Morris Jacobsen, referring to the extensive bruising on the face of Young’s girlfriend.
Young’s campaign has been dogged by the allegation ever since. “I don’t know what exactly occurred,” Thomas-Russell said, “but if you’re running for political office, it’s definitely going to be an issue for you.” In addition, Young’s hot temper flared up again earlier this year when he reportedly threatened to assault a staffer of Oakland Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan.
This also isn’t the first time that Young has been accused of falsifying endorsements. A group of local elected officials and political insiders have long grumbled over Young publicizing their endorsements of him when they no longer support him. However, none was willing to go on the record for this story, with one saying it is not worth the hassle to face Young’s ire. One person heavily involved in the local Democratic Party went so far as to threaten to file a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission last January after Young repeatedly ignored requests to take his name off the campaign website. But Goodwin denied that the campaign routinely disregards the wishes of former supporters. “One of the things is Joel started his campaign early, way before the entire field shaped up,” said Goodwin.
Young, an AC Transit board member, also had an endorsement revoked earlier this year by the Service Employees International Union after he used the union’s confidential questionnaire for political purposes. In the 18th Assembly District race this June, Young is squaring off against Rob Bonta, vice mayor of Alameda, and Peralta Community College Trustee Abel Guillen. The top two finishers advance to the November general election with the hope of representing parts of Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro in the state assembly.