Patrick O’Connell — like most Alameda County politicians — has run unopposed each time he’s been up for reelection to his longtime post as county controller/auditor/clerk recorder. And most East Bay political observers expected him to once again run unchallenged this year. But then in a surprise move, O’Connell declared last week that he had decided to not run for reelection after 28 years in office.
The timing of O’Connell’s surprise move also was curious. He made his announcement after the March 7 deadline had passed for candidates seeking to replace him. And his deputy auditor, Steve Manning, officially filed papers to run to replace O’Connell just before his boss made his announcement — and just before the candidate filing deadline. O’Connell denied that the timing of his announcement was designed to help his deputy cruise into office this year, but the move was nonetheless emblematic of a decades-old problem with the Alameda County electoral process — a system that typically discourages competition and resembles political patronage.
In fact, Alameda County voters will have few choices when casting their ballots in this year’s June 3 primary, other than in a handful of contested congressional and state legislature races. As it stands, most county political incumbents will be running unopposed this year, including supervisors Wilma Chan and Richard Valle, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, Sheriff Gregory Ahern, Treasurer/Tax Collector Donald White, Assessor Ron Thomsen, and 22 superior court judges. Indeed, none of the nearly two dozen judicial races will appear on the June ballot because they are uncontested.
O’Connell said in an interview last week that he simply felt it was time to leave office, although he has yet to decide whether to retire after his term ends in January 2015. He said he intended to run for reelection, and had been soliciting signatures for his reelection papers since January. But then over dinner with his wife two weeks ago, he had second thoughts, he said. “You know, I’ve been with the county for 44 years and I’m 70 — maybe we should start planning to do something else?” he said he told his wife. “I’ve done my time.”
Even back in 1986, during O’Connell’s first election, the appearance of an incumbent hand-picking his successor was common. O’Connell had been an assistant to former auditor-controller Don Harkins for the previous twelve years before he defeated two other candidates to win that seat. And this year, O’Connell said he is endorsing his current deputy to replace him. However, because O’Connell decided not to run for reelection, the deadline for candidates to file was extended five days to March 12. During this period, Kathleen Knox, who also has strong ties to county government, filed papers to run against Manning. Knox is the daughter of former Alameda County Supervisor Bob Knox, who served one term in the late 1980s.
Greg Jan, an elected member of the Green Party’s Alameda County council, noticed the late filing by O’Connell’s deputy and called the move unusual but unsurprising because county government typically gets little scrutiny. “This is really about incumbents self-perpetuating themselves and appointing their successor without any transparency,” said Jan. “Almost every other incumbent [in other jurisdictions] is faced with a questioning public and opponents who might dig up things they may have done wrong, but not in Alameda County.”
During the past thirty years, county incumbent politicians have rarely faced competition from other candidates at election time. For example, since taking office in 1996, county Supervisor Scott Haggerty has run unopposed in every election. And when a seat does come open because of retirement or resignation, the county board of supervisors usually appoints a replacement who then often runs unopposed during the next election. Two years ago, the board appointed Valle to replace Supervisor Nadia Lockyer, who had resigned amid a drug-abuse scandal. Valle subsequently won a special election later that year and now is running unopposed this summer. And during her first go-around on the board, Chan left to join the state Assembly in 2000, but not before tapping her chief staff, Alice Lai-Bitker, as her replacement. Lai-Bitker served ten years as supervisor before not seeking re-election. Chan then won the open seat in 2010, and now again has no competition.
O’Malley and Ahern’s political histories also involved patronage-tinged moves by their predecessors. Nine months before the June 2010 primary, then-DA Tom Orloff abruptly announced his retirement and quickly urged the board of supes to appoint O’Malley to replace him. The board obliged. Orloff himself had become DA in a similar fashion, taking over from his mentor, Jack Meehan. Likewise, former Sheriff Charlie Plummer made a similar move that benefitted Ahern in 2006. Plummer, who had announced his retirement a month before the end of the filing deadline, called Ahern his “sheriff apprentice,” according to news reports at the time.
For a while last year, it looked as if some East Bay residents had finally become fed up with Alameda County’s electoral process, particularly concerning elected law enforcements posts. Community groups that were upset over Ahern’s desire to purchase domestic drones and O’Malley’s prosecution of protesters, among other issues, sought to attract legitimate challengers for both races in 2014. Ultimately, however, neither attempt bore fruit.
Still, an incumbent gaming the system to place his or her candidate of choice in a prime position for victory does not always work out as planned. Last year, Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Sheila Jordan, also a former member of the Oakland City Council and the school board, was eyeing retirement after nearly sixteen years as head of the office of county education. Like Orloff, Plummer, and a host of former county officials, Jordan was hoping to select a replacement to further her policies into the next administration. Jordan chose Karen Monroe, her assistant and now a candidate for the office. However, members of the Alameda County Board of Education balked over appointing Monroe to the position, so now Monroe is running for the seat – with Jordan’s backing. In an interview, Monroe acknowledged Jordan’s intent to install her before the June election. Monroe, though, said she wanted to run for the seat on her own merit. “The idea of an appointment came up,” said Monroe, “but I asked her to let me run because I know how that works. I know people around here in the community are not in favor of that move.”
In addition to Monroe, four other candidates are running to replace Jordan, including a late challenger, Naomi Eason, also a former assistant to Jordan, who quit two years ago to run an education nonprofit. Eason also claims that before she left Jordan also offered to appoint her to superintendent.