Since the Oakland City Attorney became an elected position in 2000, only one person has ever won the office in an open election: John Russo, the former city councilman who served two terms as city attorney before resigning in June 2011 to become the city manager of Alameda. Russo, a highly intelligent yet occasionally abrasive Brooklyn native, placed the city attorney’s office in the center of two high-profile dustups in 2011 with his opposition to the city’s aborted plan for licensing large-scale marijuana cultivation, and the costly and politically fractious gang injunctions in North Oakland and the Fruitvale district.
The city council appointed Chief Assistant City Attorney Barbara Parker as Russo’s replacement in July 2011. The council then placed Measure H on the November 2011 ballot, which would have returned the city attorney to an appointed office. The ballot measure failed, however, with 73 percent of voters opting to keep the office an elected position.
Councilwoman Jane Brunner, a labor attorney who has represented North Oakland for sixteen years, has coveted the city attorney’s spot for a long time, and in early 2011, she filed paperwork stating her intent to run for the office. Then when the council appointed Parker, Brunner tried to block it, saying the city should hold an election for the spot. Councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente and Desley Brooks joined Brunner in opposition to the appointment. Brunner also opposed Measure H, along with De La Fuente.
Since her ascension from the number-two spot, Parker’s fourteen months as city attorney have been anything but calm. Her office was at the center of a controversy over improper use of council authority by Councilwoman Brooks in securing funding for an East Oakland teen center. Parker also has filed suits to shut down problem businesses, and just this month, she sued US Attorney Melinda Haag and Attorney General Eric Holder over federal efforts to close Oakland medical marijuana dispensary Harborside Health Center.
“We’re concerned, and I’m dismayed, that if they are successful in shutting down this particular business — it’ll be a chill on all the other cannabis cooperatives we’ve licensed,” said Parker, who counts the city’s role as an incubator for medical marijuana and decriminalization as one of her major accomplishments during her 21 years working for the city. Tellingly, Parker said her greatest challenge has been “the interface with some of our clients,” several of whom would “sometimes like you to personally represent them. We’re not in that business,” said Parker, who prides herself as a “straight shooter.”
For her part, Brunner contends that there are “serious problems” with how the city attorney’s office is run, claiming that the office has a spotty record on transparency, has operating costs that are higher than others in similar size California cities, and consumes funding that would be better suited to more direct public safety efforts such as increasing policing and restorative justice programs.
“I thought sixteen years was enough time,” Brunner said of her decision to not run for city council again. She believes the city attorney’s office, under Russo and now under Parker, is playing too great a role in shaping and determining policy, rather than providing legal advice. “The job is to give advice and to give your client options; it isn’t to make decisions,” Brunner said.
Parker acknowledged that the city attorney’s office has been run at times in a manner that clashes with other branches of city government. “There have been issues raised under the prior city attorney as to whether they are giving advice where the city attorney might have their own policy interests in mind,” Parker said.
The candidates, however, have remarkably similar policy stances. Both view public safety as Oakland’s number-one priority and are supportive of defending the city’s medical marijuana dispensaries against federal raids. Both candidates are supportive of the existing gang injunctions brought under Russo, but are reluctant to file additional court orders because of a lack of police resources and questions about their costs and efficacy. Similarly, Parker and Brunner are not in favor of youth curfews for fear of criminalizing youth, and because data indicates that youth crime is highest during daylight hours when a curfew is impossible.
Perhaps because of the lack of major policy differences, the city attorney’s race has become a contest in which accusations over improper campaigning and mudslinging have overshadowed substance.
Much of the heated rhetoric in the campaign has centered on accusations from Brunner that Parker engaged in “pay-to-play” politics by soliciting contributions from private lawyers and firms that do business with the city and from city attorney staff via emails. While Parker’s office maintains that the emails were an honest mistake, Brunner said in an interview that the contributions “clearly were solicited,” and therefore violate state and city rules. Since 2011, nineteen city attorney staffers have contributed at least $10,550 to Parker’s campaign coffers. She has also received contributions from lawyers at Meyers Nave, Burnham Brown, Rene Holtzman Sakai, and other firms that receive outside counsel contracts from the city attorney’s office. Her contributors also include Oakland Councilwomen Pat Kernighan and Libby Schaaf — who have both endorsed Parker as well.
Parker contends that Brunner’s accusations about cost overruns and improper contributions are baseless. “It’s political season and she’s throwing out allegations to see what might stick,” Parker said, pointing to a recent mid-term report released by her office indicating that outside counsel costs dropped by 40 percent this year compared to last year.
While much of Parker’s donations are from law firms and attorneys, Brunner’s campaign is being funded largely by several property management and real estate firms, as well as by labor unions; attorneys from the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office and her own law firm of Siegel & Yee; civil rights lawyers; waste collection companies; and De La Fuente and Brooks. Brunner also has received donations from people and businesses that have city contracts that she voted to award.
Brunner raised $43,404 from July 1 through September 30 of this year, bringing her fundraising total to $160,704 since she began campaigning in 2011. For her part, Parker raised $57,012 during the same period. In her first race for office, Parker has netted a total of $208,875 in contributions, far outstripping her rival. The spending cap for the Oakland City Attorney’s race this year is $275,000, according to the Oakland City Clerk.
One interesting side note in campaign fundraising is the contributions by motel owners to both campaigns. In recent years, the city attorney has shut down motels associated with crime and prostitution. Similar businesses appear to be hedging their bets.
Brunner, a self-described progressive who took part in anti-war protests while at UC Berkeley in 1968 and worked as a union lawyer before entering into politics, claimed she was surprised to learn that the Oakland Police Officer’s Association (OPOA) supported her candidacy. Not only did the police union throw its considerable political weight behind her and donate the maximum $1,300 to her campaign through the union’s political action committee, but Brunner also counts the support of the Police Officers Research Association of California. PORAC is one of the most influential statewide lobbying groups for law enforcement — well known in the East Bay for bankrolling the legal defense of former BART cop Johannes Mehserle while he was on trial for the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant. Ron Cottingham, PORAC’s president, went so far as to call Mehserle a “political prisoner” after the former officer was sentenced to two years plus time served for involuntary manslaughter.
On October 11, OPOA sent out an email urging voters to choose Brunner because of her support for restoring OPD’s Crime Reduction Teams, which are localized units focused on pro-active investigations and reducing violent crime that were eliminated when OPD reorganized following the 2010 layoffs. OPOA also threw its weight against Parker because city attorney staff allegedly withheld a potentially exculpatory report from the disciplinary hearing of Officer Bryan Franks, who faced termination for the fatal shooting of Arthur Raleigh on March 12 of this year.
Parker also has several high-profile police endorsements, including from former OPD Chiefs Wayne Tucker and Anthony Batts. Her policy record shows she has a tough-on-crime edge as well. Although she supports Measure Y violence prevention programs, she introduced legislation in May to the council that would have banned shields, spray cans or fire accelerants from any protest in Oakland, in response to vandalism and clashes between demonstrators and police that took place during several Occupy Oakland actions. The proposed ban elicited fervent protest, including a march on Councilwoman Kernighan’s home in June.
Parker’s other endorsers include Oakland Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Larry Reid. In addition, she has the backing of OakPAC, the political arm of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce; the Democratic Party; the John George Democratic Club; East Bay Young Democrats; the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club; and the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club.
As for Brunner, her endorsement list includes Councilmembers De La Fuente and Brooks; Assemblyman Sandré Swanson; Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson; the firefighters’ union; the Alameda County Labor Council; the Alameda County Building and Construction Trades Council; SEIU; and the Teamsters.
The largest single challenge facing the Oakland city attorney is the impending December 13 hearing in front of US District Court Judge Thelton Henderson that will determine whether OPD will be placed under control of a court-appointed master because of a decade of failed reforms. Parker declined to discuss particulars of the city’s legal strategy but said she is working on “strong opposition papers” that will be filed on November 8.
Brunner is critical of the city attorney’s record and contends that Russo and Parker did not closely track the progress of reforms until they got out of hand. “It’s been nine and a half years — we’re going to be in receivership,” Brunner said, stating she would do everything to work with Judge Henderson’s receiver to ensure that Oakland is not bankrupted by any policing costs he or she may require.
In the end, this race comes down to whether or not citizens believe Parker’s extensive experience as a practicing attorney makes her the best candidate or whether Brunner’s charges about the city attorney’s office and campaign fundraising appeal to voters who believe a change is necessary. However, Brunner’s lack of courtroom experience also could dissuade some voters who believe familiarity with process and continuity of leadership are important traits at such a delicate period.
Correction: The original version of this story mistakenly stated that Oakland developer Phil Tagami was helping fund Jane Brunner’s city attorney campaign. Tagami has not donated to either Brunner or Barbara Parker.