Rebranding a Candidate

Oakland Councilwoman Pat Kernighan recasts herself as a progressive with the help of friends.

At her core, Pat Kernighan is a buttoned-down, pro-business, pro-development Democrat. She’s the darling of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and throughout her career has allied herself with Oakland’s most pro-business politician — City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. But now, at least publicly, Kernighan has reversed course. Her moderate credentials and political ties have become a liability.

Kernighan is in the political fight of her life against Aimee Allison, a Green Party member and conscientious objector in the first Iraq War. Allison’s progressive ideals, coupled with a demographic shift in central Oakland, have propelled the two into a dead heat in the final weeks of the campaign. Allison also has capitalized on the odor of corruption that encircles City Hall and De La Fuente, who is being investigated by the FBI in a probe of bribes for city contracts.

In response, Kernighan has seemed to distance herself from De La Fuente and the machine of his close friend and mentor, state Senate President Don Perata — who is also the target of an FBI investigation. She has moved toward the left and sought to remake herself as a “progressive.” She recently opposed the council president on a key council vote, and in a recent glossy mailer was recast as a “feminist and antiwar activist.” The makeover is a last-minute gambit to save Kernighan’s seat, and also a final attempt to keep the Perata machine from breaking apart.

Moderate and moneyed politicians have dominated District Two for a decade, and Kernighan has been at the center of it all. She was chief of staff for Councilman John Russo, who stepped down in 2000 to become city attorney. She then held the same job under Russo’s successor, Councilman Danny Wan, who became one of De La Fuente’s most loyal lieutenants. After Wan resigned last year, Kernighan replaced him.

Russo, Wan, and Kernighan’s base traditionally has been the Feinstein Democrats who reside in million-dollar homes in the Crocker Highlands, Trestle Glen, and upper Lakeshore neighborhoods. They also have been popular among Asian voters in East Lake and Chinatown. But over the past several years, thousands of progressive hipsters have poured into District Two, taking up residence in the apartments around Lake Merritt. They’ve been joined by young families who bought homes in the East Lake and San Antonio neighborhoods.

This new coalition is now embracing Allison, whose antiwar credentials resonate with people angry over the Iraq War and national political climate. “District Two has become a very progressive district,” Allison said. “My antiwar background appeals to people because of the times that we’re in.”

Allison burst onto the political scene in early 2005 as a newcomer. She had never held office, but instantly gained attention simply for outworking other candidates. She walked door-to-door and chatted up residents nearly every day for five months.

But in the eight-person race to finish out Wan’s term, Kernighan was the clear favorite. One of her largest early donors was Perata’s best friend, developer Ed De Silva, who, along with his family and top executives of his companies and their wives, showered $8,400 on Kernighan’s campaign.

Sure enough, Kernighan won, albeit with just 29 percent of the vote. Allison finished fourth, but she had momentum. Less than a year later, she was knocking on doors again, seeking to unseat Kernighan, who had finished Wan’s term and was running for a full four-year council seat. As the incumbent, Kernighan again had the advantage as the June primary approached. And just as before, some of Perata and De La Fuente’s biggest donors began cutting checks. Among them was Ana Chretien, who is the former chair of the chamber’s PAC, and one of De La Fuente’s best friends.

This time, it was a three-woman race — Kernighan, Allison, and Chinatown activist Shirley Gee. Just as before, Kernighan had the biggest endorsements and the most money. She also loaned her campaign $68,000. But Allison made it close. Buoyed by the winning mayoral campaign of Ron Dellums, the East Bay’s most famous progressive, Allison garnered 39 percent of the vote. It was enough to force Kernighan, who received 46 percent, into a November runoff.

Allison also gained the backing of progressive Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, who has a strong following in District Two. Kernighan, meanwhile, picked up Gee’s endorsement, but lost ground among progressives with her unwavering support for the controversial Oak to Ninth project, a massive 3,100-unit condominium development to be erected along the estuary. Its opponents, many of them District Two residents, became further enraged when Kernighan’s former boss, Russo, tossed aside their referendum against the project on a legal technicality.

Then in late September, the FBI rocked Oakland City Hall with the arrest and indictment of De La Fuente acquaintance Maurice Himy. The feds said they taped Himy extorting cash from an Oakland businessman in exchange for a promise to help land a city contract with the assistance of a politician later identified as De La Fuente. The council president has strenuously denied any wrongdoing, but Allison has effectively exploited the allegations. “One of the things that Aimee has done well is to tie Pat to Ignacio,” said Councilwoman Desley Brooks.

Indeed, Allison has made the FBI probes a cornerstone of her campaign. In public speeches and conversations with voters, she pledges to help Dellums clean up City Hall and change its pay-to-play culture. “There’s been all this corruption, insider dealing, dirty dealing, in City Hall and it has to stop,” she said last week to a group of supporters and journalists.

City Hall insiders said the barrage of bad publicity, along with Allison’s door-to-door reminders, ultimately convinced Kernighan it was inflicting damage on her campaign. According to one source, Kernighan confronted De La Fuente and said she needed to separate herself publicly from him.

Kernighan wouldn’t comment on this alleged confrontation. De La Fuente acknowledged that the two recently discussed campaign strategy in a closed-door meeting. Kernighan subsequently voted against De La Fuente on a major issue for the first time.

The vote concerned a proposed new law that would force developers to include affordable housing in their projects. Developers strongly opposed the so-called “inclusionary” housing ordinance, and De La Fuente voted against it. But Kernighan supported the idea, joining Nadel and Councilwomen Jane Brunner and Jean Quan, who also often align themselves with the council president.

Days later, Kernighan began to disavow a legal victory by OakPAC, the chamber of commerce’s political action committee. OakPAC, the city’s most influential pro-business committee, convinced a federal judge to suspend an Oakland law that sought to limit the amount of money PACs can raise and spend on behalf of a candidate. The group endorsed Kernighan and wanted to spend $58,000 on her behalf. The judge told the group it could spend as much as it wanted.

Kernighan said last week that she had nothing to do with OakPAC’s maneuver or planned expenditures. Nonetheless, the PAC contributed to her makeover. In a glossy eight-page mailer that cost $14,685 and was sent to District Two residents, Kernighan was touted not for her moderate, pro-business political career but for her “progressive values” and support of “economic equality and social justice.” The mailer even linked her with Nadel, saying they have “sponsored” public meetings together on such issues as affordable housing and homelessness.

Nadel grew angry when told of the mailer, calling it “frustrating” because it falsely implied that she supports Kernighan. “It confuses voters, because I didn’t endorse her; I endorsed Aimee,” she said. Indeed, Nadel is the only other politician mentioned in the mailer. In response, Kernighan said she “had nothing to do” with the ad. OakPAC chairman Michael Colbruno did not return a phone call seeking comment.

For her part, Allison believes Kernighan’s about-face is a sham. She also believes the alleged rift with De La Fuente is merely a campaign tactic, and that her opponent will return to his side after the election. “She campaigned directly for him for mayor,” Allison said. She also does not believe Kernighan’s assertion that she was not involved in OakPAC’s efforts.

Campaign finance records do show that many of the same people funded Kernighan’s campaign and OakPAC. In total, at least fifteen deep-pocketed donors gave $69,100 to OakPAC and $10,100 to Kernighan. Among them are Oakland developers Phil Tagami and James Falaschi, who have both won lucrative deals with the city in recent years, and Clear Channel Outdoor, which last year paid for a series of giant De La Fuente billboards around the city.

Last week, mayor-elect Dellums convinced OakPAC to drop its Kernighan campaign when he threatened to denounce it publicly — but not before it already had sent out a second mailer. In total, OakPAC spent at least $25,000 promoting Kernighan.

If Kernighan wins on Tuesday, and subsequently realigns herself with De La Fuente, it may be all he needs to retain control of the council. But if Allison is victorious, then the council president’s grip on the city may finally pull apart. At least three of the eight council members — Allison, Nadel, and Brooks — would be openly opposed to him. And with Dellums in office, one or two others might finally break ranks for good, thereby ending the machine’s dominance over City Hall.

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