Oakland can be forgiven for feeling, once again, like the ugly girl at the prom. Her most courtly suitor, state Senator Don Perata, has left her for the bright lights and sexy ways of, um, Sacramento, and she’s stuck weeping in the doorway, her corsage wilting under her tears. The Teflon Don won’t be her mayor after all.
Of course, at least one pretender to the throne had gotten hip to this months ago. City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente has been building a campaign organization and raising money for yet another mayoral run. And while Councilwoman Nancy Nadel and school boardmembers Dan Siegel and Greg Hodge may not have known about Perata’s ambition to assume the presidency of the state Senate, they didn’t much care, since they all intended to run to his left in 2006 anyway. But once the city’s biggest personality started walking away, the race to replace Jerry Brown began to take a clear shape. De La Fuente, the presumptive leading candidate, has spent his nine years on the council playing power politics with big dogs like Brown, Perata, Kaiser Aluminum, and developer Jim Falaschi, while Nadel, Siegel, and Hodge all share the role of decrying the secret deals on behalf of tenants, police accountability activists, and disgraced former school Superintendent Dennis Chaconas. The campaign seemed to boil down to a question of how comfortable the voters would be with the proximity to power. That is, until Donald White threw his hat in the ring.
I know what you’re thinking: Who the hell is Donald White? He’s the guy who collects your taxes. In fact, White has been Alameda County’s treasurer and tax collector for twenty years, winning five straight elections, making a lot of connections and alliances, and slowly becoming a solid, if quiet, force in county and city politics. Guys like Elihu Harris may have made splashier entrances (and even splashier exits), but White has silently bided his time, amassing a long résumé unblemished by scandal and a war chest of almost $55,000, far more than even De La Fuente has to date. Now he has emerged from behind the veil of respectability to ask Oaklanders to let him lead the city into the future.
Fine, but who is this guy? What does he want to do as mayor? Funny you should ask, ’cause that’s just the question I put to him last week. And you know what he said? “We’re gathering information right now, developing a focus group. So I’m not really ready to discuss that yet.”
Okay, let’s try this one: What do you think is Oakland’s biggest problem right now? “Again, I’d like to refer you to the Web site at this point. I’m just not ready to have a discussion with the media yet. I feel like we’re still developing, and I don’t want to start putting my platform out or discussing it at this point.” When I asked him what high school he graduated from, he actually sighed and asked if I could just go to his Web site.
As far as I can tell, White intends to spend $55,000 telling voters to go to DonWhiteforMayor.org. And what do you find there? Well, you discover that Donald White has been Alameda County’s treasurer for twenty years, as well as such stirring rhetoric as “I manage two departments and have direct responsibility for collecting property taxes and handling the custody and investment of over $2.1 billion dollars of county funds. These funds must be invested responsibly, with skill, and in keeping with the principles of safety, liquidity, and potential yield.” Oh, and he broke the color line at the Sequoyah Golf and Country Club.
Some people think White’s persona is a calculated strategy. De La Fuente, Nadel, and Siegel all have racked up plenty of negatives in the course of years spent taking unpopular stands, and if White can remain a blank slate for as long as possible, he doesn’t have to piss anyone off. (He’d hardly be the first politician to hit upon this notion; a certain Democratic presidential candidate seems to think that the road to the White House is a bland one.) But others claim that what you see is all you’re going to get with White, and that he seems to be running merely because he’s a longtime public servant with centrist credentials. City Councilman Larry Reid, for example, claims to have warned White that there’s more to running for mayor than a résumé. “I said, ‘Don, even though you’ve lived in Oakland most of your life, you’ve not been involved in the quality-of-life issues that most of us have dealt with every day,'” he says. “‘You’ve got a lot of catching up to do. ‘”
But White’s candidacy speaks to a great void in the upcoming mayor’s race: the absence of a candidate who represents the interests of the black bourgeoisie. As of 2000 at least, this town still had a black plurality, and the Allen Temple machine still has a little gas left in the tank. That a major black politician hasn’t emerged to grab at that brass ring is just unthinkable in Oakland, and everyone knows that nature abhors a vacuum. “I was just with sixty pastors who were asking me to run,” says Reid, who doesn’t sound at all like he’s running for mayor. “I was asking them to endorse Marcie Hodge for the Peralta seat, and they said, ‘How come you ain’t running? We’d support you in a minute. ‘”
And if an empty suit like White thinks he could win the mayor’s race, what does that say about the other candidates? You gotta love De La Fuente, if only because every other word out of his mouth is “fuck.” But he has spent years taking body blows for the mayor, and his wheeling and dealing, to say nothing of his blunt shop-steward demeanor, has angered a lot of people, especially the dog-walking, white liberal hills preservationists who vote in droves. He knows this, in his own peculiar way. “Either you become a nice guy who don’t do shit, and everybody likes you, and that’s okay, or you get something done,” De La Fuente says, adding that his work on the infamous Coliseum deal is a perfect example of his political courage: “Yeah, we fucked up. Maybe we didn’t listen to consultants and spent too much. But the fact is we renovated two facilities, we still have the A’s, we still have the Warriors, and we still have the headaches, obviously. But either you run and hide or you do the job that comes to you.”
Meanwhile, Nadel and Siegel are all vying for the same limited sliver of North Oakland progressive votes, and that just isn’t enough to win a citywide race. Greg Hodge hopes to stitch together both progressives and traditional African-American constituencies, but he’s an awkward fit in either camp. In addition, Hodge and Siegel are known mostly as the guys who watched the school district go bankrupt, and that isn’t the best record in the world. Many observers agree that for the first time since the ’70s, no figure of overwhelming stature has emerged to define the race and promote a comprehensive civic vision. “I don’t think it’s a strong field,” says county superintendent and seasoned Peratista Sheila Jordan. “There’s not an obvious winner in that group.”
But is there an obvious winner in Oakland, ready to jump into the race? City Attorney John Russo could probably saunter into the mayor’s office without breaking a sweat, but he’s expected to run to replace Wilma Chan in the state Assembly in 2006. Jane Brunner has some strong credentials, but she’s expected to replace Russo as city attorney. For now at least, the campaign remains a showdown between the labor muscle and the granola munchers. Oh, and Donald White.