The Old Guard Versus the New

The race between Oakland City Council candidates Kerry Hamill and Rebecca Kaplan offers clear contrasts.

Kerry Hamill and Rebecca Kaplan were hunting for scandals. At a debate earlier this month between the two candidates for the Oakland City Council’s at-large seat, Kaplan pressed Hamill, the self-styled law-and-order candidate, about her flip-flop on a plan to beef up the city’s police force. Moments later, Hamill turned the tables on Kaplan, quizzing her about changing her party affiliation from Green to Democratic after a labor group demanded it. It was apparent that the two candidates didn’t like each other much.

In fact, Oakland voters have a clear choice on November 4. Hamill and Kaplan disagree on a range of issues, from a citywide ballot measure to add 180 new personnel to the Oakland Police Department to rehiring former City Administrator Robert Bobb. The two women also have come to represent Oakland’s new generational, ideological, and political divide. And it appears that no matter who wins the election, the victor will be beholden to the people who helped put her in office.

At 52, Hamill is a member of the baby boomer generation that has dominated the City Council for the past two decades. Much of the city’s old-guard power structure stands behind the longtime school board member. Indeed, six of the eight sitting council members, including the outgoing Councilman Henry Chang, have endorsed her. Earlier this month, council President Ignacio De La Fuente and former Mayor Jerry Brown co-hosted a fund-raiser for Hamill, and her list of campaign donors reads like a who’s-who of friends and contributors of her former boss, state Senate President Don Perata.

By contrast, the 38-year-old Kaplan is a Gen Xer, backed by a coalition of labor, environmentalists, transit activists, and affordable housing advocates. But she’s more than your typical East Bay progressive. In recent months, the AC Transit board member also has cozied up to developers, particularly a cadre of business men and women that has been gaining influence in Oakland over the past year and is led by Oakland lobbyist Carlos Plazola. In fact, Kaplan’s popularity among the city’s burgeoning new business elite has grown so rapidly that she recently picked up the endorsement of OakPAC, the political arm of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, a group that Plazola and his clients now strongly influence.

Kaplan’s broad-based support also makes her the clear front-runner on Election Day. In the June primary, she received the most votes among five candidates, earning 40.3 percent of the total, nearly twice as much as Hamill’s second-place finish of 21.8 percent. Kaplan also figures to pick up some of the supporters who backed third-place finisher Clinton Killian because he had OakPAC’s endorsement in the primary.

Hamill, by contrast, has been playing catch-up from the start of the campaign in February. Perata’s former chief of staff was late getting into the race after waiting for Chang to decide if he would run for another four-year term. Then she fell further behind when Kaplan picked up key support from the Alameda County Labor Council. Ever since, Hamill has tried to turn that endorsement against Kaplan. At the debate earlier this month sponsored by the Oakland chapter of the League of Women Voters, Hamill questioned Kaplan about the labor council’s demand that she switch from the Green Party to the Democratic Party. “The Central Labor council required her to change her party affiliation in a non-partisan election,” Hamill said in an interview. “My question is what else are they going to require?”

In response, Kaplan sidestepped the question and told the debate audience at City Hall that she felt “quite good” about joining the Democratic Party. She cited Barack Obama’s candidacy and noted that the party now embraces universal healthcare and gay rights, two issues that she said she cares deeply about and that the Green Party pioneered.

Hamill’s campaign didn’t hit stride until she adopted the law-and-order platform of fellow primary candidate Charlie Pine, a neighborhood crime prevention activist. She then latched on to a plan to put a measure on the November ballot to add 300 cops to the Oakland police force. She even urged voters to sign a petition for the measure on one of her campaign mailers sent out in May.

But then, during the recent debate, Hamill struggled to answer Kaplan’s question about why she later abandoned the 300-cops plan, which came under fire because it included no money to pay for the new police officers. “My understanding is that the people who were circulating the petition got something on the ballot and they let the effort go,” she told the debate audience. That “something” was Measure NN, a parcel tax put on the ballot by the council to pay for 105 new police officers and 75 new service technicians.

But in an interview, Kaplan pointed out that Hamill now opposes Measure NN. Hamill told Full Disclosure that she does not support the measure because she believes the police department is inefficient. “I don’t think that throwing more money at that department right now is what the city really needs,” she said. By contrast, Kaplan believes the Oakland Police Department is understaffed and said she plans to vote for Measure NN, though she says it’s flawed. “It’s not perfect, it’s not what I would have done, but it’s better than nothing,” she said.

At the debate, Hamill also expressed reservations when an audience member asked about rehiring former City Administrator Robert Bobb, who was fired by Brown in 2003 after a disagreement over building a new downtown ballpark for the Oakland A’s. Bobb was recently hired by Mayor Ron Dellums to analyze the city’s finances and review how City Hall functions. Hamill noted that Bobb now lives near Washington, DC and she said she wasn’t sure if he would give the city the full attention it needs. “I want an administrator who will work here,” she said. Bobb has said that he would consider taking the job if Dellums offers it.

Kaplan countered that she believes Bobb would be a smart choice, though she stopped short of saying she would definitely vote to hire him. The council has the power to reject Dellums’ pick for city administrator, but such a move would be unprecedented. “I’m very inclined that way,” Kaplan said of hiring Bobb during the debate. “I think he is a very talented and effective leader and I think Oakland desperately needs that right now.”

Both women are smart, experienced public officials, but they also carry plenty of baggage. Hamill, for example, was the president of the Oakland school board when staffers discovered in 2002 that they had overspent the district’s budget by tens of millions of dollars. The budget debacle eventually led to a state takeover and a $100 million bailout, the largest ever. It wasn’t until last fall that Hamill and the rest of the board began getting some of their authority back.

For her part, Kaplan, in her capacity as a member of the AC Transit board, voted consistently over the years to keep purchasing the controversial Van Hool buses, even though they are hated by many riders and drivers and dangerous for people with mobility problems. She also never raised questions about the numerous junkets that AC Transit staff members took to Europe in connection with the Belgian-bus deal. However, she does deserve credit for voting earlier this year against buying more Van Hools.

In terms of campaign fund-raising, the two women are nearly even. Through September 30, Hamill reported raising $129,366 and spending $105,407 compared to Kaplan, who raised $131,935 and spent $108,168. However, Hamill has been gaining momentum. From July 1 through September 30, she raked in $50,386, nearly double Kaplan’s total for that time frame. Much of Hamill’s recent support has come from Perata’s stable of campaign contributors.

In addition, Hamill has enjoyed the support of two political committees with close ties to the state senator. Both committees are funded by some of his closest friends and donors, and one is run by his personal political consultant, Sandi Polka. The two commitees spent a total of $113,348 on Hamill’s behalf through September 30. That total includes $24,417 that one of them, Oakland Jobs PAC, recently paid to erect signs around the city featuring Hamill’s picture and the slogan “Safe Neighborhoods Now.”

In the end, the campaign may end up being decided by independent political groups. Kaplan figures to get a boost from labor unions and OakPAC, while Hamill should be backed by the two Perata-linked committees, and possibly others. Both women say they have not made any promises in exchange for political support. But it’s hard to see how the winner won’t be beholden to the people who helped elect her. For Kaplan, it will be labor and Plazola and his pals. For Hamill, it will be Perata and his donors, the same people who helped put a majority of the current council in office. In other words, the old guard versus the new.

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