During the 10 years of what we will call the “Terrible Teens,” the East Bay’s political and cultural tastes changed at a breakneck pace. At the outset of the decade, unemployment was widespread, with Alameda County’s 2010 jobless rate rising to 10.9 percent three years after the onset of the Great Recession. By the end of the decade, unemployment was just 3 percent and the economic good times had been rolling for years — but not for everyone.
Indeed, the region’s decade was bookended by economic despair. The Great Recession gave birth to the class-based grievances of the Occupy movement, which targeted Oakland with a vigor seen in few other American cities. One decade later, the very people who willingly pitched tents in front of Oakland City Hall during the Occupy protests may now be reluctantly sleeping in tents at one the still-proliferating homeless encampments that decorate Oakland and other parts of the East Bay.
As the progressive movement spread from its traditional enclave of Berkeley to flourish in Oakland, Richmond, and Alameda, more and more lefties seeking solutions to the supply side of the housing crisis found common cause with housing developers — once predictable foes. Construction cranes sprouted across Oakland and its neighbors like mushrooms in the wake of the first winter rains. But the building boom followed the employment boom by more than a half decade, so rents soared to atmospheric levels as new residents flocked to cities all across the country in search of jobs, community, and urban lifestyles.
While the Terrible Teens began amid a full-blown housing crisis focused on the foreclosures of single-family homes, the current housing crisis has come full-circle and surpassed the pain of that trauma. An inadequate supply of housing of all types is unquestionably the number one issue facing the East Bay at the outset of the ’20s.
Much of what happened during the last decade can be linked to the Great Recession, which began in late 2007 and persisted locally through 2012. Multi-year budget deficits crippled local governments. Every budget season heralded more staffing cuts and fewer city services and programs. The belt-tightening was most severe at the county level. In 2011, Alameda County was forced to close a then-record $152 million budget shortfall. Triple-digit deficits were the norm. The excruciating budget cuts hurt the county’s safety net for seniors, children, low-income residents, and people with disabilities.
Local governments rebounded, aided by public employee contract concessions that helped many cities dig themselves out of the doldrums of the recession. Outside the bubble of Oakland and Berkeley, public employees took a beating. Critics of unfunded pension liabilities pounded away at public employees whom they viewed as taking more from dwindling city treasuries than they produced. Yet as more and more municipalities put distance in the rearview mirror from the era of large budget cuts, the unions struck back. Public employee unions have been on a winning streak in recent years, routinely demanding and receiving increases in pay and benefits. Unions such as SEIU Local 1021, the California Nurses Association, and the Oakland Education Association, among others, have put labor muscle to work and been wildly successful in negotiations for their members. But as we head into the next decade, there are nagging signs that recession could be near, and government belt-tightening is likely to return to vogue.
Nonunions employees also saw wage increases through a growing movement to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The policy was the centerpiece of civil rights attorney Dan Siegel’s 2014 run for Oakland mayor. Though both Siegel’s campaign and the minimum wage effort were unsuccessful, a compromise raising the minimum wage to $12.25 was a starting point for other cities. Soon, movements to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour spread to seemingly every city. Emeryville went big. Earlier this year, the tiny enclave’s minimum wage was bumped to $16.30 an hour, the highest in the country. However, most East Bay cities choose to raise their local minimum wage incrementally over a number of years.
The decade’s biggest political trend — the rise of populism, which gave us Trump, Brexit, and resurgent right-wing nationalism across the globe — is not always viewed as having taken root in the far-left East Bay. But progressive populism is alive and well here, from the minimum wage, to the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements, to the strong local support for the presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, to the woke “cancel culture” that has flourished on college campuses and social media feeds. Regardless of which candidate Democrats select to face off against Trump, the 2020 presidential election will shine a Klieg light on both strains of populism — if not necessarily the views of those Americans who fall between the two camps.
Police in the Spotlight
One issue remained unapologetically static during the past decade. The Oakland Police Department entered the 2010s in the seventh year of federal oversight for the 2003 Riders case involving misconduct by its officers and systemic corruption within its ranks. To the dismay of many, the department enters 2020 still in federal oversight. Over the years, its federal monitor has reported incremental improvement, but often those gains have followed regression.
There was no greater setback than the rampant acts of police sexual misconduct with the underaged girl known by the online pseudonym “Celeste Guap.” The scandal, which threatened the administration of Mayor Libby Schaaf and led to the dismissal of three police chiefs within the span of a few days, could well have been the East Bay’s most notable police story of the decade, if not for the 2010 protests that followed a jury’s decision not to convict BART officer Johannes Mehserle of murder for fatally shooting Oscar Grant on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station. Mehserle, instead, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and spent less than a year in prison. But, protests lit up downtown Oakland following the verdict. Countless windows were broken on Broadway, trash fires were lit and the area vandalized. Police in riot gear descended on downtown. Other protests would follow in support of Grant, helping to launch a movement that ultimately coalesced under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement. A high-profile feature film about Grant and the shooting named Fruitvale Station was produced, and earlier this year a street near the station was renamed in Grant’s honor.
Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern’s badge shined a bit less brightly as the decade moved forward. Urban Shield, the annual police training and law enforcement exposition created by Ahern, was pushed out of downtown Oakland in 2014 by Mayor Jean Quan. It resettled in Pleasanton, but remained unpopular among progressives who viewed the event as promoting the militarization of local police departments. Activists continued to push the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to discontinue Urban Shield. They succeeded earlier this year, when the county voted against accepting federal funding for Urban Shield, effectively shutting it down.
Government surveillance of residents was not on many people’s radar at the beginning of the decade, but a 2013 Oakland proposal to create a hub that would receive various surveillance feeds under one roof awoke those fearful of Big Brother. The proposal was defeated by Oakland privacy activists, and raised awareness of surveillance issues in many other cities. A move this year by several Bay Area cities, including Oakland, to ban facial-recognition technology was born out of the effort that began with the effort to stop the so-called Domain Awareness Center.
Meanwhile, after Trump’s proposed policies and rhetoric voiced hostility toward nonwhite immigrants, East Bay cities began declaring themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants in droves. Fears of U.S. Immigration, Customs Enforcement agents rounding up immigrants led nearly every city in Alameda County to pass sanctuary city resolutions. Despite the designation, officials acknowledged they could not stop an immigration raid from occurring within their city limits. Yet in early 2018, Oakland Mayor Schaaf publicly announced that a widespread immigration raid was planned for Northern California. Trump entered a war of tweets with Schaaf and suggested prosecuting her for obstruction of justice.
Action in the Streets
But violent protests and clashes with law enforcement stood out prominently in Oakland. A protest culture evoking the volatile late 1960s emerged. A group of protesters in New York City held rallies and began camping out in protest of economic and social inequality, not to mention the large banks that facilitated the Great Recession. They called themselves Occupy Wall Street, and localized versions of the protests soon sprouted across the country before landing at the steps of Oakland City Hall in 2011. When Occupy Oakland clandestinely started an encampment at Frank Ogawa Plaza, it seemed innocent enough, but the situation soon spiraled out of control and quite probably resulted in Quan’s failure to be reelected in 2014. The encampment soon grew, and sanitation and safety issues became a concern for the city. In the wake of the Oscar Grant protests, the Oakland police were in no mood to play nice with Occupy Oakland. While Quan was away on city business in Washington, D.C., an early morning raid upon the encampment inflamed a volatile situation. Frank Ogawa Plaza was cleared but protests ensued. A general strike shut down the city and the mass of protesters took aim at shutting down the bustling Port of Oakland. It was one of the largest demonstrations in Oakland since the Great Depression. But the leaderless-by-design Occupy movement ultimately lost steam, before being reignited by the Black Lives Matter movement, which was sparked by the ever-growing mainstream national awareness of police shootings involving African-American men.
Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House and behavior once there touched off protests across the country. Berkeley literally became a battleground in 2017 after the loose group of anarchists known as Antifa had a series of skirmishes near U.C. Berkeley with a mish-mash of alt-right, white nationalists, and pro-Trump supporters. These so-called “Battles of Berkeley” tested the mettle of Berkeley’s young, new mayor, Jesse Arreguin. Large rallies also dotted the region in protest of Trump’s Muslim travel ban in early 2017.
The Decade of the Woman
Trump’s behavior also set off another strain of social activism, as tens of thousands of women took to the streets wearing pink, knitted headgear known as “pussy hats” to protest the president’s misogynistic past and seemingly present. The #MeToo Movement that followed did not snare the president, but posed a major comeuppance for a long list of powerful men in America, from senators and congressmen to Hollywood stars and producers. Titans of industry at every level resigned in disgrace after stories of their sexual harassment and misuse of power became public. But when it came to local government in the East Bay, the #MeToo Movement was not much of a factor. One reason could be that fewer and fewer men were elected to office in the East Bay.
Politically, the East Bay often occupies a bubble seemingly unrelated to the rest of the region and country. Many times this bubble is seen as a pejorative, but when it comes to the political and electoral participation of women and minorities, it’s a badge of honor. This was the decade of the woman in East Bay government. At one time this decade, when driving through most stretches of Interstate 880 in Alameda County, you would be passing through a contiguous batch of cities all led by female mayors. Oakland and Fremont — the county’s two largest cities — are led today by women, Schaaf and Fremont Mayor Lily Mei. Alameda hasn’t had a male mayor this century. Many cities have had female majorities on their city councils. Berkeley currently has a female majority, and so does Hayward. Four of eight Oakland councilmembers who are women.
Changing of the Guard
White male political giants such as Don Perata, Bill Lockyer, and Pete Stark dominated East Bay politics for decades prior to the early 2010s. That all started changing in 2010 when Perata stunningly lost his bid for Oakland mayor to Jean Quan. The loss ended four-decades of public service that includes stops as an Alameda County supervisor, assemblymember, and leader of the state Senate. Perata sleep-walked his way through the Oakland mayor’s race, yet almost won. But his old-school campaign failed to take into account Oakland’s brand new ranked-choice voting system (see below), which favored candidates willing to compromise and run as slates. Perata never sought a return to public office, but instead, became a high-priced political consultant to East Bay cities, corporations, and special interest groups.
Lockyer had blazed a similar career path as Perata. He made his way up from the San Leandro school board to stints in the state assembly and senate before beginning his foray into statewide politics. He served as California attorney general for eight years before becoming State Treasurer in 2007. Controversy enveloped him in 2011 after his wife, Nadia, became an Alameda County supervisor and resigned in the wake of drug and alcohol dependency and a sex scandal. When Lockyer’s term as treasurer expired in 2015, he retired from public life.
Stark’s 40-year run in Congress abruptly ended at the hands of Eric Swalwell, a first-term Dublin councilmember. Through Swalwell’s pluck and a complete meltdown by Stark — who accused Swalwell of bribery during the primary and often seemed discombobulated when reporters and television cameras were present — the East Bay lost one of its most consistently progressive members of Congress.
After Perata, Lockyer, and Stark left the scene, the East Bay’s political leadership became less monolithic — partly a delayed response to the impact of legislative term limits in California. It could be argued that their local political influence has been has been inherited by Schaaf, Sen. Nancy Skinner, Assemblymember Rob Bonta, and perhaps Swalwell. But if getting your preferred candidates and allies elected to office is one measure of political effectiveness, then the new wave of leaders wields power more diffusely than its predecessors. For example, since becoming mayor in 2014, Schaaf has mostly failed to parlay her broad popularity in Oakland to expanding her power on the Oakland City Council, where a number of newcomers have revamped the city’s politics. Councilmembers Noel Gallo, Lynette Gibson McElhaney, and Dan Kalb joined in 2012. Abel Guillen followed in 2014, though he was ousted in 2018 by Nikki Fortunato Bas. Sheng Thao joined the council in 2018, and Loren Taylor upset Desley Brooks. The council will get yet another new member next year because of the retirement of long-time Councilmember Larry Reid, whose 24 years on the council dwarf the 12-year tenure of the body’s next longest-serving member, Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan.
Still, what a decade it was for Rep. Swalwell, an almost Horatio Alger-esque tale of ambition, luck, and hard work. To put Swalwell’s decade into perspective: In 2010, he was first elected to the sleepy Dublin City Council as a virtual unknown with little experience. After one year in office, he launched a bid for Stark’s seat in Congress, possessing a vision shared by no other Democrats at the time. The party establishment in Alameda County unwittingly did Swalwell a favor by convincing better-known and better-funded Democrats not to challenge Stark, and the redrawn boundaries of the 15th Congressional District shifted power from Hayward and the Tri-Cities toward the Tri-Valley, which favored Swalwell. Stark stumbled badly and the local news media covered every misstep. Swalwell lost the June primary, but was within shouting distance of the incumbent, signaling to many that an upset was likely to occur in November.
It was a monumental upset and forced Alameda County Democrats and labor unions to switch their allegiances from Stark to Swalwell. After Swalwell turned away a challenge from former state Sen. Ellen Corbett in 2014, most in the establishment had fully accepted the new standard-bearer in the 15th District. But wait, there’s more.
Trump’s election stoked to all-new levels Swalwell’s tendency to seek media attention. Almost immediately, he rebranded himself as a staunch opponent of the president, forcing local progressives to take notice of a congressman once viewed as moderate in his politics. Overnight, Swalwell was on seemingly every cable news program every day. His witty one-liners and jabs earned him more and more coverage. Before you know it, Swalwell was traveling to Iowa, stoking rumors that he was interested in running for president, which he announced last April during an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. To say there was little support for his candidacy would be an understatement. He routinely failed to register on any polls, though he did manage to qualify for one debate. But even a well-timed quip about Joe Biden’s age and his own youth failed to win him support and he ended his campaign three months after it had started.
Still, Swalwell has remained on the national radar. As a member of the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, he has been uniquely positioned during the Trump impeachment hearings. Trump returned the favor by labeling Swalwell a “loser” in a tweet earlier this month — a winning look for any East Bay Democrat.
It’s easy to forget why the still-misunderstood method of electing local leaders known as ranked-choice voting came into being in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro. A group named FairVote had long advocated for the system, in which voters rank their top three candidates in any given race. But its pitch fell flat before the Great Recession. By 2009, however, East Bay governments were gutting services and programs and striving to save every cent. So it’s no surprise that ranked-choice voting’s promise of lowering election costs appealed to officials in these three cities.
Instead of holding separate primary and general elections, ranked-choice voting combines the two into a single election, saving money. And at a time that voters complained about negative campaigning, ranked-choice supporters postulated that candidates would have to play nice with one another to succeed within the new system, because candidates would remain friendly with one another to win valuable second and third-place votes. Critics countered that the system turned elections into a game and confused voters.
In 2020, ranked-choice voting will turn 10 years old. All told, it has saved cities money, but has not necessarily rid races of negative campaigning. In fact, it might have been a non-story if not for how it upended two mayoral races during its first-ever use in the 2010 general election. Without ranked-choice voting, Perata would have been Oakland mayor, possibly for most of this decade, meaning there might not have been a Mayor Quan, or possibly a Mayor Schaaf. The playbook for winning a tight ranked-choice voting race was first written by Quan and Kaplan (with a considerable assist from this newspaper’s endorsements). Their decision to declare common cause may have persuaded supporters to rank the two candidates 1-2 on the ballot, which allowed Quan to overtake Perata’s initial lead once ranked-choice tabulations were complete.
The same thing happened in San Leandro that very same election. Incumbent Mayor Tony Santos ran a conventional campaign, occasionally lashing out at his opponents, and was done in by ranked-choice voting. Former school board member Stephen Cassidy, using unfunded pension liabilities as cudgel, cobbled together enough support among second- and third-place votes to overcome Santos’ slim first-place advantage.
But if it appeared in late 2010 that ranked-choice voting would completely upend local politics, it hasn’t worked out that way. Many political consultants still don’t have a discernible playbook for winning ranked-choice races, and the public still isn’t totally up-to-speed with the process. Aside from 2010, ranked-choice voting hasn’t really resulted in other surprising upsets. One reason could be the lack of candidates running for offices in places such as San Leandro. During this decade, rarely has a San Leandro City Council race attracted more than two candidates needed to make ranked-choice voting even work.
Unlike other complicated issues during the past decade, the change in attitudes among East Bay residents was completely linear when it comes to cannabis. While Oakland had long been the local leader in medical cannabis, nearly every other corner of Alameda County was vehemently opposed to its flowering in their cities. At the beginning of the decade, public discussion about cannabis dispensaries in places like San Leandro, Hayward, Fremont, or the Tri-Valley often envisioned the approval of medical cannabis dispensaries leading directly to narcotics addiction. Again, the budget cuts precipitated by the Great Recession made visions of cannabis tax revenues appeal much more appealing to elected officials and residents.
Once California legalized cannabis in 2016, the floodgates were open in several Alameda County cities. San Leandro approved dispensaries starting in 2015, but cities previously wary of cannabis, such as Hayward and Alameda, joined the crowd. But the promise of overflowing tax revenues has fallen short as the black market continues to outpace the legal market. In Oakland, cannabis businesses lobbied and won a reduction in tax rates to help legal cannabis stay profitable and grow. But most still view the industry as nascent and believe the next decade will allow it to flourish.
It’s All Just Moneyball
At the decade’s onset, Oakland possessed three major sports franchises, and two of the three — the Oakland Raiders and Oakland Athletics — had professed their interest in replacing the aging Coliseum with new digs. As the decade ends, the Athletics stand by their lonesome as The Town’s sole major sports franchise. The team’s future in Oakland appears cautiously bright, with a new downtown ballpark at Howard Terminal within the realm of possibility for the 2024 season. But while the project appears promising, much political and regulatory work remains before it becomes a reality, and there is always a risk that Oakland residents could conclude that the “privately funded” ballpark actually includes too many infrastructure costs for taxpayers.
Though the A’s are displaying more civic loyalty than the Golden State Warriors, to some extent their stadium proposal is following in the basketball team’s footsteps. When the Dubs fled The Town for The City, Warriors ownership stated from the outset that they would finance and build the new arena. And San Francisco taxpayers displayed relatively little concern about the inevitable civic costs of accommodating the team’s vision. In the meantime, the Warriors ended their run in Oakland with a bang, winning three NBA championships and playing in the finals for five consecutive seasons. Now if they would only pay off their remaining debts for the arena they abandoned in Oakland.
As always, the Raiders were a different story. Whether or not the team truly wanted to stay in Oakland or was merely angling for a city like Las Vegas to give it a free stadium has never been quite clear. But it got such a stadium in Sin City and the team played its last game in Oakland earlier this month. Did Oakland residents really care much about losing the Raiders? Doesn’t seem like it. In fact, the political and economic tumult of the past decade seems to have made separation from the Raiders that much easier. Mayor Schaaf’s insistence that the Silver & Black pay its own way and that taxpayers not provide a free $1 billion stadium to wealthy owners was met with great praise.