When Nancy Nadel announced earlier this year that she would be stepping down after four terms representing Oakland’s District 3 on the city council, it came as no surprise that a slew of people rushed to fill the seat. It’s a high-profile district — encompassing both Oakland’s economic center, downtown, as well as some of its most notoriously depressed and crime-ridden neighborhoods, in West Oakland, and two of its biggest and most vexing opportunities for economic development, the Army Base and Jack London Square.
Nadel’s stepping down also represented a rare opportunity in Oakland politics: a completely open race. All told, after the chips fell and several early contenders dropped out, six candidates are left vying for the seat: Nyeisha Dewitt, a youth dropout-prevention specialist; Lynette Gibson-McElhaney, the director of a local housing nonprofit; Alex Miller-Cole, a small-business owner; Derrick Muhammad, a longshoreman; Sean Sullivan, who works with homeless youth and ran for the seat in 2008; and Larry Lionel “L.L.” Young, a realtor and 2010 mayoral candidate.
And at this point, it’s anyone’s race. In fact, choosing a candidate to vote for in District 3 may be the most difficult decision in East Bay politics this year. According to preliminary polling numbers, all six candidates are separated by only a handful of percentage points, and, at press time, none had announced any slates that could affect the results of the ranked-choice election. Even the key endorsements have been distributed about equally: Dewitt has been endorsed by the Sierra Club, Nadel and two unions; Sullivan by the unlikely alliance of councilmembers Pat Kernighan and Ignacio De La Fuente as well as several unions and the Sierra; Miller-Cole also by Nadel, in a dual endorsement, as well as by former port Commissioner Margaret Gordon; Muhammad by Councilwoman Desley Brooks; Gibson-McElhaney by the Sierra Club (in another dual endorsement), supervisor Keith Carson, and many members of the faith community. Only Young has no high-profile endorsements.
So in an open race with a big field and no clear front-runner, District 3 voters will be left to parse the sometimes subtle differences of priorities, background, and personality between the candidates. And — at first glance, at least — the main thing that stands out isn’t the candidates’ differences, it’s their similarities: All six self-identify as “liberal” or “progressive,” and in interviews with the Express and during various candidates’ forums, all have placed economic development and public safety at the top of their policy agendas. All adopt a community-policing-oriented view toward crime prevention and oppose gang injunctions, youth curfews, and other tough-on-crime-style tactics; all expressed apprehension about federal receivership of the Oakland Police Department. Each has also talked publicly about fixing blight in the district, increasing incentives for business owners, and growing the city and the district’s tax base. “There’s a lot of overlap,” Gibson-McElhaney admitted in an interview. “We all have the right talking points, and we all have the same taglines.”
It’s both a boon and a challenge for voters: Though the district appears unlikely to end up with a truly incompetent or ineffective representative, narrowing the field will be tough. As it stands, however, as each of the candidates has worked to carve out a niche for himself or herself, a few differences have emerged.
If this race has an established candidate, it’s probably Sean Sullivan: He came close to a runoff in his race for the seat four years ago; is partnered with Richard Fuentes, a policy analyst for De La Fuente and current candidate for school board; and he’s likely the biggest name on the ballot, having served on a number of committees and organizations, including the Dogtown Neighborhood Association, the San Pablo Corridor Coalition, and the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence. He’s leveraging that experience in this race, making his effectiveness as a community member and, hopefully, a councilman, one of his major talking points: “I will be able to hit the ground running,” he said. “Out of everyone in this race, I think I have the experience and the ability to get things done.”
Miller-Cole, meanwhile, has largely positioned himself as the business candidate: He touts his entrepreneurial experience as an asset, has been backed by some of the district’s business owners and developers, and has said that his desire for Oakland to become a more business-friendly city was a big reason he decided to run for office. He said his work rehabbing homes in West Oakland has also given him insight into — and an interest in — blight and crime prevention; he’s also been a big proponent of increasing home-ownership and creating a blight-amnesty program for property owners, which would give them an opportunity to fix up their properties without fear of steep city fines.
And if Miller-Cole’s the business candidate, Dewitt might be the education candidate: She has a Ph.D in education and has served on Oakland Unified School District’s Truancy and Effective Teachers task forces. In an interview, she discussed at length the importance of, in addition to jobs and public safety, using the school system as a means of keeping families in Oakland: “People invest in a community because they feel like they can stay,” she said. “As a councilmember, I would work to make that happen.”
Gibson-McElhaney, meanwhile, is setting herself apart by establishing herself as, in her own words, “a consensus-builder, a coalition-maker, and a budget-balancer.” Of all the candidates, she talked the most about restoring the public trust in City Hall and taking an organizational-leadership-style approach to local government. “We need a leadership that is focused on delivering a return on the public’s investment,” she said.
And so the delineations go: Muhammad has spent the bulk of his campaign thus far focusing on crime — and his connection is personal: In 2005, his brother was shot and killed in Oakland; that experience, he said, was a big part of why he decided to run for office. He currently serves on the Citizen’s Police Review Board and has been vocal about working to solve Oakland’s crime problem through increasing employment opportunities, improving the economy, and connecting youth to existing programs.
And finally, of all the candidates, Young is the biggest enigma: He has no big endorsements, no campaign website, and hasn’t served on any city or neighborhood committees or groups. Aside from his oft-repeated motto that he’d like to make Oakland the “best place to live, work, and vacation,” his big platforms and plans are still murky, though he has advocated for more neighborhood-watch programs, and increased local hiring.
Clarification: Due to incomplete information provided to the Express, a previous version of this article implied that Sean Sullivan has not been endorsed by the Sierra Club. He has.