Tilting at Windmills?

Inside the quixotic mayoral campaign of Wilson Riles Jr.

In a storefront on Broadway that serves as the headquarters for his mayoral campaign, Wilson Riles Jr. reaches into his suit pocket to retrieve his Palm Pilot. He sits in an old armchair amid a collection of mismatched furniture that looks like it was recovered from the Salvation Army. A wish list on one wall enumerates various wants in no particular order, from items like snacks and a sink to needed personnel like photographers and a field director. Pinned to another wall, a T-shirt proclaims, “I’m all Riled up!”

“The only way I can describe it is as a calling,” Riles explains. “I feel this is the right thing for me to be doing.”

For the former Oakland city councilmember, “the right thing” is to make a run for mayor — for the third time. Riles lost once to Lionel Wilson in 1985 and a second time in 1990 to Elihu Harris. But those defeats haven’t discouraged him. To hear Riles speak of it, the time is now right for him — and for Oakland. Candidates must declare their intention to run in the March primary by December 7, and, so far, Riles is Jerry Brown’s only challenger.

During Riles’ tenure on the City Council from 1979 to 1992, he was known as a voice of conscience that championed progressive causes such as affordable housing and the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the city. He helped secure $1.3 million to establish “academies” within Oakland’s public schools. Along with Mary Moore and Dick Spees, Riles was part of the council minority that often voted against Mayor Wilson’s policies.

Riles also pushed for campaign finance reform just before leaving office, only to be caught up in an embarrassing money-laundering scandal after the 1990 mayoral election. He was fined $26,250 for receiving $34,000 in contributions from developer William Dallas who funneled money to several candidates using the names of his employees and associates. Resigning from the council during his third term to battle prostrate cancer, Riles has since worked as the regional director of the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker social justice organization.

Initially, Riles supported Brown, but now he says the mayor has turned his back on many communities. A pacifist, he opposed Brown’s military charter school and his invitation to the US Marines to carry out a mock invasion of the city. He says Brown’s emphasis on downtown development is no different from Wilson’s and Harris’ efforts and says that the mayor’s 10K plan will only push lower- and middle-income residents out of the city.

“There’s a socio-economic cleansing going on. We’re talking about people who make $100,000 or more who come from the outside and can pay for that housing. [They] are going make a minimal impact. That level of income doesn’t shop in Oakland.” In the media circus that was the last mayoral election, Jerry Brown won 59 percent of the vote against ten opponents. Maybe that’s why no one else has challenged him, Riles says. But though Brown appears unbeatable, Riles insists that things are different this time around: The mayor now has a local record to defend, and with just two candidates, Riles hopes there will be more room for substantive discussion of issues and less need for theatrics. “He’s a media superstar,” Riles says of Brown. “He’s funny and glib and he attracts attention. But there is a tremendous amount of disappointment and dissatisfaction with Jerry…. The depth of it has been surprising and energizing to me.”

Many local political observers are far from convinced. Most agree with Jay Leonhardy, former chief of staff for Councilmember Henry Chang, who argues that Brown’s invincibility is not just perceived, but real. “The chances of [Riles] winning are slim to none,” he says, pointing to the mayor’s still-strong polling numbers. “However, if [Riles] goes in creating a win-win situation for himself, he could do much for the folks he’s representing.” Leonhardy describes a win-win situation as starting a campaign not necessarily to win the office, but to build a loyal, organized opposition, something Riles has so far not managed to accomplish. “He’s run twice and still has no organization. He hasn’t built a machine that carried over from one campaign to the next,” he says.

One political insider, however, does believe that Brown can be beaten. Rebecca Kaplan, who gave Henry Chang a run for his money in last year’s at-large councilmember election (she lost, but got 44 percent of the vote), believes that Riles has a decent chance of building a support base among people who once backed Brown.

“I believe Jerry Brown is first and foremost looking out for his political future in terms of pursuing a federal office, and willing to take actions that may harm the people of Oakland if it advances his career,” Kaplan says, noting that Riles works for the public even when he’s not in public office. “It’s hard for low-income people to get loans, and here is somebody who, even without the power of being an elected official, got an institution started that improved the quality of life of people in Oakland,” she says, referring to Riles’ role in founding the Community Bank of the Bay.

Riles’ biggest obstacle, she predicts, will be overcoming the money gap. Even with campaign finance reform laws that limit individual contributions to $500, Brown could outspend Riles if he opted not to receive matching public funds, thereby excluding himself from the $300,000 total expenditure limit. By August, Riles had raised just one-tenth of the money Brown had. One of the first people to greet visitors at Riles’ campaign headquarters is a curly-headed little boy in Osh Kosh overalls who is old enough to walk, but not yet to talk. This is Emilio, Riles’ grandson. For Riles, this campaign is very much a family affair. Two of his daughters work in the office. One, 23-year-old Breonna Cole, is his campaign manager.

Cole says her strategy is to unite the many people who are discontented with Brown but feel they don’t have a choice — the environmentalists, peace activists, and nonprofit workers. She is also working to change the widespread perception of Riles as a lone voice who never could get votes together on City Council. “I think part of that is true in that he was the voice of conviction and passion [on the council],” Cole says. “But another piece of it is that during his time at American Friends he’s become a consensus builder and a broker.”

At 55, Riles seems as idealistic as ever, championing issues he’s been pushing for years: the creation of affordable housing, the establishment of a living wage, and improvements to a system of public education which he describes as being in a state of crisis. But though he may be given credit for consistency, observers like Jay Leonhardy believe Riles won’t get anywhere if he isn’t able to offer something new. “People have been running on a platform of improving Oakland’s education for forever and a day,” he says. “Unless you come up with specific plans to implement and communicate specific strategies for improving that, you are a broken record.”

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