Those looking for a cheat sheet to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors race might be surprised at what they can learn from Wikipedia. Though it won’t tell a District 3 voter anything about the issues or who is vying for retiring Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker’s seat, the web encyclopedia provides a spot-on lay of the land.
There is only one candidate who merits an entry. That’s Wilma Chan, whose accomplishments include becoming the first female majority leader of the state Assembly — and the first Asian-American one to boot. She attended Wellesley and Stanford, authored landmark legislation in Sacramento, and lost to Loni Hancock in her 2008 bid for Don Perata’s Senate seat. But since that defeat and her subsequent return to private life, no one has bothered to update her entry.
Chan’s unexpected reemergence — in a race for a seat that was hers before she embarked on those Wiki-worthy exploits — has been fodder for her chief opponent, Alameda Mayor Beverly Johnson. “As some of my opponents groan on and brag about what they have done in the past,” said Johnson at her March campaign kick-off, “I want to change the conversation to how we are going to sustain the many important programs and services that the county provides going into the future.”
Termed out this November after eight years at Alameda’s helm, Johnson, a twelve-year city council veteran and practicing attorney, hopes her municipal experience and work on several regional boards will outweigh her lack of name recognition in some parts of the district, which includes Oakland’s Fruitvale, Chinatown, and San Antonio districts, along with Alameda, San Leandro, San Lorenzo, and Ashland. “I represent [regional voters] on many issues, but it’s just not as visible,” Johnson said. She has served on eight regional bodies, including the Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority and Association of Bay Area Governments executive committee.
Just as crucially, she argued, her mayoral experience represents a perspective sorely needed in unincorporated areas like San Lorenzo, where “the county basically is their local government,” she said. “But they haven’t had representation who has acted like a local government in those respects. I think it’s because they have people who haven’t been in cities, who don’t really know how to run a city.”
Chan remains the frontrunner. With a hefty list of endorsements from the county Democratic Party, the Central Labor Council, and a host of elected officials past and present, she will be difficult to beat. She has even picked up endorsements from three of Johnson’s four colleagues on the Alameda City Council — including Lena Tam, who abandoned her own race for the supervisor seat in March. Former San Leandro Mayor Shelia Young, another one-time contender for the seat, also endorsed Chan. Johnson, by contrast, has received far fewer endorsements, including nods from Hancock, BART Director Carol Ward Allen, Assemblyman Sandré Swanson, and Perata, her longtime friend and ally.
Satisfied with her current work as vice president for policy at national children’s advocacy organization Children Now, Chan said she hadn’t planned on another run for office. “But when Alice decided to retire, a lot of people approached me,” she explained. “And I thought, too, with the state experience I have now — and with the experience I had at the county — I could make a really great contribution, because it’s going to be really tough times.”
Those tough times for the county — including a $182 million budget shortfall, the potential elimination of California’s welfare-to-work program, and the state’s raid of redevelopment funds — will require a supervisor who knows how to work Sacramento, Chan said. “I still know a lot of people in the administration; I still know a lot of people in the Legislature,” she said. “And a lot of times getting things done isn’t just a general thing — it’s actually knowing people and being able to move things on a day-to-day basis.”
Both Johnson and Chan live in Alameda (a detail that Oakland outsider candidate Harold Lowe, a financial planner and first-time politico, has cited as one of his reasons for jumping into the race). Both also are staunch advocates of preventing Sutter Health from shuttering San Leandro Hospital. Where the two differ the most is social services. Johnson argues that Chan, and Lai-Bitker after her, have alienated some constituents by focusing on pet social issues instead of the bigger picture. “Social services is a very important part of what the county does, but it’s not the only part, especially for the unincorporated areas,” she said. “People, especially in the unincorporated areas, tell me that too many of the supervisors have been single-focus, single-issue supervisors.”
Chan counters that the county budget breaks down as one-third public protection, one-third social services, and one-third health care, making social services a core concern. And she said she anticipates turning a major focus to health care in the coming years: “What happened with the health care bill passing is there’s going to be about at least 50,000 people who go to the county medical center now who used to have no insurance,” she said. “That’s going to change the role of the hospital.” Additionally, community clinics like La Clinica de la Raza and Asian Health Services will be receiving more federal money under the new bill, she said. “I think it’s an opportunity — we’re going to have to look at the whole thing, all the services we fund. … That’s something I really want to spend time on.”