Alameda’s Newest Rising Star

Malia Vella promises to be a formidable force in this year’s city council campaign.


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Malia Vella says traffic safety is a top issue.

Chris Duffey

Malia Vella pedaled to the interview on her bike. Helmet in hand, the Alameda native and Santa Clara Law grad strode into Wescafe on Webster Street to meet with a reporter for coffee. Despite her young age—she turns 32 this month—Vella exuded confidence, and during the next hour, Alameda’s newest city council candidate displayed an impressive command of local political issues. It quickly became clear that she will be a force in this fall’s election campaign.

“We’re just not working collectively,” she said, summing up her assessment of the city’s political dysfunction. “We need to find a way to come together.”

Vella senses voter displeasure with Alameda City Hall. And she has good timing. In the last few years, antiestablishment fervor has swept through city politics like a forest fire. And City Hall, much like the Island itself, has become an outpost for newcomers. Since late 2012, the five-member council has added three new members. In November of that year, council newcomer Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft garnered the highest percentage of votes—24.9. Then in 2014, newcomer Jim Oddie gained a spot on the council when he finished with the second-highest vote total, 33.5 percent. And, of course, that same year, Trish Spencer grabbed the mayor’s seat on the council in an upset victory over incumbent Marie Gilmore. As a result, first-time councilmembers now represent a majority of Alameda’s leadership.

And Vella is banking on that trend continuing. “People want to see change,” she said.

Although she has never held office before, Vella is no political neophyte. The former staffer for Assemblymember Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, has also worked for Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Alameda. She has also worked for the Alameda Labor Council, and as an election law specialist for the firm Olson Hagel & Fishburn LLP. She’s currently a labor and employment rep for the Teamsters and an adjunct professor of ethics at Mills College in Oakland.

Vella said she decided to run for the council during one of the raucous late-night City Hall debates on how to deal with skyrocketing rents. “It was during one of the meetings that lasted until 4 a.m., I thought, ‘This is not OK …We’re becoming a laughingstock.’

“And I decided, instead of just being frustrated … I’m going to walk the talk.”

Vella was born in Alameda, but her family moved to San Leandro when she was 5. Growing up, she attended Catholic schools, and after graduating from Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, she went to Wellesley College, a liberal arts school near Boston. It was there that she got her taste for politics, when she worked on the 2004 Massachusetts state Senate campaign of Democrat Angus McQuilken, who lost in a close race to eventual Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown.

After law school, Vella moved back to Alameda in 2011, and today she lives with her high school sweetheart in the house that her great-grand parents lived in at the corner of Sherman Street and Santa Clara Avenue.

In addition to the region’s housing shortage and out-of-control rents, Vella views traffic safety, especially pedestrian and bike safety, as one of the top issues on the Island. While leaving City Hall in her car in February, she was T-boned by another vehicle. “It’s a serious problem,” she said.

This November, Vella will square off against Ashcraft and incumbent Tony Daysog in a battle for two seats on the council. So far, Vella has amassed some impressive endorsements, including from Bonta; state Controller Betty Yee, an Alameda resident; Board of Equalization Member Fiona Ma; state Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont; and Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan. In early June, Vella also received the endorsement of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. Councilmember Oddie is also backing her. “She has the same values that I have,” said Oddie, who introduced Vella at her campaign kickoff in late May. “And she definitely has the policy chops.”

Alameda resident Doug Bloch, who is the political director of the Teamsters Joint Council 7, which has also endorsed Vella, along with several other labor organizations, said she “has a humility that you don’t see in a lot of elected officials.” He also believes Vella will connect with Millennials and recent newcomers to the island. “She’s young—and there’s been a huge influx of young people, like me, with families to Alameda,” he said.

“And she’s very smart, very ambitious, and very principled. When she puts her mind to something, she works as hard as anyone I know to get it done.”

Published online on July 11, 2016 at 8:18 a.m.

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