The Oakland Sisterhood
Women hold every top leadership job in the city’s bureaucracy. Plus, Libby Schaaf’s mayoral staff has six women in senior roles.
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Courtesy of the city of San Leandro
San Leandro Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter.
The Good ’Ol Gals Network
Whether by BART, bus, bike, or automobile, it’s nearly impossible to take a trip in the East Bay these days without traveling through a city led by a woman. Start in Oakland, where Libby Schaaf is mayor, and head south through San Leandro where Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter leads that city. Take a side trip to Alameda, where Mayor Trish Spencer is in charge, or go straight to Hayward where Barbara Halliday holds sway over her city government. Further south, in Union City, you’ll find Carol Vernaci-Dutra in the mayor’s office, and over in Fremont, there’s Mayor Lily Mei, who was elected just last November. Additionally, the town of Albany is led by a woman, Mayor Peggy McQuaid. In all, seven of Alameda County’s 14 municipalities have a female mayor. It’s undoubtedly a historic moment for women in public office in the East Bay.
But the rise of women in local government didn’t happen overnight. In San Leandro, Cutter was elected mayor in 2014, but only after she had served nearly two decades as a public official on the city council and before that as a longtime school board member. Shortly after moving into the mayor’s office, Cutter and other local mayors decided to extend their monthly dinner meetings among all the mayors in Alameda County with a women’s-only after-party—as a way to help each other. The informal setting allowed female mayors to warmly welcome newly elected peers with less experience in local government: like Alameda’s Spencer a few years back and Fremont’s Mei today. “It was great just to have a non-confrontational space to talk about city problems,” said Cutter. “Sometimes, there’s a different way to solve a problem. Sometimes, I’m dealing with a issue in San Leandro and I’ll call them because it’s coming to them soon.”
The support system also allows a mayor from a smaller, less influential city to vent to her peers when dealing with ham-handed attitudes from state and federal officials working on projects in her city. Having a place to voice discontent helps flag potential issues and problems for other mayors, said Cutter. “If I’m at a [Alameda County Transportation Committee] meeting and hear something related to something I’ve heard, I’ll pay extra attention for them. It’s nice to help.”
However, the sisterhood of East Bay mayors has yet to translate to more women moving into higher levels of elected office—at least not yet. Only one of the region’s five members of the Assembly is a woman: Walnut Creek’s Catharine Baker. And just one of the East Bay’s three state senators and only one of its three members of Congress is a woman: state Sen. Nancy Skinner and Rep. Barbara Lee, respectively. In addition, Wilma Chan is the sole woman on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. “It’s a different track system because men are always looking for higher office,” said Liz Figueroa, a former East Bay legislator in the Assembly and state Senate from 1994 to 2006 who now works with Close the Gap, a women’s political advocacy group that seeks to elect more women to the state Legislature. “The men were always going for the next step, whereas women tend to be very focused on the current position that they are holding.”
While Oakland didn’t elect its first female mayor until 2010, Alameda voters have been putting women in the mayor’s office on Santa Clara Avenue since the 1990s. In fact, Alameda hasn’t elected a male mayor since Ralph Appezzato in 1998. Since then, it’s been all women: Beverly Johnson, Marie Gilmore, and current Mayor Spencer. In addition, the current five-person Alameda City Council includes two other women besides Spencer: Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Malia Vella. Plus, the day-to-day operations at City Hall are all overseen by women, including City Manager Jill Keimach, Assistant City Manager Liz Warmerdam, and City Attorney Janet Kern.
Vella, a 2013 graduate of Emerge California, another women’s political activist group that is rapidly growing in influence, said Alameda is merely following a larger trend toward greater diversity in government. Vella began her experience in public policy under former state Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, who was also the first female mayor in San Leandro’s history and is now a member of the East Bay Regional Parks board of directors.
“It’s a good time to be a woman in government,” Vella said. “What we’re seeing around Alameda is becoming the norm in the Bay Area, and it’s a thing that I’m incredibly proud of.”
As for why Alamedans tend to support women in government, Vella is blunt. “What can I say? They have good taste. Alameda likes strong, smart women.”
Published online on April 17, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.