Not Your Grandfather’s Island
As young families continue to flock to Alameda, the city’s new progressive majority is steering a new course.
Illustration by Gillian Dreher
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Alameda was not just an island geographically but also one politically—detached from the progressivism of its neighbors, Berkeley and Oakland, and more recently, Richmond. But over the last few years, Alameda has quietly turned into a liberal stronghold, particularly since the November 2016 election, when a new progressive majority took over the Alameda City Council.
Local activists say the rise of Bernie Sanders last year and the deepening opposition to President Trump have prompted Alamedans and local elected officials to realize the benefits of moving to the left. It’s a development that might lock in the council’s progressive majority for decades to come—and even make it more liberal in 2018.
Perhaps no issue epitomized Alameda’s new progressive leanings more than the council’s decision in March to pass a resolution calling on Congress to investigate and potentially impeach Trump. Alameda was one of the first municipalities in the nation to do so, beating both Berkeley and Oakland to the punch.
Support for Trump’s impeachment began at the grassroots. A group calling itself Alamedans4Impeachment carried the resolution to the council. But it was progressive newly elected Councilmember Malia Vella who moved it forward. In fact, the pivot point that connected Alameda’s grassroots groups and their ability to get legislation approved appears to have coincided with Vella’s election last November. Since then, the council, led by Vella and fellow progressives Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Jim Oddie, has banned tenant evictions without cause, declared itself a sanctuary city, laid the groundwork for divestment from Wells Fargo, set the stage to introduce the cannabis industry to Alameda—in addition to the impeachment resolution.
Alameda liberals say the local outrage over Trump’s policies cannot be overstated. In late January, following the president’s executive order establishing a ban on travelers from certain Muslim countries, two Alameda residents, Amanda Cooper and Brett Webb, used social media to organize a rally in support of the Alameda Islamic Center. On short notice, hundreds of Alamedans flocked to the community center on Santa Clara Avenue on a Sunday afternoon carrying signs in support of the center and opposing the Trump administration.
“This isn’t our parents’ city we’re living in,” said Vella, who was raised in Alameda. “We live in extraordinary times. We’ve always had a lot of activists here, it’s just now they’re finding ways to connect across the board and on many different issues.”
Another unifying cause was the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. It fueled several activists groups in the city, including the Alameda Progressives, which was formed by Berniecrats nearly two years ago. Cheri Johansen, a member of its steering committee, said, “After Bernie didn’t get the nomination, we had all this organization and all this fire, so we decided the most important thing is to work on local issues.”
She believes there has always been a progressive streak in Alameda. “I think it’s always been inside of a lot of people,” she said. “They’ve just decided now that we have to do this. The worse things get in Washington, the more people come to us and say, ‘What can we do to help?’”
Together and with the help of other progressive groups on the Island, the Alameda Progressives are focusing on what Johansen calls the “justice issues”—housing, environmental, racial, economic, and immigration justice. On the group’s to-do list for the 2018 elections, said Johansen, is a plan to organize with Black Lives Matter and other social justice groups to create a political organization based on the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which now dominates that city’s politics. And they plan to be very active in Alameda’s election next year.
That could spell trouble for Mayor Trish Spencer, a moderate who is widely considered to be the most conservative member of the council and is up for re-election. Since November, Spencer has repeatedly been on the losing end of 4-1 council votes. Also up for re-election is Councilmember Frank Matarrese, a moderate who often votes with the progressive majority. The third councilmember seeking re-election in 2018 is Oddie, a top staffer to liberal Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Alameda.
Since the closure of the Alameda Naval Air Station in the mid-1990s, the Island has grown increasingly more liberal with the influx of new families. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump could only cobble together 13 percent of the vote in Alameda, according to an analysis of final precinct data by the magazine. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, garnered a whopping 78 percent of the vote on the Island.
In an interview, Vella also pointed to economic factors that are shaping Alamedans’ politics. Millennials increasingly realize that going to college and buying a home are becoming unattainable because of high costs. “We live in a new world in many ways, and we’re trying to deal with the fallout and find a way forward, and that lived experience has changed people’s perspectives on things and therefore changing their position on a number of issues,” said Vella. “And the result is people are becoming more progressive.”
Philip John James, director of communication for the East Bay Young Democrats and the City of Alameda Democratic Club, has lived in Alameda for most of his life and said that growing up in the early 1990s, Alameda’s politics were more centrist. Of Alameda’s new progressivism, he said, “I don’t know if it’s a demographic change in terms of the backgrounds of the people living here, but [it] definitely feels [like] a demographic change in the mindsets of people living here.”
The types of businesses popping up in Alameda—brewpubs and wineries—appeal to millennials who want to lay roots in Alameda, said James, whereas before, the city’s reputation as a sleepy bedroom community attracted a generation of people whose political tastes were more conservative. “There’s a mindset out there that the Alameda of 20 years ago was the best Alameda ever,” he said. “And I think there are people now who are thinking the Alameda of 10 years from today is going to be the best ever, and we have to start working towards that.”
The generational and political divide is getting wider every election cycle as Alameda’s old guard withdraws from politics. Since 2008, the city’s moderate and conservative wing has suffered significant electoral losses, although there have been some notable exceptions. A tenuous moderate majority in 2014 propelled Spencer’s upset mayoral victory. And with extensive help from landlords, full rent control lost at the ballot box last year. (It’s worth noting, though, that the measure was even more liberal than Oakland’s law).
Spencer’s re-election next year is also not a certainty. Although highly successful in employing her own unique brand of retail politics, the city’s ideological shift and a number of awkward moments have left her vulnerable. For instance, the mayor has made herself a target of some of the most energized groups in Alameda: The Alameda Renters Coalition strongly opposes her consistent support for landlords over tenants.
And the city’s LGBTQ community continues to oppose Spencer following her votes as a school board member opposing same-sex curriculum in Alameda schools. In June, a city proclamation recognizing Pride Month was not accepted by some members of the Alameda Unified School District LGBTQ Roundtable. The group also refused to participate in a group photo with the mayor, and instead only agreed to a photo with the council’s progressive majority. Furthermore, many Island liberals were disturbed by Spencer’s decision to attend Trump’s inauguration ceremony. The mayor was in Washington, D.C., attending the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors at the time.
Ezzy Ashcraft is widely expected to challenge Spencer next year, and there could be other candidates. But the mayor is still formidable. “The mayor is engaged; she shows up to almost every event or public meeting, and I would contend, just based of recognizability, she is without a doubt the most well-known political figure in Alameda,” said James. “But she represents the group that seems happy with the status quo despite a world full of changes.
“How does this group last past 2020?”
Published online on July 12, 2017-07-12 at 8:00 AM