Oakland Council Races Are About Personality Politics

The main challengers in two Oakland City Council races this year have no real differences with the incumbents, except for their relationships to Mayor Libby Schaaf. And the challengers in the other three contests are having difficulty gaining traction.


Rebecca Kaplan promises to be tough to beat.

Ariel Nava

(page 1 of 2)

When running against a popular incumbent, political challengers must typically make a compelling case for why they would be better suited for the job. Candidates, for example, often argue that the incumbents are wrong on the issues or that they’re somehow unfit for office. But in Oakland this fall, challengers to two city councilmembers are having difficulty making a compelling case for themselves.

In the two races—the council’s At-Large and the District 5 seats—the main challengers have staked out political positions that are nearly identical to those of the people they’re trying to replace: Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Noel Gallo. The only real difference, it seems, is that they say they’ll get along better with Mayor Libby Schaaf.

Of the two contests, the campaign for Kaplan’s At-Large seat promises to garner the most attention, mainly because it’s a citywide election and so all Oakland voters will have a chance to cast ballots in it. Kaplan’s two main challengers are Peggy Moore, a former top aide to Schaaf, and Bruce Quan, a businessman and longtime civil rights attorney who has close ties to former Mayor Jean Quan.

Kaplan, however, promises to be tough to beat. The popular environmental progressive easily won reelection in 2012, trouncing fellow Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente by more than 20 percentage points—60.7 percent to 39.3 percent—in ranked choice voting. She also fared well in the 2010 and 2014 mayoral elections.

Over the years, Kaplan has sometimes endured criticism for exhibiting a less-than-stellar work ethic and occasionally avoiding tough votes. But in the past year, she has led the council on numerous high-profile issues, from blocking coal shipments to the Port of Oakland to spearheading the renters’ protection measure on the November ballot in an effort to stem displacement of low- and moderate-income residents from the city. “Not only have I had the courage to stand for issues, I’ve really moved things forward,” she said in a recent interview. “I did that with coal. I did that with the renters’ protection. I actually delivered.”

A longtime advocate for smart growth—the building of dense housing projects along major transit corridors—Kaplan also supports the city’s $600 million infrastructure bond and the county’s $580 million affordable housing bond, which are both also on the November ballot. Kaplan also strongly backs the Oakland Community Police Review Commission ballot measure and advocates for reforming police recruiting, hiring, and training practices in order to reduce incidents of police misconduct. Kaplan also serves as chair of the Alameda County Transportation Commission and is a member of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Commission and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District board of directors.

Courtesy of Peggy Moore

Peggy Moore believes this is the right moment for her run for city council.

Moore is expected to emerge as Kaplan’s top competitor this fall, mostly because of her political connections. In addition to her close friendship with the mayor, Moore served as a top aide on President Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign and on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign in California.

Some City Hall observers have speculated that Schaaf urged Moore to run against Kaplan because the mayor and Kaplan have sometimes clashed. But both Moore and Schaaf adamantly denied that the mayor asked Moore to run. “I have no issues with Rebecca,” Schaaf said, adding that Moore’s decision to take on Kaplan “came as a surprise” to her. Schaaf said she told Moore to resign from the mayor’s office immediately after Moore said she was running—although the mayor has endorsed Moore’s campaign for council.

Because Moore waited until August to jump into the race, she faces a difficult road. Although she’s well-known in political circles, she doesn’t have strong name recognition like Kaplan. So Moore will not only have to raise lots of money before Nov. 8, but she’ll also have to spend a significant portion of it on introducing herself to Oakland voters.

She will also have to overcome an early stumble. As Oakland Magazine first reported on its website, Moore commissioned an online poll in August that falsely stated that she had been endorsed by Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Assemblymember Tony Thurmond. Moore said later it was a mistake, and that she had merely intended to poll voters on whether they were more likely to support her if she got those endorsements. But Lee’s staffers subsequently said that Moore should have known that the congresswoman doesn’t usually endorse candidates in local races and expressed no plans to do so in this one.

Moore said her delay in entering the race was due to the fact that she wrestled with whether to run this year against Kaplan. She said she ultimately concluded that it was the right moment. “Instead of being the backup singer, I decided it was time for a leadership role,” she said. “I was comfortable, but sometimes you need to get pushed out of your comfort zone.”

Like Kaplan, Moore supports the renter’s protection measure and the police review commission, soda tax, and infrastructure bond ballot measures. And she, too, opposed the coal plan. The only apparent difference she has with Kaplan is that she said she will foster a better working relationship between the council and the mayor.

Bruce Quan—Kaplan’s other main rival this fall—also has no major policy differences with the incumbent. In an hour-long interview, he argued that he’s the better choice for the job because of his long history of activism and his international business experience. His local claim to fame is that he brokered the multibillion-dollar Chinese investment deal that jumpstarted Brooklyn Basin, the massive, 3,100-unit housing development on the city’s waterfront. Bruce Quan is not related to Jean Quan, but they’re longtime friends, and she worked with him on the deal when she was mayor.

Bruce Quan also contended that he’ll do a better job in restoring civility to City Hall. He also criticized Kaplan’s political courage and work habits. “The current incumbent has not been present during critical issues and votes,” he charged.

However, for Quan’s message to resonate, he’ll also have to overcome his relative anonymity, along with a tenuous grasp on some local issues. In his interview for this report, he pushed two policy proposals for Oakland that are currently illegal in California—requiring private property developers to include affordable housing in apartment projects and mandating that they hire union workers.

Courtesy of Viola Gonzales

Viola Gonzales argues that she will be able to foster a better relationship between the city council and Mayor Libby Schaaf.

In the District 5 (Fruitvale) race, challenger Viola Gonzales is also taking on a popular incumbent: Gallo. And like the challengers in the At-Large contest, Gonzales has yet to outline major differences that she has with the person she’s running against.

Schaaf also has been suspected of pushing Gonzales to run because of personal conflicts that the mayor has had with Gallo—an allegation that both Schaaf and Gonzales also denied, although Schaaf has also endorsed Gonzales in this race.

Gonzales, a former Oakland school board member and CEO of a Berkeley nonprofit, A New America Community Corporation, declined in an interview for this report to take stances on two of the major issues facing Oakland—specifically, the renters’ protection and police review commission measures. Gallo, by contrast, co-wrote the police review measure and backs the renters’ protection measure. Gallo has also gained recognition for his dogged pursuit of dealing with illegal trash dumping in his district.


Noel Gallo.

And like Moore, Gonzales’ only real critique of the person she wants to unseat concerns his relationship with the mayor, alleging that Gallo has contributed to a “fractured leadership” in City Hall. “My observation is that I don’t think he’s done a good job and he could have done better … building bridges and collaborating, working together and in tandem with a larger vision.”

For his part, Gallo alleges that the Unity Council, an influential nonprofit in the Fruitvale district, is backing Gonzales against him because of his opposition to the group’s market-rate development proposal on public property in Fruitvale. Gallo pushed for affordable housing on the site. “I didn’t get elected to represent the Unity Council folks,” he said.

Gallo also criticizes Gonzales for her unwillingness to take stances on tough issues. “For her not to take a position … really demonstrates her shortsightedness on the major issues facing Oakland.”

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