The Fight for Oakland’s District 6
Many East Oakland voters continue to support Desley Brooks, but her opponents think she’s lost the ability to win.
Incumbent Desley Brooks is being challenged by Marlo Rodriguez, Mya Whitaker, Natasha Middleton, and Loren Taylor.
Desley Brooks is on the ropes, no doubt about it. The councilmember’s 2015 altercation with former Black Panther-turned-real estate developer Elaine Brown led to an elder abuse lawsuit that the city and Brooks lost, resulting in a $2.2 million settlement and incredibly negative media coverage. In April, an ex-city staffer filed a claim with the city alleging that Brooks verbally harassed him, and Brooks is also the subject of an ethics investigation for allegations that she failed to report money she received from the Millsmont Farmers’ Market.
But even Brooks’ recent legislative accomplishments have been used against her. For example, the Department of Race and Equity and the cannabis equity program were two signature Brooks initiatives that were initially opposed by Mayor Libby Schaaf and several councilmembers but eventually embraced. Detractors even whispered — without evidence — that Brooks had ulterior, corrupt motives while they were trying to torpedo the programs. More recently, her job training ballot measure was deemed illegal by the mayor and city attorney.
Meanwhile, Schaaf has called Brooks “toxic” and compared her to President Donald Trump, while Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington said her resignation is partly due to Brooks’ behavior.
Perhaps sensing that controversy has weakened Brooks, four candidates are running against her this year. But in Oakland’s District 6, Brooks remains incredibly popular. In fact, the more Schaaf and media outlets like the San Francisco Chronicle attack Brooks, the more her supporters rally behind her.
That’s because Brooks’ supporters think that by pissing off the mayor and the media, their councilmember must be doing something right. In District 6 — a mostly working-class, heavily black and Latino swath of the Town — there’s a belief that in order to get an equitable deal from City Hall, it’s necessary to fight, otherwise, the money and resources just swirl around downtown. Brooks may not always be nice to her colleagues on the council, but her supporters don’t care about nice. They want a tough advocate.
The feeling that District 6 is getting a raw deal from City Hall is so pervasive that some of Brooks’ challengers talk in these terms, too. But each thinks they can advocate more effectively by being less confrontational.
“There’s no parks, no grocery stores, there’s nothing for us here to raise our children,” said District 6 candidate Mya Whitaker. A 27-year-old mother and foster youth counselor for Alameda County, Whitaker said District 6 is massively under-resourced, and the fight to bring more resources home can require more than congeniality.
Fellow candidate Marlo Rodriguez, a 52-year-old registered nurse who lives near 55th and Seminary avenues, channels the frustration of many District 6 residents when she accuses the city of withholding resources from East Oakland. “The mayor just rolled out a repaving plan, but it wasn’t equitable to D6,” Rodriguez said about recent street repairs. She added that parks in East Oakland don’t appear to receive the upkeep they do in other areas.
Among the candidates, Rodriguez is the most willing to criticize Brooks. “We have a city councilmember who is too busy fighting other councilmembers,” she said in a recent interview — but she’s also very much of the East Oakland opinion that the district gets a raw deal and needs someone who will stand up to the mayor.
Even candidate Loren Taylor, who is endorsed by Schaaf, said the district is underserved. “D6 is a food desert,” said Taylor, referring to the absence of grocery stores except for the Gazzali’s at Eastmont Mall. He also pointed out that the Bank of America branch at Eastmont is closing, creating a financial services desert.
“You know our community is getting robbed,” he said about the lack of banks and proliferation of check-cashing stores. “It further cuts the knees off our economic development.”
Taylor is far and away the best-funded candidate in the race, having raised an impressive $119,476 and counting, or 2½ times more than Brooks. The 41-year-old management consultant who lives in the Ridgemont neighborhood said that while there is a lot of talk about the homelessness crisis, the city’s response has been lacking. He said the city needs to try to acquire more property to expand transitional housing and services.
All of the candidates in the D6 race think the city isn’t doing enough to help the homeless.
Natasha Middleton, a 50-year-old management analyst with the Alameda County Probation Department and a resident of Maxwell Park, said she’s noticed more people living in cars and RVs, especially in East Oakland. If elected, Middleton said she will push for the creation of more sanctioned campsites. At the same time, Middleton said Oakland needs to collaborate more with the county and state. Only then can Oakland scale up the resources and programs needed to make a dent in the problem.
Middleton was endorsed by outgoing councilmember Campbell Washington and has Schaaf’s second-rank endorsement. She’s raised $28,000 this year for her campaign, nearly as much as Brooks.
In Whitaker’s view, the main problem with the city’s homelessness policies is it’s not following the lead of community groups like the East Oakland Collective, which organizes with the homeless to make camps safer and to deliver resources. Whitaker said she would like to see more coordination between the city and groups that are already serving the needs of unsheltered residents.
Whitaker is running the most bootstrap campaign, having raised about $5,000 so far and relying more on sweat than money to get her message out. If Whitaker has a political philosophy it’s that, in her words, the city needs to “meet people where they’re at.” The Eastmont resident said too many policies aren’t actually targeting the half of D6 residents who live paycheck to paycheck and lack access to job opportunities and affordable housing.
When asked about housing, Middleton expressed the most support for stronger renter protections. She praised the Just Cause measure the council put on the ballot this November, which will protect thousands more apartments by extending eviction protections to two- and three-unit owner-occupied buildings. She added that while a lot of new housing is being built, it’s mostly market rate and concentrated in downtown Oakland. “We need to build more housing in the district,” she said.
Although all the candidates agree on the need to build more housing, Taylor and Rodriguez focused more on ways to speed up construction and encourage ownership.
“I’m a landlord,” said Taylor. “I own property in North Oakland.”
Taylor’s rental property was his grandmother’s home and he said many Oakland landlords own just one or two units and have kept their buildings relatively affordable. The city should be mindful that owning property was one way Oakland’s black middle class was able to prosper, he said. As for ways to prevent tenant displacement and keep rental housing affordable, Taylor said the city could explore incentives for local landlords, possibly including tax breaks.
Rodriguez said the city’s development process needs to be fixed to ensure builders can obtain permits faster. She also said more needs to be done to break down exclusionary barriers against development in affluent neighborhoods like Rockridge, adding that she supported SB 827, state Sen. Scott Wiener’s bill that would have up-zoned areas around transit lines.
“I don’t mean to pick on Rockridge, but they have exclusionary zoning,” she said, referring to the District 1 neighborhood’s single-family zoning that extends right up to the BART station.
Rodriguez has raised about $5,000 and has made a personal loan of $15,000 to her own campaign also.
Both Taylor and Rodriguez said inclusionary zoning should be instituted. Currently, Oakland only has impact fees, which can either be paid by a developer or credited if the developer builds a certain percentage of affordable housing on-site.
But Whitaker said even these types of affordable housing measures often leave out the lowest income residents because affordable housing can be defined as a home that’s affordable to someone earning as much as $80,000 a year. Whitaker wants to see truly low-income housing built for those making less than $30,000 annually.
The four challengers differed in subtle ways on the question of public safety, but each acknowledged that simply hiring more police doesn’t make the city better off.
Taylor emphasized possible savings via civilianizing certain police jobs and strengthening the existing Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils.
Middleton, who served on the Measure Z commission, said violence reduction programs should be expanded. She also wants to see more coordination between schools, the police, and nonprofits to address sex trafficking.
Whitaker and Rodriguez focused more on efforts to strengthen police oversight and accountability. “With the recent scandal of the police sexually exploiting a teenager, I don’t understand why those officers are still in uniform,” said Rodriguez, referring to the case of Jasmine Abuslin, who was sexually exploited by as many as two dozen Bay Area cops a few years ago.
Whitaker, who interned at OPD and served on the Citizens Police Review Board, said she’s gotten an inside view of the good work the department does, but that she’s also had negative interactions with cops. A major obstacle to police accountability, she said, is the state Police Officers Bill of Rights.
As for Brooks, she told Oakland Magazine that she doesn’t think the drumbeat of negative media about her is fair, but she also doubts it’ll affect her election chances. She said recent press about her doesn’t accurately represent what she’s done for the district and the city as a whole. The press has searched for scandal over substance, she said, and she thinks most voters in D6 recognize this.
She cited the Department of Race and Equity as a major accomplishment of hers that was initially opposed by the mayor and several councilmembers and mostly ignored by the media.
“Now it’s a national model that others are trying to learn from,” said Brooks.
Similarly, Oakland’s cannabis equity program, championed by Brooks, is being emulated by other cities.
As for her jobs training ballot measure that was rejected last month by her colleagues, Brooks said the final draft was rewritten in a way that passed a legal reading by the city attorney, yet the rest of the council still voted it down.
“It wasn’t even a matter of shaping it to get it on the ballot,” she said. “They wouldn’t let me have a victory during an election cycle when they’re trying to get me out.”
Rodriguez said that’s Brooks’ problem: She’s focused too much on the fight and lost her ability to bring the rest of the council along on issues affecting D6.
“It was a good idea,” Rodriguez said about the jobs training measures. “However, if you don’t know how to make friends, you won’t get it passed, and she doesn’t have five friends on that council.”
Editor’s note: The caption in print misspelled Marlo Rodriguez name and has altered to be correct online.