Supervisor Nate Miley Faces a Credible Candidate
Bryan Parker challenges the incumbent who is running on his track record—one Parker finds lacking.
Photo by Pat Mazzera
When challenger Bryan Parker arrived at a Castro Valley town hall with Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, the audience was a sea flecked with yellow T-shirts in support of the longtime incumbent. The old community organizer trick failed to unnerve Parker’s campaign, with Parker quipping, “I guess we missed the memo on shirts when we thought it was going to be neutral.” Miley flashed a proud grin but later declined to discuss the tactic, other than to say, “It’s a chess game. We’re a team and we’re going to prepare for games.”
Over the past few decades, incumbent Alameda County supervisors have routinely faced token or no opposition in their bids for reelection. Until Parker announced his run last fall, Miley had held his seat without much electoral opposition since being elected in 2001. But Parker, with his corporate connections and ability to raise large sums of money, is seen as a credible threat in the race. Miley has chosen to run on his government experience, which represents a contrast to Parker, who has never held elected office and finished seventh in the 2014 Oakland mayor’s race. Parker asserts that a new course is needed for the district.
Dite their contrasting views, the two men had similar upbringings. Miley was educated by Jesuits, while Parker was taught by Catholic seminarians. Both were raised with a strong maternal hand grounded in education. And both were instilled with a sense that because of the color of their skin, society would never grant them an easy path to success. “In order to succeed you need to be twice as good,” Parker recalls his mother telling him. “It’s not enough for you to get the same grades; you need to get better grades.” Both speak of a duty to make society better and turn wrongs into rights.
Miley, the oldest of three siblings, was raised in the white suburbs of Maryland. His father worked two jobs, and his mother was a schoolteacher. “My mom probably influenced me a lot, because she was very opinionated, and with my dad, I think I developed a strong work habit watching him.”
While the civil rights movement and social upheaval around the Vietnam War shaped his worldview, Miley grew up in predominately white schools from junior high through law school, which provided challenges. Miley was one of only 14 African-American students at a junior high of 900 students. His high school wasn’t much more integrated, he said. Later, Miley would hear one of his law professors routinely refer to African-Americans as inferior to whites. “I think those types of experience affected me,” Miley said.
His self-starting push manifested itself in academics and sports. He played football and was the head of his high school track team, specializing in the long jump. After graduation from law school, Miley headed to California. Before running for the Oakland City Council in 1990, he worked for Oakland civil rights attorney Dan Siegel, volunteered for community groups, and sold life insurance. He plotted his successful run for the city council over about seven years, he said, while making community connections and learning the machinations of local government.
Yet once Miley took a seat on the council, he conceded, the learning curve was steep. Ten years later, after being elected to the board of supervisors, the transition was less daunting, he said, because of his municipal experience.
In the early months of campaign for the June primary, which will serve as the general election because there are only two candidates, Miley often warns voters the job of county supervisor is so complex that electing someone to learn on the job is inadvisable. “I’m no longer a rookie. I’m a seasoned veteran. I think I’ve got experience. I think I’ve got deep relationships having served this community for more than 30 years.”
Miley is fond of pointing to his push to make Oakland’s restaurants smoke-free. He often references his first-in-the-nation county drug disposal ordinance that requires pharmaceutical companies to establish programs for taking back unused prescription drugs to keep them from being flushed down the drain. He also touts major beautification projects completed under his watch in unincorporated Alameda County, primarily an extensive overhaul of the streetscape on Castro Valley Boulevard. The underlining argument from Miley is that these kinds of projects take time and know-how to get done.
In addition to stressing his opponent’s lack of government experience, Miley also has touted Parker’s background as a private-sector health-care executive. “The private sector does not operate under the same rules as the public sector,” Miley said. “You can make things happen in the private sector.” Miley dismisses Parker’s service as an appointed commissioner of the Port of Oakland. “The difference when you’re appointed is you’re accountable to the person who appoints you,” Miley said. “As an elected person, you’re accountable to thousands and thousands of constituents. To become an elected official and not have any grounding or sense of that, you walk into it with a sense of naiveté.” Miley notes that the county bureaucracy is entrenched and set in its ways. “The county is like an aircraft carrier. It takes a lot to turn that bad boy around.”
Parker recognizes that there are differences between the public and private sectors. Although Alameda County’s total annual budget is almost $3 billion, he says dividing the amount by the five supervisorial seats would yield a budget roughly the same size he helmed as an executive for DaVita, a health care company focused on kidney dialysis machines. “Two things Nate is missing, because he’s been in the position so long, is a sense of accountability and urgency. Urgency is not unique to the private sector.”
“He’s making excuses,” Parker added. “These are the same excuses we hear from career politicians about why things aren’t happening fast enough. Why are we not seeing results? ‘Things take time. We have this big bureaucracy.’ People deserve to have results. If the infrastructure and the roads are failing and their cars are being destroyed because of it, they deserve results right now. If people are being mugged, people want to feel safe right now. And if you don’t have a job or are underemployed right now, you don’t want to wait two, three years for a jobs plan to come out. You would like to have a job now to pay your rent.”
When it comes to East Oakland, which represents just less than a majority of District 4 voters, Parker’s attacks on Miley’s record are even more pointed. “Over a 25-year period that Nate has been a councilperson and a supervisor, tell me how it’s changed materially? There was finally a grocery store that was put in. It was food desert until then. It still has the highest homicide rates, the lowest high school graduation rates, the highest unemployment rates of the entire city. Nate has been around that for 25 years. So when you say you’re experienced and say you’re seasoned, I’m going to hold you to your track record, and your track record is horrible.”
Parker’s tone becomes more vociferous when it comes to the district’s most impoverished areas. Fifteen years ago his sister, who was long bedeviled by drug addiction, was murdered in Los Angeles by a boyfriend, also an addict. Horrifically, the assailant then attempted to destroy the evidence of his crime by setting her on fire. Drug addiction throughout her young life had addled her ability to gain the personal and academic stature that her brother was able to achieve. “There was this disappointment that she had thrown away so many chances,” said Parker. Because Parker and his sister, three years younger, had taken divergent paths, he was not close to her.
The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office initially hadn’t planned to pursue the case due to a prevalence of circumstantial evidence. “My mom wasn’t going to let it go,” said Parker, who would later build the case against his sister’s murderer. While a law student at NYU, Parker had worked on some capital cases in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office as a special prosecutor. Meanwhile, detectives in Los Angeles continued to gather evidence, and a jury later convicted the assailant to three consecutive 47-year sentences. “It’s the only noble thing I’ve ever done,” Parker said with tears in his eyes.
In many ways, Parker still feels deep regret for not reaching out to his sister earlier, and it represents a thread through both his run for Oakland mayor and now for county supervisor. “Part of it was I wasn’t a big enough person to help her when she was alive,” Parker said. “So how does this manifest? What difference can I make now?”
He says he sleeps sparingly at night and often reverts to deep contemplative states. On some restless nights, he’ll drive around just to think. The car will often bring him to the most dangerous parts of Oakland and he’ll think about his sister. “People might say you live up on that hill, what do you have in common with deep East Oakland? To that I say, my sister died living like that. That’s what I have.”