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Rookie Oakland City Councilmembers face their first six months on the job

Under CC license from Flickr user Jzimbabwe

In 2013, the Oakland City Council changed more than it had in a decade. Out went three established political leaders, who’d each served more than 15 years. And in came three new councilmembers -- two of them, political novices. Dan Kalb was a policy analyst for the Sierra Club. He won his North Oakland seat with the promise of green jobs. Lynette McElhaney was an affordable housing executive. She campaigned on schools, public safety and economic development, and defeated a much better-financed favorite to represent downtown and West Oakland.

One day in early February, about 50 people are spread across the four corners of the intersection of Market and West Grand, chanting “Save a life, don’t take a life!” and waving handmade signs at the passing cars. Oakland councilmember Lynette McElhaney raises her voice with them. Her church -- True Vine Ministries -- organizes these rallies, called Stands. And McElhaney has been attending them for years. She bowed her head in prayer, then, it’s on to the next event.

She and I get in her Prius to head downtown for a conference for African American business leaders. Since coming into office, she's been besieged with requests. 

“Someone who's actually answering calls, word goes out, phoom!” She laughs.

“So what kind of people are coming to you?” I ask her.

“Everybody!” she says. “It's business, it's port, poor folks, Adams Point, Jack London. It is enormous.”

That’s the fun part of the job. But she’s already had to do the hard part. Just the week before, she’d cast a wrenching vote. Oakland was losing an average of two people a week to gun violence, and city officials were desperate for an answer. They’d offered a $250,000 contact to a well-known police consultant named Bill Bratton, who’d helped slash New York’s crime rate. But his support of a racially charged policing tactic called Stop and Frisk infuriated many Oaklanders. The night of the vote, they packed council chambers to denounce the contract. 

“It was painful,” McElhaney says, “because I know that there are real concerns around police brutality, particularly in African-American communities, poor communities. And I felt the weight of that.”

McElhaney is African American herself. She’s lived in West Oakland for decades. She knows victims of violence. And she knows victims of racial profiling. She came into office to bridge these divides.

“And that night I was undecided,” she remembers. “I went into the vote fairly undecided. And what I left with after hearing all the testimony, was that the [police] department is in trouble, that it needs help.”

She voted to approve the contract. Even though she knows it might not be enough, she says has the city has to do whatever it can.

“Because it is not normal to have this level of crime and violence,” she says. “Too many of us are numb to the pervasive level of violence that’s here. It is awful. It is just flat-out awful. You saw work I do with my church. We've been doing that for two and a half years, and we're behind. We didn't stand for three people shot this month. We stood today for four people shot in December. We have to change this. Because those are real lives, real lives.”

From citizen to politician

A few days after I talk to CouncilmemberMcElhaney, I head downtown to meet her her colleague, Dan Kalb. Kalb's district is the wealthiest in Oakland, but it has a number of trouble spots. Around the time we spoke, a bank in Temescal was robbed for the fifth time, in five weeks. Kalb himself had been robbed at gunpoint near his house in the same neighborhood.

“I do understand the feeling of fear,” he says, “being helpless when someone has a gun in your face and telling you what to do.”

Like councilmemberMcElhaney, his campaign promised economic growth and public safety. But with crime at unprecedented levels, public safety overshadowed everything else. The raucous meeting Bill Bratton debate was Kalb’s first interaction with Oakland’s vocal anti-police community as a politician rather than just a neighbor.

“Parts of that hearing got out of hand,” he admits. “I understand people’s emotions get the best of them sometimes. But it's genuinely not helpful to prevent other people from speaking and acting out in ways that are just not helpful, and sometimes childish.”

Like McElhaney, Kalb voted to approve the contract, which frustrated some of his constituents.

“I know people feel that, if you listen and understood, of course you would agree with what I say,” he says. “That's what an advocate feels. And I've been an advocate for decades. How could this person not agree? There must be something else going on. For me there's nothing else going on.”

The move was a desperate measure, from a desperate city. As the year went on, Kalb and McElhaney would find themselves in crises like this one over and over again. Their ultimate goal was to make Oakland prosper, but first they needed to make it safe.

More money, harder choices

Next time I speak with councilmemberKalb, it’s March. The big news is the selection of Thomas Frazier, former chief of Baltimore Police, to help reform Oakland’s department. Oakland’s first police academy in four years is underway. And things are looking up economically. It’s almost time to draft Oakland’s mid-year budget, and the city will have more money than expected, thanks to a strong real estate market. But Oakland still needs far more than it has.

“There’s gonna be some difficult choices,” Kalb says. “I'm not aware of any good choices. There’ll be a range of bad options. It's not a rosy picture right now.”

That meant a lot of difficult choices and trade-offs. But his top priority is simple: hire more police.

“I and other councilmembers could pass all sorts of wonderful laws. We could fill every pothole, but if people don't feel safe in their neighborhoods, they're not gonna want to live in the city,” he says.

The budget heats up

It’s nearly midnight when the city council wraps up another five-plus-hour weekly meeting. Lynette McElhaney and I are back in her office. It’s April, about a month into intense budget deliberations and McElhaney is dismayed by the stark choices she’ll soon have to make. How much to fund public works, for example.

“The way Oakland works is, well, we used to have 50 trucks, now we have two trucks,” she says, by way of example. “We might get four trucks, but it'll never get everything clean. But you need to make a decision: do we want four trucks or a part-time librarian?”

By mid-month, there’s a new problem: Oakland's public unions have begun demonstrating loudly in favor of raises. Then, just as the budget is heating up, crime does too.

“Here’s the budget,” says Kalb to me one day, thumping down a large stack of documents.

The violence has renewed his commitment to beefing up Oakland’s police force. But that meant working within tight constraints.

“If I want 33 more civilians in OPD -- that's not in the budget,” he says, explaining his choices. “Then we'll say OK, we can't afford 33, let's go for 24.”

Going into June, the final days of the budget negotiations, the council is still split over paying for more police, and whether to give city workers raises.  CouncilmembersKalb and McElhaney find themselves working together to pass a compromise.

It passes, five in favor, three against. There will be more money spent fixing blight, and more civilian jobs in OPD. The issue of city workers’ pay isn’t resolved.

Councilmember McElhaney is satisfied with her role in the process --  she sees herself as fighting back against a media that portrayed the budget as a fight between city workers and police officers.

“I didn’t like that framing,” she says. “And so I worked really hard to change it. And for me the narrative was, how do we slice this pie so almost everybody can get fed? Not everyone will get an equal slice of pie, but everyone will equally enjoy the pie. A two-year-old doesn’t need a man’s slice of pie.”

The first six months

Both councilmembers are undaunted by their first six months in office. In helping prepare the compromise budget, they’d shown they could get things done as elected officials. And after seeing how Oakland worked from the inside, they were hopeful about the city’s future.

I ask McElhaney if she feels lucky to be on council at time when things were  getting better.

“I guess so,” she says. “I don't have anything to compare it to. It was still very difficult. Oakland needs twice as much money to do half of what our needs are. You know what I mean? I feel fortunate to be leading at a time when the city is ripe and ready for change.”

Kalb tells me he’s optimistic by nature. “I think our problems can be reduced in magnitude,” he says. “It’s not gonna happen overnight. But I think we can move forward in a positive direction. I believe that and I'll always believe it.”