By J. Douglas
One of the most closely watched contests in next month’s Oakland elections is the At-Large City Council race, where one-term incumbent Rebecca Kaplan is being challenged by the politically powerful District Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente.
Three other candidates-former Oakland School Board member Carol Lee Tolbert, software engineering manager Mick Storm, and mediator and Green Party nominee Theresa Anderson-are also running in the non-partisan race.
But it is Kaplan and De La Fuente who are getting the most attention.
At stake is whether the remnants of the old Don Perata political machine will continue to have a foothold in Oakland government or if it will be placed by new political alignments.
A former machinist and union representative, De La Fuente has been a member of the Oakland City Council since 1992 and was elected Council President when the position was first formed following the passage of “strong mayor” Measure X in 1998.
He was a charter member of what the late columnist Peggy Stinnett used to call “the Peratistas,” the group of City Councilmembers who followed the political leadership of former Assemblymember and State Senator Perata.
De La Fuente’s power on the Council began to wane in 1999 when Jane Brunner replaced him as Council president. And he has never had success in running for citywide office, coming in a distant fourth in 1998 when Jerry Brown was elected mayor, then losing again to Ron Dellums eight years later.
For many observers, these events spelled the beginning of the end of De La Fuente’s long political career. However, a victory over Kaplan in the November election would put De La Fuente in the conversation to run against Oakland Mayor Jean Quan if she seeks re-election in two years.
Unlike De La Fuente, Kaplan has had a string of good showings in citywide elections. In 2000, as a newcomer to Oakland politics, she beat out several better-known candidates to make the runoff against incumbent At-Large Councilmember Henry Chang, where she ran a credible race but lost.
After being appointed to an At-Large seat on the AC Transit Board of Directors, she twice won re-election to that seat in a district that contained all of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
In 2008, Kaplan won the At-Large City Council seat over then-School Board member Kerry Hamill, the handpicked candidate of the Perata machine. And two years ago, Kaplan came within a couple of thousand votes of beating Jean Quan in the next-to-the-last round of the ranked-choice-voting counting in the Oakland mayoral race.
In a city with a devastating long-term crime and violence problem, how voters see the two candidates’ stand on law-and-order issues may make the difference.
De La Fuente has criticized Kaplan and the majority of the Council for not supporting him on two controversial anti-violence proposals: a citywide youth curfew and additional targeted gang injunctions.
Kaplan, on the other hand, says that De La Fuente’s 2010 support for a 10% reduction in the police force has left Oakland communities vulnerable to crime. Kaplan opposed the layoffs.
As the only other candidate with an electoral victory under her belt, small business owner Tolbert has an outside chance of being a spoiler in the two-person heavyweight fight between Kaplan and De La Fuente.
Tolbert was defeated for re-election to the Oakland School Board in 1996 amidst the controversy over that year’s teachers strike.