Seismic Shocks on Election Day
The recently elected pledge to chart a new course to slow development in Alameda.
Alameda Mayor-elect Trish Spencer.
Photo courtesy of Trish Spencer
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Alameda Mayor-elect Trish Spencer was discussing her victory. “Do you really know why I ran?” she asked. “Because nobody else did.”
And so, with the simplest of intentions, began one of the biggest electoral upsets in the entire East Bay. Spencer, a long-time school board member, filed paperwork to face incumbent Mayor Marie Gilmore on Aug. 4—just four days before the filing deadline. Three months to the date—on Election Day—the mother of four and seven-year cancer survivor had upended Alameda’s power structure by the slimmest of margins and possibly begun to lead a great deviation from the city’s current course for development on the Island.
In terms of political seismic shocks, the temblor that hit Alameda on Election Day was significant. In just a single election, the city’s clear path toward a pro-development policy at Alameda Point and other projects around the island slammed into political reality. Alameda voters are, indeed, skeptical of City Hall’s development plans at Alameda Point because of its potential, in part, to further clog traffic and change the character of the city. In its wake, the election left Mayor Marie Gilmore out of office after one term and Councilmember Stewart Chen on the outside looking in after just two years in office. Alamedans’ hunger for throwing the bums out this election cycle seemed to extend down the ballot to races not clearly connected to development, but to candidates representing the status quo. Long-time school board member Mike McMahon lost his seat, and termed-out Alameda Councilmember Lena Tam fell well short in her bid to defeat incumbent BART Board Director Robert Raburn.
But, no other race result defied conventional wisdom like Spencer’s upset of Gilmore by barely more than 100 votes. “Regular people like me can only do this with people at the grassroots,” said Spencer, a member of the Alameda school board since 2008. Greatly out-funded by Gilmore, who also possessed the endorsement of the powerful firefighters’ union and its own campaign largesse, Spencer spent only $9,000 on her campaign. That meant costly direct-mail pieces to voters were not within the budget. In fact, the only public presence that Spencer had in the race were some gorgeous dark green lawn signs strategically placed around Alameda. Spencer’s low-budget campaign strategy, including eschewing political consultants altogether, had worked for her in previous school board elections. In the much higher–stakes campaign for mayor, Spencer’s no-frills approach was part of her campaign’s charm in an era of expensive political contests even at the small-town level. For instance, shortly before the county registrar finished counting the ballot last month and it became clear Spencer had pulled off the upset, she asked this reporter, “What do I do after I win? Send a press release announcing I won?”
Frank Matarrese’s return to the Alameda City Council following two terms ending in 2010 was less surprising but notable, nonetheless. Matarrese’s campaign was purposefully independent of Spencer’s, but their similar message about slowing down development plans at Alameda Point was clear to voters. School board member-elect Gary Lym also tied his campaign to Spencer—even coordinating campaign events—and edged out the incumbent McMahon from reelection. Like Spencer, Matarrese was vastly outspent by firefighters’ union-supported Jim Oddie, who also won a seat on the City Council, and Chen. However, unlike Spencer, where the incumbent avoided negative campaigning, other special interest groups consistently slammed Matarrese with a torrent of mailers. The strategy was used successfully against Matarrese four years ago when he ran for mayor, but not so this time. One dubious mailer menacingly asserted that Matarrese was undermining the city’s election laws by using a “loophole” to run for the City Council after being termed out after eight years. In fact, Matarrese did nothing to undermine the City Charter, which only prohibits council members from running for more than two consecutive terms.