Recall as a Cudgel

In Alameda, recall efforts have often been used to attack the city’s progressive elected officials, particularly women and people of color.


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Photo Illustration by Brian Breneman

Flip open the pages of local newspapers or peruse online forums and you may see some residents advocating to recall certain elected officials or members of the school board. Most recently, an effort was launched to remove from office Alameda Councilmembers Malia Vella and Jim Oddie.

It’s not just happening in Alameda. Frustrated voters in other parts of the East Bay are also turning to the often expensive, time-consuming, and ill-fated path to registering discontent with public officials. Recall is in the air, it seems.

But in Alameda, recall campaigns come up far more often than in neighboring electorates, especially in the past decade. Although none of these efforts has gained enough momentum in order to make it onto a ballot, that may not be the point; the threats alone are being used to attack and discredit elected officials — often with a tinge of prejudice, say those at the receiving end.

Former Alameda Councilmember Rob Bonta, who is Filipino American, and former Alameda Mayor Marie Gilmore, who is African American, have both been the subject of recall efforts for their ties to the Alameda firefighters’ union. And former Councilmember Lena Tam, who is Chinese American, was targeted for her support of SunCal, which at one point was trying to develop Alameda Point. But not since the campaign to recall Bonta has an attempt at removing an elected official been as vehement and organized as the most recent efforts focused on Vella and Oddie. What seems to set the current recall efforts apart, however, is a willingness by their supporters to delve into the lowest levels of political discourse.

In various online forums, some Alameda residents have questioned Vella’s residency in Alameda and whether she was born on the Island. Vella, who is mixed-race Filipina, notes that she’s the only member of the five-member city council who was born in Alameda. At a June planning meeting of the Alameda Citizens Task Force, a group opposing the city’s progressive leaders and firefighters’ union in this fall’s election, an attendee called Vella a “union whore.” Responding to the incident, Bonta and the Alameda Labor Council jointly stated it revealed “a disgusting, misogynistic, and sexist underbelly in our beloved community.”

There was also plenty of vitriol directed at Vella during the recent scandal involving former City Manager Jill Keimach. Keimach had accused Vella and Oddie of illegally pressuring her to hire the fire chief backed by the Alameda firefighters’ union and secretly recorded them in order to prove her allegations. At city meetings, members of the public attacked Vella, saying, “What rock did she climb out from under?” and suggested she serve time in jail. An independent investigator’s report released in May, however, found Vella’s actions did not violate the city charter.

Nevertheless, some residents say the investigator’s report proves Vella’s longstanding ties to the firefighters’ union. Others believe the report’s findings are incomplete without the public release of Keimach’s recording of Vella and Oddie. Furthermore, some of these same opponents routinely chant, “Release the tape,” at council meetings. It’s unclear, though, what the recording would prove. The independent investigator did not even listen to it out of fear that it was recorded illegally. The council unanimously referred the issue to the Alameda County District Attorney.

Vella is unsure why she has attracted the ire of some residents, but she has suspicions. “I would like to understand what is really bothering them,” she said in an interview. “They see me as a symbol that touches some deeply rooted fears they have.”

Vella said the same motivations are driving the current attacks of Bonta. In late June, Steve Slauson, an Alameda resident and Bonta’s Republican challenger in the fall’s 18th Assembly District race, questioned his opponent’s U.S. citizenship in a tactic that evoked Donald Trump’s “birther” claim against President Barack Obama. Bonta called the assertion “racist hatred.”

Vella said Slauson’s uncorroborated questioning of Bonta’s citizenship and of her residency reveal a willingness to be openly racist in the public realm. “We have ‘BBQ Becky,’ ‘Jogger Joe,’ and ‘Permit Patty,’ and now ‘Still Not From Here Steve,’” she said, likening Slauson to other white residents who became notorious for calling the police on and harassing people of color. “This was a long time coming,” Vella continued. “He feels emboldened. I’m not claiming to be a victim. I’m just sunshining this.”

This brand of nativism has long been a part of Alameda’s political discourse, said Vella, but it used to be cloaked in opposition to issues related to the firefighters’ union. But no more, she said. “They used to be wolves in sheep’s clothing,” she said. “Instead of hiding racism, xenophobia, with Lena [Tam] they couched it with ‘she did something strange with a developer and closed session information.’ The only difference here is these people feel emboldened — locally, nationally — and they don’t even try to hide it anymore.”

Bonta said it’s not a coincidence that most of the recall efforts in Alameda have targeted people of color, but they don’t worry him. “The reason why they don’t work — like it did not work against me — is that most Alamedans are open-minded, they’re for opportunities for all and not part of this good ol’ boy network,” he said. He added that the questioning of Vella’s residency is beyond the pale. “Those questions are only asked of people of color.”

To be fair, some progressives considered a recall effort against Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer in 2015 following comments some in the Filipino-American community found offensive. In addition, those opposing Vella also attempted a recall campaign against Oddie, who is white, but proponents failed to turn in the necessary paperwork on time. Noticeably, however, recall opponents are far more muted in their discontent toward Oddie, who is up for re-election this fall, as opposed to Vella, despite the fact that the independent investigator actually found Oddie violated the city charter when he recommended a candidate for the city’s fire chief to Keimach using city letterhead.

The disparity in how opponents save their harshest commentaries for Vella and not some of her white colleagues on the council is clear, she added. “Nobody is asking Frank [Matarrese] if he’s from Alameda,” she said. Also, said Vella, Matarrese voted for Alameda to become a sanctuary city, supported sending Keimach’s secret recording of Vella and Oddie to the district attorney, and approved Keimach’s $900,000 settlement package in May —  actions that have raised the ire of her opponents. Vella also approved all except the last of those actions. But she was the only member of the city council who didn’t approve Keimach’s golden parachute.

For the most part, the nexus between all of this is Slauson, a political newcomer who’s willing to speak his mind on the state of Democratic Party control in Sacramento and what he believes is the Alameda firefighters’ union grip on city politics. In addition to questioning Bonta’s citizenship, Slauson is one of the main organizers for the recall campaigns against Vella and Oddie. The campaign started in earnest in April when Slauson and others warned the city council prior to a closed-session meeting to reinstate Keimach or face a recall campaign. The main reason for the recall of Vella is simply the “improper handling of the Keimach matter,” including the $900,000 settlement package, said Slauson. “Hey, you don’t pay someone $900,000 if you’re not in the wrong,” said Slauson. However, when told Vella did not vote for the settlement, he denied that fact.

In Alameda political circles there has been speculation about whether the recall threats are even intended to become credible campaigns or whether they’re merely intended to damage a councilmember’s reputation among voters. (Oddie is up for re-election this fall; Vella is not, but is contemplating a run for mayor this year.) Slauson insists the recall attempts are sincere. But as they did with the recall effort against Oddie, the same group also appears to be fumbling in its effort to remove Vella. As of publication, the timetable to qualify for the November ballot is nearly impossible to achieve. Slauson said he might push for a special election next year instead. However, stand-alone special elections are notoriously expensive and paid for by taxpayers — a fact Slauson was unaware of.

Slauson also strongly denied the assertion that his words and actions contain any racial intent. “After she was elected, I thought Vella was honest and straightforward,” he said. “But I don’t think voters knew what they were getting.”

Vella’s employment as a labor attorney for the Teamsters led him to link her to the Alameda firefighters’ union, which he said is “ripping us off.” Slauson said he plans to advocate for reining in the firefighters by closing two fire stations and laying off half of the department’s firefighters. “Where are all these fire trucks going, constantly tying up traffic and not doing anything?” he said.

All this portends for a potentially vicious and high-stakes fall election. Will the city council turn into a full, five-member progressive majority? Or will the council turn to the side of the slow-growth, traffic-obsessed supporters who generally espouse the anti-firefighters’ union sentiment raised by Slauson?

Slauson said his plan is simple: He’s going to support a slate of council candidates backed by the Alameda Citizens Task Force, which is likely to include former Councilmembers Tony Daysog and Stewart Chen. And move forward with the recall.

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