Gray Harris Has a Point to Make
Alameda’s latest school board appointee, Gray Harris, talks about living up to expectations.
“We should be providing choices and options for kids,” school board member Gray Harris said.
Photo by Chris Duffey
Alameda’s newest school board member is striking at first glance. With a set of evenly placed tattoos from her shoulders to her elbows and two-toned shocks of blond and copper hair, Gray Harris draws attention. During an interview at a Park Street coffee shop in September, patrons often glanced up from the computers to catch a glimpse of the statuesque school board member recently appointed to replace the late Niel Tam. “The look,” as she calls it, represents individuality and a timeline of her personal history.
Most like her tattoos, she said, but some are critical of her distinctive look—an assemblage of stars each with differing portraits, including a vintage car, a mermaid, and a drawing of her mother as a cowgirl. Some people tell her, “ ‘You shouldn’t look like this, if you’re going to be on the school board.’ I’m like, why? I don’t understand, as long as you take your job seriously and are professional about it, it shouldn’t matter.”
Harris’ body art is also a way to express herself, she said, along with being a library of the memories associated with her tattoos.
It can also be advantageous for Harris in the typically staid world of school board politics. “People can be dismissive of women,” Harris said. “Why does Hillary Clinton have to wear those weird suits? Because she’s a female candidate, and if she just dresses like whatever, she wouldn’t have a chance. There’s this idea of how women should be, and I don’t think it’s true.” She believes her look can be intimidating to some. “If I wasn’t confident and didn’t have my own thing going on, I think it would be easy for some people to discount me. I use it to my advantage.”
Those who understand the local dynamics of Alameda politics know not to discount Harris and her extensive resumé. Few people have their political ducks in better order than Harris. It’s a background with ties to the local Democratic Party apparatus, Alameda Assemblymember Rob Bonta, and various powerful unions that make her formidable, not only as a school board candidate but also as a higher officeholder one day. On that matter, Harris said she is focused only on the school board and campaigning for re-election next year. Her appointment fills out the remaining year of Tam’s term.
But it’s not hard to extrapolate the fundraising power and access to campaign foot soldiers she could tap, thanks to a stint as Alameda Education Association union president and through leadership with the statewide California Teachers Association. For the past two years, Harris has also served as co-president of the Alameda Democratic Club. And there is another connection that rankles some of Alameda’s more moderate-to-conservative residents: Harris is also romantically connected to firebrand Alameda firefighter’s union president Jeff Del Bono. It’s a fact that anti-union voices derisively cite as Harris literally being in bed with the unions.
“She’s a member of the inner structure,” said David Howard, a well-known City Hall watcher and frequent critic of the firefighters’ union in Alameda. “They’re tightening the grip.” He believes Harris’ tenure will be viewed through the lens of her union ties, rather than any potential successors. The deadlocked school board vote that led to Harris’s appointment to the school board in July is a result of her ties to the inner sanctum of Alameda politics, Howard said. “The people on the board know. I believe she’s already being dogged by her close personal ties.”
It took several votes to ultimately break the 2-2 tie leading to her appointment. Was the decision stymied by the undercurrent of this uniquely Alameda proxy war between unions and conservatives? Harris said yes.
“I definitely think that was there,” she said, doubting, however, that it was the sole reason for the deadlocked vote. “We work fine together. I don’t know what that was about.”
“There are some people in Alameda that get nervous about those of us who speak on behalf of working families or workers,” she added. “There are some people out there saying a lot of, ‘That’s not the way it should be. It should be like this or like that.’ ” The backing of another school board applicant, Anne McKereghan, by the widow of Tam might have carried more weight with some school board members, said Harris, among them, School Trustee Gary Lym.
Lym was the lone vote against her appointment. In addition, Harris said she doesn’t understand the assertion made by some that she was any less experienced in working on school parcel tax campaigns than McKereghan. “Somehow they thought she was the parcel tax guru,” Harris said. “I worked on parcel taxes in Alameda and Santa Clara County as part of the union. ‘Why is that their impression?’ I thought. It seemed odd.”
The endorsement by Bonta for Harris’ appointment was expected due to their ties, but the backing of Alameda Mayor Trish Spencer strayed from the typical lines of demarcation in Alameda politics. Spencer supporters often oppose groups firmly in Harris’ corner, but the pair often saw common ground during Spencer’s time on the school board while Harris led the teacher’s union. “I think Trish knows that I’m not going to go along with everything the union wants,” Harris said. “I obviously have union values, but I’m not going to straight out say what they want, even if it makes no sense.”
Harris said she and Spencer often disagreed on issues at the school board, but, “She and I actually had a good working relationship.”
In addition to her time with the teacher’s union, Harris’ resumé is fortified with extensive classroom experience. She grew up in San Francisco and taught preschool before earning a degree from UC Berkeley. Later, she worked with emotionally disturbed youths in Walnut Creek before seeking a teaching credential from Mills College in Oakland. For the past 17 years, she has lived in Alameda and taught every elementary school grade except second, and she has been a teacher at the former Longfellow Elementary, Maya Lin School, and Otis Elementary. Her involvement with leadership of the teacher’s union followed, starting in 2011.
First and foremost, Harris said, the school district needs to focus on placing the crucial renewal of the Measure A parcel tax on the ballot in November 2016 and campaigning for its passage. “If we had to cut $12 million annually, that would be bad, even with additional money coming from the state,” she said. No specific ballot initiative exists yet, but it’s almost a certainty.
Meanwhile, the school district needs to allocate more money toward early childhood education and creating alternative career pathways for students outside of the currently college-ready focus, Gray said. The opportunity exists now, she said, for the school district to reinstate programs for training students for careers, not only in construction and law enforcement, but for instance, in other areas such as opening their own small businesses. Gray also wants to expand magnet programs in Alameda schools like those for art at Maya Lin and not cede the option exclusively to charter schools.
Advocating and making these changes to how Alameda students learn and are groomed for future careers are more easily attainable by taking the next step to public office, she said. “You realize as union president or an activist you can only do so much,” Harris said. “Sometimes you can’t do that by just being in the classroom. You can’t necessarily change the whole school district. You have to get inside of it to change it.”