A Blue Wave Swept Across the Island

In November, a progressive supermajority led by new councilmember John Knox White and new mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft sailed into in City Hall.


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Photo of John Knox White by Lance Yamamoto

A big blue wave swept across the Island in November, carrying progressives to victory in the city’s elections. Alameda now has its most progressive leadership in city history. New Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft is much more liberal than her one-term predecessor, Trish Herrera Spencer. And former Councilmember Frank Matarrese, a moderate who gave up his seat to run for mayor but came in third place, has been replaced on the council by former Alameda Planning Board member John Knox White, who is perhaps the most progressive councilmember Alameda has ever had.

Former councilmember Tony Daysog, another moderate, also won a seat on the council on Nov. 6, but City Hall observers expect that during the next four years, he’ll to be on the losing end of lots of 4-1 votes, with the council’s new progressive supermajority — Ashcraft and Knox White and Councilmembers Malia Vella and Jim Oddie — firmly in control.

Knox White scored an impressive victory on Nov. 6, grabbing the most votes in the council race, and he’s now the vice mayor, based on his winning performance. He credits his victory in part to his commitment on the campaign trail to seeking out differing points of view. “I talked to Republicans. I said, ‘I’m a Democrat. Here’s why you should vote for me.’ They listened and said, ‘You got my vote.’ At the end of the day, we all want to be heard,” he said. “I want to listen to people’s opinion. In that way, I think I was able to connect to a lot of groups.”

Knox White’s campaign was fueled by a large number of small donors who live on the Island, and he appears to have benefited greatly from Alameda’s changing demographics. The closing of the Alameda Naval Air Station, followed by the shift in the Island’s population, with more people of color and younger residents moving in, has altered the city’s political dynamics for the foreseeable future, he said. “With this type of change, it’s not surprising there’s conflict in our local politics,” he added. “That’s why it’s so nasty. But I hope we can begin to chill things out.”

In nearly every election contest, the progressive candidate and cause won in Alameda. “You can look at this election and the values espoused … and say they represent the Alameda electorate,” said Knox White.

Ashcraft also rode the blue wave — and she shrewdly took advantage of it by going on the offensive against Spencer, unleashing a series of scathing, albeit factually accurate, mailers that highlighted Spencer’s numerous missteps and portrayed her record of votes over the past four years as being outside the mainstream of Alameda’s new electorate.

Spencer, by contrast, appeared to be overconfident in her reelection chances and ran a lackluster campaign that failed to gain traction. In fact, as Ashcraft’s mailers were hitting Island mailboxes, Spencer was traveling to China on a nonessential Sister Cities event. As a result, Spencer was out of town for the most crucial period of the campaign.  

Ashcraft said she was initially apprehensive about sending the negative mailers for fear that the effort could backfire with voters. “There’s a fine line, but I felt like most of the public didn’t know about what was going on at City Hall,” she said.

Doug Linney, the longtime East Bay political consultant who steered Ashcraft’s winning effort, said he didn’t find out about Spencer’s foreign trip until after the fact. “It was one more misstep by the mayor,” he said. “In a town like Alameda, word gets around. That mailer happened to land at the right time. But I don’t know what she could have done.”

The mailers referenced articles in Alameda Magazine and the East Bay Express that detailed Spencer’s improper meddling at City Hall involving her husband’s DUI arrest and their recent check-cashing scandal, but it may have been the mailers’ trumpeting of Spencer’s own recent council votes that inflicted the most damage.

Within a few months of Election Day, Spencer voted against raising the city’s minimum wage and creating workforce housing for teachers. “When I saw these votes, I said to myself, ‘Oh, she’s on the wrong side,’” said Linney, an Island resident and member of the East Bay MUD board. “We’re a liberal city and more liberal than most people think we are. These were significant votes where she’s on the wrong side of the issue.”

Linney and others argued that Spencer also may have been hurt by the fact that she allowed herself to be prominently featured on mailings from the Yes on Measure K campaign, a pro-landlord ballot measure that Alameda voters soundly rejected. In the end, Ashcraft defeated Spencer, 41.96 percent to 37.45 percent.

Oddie, meanwhile, was propelled to victory by Ashcraft’s win. Her defeat of Spencer opened up a third seat on the council, which Oddie grabbed with his third-place finish behind Knox White and Daysog. Oddie, however, appears to have been impacted by the fire chief-hiring scandal involving former City Manager Jill Keimach. Keimach and others had accused Oddie and Vella of improperly interfering in the hiring of the fire chief, and an independent investigator faulted Oddie for using official city letterhead on a missive to Keimach recommending a particular candidate for the job. But Oddie doesn’t believe the scandal affected the election as much as others think. “There were four people who actually brought up the issue,” said Oddie, referring to the people he spoke to on the campaign. “I don’t think that was an issue most were concerned about.”

But Daysog, who ran on a platform of cleaning up City Hall, is positive that Oddie’s involvement in the scandal was on the minds of voters. “I think you had to have a message that is somewhat salient and I do believe — saying this in the most neutral possible way — the difficulty Jim had in terms of votes is because my message of reforming City Hall is in touch with common Alamedans,” said Daysog, who had deftly focused on the instability at City Hall from the start of his campaign.

The results of the Measure K campaign also signaled a shift to the portside of Alameda’s politics. Landlord groups strongly backed the measure, which sought to enshrine Alameda’s weak rent-stabilization law into the city charter, while tenants groups were joined by the council’s new supermajority in opposing it. It lost 39.69 percent to 60.31 percent.

The Alameda Renters Coalition credited the victory over Measure K to the fact that it learned much from the drubbing it took two years ago when voters rejected a ballot measure that sought to establish strict rent control in Alameda, said Catherine Pauling, a longtime member of the group. In 2016, the ARC had largely focused on outreach in Alameda’s West End where there are more renters, but this time they also canvassed the East End and homeowners. What they found was that business owners who live there have increasingly been facing rising commercial rents that threatened their livelihoods and that housing prices were spiraling out of control. “There was growing compassion and recognition of understanding about how fast the housing crisis would get worse,” said Pauling.

Still, a month before the election, polling showed that Measure K was leading, possibly fueled by the massive number of mailers financed by landlords supporting the initiative. But a late push of door-to-door canvassing and voter outreach powered the renters’ comeback.

It also didn’t hurt that candidates who were also successful at the ballot box — Ashcraft, Knox White, Oddie, and Mia Bonta (the top vote-getter for Alameda school board and the entire election) — all campaigned against Measure K. “If you combine it all together and the national environment, you produce the turnout that we had,” Oddie said.

Alamedans were extremely energized in the election, and turnout soared. More than 70 percent of all registered voters in Alameda cast a ballot in November, according to Mike McMahon, a former Alameda school board member who has followed the intricacies of the city’s elections for years. (A definitive breakdown of the city’s results were not released by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters before this story went to press.)

It was a far cry from four years ago, when extremely low turnout aided Spencer’s narrow upset over incumbent Mayor Marie Gilmore. In 2014, there was no high-profile race at the top of the ticket and no local ballot measures, said McMahon. “It was a perfect storm of apathy.”

In 2018, 31,598 Alameda voters cast ballots in the mayor’s race — 51 percent more than in 2014, when only 20,923 votes were cast.

The new Alameda City Council will have an agenda stocked with immediate weighty matters. First and foremost: hiring a new city manager and city attorney. The council also must deal with budget issues and development proposals on the Island.

Knox White also believes that changes to the city charter need to come sooner rather than later. He has already floated an ambitious proposal to amend a charter provision on councilmembers’ pay that has not been updated since the 1920s, and he may push to change the structure of city government so that the role of the mayor rotates every year among the councilmembers, while making the city auditor and city treasurer appointed positions.

Those proposals are likely to generate acrimony, but a new tone at City Hall is in order, said Ashcraft, who hopes for what she calls “a return to civility.”

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