Kingmaker Jeff Del Bono Hands Off His Scepter
The former president of the firefighters union, the person most responsible for Alameda’s progressive tilt, surrenders his post to Patrick Corder.
Photo by Paul Haggard
Perhaps no one in recent Alameda history has played politics with sharper elbows than Jeff Del Bono. But after a decade as president of the powerful Alameda firefighters union, Del Bono resigned his post last November to take a position in the fire department’s leadership. His departure ends one of the most successful reigns in the union’s history, one that not only strengthened the pay and working conditions for the union’s members, but also reframed the city’s politics into one of the most progressive in the East Bay.
As the former union president waited recently for his successor, 20-year-vet Patrick Corder, to arrive at a Park Street coffee shop, he said the change in leadership won’t change a bit. When Corder walked in, he immediately teased Del Bono in a baudy manner typical of firefighters. Del Bono didn’t respond, but smiled and pursed his lips, and pointed a thumb at Corder. “Look at this guy; already busting my balls.”
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
“Patrick is very principled, very honest, and that’s one of things you have to have here,” Del Bon said of his successor. “Knowing the trouble that I get in, I better be telling the truth or my credibility with this local is out the door. And that’s what we saw in Patrick.”
Although Corder is no pushover, Del Bono believes that he will be more approachable in the community. Del Bono said one of his own failures as president was his inability to avoid some conflicts. “Patrick is going to be different,” Del Bono said. “I’m pretty reactive. That’s part of who I am.”
Corder agrees. “I would like to think I’m critical in thought before I respond,” he said. “Why am I having an emotional response to what is being said and coming back with a reasonable response.”
Reactive or not, the Alameda firefighters union’s power and influence grew immeasurably during Del Bono’s watch. Its transformation from a typical labor union to a political powerhouse in the city was all part of his plan after firefighters suffered cuts to staff and fire stations during the Great Recession.
“In 2007, when they started to shut us down and lay off firefighters and come after us, that’s when I had the notion that we had to get political,” Del Bono said. “It wasn’t the same fight at City Hall. We were going to take our message to the streets.”
The union’s biggest political success was successfully supporting the rise of progressives on the council and mostly prevent conservative candidates from winning at the ballot box. Its one glaring setback, both Del Bono and Corder noted, was the election of Trish Herrera Spencer as mayor in 2014.
Del Bono said he and the firefighters did not pay enough attention to Spencer’s rise. “I knew immediately that it was going to be four years of not getting anything done,” Del Bono said. “That’s exactly what happened.”
Corder also lamented Spencer’s election — in classic Del Bono style. “She kind of ran an eighth-grade president’s campaign. The whole idea is you’re selling this concept of ‘More recess, free lunches, less homework,’” Corder said. “None of these you’re actually going to deliver on without having actual support to drive that with support from a council. Her voting record speaks for itself: ‘No. No. No. No.’ She literally set us back four years.”
But taking the long view, Spencer’s election was a mere blip on the union’s successful track record of supporting and electing progressive candidates. The party started in 2010, Del Bono said. “That was our first time running a down-deep, full-blown election. That’s where all the relationships started.” The three progressives elected that year with the help of the union — Rob Bonta, Marie Gilmore, and Lena Tam — paved the way for progressives in Alameda, Del Bono said. “Before them was a council with no diversity.”
Some paid dearly for their success. Bonta went on to the state Assembly, but Tam was caught up in the SunCal scandal involving Alameda Point, and Gilmore, who is black, was treated poorly. “Marie took the brunt of what I would call the last stand of conservatives groups in Alameda,” Del Bono said. But while progressives have held a council majority in recent years, it grew to a supermajority this year that is likely to result in a potential paradigm-shifting number of progressive policies over the next 18 months.
All this success is only going to ratchet up the vitriol toward the firefighters union from some conservative Alamedans. On facing criticism such as the claim that the firefighters are a major drain on the city’s finances, Corder said, “The easy part is the objective data does not support that assertion. In fact, the data shows it’s all categorically false. So, maybe figure out a different point to make or keep standing on your same points, but there not supported by any kind of facts.”
But criticism is part of the territory when it comes to being the head of a union, he said. “I think when you’re the head of any organization, you become the target of good and bad and I expect ultimately it will come to me in the same way. If you do it long enough you’re going to be a hero to some and a villain to others. There’s no in between for some people.”
Del Bono said he was planning to leave it all behind more than a year ago — just around the time that a scandal involving Alameda’s city manager and the search for a new fire chief exploded at City Hall.
“I wanted to get out of this fight a year ago,” he said. Del Bono approached Corder about taking over as union president, but chose instead to stay on while the investigation moved forward. He announced the change to membership last November, but kept it low-key.
“I approached him and told him, ‘Hey, man, I’m ready to hang this up,’ and then this whole bullshit broke out, which was not the time to make the change, so when that passed and we got this new council in place, I thought it was the right time,” said Del Bono. He later accepted his new role as deputy fire chief, happy to be moving into leadership from the department’s rank and file. “We’ve never been able to pull the leadership out of the ranks. I’ve sat around and talked about it, but now it’s put actions where your mouth is.”
But just months later, Del Bono, 44, suffered a major heart attack in March, which, in hindsight, he appeared to be foreshadowing. “The doctors told me I was lucky,” he said. Two stents and a bit of rest and relaxation followed, but Del Bono returned to work early. Firefighters have high rates of hypertension and cancer, he noted, and the health scare was a reminder of the risks firefighters take every day. “We sacrifice our bodies,” he noted a few months earlier. “That’s what we do. That’s why we have the pension and health benefits that we do. I’m not apologizing for it.”
Del Bono expects the union’s community engagement to grow under Corder. “I think you’re going to see us more engaged in this city and, I know people hate this word, but more influential in the community,” he said.
After all, Corder previously organized the union’s toy drive, worked in support of a 2016 rent control initiative, and helped oppose a measure that sought to block a senior wellness center in Alameda for the homeless. “If you look what we do now, we share our voice with other people in the community who do not have a voice, like the renters, the homeless, the elderly,” Del Bono said.
Corder, an Alameda renter, knows that he has big shoes to fill, but don’t expect much change in the direction of the union. “Jeff is like family to me,” he said. “These are people that you look up to, aspire to be like, and then lo and behold when you start doing the job, you become that person like a natural progression.”
Del Bono couldn’t resist chiming in. “Did you notice how he avoided saying something nice about me?” he said.