What I learned campaigning as the working class socialist candidate for Oakland mayor

I ran for mayor of Oakland as the “working class socialist candidate” in this election cycle. Along the way, I learned a lot and, I believe, set some examples for future similar candidates. I am writing this in the hopes that others can benefit from my experiences, including my mistakes.

Local Political Background
Oakland politics are dominated by the Democratic Party. This is unofficial, because all municipal candidates run on a non-partisan basis, but in fact that is who dominates the politics. This domination penetrates all the way down into the “left” here in Oakland. That left is composed of two forces: The NGO’s and the union bureaucracy. There are no significant left forces that aren’t tied in with them. For example, there was a group of single homeless mothers who had occupied a vacant house a few years ago. This became quite a cause celebre. Eventually, they were ousted but they formed a non-profit – one that was tied into the Democratic Party cabal.

The longstanding role of the NGO’s plus the union bureaucracy contributes to an extremely low level of political consciousness among all sectors of the working class and also the youth. I could give example after example of this. Added to this, and partly as a result, is the fact that, like almost everywhere else, what socialist left that does exist is also caught up in this world, and/or is extremely sectarian. Many long time socialist union activists, for example, wouldn’t touch my campaign with a stick because they have made their peace to some degree or another with the union bureaucracy, and I am known as one who opposed and actually organized against the bureaucracy every step of the way. Socialist Alternative has an active branch in Oakland but despite my reaching out to them, they ignored my campaign. DSA endorsed three liberal Democrats for mayor but wouldn’t have a thing to do with my campaign. One local socialist group – Freedom Socialist Party – did endorse my campaign, but they have few if any members in Oakland and are not really active in this city. Taken together, it really shows the disastrous situation in what is commonly known as the “left”, and as a result, my campaign was something of a one person band.

Political Crisis of US Capitalism: Twin Freight Trains
These facts were arguments against my running. What convinced me to run was this: In my view, we face a historic turning point in US society. As I put it in my campaign, there are two freight trains roaring down the tracks towards us. The first is the threat that the fascist-linked Republican Party take complete control of the federal government. They already control the Supreme Court and there is a likelihood that they will take control of at least one body of congress if not both in 2022 and, by hook or by crook, take control of the presidency in 2024.

The second freight train is the threat of runaway global warming.

Oakland is not in a bubble, and these two threatening disasters will overwhelm Oakland. In fact, they already are, such as in the homeless crisis. What I said was that history shows that all change comes from below, not from above. We need a “grass roots” working class movement – a mobilization of working class people – headed towards becoming an independent working class party with socialist principles. My position was that “any candidate who says that they can solve the problems of Oakland is either naïve or is hoping you are naïve.” My refrain, I think, captured my campaign: “I am not the vote-for-me-and-I’ll-set-you-free candidate; I am the working class socialist candidate for mayor of Oakland.”

Here are some articles on my blog that explain and report on my campaign.

Local Issue: The Howard Terminal Project

The Howard Street Terminal project. It will play a major role in further gentrifying Oakland. All the liberal Democrats support it, though.

My single “local” issue was opposition to the privatization of a large part of the Port of Oakland for a huge real estate development. This is involved in building a new ballpark for Oakland’s one remaining professional sports franchise, the Oakland A’s baseball team. It is known as the Howard Terminal Project and I have written and talked extensively about it. I was the only candidate opposed to it, which really shows the degree to which the real estate developers control the local Democratic Party. This project was strongly opposed by the bureaucracy of the ILWU because it will kill jobs for their members. Despite my being the only candidate who opposes the project, that bureaucracy would not give my campaign the time of day. They are more attached to the Democratic Party than they are to their members’ jobs!

I felt that any opportunity socialists have to sound the warning in this extreme emergency, we must do so. Also, I wanted to make an issue over the Howard Terminal project, whose significance is being largely swept under the rug. My reluctance to run for office, even at a low level of campaigning, was overcome by these considerations.

One detail should be understood: That is the peculiar nature of Oakland municipal elections: All such elections are “non-partisan” meaning that no party affiliation is mentioned on the ballot. (Unofficially, of course, nearly all candidates are Democrats.) Voting is “ranked choice”, meaning that the voter selects their first choice, down to their fifth choice (if there are that many candidates). If no candidate gets over 50% of first choice votes, then the number of second choice votes are added, then third choice, etc., until one candidate has over 50%. Also, it is extremely easy to get on the ballot. To run for mayor, all one need do is get ten or more “sponsors” whose names appear on the ballot plus 50 or more signatures of registered Oakland voters. The ease of getting on the ballot plus the fragmented nature of Oakland politics meant that there were 10 candidates for mayor.

All the candidates for Oakland mayor. Guess which one is the working class socialist candidate.

Public Forums
All official candidates get to participate in public forums organized by groups like the League of Women Voters and different community groups. But the fact that there were ten candidates meant that in these forums each candidate had one to three minutes to answer questions. So I had to learn to speak in 30 second sound bytes. With that understood, here were some of my experiences, including some mistakes I made (and learned from I hope):

The General and the Particular Issues
In these forums, the candidates are asked questions about homelessness, crime and violence, etc. In the first forum in which I participated, I kept repeating my general themes – those I explained above. Watching it afterwards, I realized I sounded like a stuck record. I just repeated the same theme over and over to the extent that I think listeners would have tuned the message out. So in the next forum, I went to the opposite extreme, dealing with the individual issues and never getting to the main themes. I should add that all of this is made much more difficult by the fact that the candidates only have about two minutes to answer the questions. I feel I did get a better balance as time went on.

Another issue was this: Listening to myself in these first few forums, I felt I had committed the worst sin of all: I was boring! The dynamics of this are as follows:

Friendly Atmosphere Equals Collaboration
First of all, consider the situation: All the candidates are standing around before the event starts. Many of them are very pleasant, friendly people. It’s only natural to tend to be friendly in return. Then there was this: I had originally decided to focus on my positions, rather than to attack those of the others. At this time, I was reading the memoir of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former “consigliare”. It made me think back to his debates in the Republican primaries of 2016. One thing you have to say about Trump was that he was not boring. He broke all the established informal rules, the codes of conduct. I realized I had to do the same, but of course making my political points.

What I realized was that the insistence of the League of Women Voters (a horrible group, by the way) on keeping this friendly, collegial atmosphere was just the attempt to reproduce on a personal level what used to go on at the political level nationally – collaboration between the Republicans and Democrats.

The Fascist Candidate

The fascist candidate Peter Liu. For some reason at this forum he chose to appear with his head completely wrapped in a bandanna.

One thing made breaking this friendly atmosphere both possible and necessary. We were told that these were forums, not debates, and that we must not attack other candidates by name. But one of the candidates – Peter Liu – is an outright fascist. He sent around all sorts of emails about “corrupt Jews” and “dirty Jews” running the country. But he never raised these views in the forums. So I decided to expose him. In this video that is what I did (towards the end). They shut off my mic as a result, but it was definitely right. In all the forums, I continually pointed out that I was the only candidate who denounced this fascist.

I also started attacking the other candidates more openly. This was around the Howard Terminal project plus their failure to take into account the general political and environmental dangers. I think all of this did tend to spice things up a bit.

The issue of violence and crime
Crime and violence are a huge issue in all the different ethnic/national/racial groups in Oakland. Hundreds of people, for example, have had the catalytic converter (the part on the exhaust pipe of a car used to reduce emissions) cut out and stolen. These cost up to $2500. Not only that, but we have had instances of a car owner confronting the person stealing the catalytic converter and being shot dead in broad daylight. This has given a base of support to the most right wing establishment candidate, Ignacio de la Fuente. De la Fuente
had been on the city council years ago and was the most pro-corporate and pro-landlord council member. Then he retired and now he has been brought back by the coal industry, which wants to establish a terminal for the export of coal in Oakland. De la Fuente does not talk about that, of course, but he talks a lot about both homelessness and also crime and violence. He also takes the Trump position on global warming – any measures to mitigate it will cost jobs. He also advocates trickle down economics. Again, I was the only candidate to explicitly denounce him and call him out on who his backers are.

On the issue of crime and violence, I raised several points: One is that part of the cause is poverty. I called for a $28/hour minimum wage. I also explained that we live in an increasingly violent society, partly caused by Trump, and that will inevitably be expressed in its own way here in Oakland. My position was that we need a working class movement to change our conditions, and that will bring people together. Instead of increasing funding for the police – which I labeled as a step towards “Fortress Oakland” and “Fortress America” – I called for the city to finance democratically elected local neighborhood committees of public safety.

Overall, I think I took the right approach, especially bearing in mind that I generally had two minutes to get these explanations in.

Speaking on Homelessness
I think that my most successful forum was one on homelessness. That was partly because I think I had learned from past experience and also because only four candidates showed up – myself plus the three liberal candidates. Here is my video of that forum. I do think I made one mistake in that forum: All the other candidates are, in effect, conservative “law and order” and “kick the homeless out of Oakland” candidates. That is why they didn’t show up at that forum. I should have attacked them even harder, even though they weren’t there. What I should have said was something like this: “Those candidates who aren’t here – we know who they are – aren’t here because they know their position will not be well received here. Their position is to blame capitalism’s most outcast layer. What they are advocating to a society based on the most cruel and heartless principles. We should seriously think about where that is headed. However, while the candidates who are here tonight don’t advocate this, the problem is that they have no real answers to the homeless crisis. We see that for one by their support for the Howard Terminal project. The end result is that their failures will inevitably lead to a rise in support for the politics the candidates missing tonight represent.” (Bear in mind that in all other forums I only and about two minutes to speak, so this sort of explanation would have been nearly impossible.)

Challenging the Audience

The Catholic Church audience. They were too polite to boo me, but they weren’t exactly receptive to my positions.

One final point: I spoke to audiences that were in general not very friendly. My last forum was at one organized by a (somewhat liberal) Catholic Church. The audience was not overtly hostile to me, but you could see they didn’t like my message at all. I am certain that they were entirely into their careers and their businesses. They weren’t Trump supporters and were too polite to boo me, but my message went over like a lead balloon. So I decided that I would speak simply for the audience that would watch my video later. What I should have done was challenge them a bit more. I should have said something like this: “In the 1960s, a whole layer of German youth turned to their parents and grandparents and said, ‘what were you doing back when Hitler was coming to power and was in power? What did you do to stop him?’ And in 20 or 30 years from now, the way things are going, our children and grandchildren – yours and mine – will be facing a hot, dry desolate planet, one run by political forces that make Trump look like a deep thinking humanitarian. And our children and grandchildren will turn to us and ask the same question: ‘What did you do to stop this?’ What answer will you give them?”

This plus other experiences lead me to emphasize the necessity of being very nimble on our feet. We need to consciously sum up the real, actual situation and respond accordingly.

This is written before the election and I have no idea how many votes I will get, but everything considered, that is really secondary. I hope that others in the future will run similar campaigns but with an organized, independent working class and socialist base that will enable a higher profile to their campaigns. And I hope that they will benefit from my experiences, including the mistakes I feel I made.



5 replies »

  1. John, VERY GOOD and VERY VALUABLE. I have always thought that participation in elections is an extremely important part of radical organizing — I think one way to avoid sounding like you’re giving a pre-created speech every time you answer a question is to REALLY LISTEN to the question and make sure the answer IN SOME WAY responds to the question. TOO MANY CANDIDATES (on all sides) don’t even TRY to answer the question and most watchers/listeners CAN TELL THAT IMMEDIATELY. I think you should do this kind of activity as long as you can stand it —

    AND _- fighting for ranked choice voting is a GREAT WAY to increase the possibilities for “our side”

    SOLIDAIRITY — Mike Meeropol (79 year old long time radical — and red diaper baby as well!)

    • Thanks for your comment, Mike. On one issue: Actually, I think what we have to do sometimes is answer the question we WISH we’d been asked. In my case, for example, they almost never asked about the Howard Terminal, so I had to drag it in by the hair sometimes. Also, I more and more focused on criticizing the other candidates in addition to putting my own comments. Finally, if you listen to my video from the homeless forum, you will see that I didn’t really answer the questions but I thought what I said was pretty effective.

  2. Good work John!, maybe try to do both: as Michael recommends say something briefly that indicates direct response to question/topic but then go on to the priority of your message.

  3. Thanks for running, John, and I think your self-critique is a valuable one. Hopefully you will either run again or another socialist candidate will come forward.

    We’ll see how many votes you get, but I can tell you that your strong anti-Liu stance won over my liberal Democratic spouse!

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m glad that I won your wife over with my attacks on Liu. At the moment, it looks like Loren Taylor may win the election. It is incredible that the next mayor is on record as saying that Liu’s ideas are “interesting”. Nor should we allow people to forget that. As for running again, two years is a long time from now and lots of things can happen.

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