Google Desley Brooks—I dare you.
The four term city council incumbent has served Oakland’s District 6 for nearly 16 years, and in that time Brooks has made herself known as a fighter, leaving those challenging her re-election feeling sore. A quick search for Brooks will reveal the dimensions of a candidate whose passion for progressive legislation and proposals have placed her in favor of some voters, but whose methods and strategies are at best considered unsustainable and at worst unethical.
That is where Mills College comes in—not only as an institution within the boundaries of District 6, containing a reservoir of potential voters within its student body but also serving as host for the public debate between Brooks and her four challengers: Natasha Middleton, Marlo Rodriguez, Loren Taylor and Mya Whitaker. The debate on Oct. 3 was located in the Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business and Public Policy (GSB) in conference room 101.
The debate began at 7 p.m., but by 6:40 p.m. the room had already began to swell with students and constituents, who were soon left to sit and stand along the perimeters, resulting in the addition of an extra row of chairs to accommodate the apparent overflow of attendees.
Mills College President Elizabeth L. Hillman moderated the debate and presented the structure as such: candidate and platform introductions (two minutes), answer six prepared questions from public policy students (two minutes), answer audience questions, and then give closing statements (two minutes). This of course did not happen as planned, as the debate progressed candidates gradually had their time shaved down to half that.
As fate would have it, Desley Brooks was the only candidate who was not present for the debate.
Brooks’ political paper trail of scandals range from but are not limited to the serial violation of campaign disclosure rules, verbal abuse to her staff and the 2015 physical assault of Ex-Black Panther Elaine Brown—which according to multiple news outlets was in regards to a housing policy dispute and resulted in the loss of $2.2 million to the city of Oakland. All things considered, the current race to fill the District 6 city counsel chair will be anything but predictable, as current Mayor Libby Schaaf has given her endorsement to Loren Taylor and Natasha Middleton.
In her place stood Toni Cook, campaign organizer and former District 6 Oakland Unified School District trustee, who notified the public that Desley’s sister Darlene was recovering from brain surgery. Cook added that she “didn’t want you [the public] all to think Desley blew you off or that you were not important.”
Following that statement, Cook disclosed that she is representing Brooks but “does not speak for Desley because she speaks too well for herself to be spoken for.” The caveat being that Cook could not account for specifics in Brooks’ policy goals, nor comment on matters that strayed from Brooks’ publicly available campaign and platform information.
That being said, this did not help alleviate the weight of the proverbial elephant in the room. Candidates took this public opportunity in each of their introductions to distinguish themselves as cooperative, and solution orientated while alluding to Brooks’ record of provoking hostility within the council chambers and towards political opponents.
Candidate Loren Taylor, community, business, non-profit leader and third generation Oaklander, expressed his motivation to partner with private and public interests to solve issues such as affordable housing, increase local small businesses and public safety efforts.
Taylor introduced himself first in Spanish, and closed his opening statement in direct opposition to Brooks’ by concluding “in exchange for our taxes and our vote, we get illegal dumping, homelessness, vacant storefronts; we get poor performing schools, the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city and to add insult to injury, we are paying $2.2 million in taxes because our current councilwoman got into a physical altercation with a 72-year-old civil rights activist—that is not acceptable. We must do better.”
The incumbent advantage is riddled with multiple variables such as name recognition, access to financial campaign resources, a working history with constituents and organization groups, as well as the invaluable familiarity of having experience.
It is for these reasons that each candidate faces their own particular uphill battle in disrupting the political establishment and breaking through the thick roster of competition, because each candidate offers their own particular progressive perspective on how to address the issues facing District 6.
The youngest front runner, Mya Whittaker, is the only candidate from District 6 whose experience in the community informs her work as a program director for the Bay Area Urban Debate League, for middle school aged youth in District 6, as well as working as a residential relief counselor for Sunny Hills Services.
Whitaker openly acknowledged that she worked two jobs to meet the rising rent increases, and knows that the economic disparities affecting Oakland are widespread. She wants to challenge that through promoting financial literacy services in District 6 and developing access to 21st century wages for the local economy.
Marlo Rodriguez is a first generation Filipino American who has worked as a registered nurse for 27 years. Rodriguez is an out advocate for the LGBT community and prides herself on her experience of service to others. Rodriguez recognizes that in order to develop progress in District 6, there needs to be greater collaboration across District Council people.
Rodriguez demonstrated this skill of service in real time, when she echoed previous circulated articles by The Grio and The New York Times in response to a question asking how they would advance local employment opportunity. Rodriguez argued for additional STEM programs in public schools that would give local youth a foundation for 21st century skills needed for the booming tech industry. As she proceeded to make her case, she repeated the inaccurate comparison between CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Trayvon Martin, which quickly received audible rancor from the audience. An audience member said “what you said was offensive,” to which Rodriguez responded, “I’m sorry, that was not my intent.”
Finally, Mills Alum Natasha Middleton, a graduate of the public policy MBA program, holds experience working with Mayor Libby Schaaf as a policy analyst and constituent liaison. Middleton emphasized the importance of a change in leadership in order to create a more united front for District 6 and Oakland as a whole.
She made this clear when she said, “It’s very important to work together regardless of personalities,” to which Cooks interrupted by saying, “it’s not about personalities, it’s about realities.”
The difficult fact of the matter is that each contending candidate holds distinct strengths that could benefit District 6. Each candidate’s platform on some variation calls for: access to affordable housing and mitigating homelessness, job creation and job training to boost local economy, and public safety concerns ranging from illegal dumping, gun violence to sex trafficking.
It is not the shortage of ideas and leaders that District 6 has, but perhaps it is the abundance that will make this race an even more difficult feat to undertake.