Aimee Allison campaign takes Oakland Greens to new level
By Mike Feinstein
Green Party of California
If the Green Party is going to become a significant player in U.S. politics,
its ability to win urban, multicultural seats is one of the key political tests
it must pass. The recent Oakland District Two City Council campaign of Aimee
Allison gives much hope for just that.
|Aimee Allison and instant-runoff voting make the
marquee in Oakland at the Grand Lake theater.
Courtesy Neighbors for Aimee Allison
Allison's race--and the opportunity to succeed in it--came about
unexpectedly, as did her own entry as a Green, when incumbent Democrat Danny Wan
resigned in January and a May 17 special election was called. Almost immediately
afterwards, Wan's chief staff aide, Patricia Kernighan, announced her intention
to run for the seat, and Mayor Jerry Brown and the local Democratic
establishment quickly got behind her.
Enter Allison, 35, an African-American activist and Stanford graduate who made
national news in 1991 when, as a medic in an Army Reserve unit that was
redeployed to Saudi Arabia, she took a public stand against the Persian Gulf War
and forced the Army to award her an honorable discharge as a conscientious
With her political affiliation registered as "decline-to-state" when
the special election was called, Allison met with a number of Oakland
progressive community leaders who were searching for a candidate they could
support, amidst the increasingly disappointing performance of Mayor Brown and
his local Democratic machine.
One of those leaders was Wilson Riles, Jr., a long-time African-American
community leader who had run against Brown for mayor in 2002, and who had
earlier served three terms on the Oakland City Council. A lifelong Democrat out
of the progressive (former Congressmember Ron Dellums) camp, Riles publicly
switched his registration to Green after that campaign, in part as a result of
the level of Green support he'd had, as well as the sweat equity that Oakland
Greens had earned for progressive causes over the years. Now it was his turn to
convince Allison, which he and other progressive leaders did.
Oakland's District Two represents the Grand Lake area, along with the Eastlake,
San Antonio, and Chinatown neighborhoods. The district's diversity is reflected
by streets with beautifully restored Victorians and California bungalows,
located near run-down apartment buildings and street crime.
In the 1990s, the district was intentionally realigned as an Asian district,
putting Chinatown together with Vietnamese and Southeast Asian neighborhoods.
More recently District Two has been characterized as "lavender"
because of the number of gays and lesbians that have moved into neighborhoods
near Park Boulevard and Lakeshore and Grand Avenues.
Out of 27,000 registered voters in District Two, approximately 800 are
registered Green. Many others are progressive and share Green values. Allison's
campaign sought to reach those voters, irrespective of their party affiliation.
"It's much easier to get them to vote for Aimee than it is to get them to
change their registration to Green," said Ray Tobey, one of Allison's
campaign staffers. "Let's get them to vote for Aimee first. If they're led
for the next two years by a Green sitting on their city council, they'll change
their minds about the Green Party."
An exceptional and articulate orator with a winning smile, athletic figure
and energetic manner, Allison campaigned on four main issues: increased revenue
sharing by Oakland's port with the city, promoting affordable housing and
tenants' rights, regaining control of the public schools and increasing school
programs, and limiting recruitment on local high school campuses.
Unlike the West Coast's other major ports, Seattle and Long Beach/Los Angeles,
Oakland receives little revenue from its port. Allison argued that, from a
regional economic development perspective, the port is a resource and should be
treated as such, especially since Oakland's mayor appoints the port's board of
directors. Increased revenue, she advocated, could be used to fund schools and
needed social programs. Even the port's International Longshore and Warehouse
Union Local 10 supported this kind of independent thinking, backing a Green for
the first time ever when they voted to endorse Allison.
On housing, in contrast to Mayor Brown's attempts to gentrify downtown Oakland
through the introduction of high-end condominiums, Allison argued for
inclusionary, affordable housing policies and strengthening rent control. Two
years earlier, local tenants had won a huge victory with the passage of a ballot
measure called "Just Cause Eviction." This time, both Just Cause
Oakland! and the Oakland Tenants' Union endorsed Allison.
With Oakland's school system in disarray, the Oakland Teachers' Association also
endorsed Allison, pointing to her support of the union's efforts to stop school
closures and improve teachers' benefits. Said one union leader, Allison "is
the independent voice we need in city government to help us fight Schwarz-enegger's
attempts to dismantle public education in Oakland."
With nine candidates in the race, getting media coverage was challenging. But
the campaign made headway, emphasizing Allison's personal experience as a war
resister and conscientious objector. This served to reinforce the perception of
her integrity, strength of character and the passion of her convictions to
district voters, bolstering her credibility in the process. According to the
campaign media coordinator, Forrest Hill, "Our good press was the result of
this emphasis, combined with frequent, well-written press releases and op-eds
and letters to the editor to several Bay Area newspapers from Allison and
The election itself was conducted entirely by postal mail, with voting
commencing 30 days prior to the official May 17 election date. But although
Oakland voters passed a charter amendment in 2000 to fill city council vacancies
that allows the use of instant-runoff voting (IRV) "to the greatest extent
feasible," the city council did not vote to use it for District Two.
In opposing IRV, some councilmembers said it would be "too difficult for
immigrant voters to understand." This drew a quick response from Green Matt
Gonzalez, former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who had
endorsed Allison and had helped bring IRV to San Francisco. "I think it's
condescending to say that foreign-born people are incapable of ranking their
Oakland also faced a technical problem (as do nearby Berkeley and San Leandro,
which have also adopted IRV for local elections). Alameda County voting machines
are not programmed to use IRV, and Diebold, the manufacturer, has not been
willing to write the needed new code, even though it is not a technically
As a result, the election was held without IRV, or even a traditional two
candidate run-off, meaning the winner could likely end up with 30 percent of the
vote or less. This made it even more challenging for Allison, because the number
of left-leaning candidates meant that the share of the vote would be spread
By Election Day, the campaign had grown dramatically and claimed more than three
hundred volunteers. Allison led the way, spending more than 200 hours walking
precincts herself in the district. The campaign also raised $30,000 from small
donations, enough to hire staff and produce attractive literature, signs and
targeted direct mail.
When the final results came in, Allison finished fourth with 14.2 percent of the
vote. This was impressive because it came not only amidst the split of the left
vote in the absence of IRV, but also because Allison's campaign grew and peaked
at the end, after many voters had already cast their ballots in the month-long
voting period. Kernighan won, but received only 28.8 percent, meaning she'll
face re-election in June 2006 with the knowledge that over 70 percent of voters
did not vote for her, despite the fact that she greatly outspent all
competitors, including more than three times as much as Allison's campaign
Keeping her options open for 2006, Allison has indicated that this special
election may have been the first but not the last time she will run. Observed
Hill, "This was a historic campaign. We took a candidate that was mostly
known only among activists and in a few months made her a household name in the
community. People are now asking Aimee to come to city council meetings and
speak on behalf of their issues. When someone offers something historically
different, it takes time. But time is on our side. We are all excited about 2006
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