by Julia Sulek. Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News
OAKLAND — When Joe Biden’s vice presidential search committee met with a who’s who of California Democrats on a Zoom call late last month, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf used up every second of her turn to make an urgent pitch for Kamala Harris, a self-described proud “daughter of Oakland, California.”
Schaaf has known the U.S. senator since they were both barely 30 years old and extolled her virtues as a fierce advocate for Oakland’s progressive values.
But Oaklanders know that Harris won’t be the only one in the spotlight if she’s who Biden chooses to join the Democratic ticket for the White House. The city of Oakland itself, which has been vilified by President Donald Trump as a miasma of urban horrors, will surely be in the crosshairs too.
The reaction in Oakland? Bring it on.
“We have a strong history in Oakland for standing up to being bullied,” said Tracy Rosenberg, an Oakland activist and executive director of Media Alliance, a social justice activist organization. “That will continue.”
Case in point: When Trump said in a Fox News interview in June that cities like Oakland and Detroit are “like living in hell,” Schaaf quickly retorted on Twitter, “Hell is another four years of this racist in the White House.”
Alrighty then! Is Oakland ready for another three months of this?
Harris has emerged as a presumptive finalist with Biden poised to name his running mate any day now ahead of the Democratic National Convention, which begins Aug. 17 in Milwaukee.
The freshman U.S. senator and former presidential candidate seemed briefly doomed when Politico reported July 27 that former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, a key member of Biden’s search committee, was concerned that Harris “had no remorse” for attacking Biden during a contentious June 2019 debate. “I know you’re not a racist,” Harris said at the start of the tense exchange, before dressing him down for his opposition in the 1970s to a federal school busing program and for giving a pass to segregationist senators.
But Biden said this week that he holds no grudges and Harris is “very much in contention.” Fellow Californian Karen Bass, a Los Angeles congresswoman, and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice are also in the mix.
Harris, 55, was born at Kaiser Permanente hospital in Oakland to immigrant parents — an Indian mother and Jamaican father — who met at grad school at UC Berkeley.
She spent most of her early years in Berkeley, earned her law degree at Hastings and started her legal career at the Oakland courthouse as an Alameda County deputy district attorney.
Because she came to political prominence in San Francisco as district attorney, was twice elected as California attorney general in Sacramento and moved to Los Angeles when she married businessman Douglas Emhoff in 2014, some question her Oakland bonafides.
Nonetheless, Oakland is important to Harris. She launched her presidential campaign on the steps of City Hall in January 2019 and opened her hometown campaign office on Grand Avenue.
“What’s up Oakland!” she called out to a crowd of 20,000 people packed into Frank Ogawa Plaza for her opening announcement. After waiting for the chants of “Kamala! Kamala!” to quiet, she said, “Let me tell you, I am so proud to be a daughter of Oakland, California.”
Trump has needed little encouragement to target this East Bay city of 433,000. Since he was running for office in 2016, he has labeled it one of the “most dangerous” cities in the world, pilloried Mayor Schaaf for warning undocumented immigrants of impending ICE raids and threatened to dispatch federal troops to quell violence in a number of cities during this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Margaret Gordon, a West Oakland environmental activist, says she is no fan of Donald Trump. “But some of the stuff he’s saying is true. We do have a lot of problems here in Oakland,” she said. Instead of city leaders solving problems of crime, homelessness and gentrification that is forcing Black residents out of town, “we continuously let Trump find fault in this community.”
Despite its problems, however, Rosenberg of Media Alliance says that “Trump’s bogeyman is basically a stereotype.”
Although the influx of mostly white tech workers to Oakland has caused skyrocketing rents and forced out Black residents who can’t afford housing, the clear desirability of Oakland “is exactly the opposite of Trump’s characterizations.”
She sees Trump’s invectives, however, as far more sinister, and likely to gain steam if Harris becomes the nominee.
“What this could mean for Oakland is not just a high position in his tweet arsenal,” she said, “but it could potentially lead to more federal law enforcement attention on Oakland, which could be terrible.”
Oakland-based political consultant Jim Ross believes, however, that extra attention on Oakland might have its benefits. Although Trump’s characterization of Oakland as a bastion of violence and urban decay “might be serving up red meat to his base,” he said, American voters are proving to be sympathetic to Black Lives Matter protests and the cities most affected by pervasive racial inequities, like Oakland.
Besides, he said, for a city that just lost the Raiders to Las Vegas and the Warriors to San Francisco, renewed attention through a Harris nomination “will certainly raise the profile of Oakland at a time it could really use it.”
Just because Harris was born here, however, doesn’t mean she is everyone’s favored daughter. While she may be considered a progressive Democrat in other parts of the country, some locals don’t look kindly on her stints as a prosecutor and attorney general — especially Bernie Sanders supporters like Alan Michaan.
Michaan has owned or operated the Grand Lake Theater for 40 years and for the last 20 has been putting up political messages on his marquee. His latest? “Coming Soon Double Bill: The Death of Coronavirus Plus the End of Donald Trump.” He hopes Harris’s contention for the vice-presidential nomination might also come to an end.
Not Mayor Schaaf, who couldn’t contain herself raving about Harris during the Zoom call with the search committee in late July.
“Her public persona is such a fighter, her ability to cross-examine someone, to dig for the truth and lift it into the public eye,” Schaaf said. “That is her signature. But people don’t see how incredibly kind she is as a human being. That was the story I wanted to tell.”
Harris was one of the first to call Schaaf recently “to see how me and my family were doing” after protesters vandalized her house and spray-painted messages to defund the police.
The vandalism doesn’t quite help Oakland’s reputation. But as Schaaf puts it, “I don’t think it’s possible to abuse Oakland’s reputation any more than the conservative press and the president already have.”
She’s ready for a new administration.
“There are many things that I find disgusting about how this president speaks in general and specifically about Oakland,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it is designed to divide our country and I believe a Biden-Harris ticket has the best chance to be fierce and aggressive around change in a way that will start to unite us.”