Three Democrats face off in race for Oakland seat

The last time Sandre Swanson ran for office was 20 years ago, when he made
his second bid for the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. Swanson, then
chief of staff to former Rep. Ron Dellums, lost to an energetic political
activist and teacher from Alameda named Don Perata.

Today, Swanson–recently retired after three decades as a top aide to Dellums
and later another Oakland liberal, Rep. Barbara Lee–is one of three
Democrats running to replace termed-out Wilma Chan in the left-leaning
Assembly District 16.

The 16th district, which includes Alameda, Piedmont and nearly all of
Oakland, is the same seat former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris fumbled in his
surprise 1999 loss to Green Party candidate Audie Bock. The seat has been at
the top of the California State Legislative Black Caucus’ (CLBC) priority
list ever since.

Swanson is trying to become the first African-American since Lee to
represent the district. But to do so, he’ll have to overcome two Democratic
rivals with their own impressive political connections.

Ronnie Gail Caplane, 57, is the widow of legendary Democratic campaign
attorney Joe Remcho, who represented Gray Davis, Willie Brown and others
until his death in a 2003 helicopter crash.

Oakland City Attorney John Russo, 47, is a former president of the League of
California Cities, whose campaign-finance reports are full of the names of
elected officials from around the state.

Swanson, 57, boasts the support of Dellums, Lee and another key backer: his
former rival Perata. The consolation prize in that 1986 supervisorial race,
Swanson jokes, was a generous federal pension from his years with
Dellums–and a lesson in the defeat.

“Don Perata outworked me,” Swanson says of that race. “So I don’t think
anyone is going to outwork me this time.”

All three candidates have similar stances, resumes brimming with experience,
and plenty of campaign cash in a contest that looks wide open. Local
political consultants say that means the race likely will boil down to who
runs the best grassroots game.

Swanson has key endorsements from dozens of state- and-local elected
officials, plus the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. He also has
union backers like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the
California Nurses Association (CNA), and the Central Labor Council of
Alameda County, which will bring out the precinct-walkers and phone-bankers
crucial in a Democratic primary.

While Swanson has several advantages, he stumbles when asked about details
of current Sacramento issues. In a telephone interview, Swanson said he was
unfamiliar with some aspects of the governor’s failed infrastructure-bond
plan and the state’s structural deficit.

“I don’t know all the nuances involved in the discussion of the bonds,” he

Another factor in the race is that it may be overshadowed by Dellums, who is
running for mayor in Oakland.

Swanson consultant Cliff Staton says Dellums “will bring out thousands of
occasional voters who typically don’t show up for a Democratic primary, and
these Dellums voters are likely to be Swanson voters.”

Larry Tramutola, a veteran East Bay political consultant and former adviser
to Russo, disagrees. “Nobody has coattails in a local race,” he says.

Swanson, if elected, would become the only African-American lawmaker from a
district north of Los Angeles and would boost the dwindling numbers of the
six-member CLBC.

With Mark Ridley-Thomas expected to move to the Senate and black candidates
lined up to fill both his seat and Jerome Horton’s, the caucus could reach
eight members in the next session if Swanson and Long Beach City
Councilwoman Laura Richardson both prevail.

Perata’s endorsement of Swanson over Russo, an old ally, was a surprise to
insiders, according to an October story in the East Bay Express, and was
meant to appease members of the CLBC.

Russo said he was never that close to Perata, who he suspects endorsed
Swanson because he was backing a Latino candidate, Oakland City Council
President Ignacio de la Fuente, over Dellums in the mayoral race. Perata did
not return calls.

Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, the CLBC chair, said he never talked to Perata
about his endorsement.

Dymally also said that the decline of black representation in the
Legislature makes the 16th one of two priority seats with black candidates
(the other is the 55th Assembly District in Long Beach where Richardson is
running against Warren Furutani).

A poll commissioned by the CLBC showed Swanson leading by a narrow margin,
Dymally said. The CLBC showed the poll to another black candidate, Clinton
Killian, and urged him to step aside for Swanson. “As a result, he dropped
out of the race,” Dymally said.

But outside of backroom dealings, racial politics don’t appear to be playing
much of a role so far in the district, where no demographic group has a
majority. Of the voting-age population, 31 percent is white, 28 percent
black, 19 percent Asian and 18 percent Latino, according to the California
Target Book.

Russo boasts the most name recognition. He made headlines last year by suing
Caltrans for not cleaning up trash along freeways and has used his post to
go after dozens of liquor stores for quality-of-life violations.

Russo was elected to the Oakland City Council in 1992 and 1996. He became
Oakland’s first elected city attorney in 2000 after Mayor Jerry Brown’s
strong-mayor initiative made the job an elected position. Russo, who was
unopposed for re-election in 2004, cannot run again because of term limits.
As a former city finance committee chair and League of California Cities
president, Russo has no problem explaining the complexities of state-
and-local government finance.

Lawmakers, he says, must perform more oversight. “Ever year you have
thousands of bills, way more than could ever get respective consideration,
and it’s like ‘I made this proposal to end death and stop rain and make
everybody pretty.’ It’s a travesty. What the Legislature should be doing is
much fewer bills and performing more oversight.”

All three candidates emphasize education. But Caplane, recently termed out
after eight years on the school board in the upscale enclave of Piedmont,
labels herself “the only candidate who has hands-on experience.”

Caplane works full-time as a member of the state Workers’ Compensation
Appeals Board in San Francisco. She was appointed to the post by Davis after
her husband’s death. It also was through her husband that she met her
best-known supporters: Rob Reiner and Delaine Eastin.

Also an attorney, she worked on maritime and aviation litigation at the U.S.
Justice Department and on civil litigation, including workers’ compensation,
in private practice. She gave it up after a decade of work to become a
full-time mom in 1985.

Caplane also emphasizes women’s issues. She cites Proposition 73, the state
ballot measure that would have required parental notification for abortion
had it passed last fall, as proof that women should make up more than just
31 of 120 state lawmakers.

“This is not a good time for women,” she says, pointing out that parental
notification failed by the smallest margin out of all eight measures on last
year’s ballot. “That initiative was very dangerous for several reasons, one
of which was that it was an attempt to chip away at a woman’s right to

Accordingly, Caplane also is using her whole name–Ronnie Gail Caplane–just
to avoid any gender ambiguities. “That,” she chuckles, “is something I
learned from Dion Louise Aroner,” the former Berkeley assemblywoman.
Also running is a fourth Democrat, Alameda City Councilman Tony Daysog, 40.
But Daysog, who would be the state’s first Filipino lawmaker if electe
hasn’t raised any money and isn’t considered a viable candidate. He didn’t
return calls.

No Republicans have filed to run in the district, where GOP voters are
outnumbered 6-to1 by Democrats.

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