ELECTION ‘12//SAN LEANDRO CITY COUNCIL//DIST 4 | Justin Hutchison saw an empty crushed cereal box on his street. Its cardboard pitted from repeated steps and rolling tire wheels. As his wife and children continued their walk to Clancy’s, the venerable San Leandro ice cream parlor on Manor Boulevard, he saw beer bottles strewn next to the curb here and cigarette boxes thrown there. “Where do I live?” Hutchison recalled. “This is ridiculous.” And the list of “whys” that typically leads almost every budding politician to the grand epiphany to run for public office, hit Hutchison hard.

Why would anybody buy a house in this neighborhood?
Why don’t we care for our surroundings?
Why isn’t the city cleaning up this mess?

“I hit my boiling point,” said Hutchison. “If I can get on the ballot and win, maybe I can take care of some of those things.”

If all politics is local, then Hutchison, 34, married, three young children and still living in the house he grew up in the quiet Washington Manor neighborhood of San Leandro, is its poster boy. In fact, he’s really just a normal guy trying to do good by his hometown. After having his first child at 19, Hutchison said he lived in different parts of the city before taking over his father’s mortgage near Manor middle school. “My son is in my room and I’m in my dad’s room,” he added. His mother, grandmother, aunt and sister also still live in the area.

“I’m just a family man raising a family here in San Leandro and I’m not going anywhere soon,” he says. “My kids are going to school here. I’m going to be coaching at these fields for years. I have a long-term vested interest in making it a safe, vibrant place.” He even has a little hypoallergenic dog, a Bichon Frise, he sheepishly added, before the thought crept across his face such a disclosure might seem less than manly. “I don’t know,” he added with a wide grin and a slight shrug. “It’s my wife’s dog. She wanted it.”

Hutchison’s connection to the community in District 4 where he is attempting to grab the open seat on the San Leandro City Council against Benny Lee, Chris Crow and Darlene Daevu, is definitely not overstated. On the afternoon we spoke, the owner of the neighborhood coffee shop, Mon Café, offered her place as a campaign headquarters and said she would vote for him, but, unfortunately, she was not yet a U.S. citizen. Down the street at Clancy’s Ice Cream, the long-time owner, who only goes by the name, Mr. Clancy, instructed Hutchison to give him a campaign sign to affix to the front of the ice cream case. “I don’t have any yet,” Hutchison told him, “But, when I do, I’ll bring you one.”

If I’m a big coward, then nothing is ever going to get accomplished because I’ll only be fulfilling someone else’s agenda all day and just be a yes man.

“When I was a kid, there was this time when I kept dropping my ice cream on the floor,” Hutchison recalls, “and Mr. Clancy kept giving me more. He remembers it and always brings it up.” Rings of paper attached in a chain hang on the wall of Clancy’s contains another link united his him to the area. It’s the scribbled name of Hutchison’s daughter, who went to the ice cream shop for a school field trip last year. Apparently, it’s not the only business in the neighborhood adorned with Hutchison memorabilia. Hutchison played baseball at Arroyo High School as a teenager, but his greatest sports triumph occurred as a 16-year-old on the Little League fields just around the corner. A team photo of the 1994 Washington Manor Little League champions containing Hutchison is memorialized on the wall of Porky’s, the neighborhood’s long-time pizza joint. “I had a really good curve,” he reminisces. “Kind of Zito-style–a 12-to-6 curve—but, I threw in the low 80s.”

Hutchison at Porky’s on Manor Blvd.

With Hutchison’s connection to sports in the area’s past and his work with many of the Manor’s newest crop of sluggers, it’s understandable that improving the city’s sports fields and parks is a priority, even with the reconstruction of Burrell Field near Interstate 800. “It’s long overdue–about 15 years late—but, Burrell Field should have been done a long time ago, but thank you for doing that,” he says. It’s also indicative of the city, he believes, that continues a struggle to keep up with surrounding cities in terms of economic growth. “We’re playing catch-up all over the city,” he says, “We have parents saying they’re going to go school shopping in Pleasanton because it’s safe and they spend $500. That’s $50 we just loss on taxes right there because we also don’t attract certain stores people want.”  

“I think we need to keep San Leandro money in San Leandro. Due to various perception problems, whether real or not, a lot of people don’t patronize San Leandro business and it’s pretty disappointing. Which is why were at Mon Café,” Hutchison pointed out. “You’ve got a great, local coffee shop right here. People should be coming here.” (Editor’s note: I first suggested meeting at Starbucks.)

While Washington Manor is typically San Leandro’s quiet little neighborhood tucked into the arm pit of the Highway 238 interchange at Washington Avenue, the perception of safety has been pierced recently with a string of audacious, if not lethal, incidents of crime. Hutchison repeatedly brought up the case of a Manor resident being held up in front of his home in broad daylight. “That would have never happened when I was growing up,” says Hutchison. To help alleviate the perception of crime rising, Hutchison, like a long string of San Leandro public officials and candidates, wants to increase the police force back to 100 officers. He admits he doesn’t have the answers for how to appropriate additional money for more cops, but says he is currently pouring over the city’s last three budgets to exploit government waste.

As a certified interrogator for 16 years in loss prevention, Hutchison plans to use those same skills to find the funds. “There is shortages occurring at the city and shortage is just waste,” he opines. “As an asset protection supervisor you look at the loss, for instance, $1 million on $60 million in profit. You have to investigate that and minimize it to achieve your goals. Cities have shortages and as a city council member I will use my skills to go in there and everything that is posed to me, I will analyze it and look for where we might be leaking shortages.”

Hutchison is not only a family man with deep ties to his hometown, but he’s also a riotously funny and brutal shit talker, who has already tangled with some of the city’s noted loudmouths and portly politicos. Hutchison’s Facebook posts regarding the race and one of his opponents, in particular, are quite refreshing and a bit unorthodox for San Leandro’s typically uninspiring crop of public officials. In one message, he boasted of running a “gangsta” campaign. But, he just wants to be himself, he says. Sometimes joking, sometimes mocking, but always focused on helping the community.

When a supporter of his opponent, Chris Crow, attempted to probe and poke into Hutchison’s early candidacy on one of her many blogs, he lashed out at her. “Everybody is a better quarterback on Monday, I told her. It’s real easy to sit at your computer and type stuff. I want to see you get in there and do something,” he said. “Do you want to be great or do great things is how I look at it.” Then afterwards, you can walk around and say I did my part to make this a better place.”

He also foresees no problems, if elected, in dealing with San Leandro’s notoriously uncompromising mayor, Stephen Cassidy. “People can try to bully,” he says, “that’s fine, but I will stick to my guns. The city isn’t going to grow unless we have those types of conversations. If I’m a big coward, then nothing is ever going to get accomplished because I’ll only be fulfilling someone else’s agenda all day and just be a yes man.” But, the harshest criticisms were saved for Crow.

Many San Leandro observers believe the similar backgrounds of Hutchison and Crow may cancel out each others and greatly benefit Lee. In more than a few ways, however, Hutchison’s bio, compiled over three decades is the one Crow is fastidiously trying to create over the past few months. Crow moved to the Manor earlier this year expressly to run for the open seat in District 4 and despite growing up in the opposite side of the city in District 2, where Councilwoman Ursula Reed is running for re-election. Hutchison said Crow offered him to join a coalition against Lee, but he declined. “I don’t agree with his values so I elected not to do that because I have an actual moral background. I just don’t hop on a bunch of committees so I can run for political office. I actually volunteer in the community because I love them.” Instead, Hutchison said he will ask voter this fall for their support, while urging a second choice for Lee.

During a break in the interview, Hutchison checked his phone and repeated a voice mail he received during our conversation from his son. “Someone just left a message,” said Hutchison. “It said, ‘Chris Crow is not the golden child.’ What does that mean?” he chuckled quizzically.

Although “carpet bagging,” the phrase for moving to an area for the sole purpose of manipulating a better chance for election is a loaded word, Hutchison says it fits Crow. “That is exactly what he did. I’m going to call a spade a spade,” he said. “It’s all about political maneuvering. He moved to this district because he didn’t want to run against an incumbent. That’s easy.”

What will not be easy is winning a seat on the city council. Without campaign funds to pay for a candidate’s statement and limited cash for lawn signs and mailers, Hutchison said he is hoping various social media techniques and tapping into the contacts he has made over a lifetime in the community will get the ball moving forward to November. And if he falls short, he says, he’ll just go back to doing what he’s always done. Instructing kids to stay down when fielding hard ground balls and keeping his streets clean and safe. His list of “whys” for running in the first place, however, won’t include, why didn’t I win?