ELECTION ’12//OAKLAND CITY COUNCIL//DISTRICT 3 | On his bike he rode briskly down Magnolia Street. Just five minutes before a candidates forum in West Oakland for candidate for the city’s District 3 seat on the city council, a helmeted Sean Sullivan, wearing a dark suit and slacks with a satchel’s strap festooned across his chest, blew by me as I sneaked a double cheeseburger into mouth. Both of us must have looked embarrassed. Me, for eating a gut-busting dinner in the car and Sullivan, for either being almost late or arriving in such a low-cost, albeit ecologically friendly, mode of transportation.
Sean Sullivan, Oakland District 3 candidate
Sullivan parked his bike against the wall near the table where the other candidates for the District 3 seat will very soon be answering questions from the mostly black audience at Taylor Memorial Methodist Church. After patting down the wrinkles in the suit and touching up his ruffled, prematurely gray white locks and listening to a preacher overpower the crowd with the word of the Lord, Sullivan, the only white candidate of the bunch, looks at home. When a respected member of the congregation regales the audience with calls to participate in the political process, he forcefully punctuates the final syllable of each sentences. Praise be to God-dah! Sullivan nods his head and when the preacher instructs his flock to lower their heads and join in prayer, Sullivan obliges. He closes his eyes and clasps his hands near his waist. An angelic grin stretches across his face that looks both comical (a white politician in a black church!) and believably serene.
When the scene at the church is brought up, Sullivan lights up. “I’m very religious,” he says. “I was an altar boy!” Although raised Catholic in a Irish household in Brooklyn , Sullivan has moved on to alternative avenues for fueling his faith. “The Catholic church has continued to be an unwelcome place for fair-minded people,” he said with a mocking smile.“I see myself as a spiritual nomad and go from church to church to find what suits me.” He was also a yoga teacher. “Can you imagine [Oakland Councilman] Larry Reid doing Yoga?” he asks, incredulously.
In his second attempt at the city council in Oakland (he barely missed a runoff against Councilwoman Nancy Nadel in 2010, she is not running for re-election this fall), Sullivan has perfectly melded his political acumen and taste for double-breasted suits with common man populism better than most candidates in this tough, working class East Bay city.
Sullivan has spent nearly his entire adult life in community service. Beginning with his work with Covenant House, a non-profit retreat for wayward youths in Brooklyn and, later, in Washington, D.C., That service brought him to Oakland in 2001 to lead an expansion on San Pablo Avenue.
“The people of West Oakland were against the idea of one more thing coming into their neighborhood.” he said of the community’s initial response to Covenant House a decade ago. “We have enough halfway houses and broken promises from non-profits and you’re not going to do one more thing to this community.” He said he was struck by the resident’s pride, but it did not repel him from helping. Instead, he says it lulled him into becoming more involved so he could understand the community’s reticence toward listening to another slick presentation from a newly-formed and funded non-profit. “There’s a long history of promise makers and poverty pimps who come in and say we have the solutions to your problems.”
Despite continued violence in the area along with bustling prostitution, the situation on San Pablo began to improve just by listening to the resident’s concerns and gaining their trust, he says. In one incidence, neighbors around Covenant House worried over what sort of violence would occur after the shelter released its kids at 9 a.m. sharp. “You’re just going to kick these out and they’re going to break into our cars,” the residents told Sullivan. The solution was to provide a shuttle to take the youths to their Telegraph Avenue locations two times a day and bring them back later after dark. “Just saving kids that six blocks walk made those people feel better and made those kids feel better because, even the kids who grow up in this craziness of San Pablo, know they don’t need to be a part of that.” People felt like we were listening, he says.
Like many who give their life’s work to helping others, they also see a little bit of themselves in the those they try to save. Sullivan was raised by a single mother and grandmother. His New York accent has dissipated over the years, although, he admits it has a tendency of returning late a night when he’s very tired. His mother later remarried and, then divorced. “It was really complicated and dramatic,” he says, without providing specifics. He recalls it was clear to many as a kid that he was gay. “I was always perceived as a gay kid,” Sullivan says now. “When I was in the first grade, I was called “gaylord.” I was a very effeminate child and that stuff happens and it’s very formative and I guess that’s why I’m sympathetic to people and why I’m involved in social justice work.”
When one of Sullivan’s opponents lobbed a harsh remark last July about Sullivan, he refused to respond to the candidate’s bullying. One reason, he says, is that he was the victim of a hate crime while in college. “I was beaten up solely because I was gay,” he said, but the police didn’t take the crime seriously. “He hit you. What’s the big deal?” he recalls the cops telling him. “We don’t need an extra law for him to sit another year in jail for this.” It was also one of the reasons why helped gay groups raise over $14 million to fight back proponents of Prop. 8.
“I’m proven leader in this community and when they see me, they know I’m the guy who…and you’re the guy who did this for our kids,” he said, yet he knows the path towards Oakland’s even greater renaissance will come through improvements to public safety. However, he says, there are no quick solutions, but he has ideas. One includes the creation of “20-minute neighborhoods” that include grocery stores, banks and discourage car use and promotes city walking, buses and bicycles.
Creating these environments, Sullivan says, will go far in creating a neighborhood where everyone knows and respects each other. But, getting things done in Oakland’s notorious labyrinth of red tape and recent gridlock at City Hall could pose problems to implementing anybody’s new ideas, however, great they might be. “I’m well-steeped in this kind of give and take, but I’m not someone who easily shrinks,” he adds. “I don’t get caught up in what people think of me, which is interesting because I’m a politician. Normally it’s like ‘Why won’t you love me?’ he says, “Right?”