ELECTION ‘12//ASSEMBLY 18//PROFILE | “I have to warn him about libertarians,” Jim Oddie said to me as Rob Bonta trotted up the stairs of old Victorian on 18th Street in Oakland. Bonta was introducing himself to a household of likely voters, albeit, of vastly different political bents. “They’ll keep talking to Rob for forever and then bring up the Second Amendment,” Oddie remarked. Bonta smiled knowingly when I brought up the notoriously chatty political subset and Oddie’s admonition. “It’s a libertarian. Let’s cut it short, ok?” Bonta recalls, repeating his staffer’s time-saving refrain. But, he enjoys the banter, yet the conversation invariably veers into the philosophical realm. “If your house is on fire, who’s going to take care of it?” Bonta said as he high-tailed to the next home on their voter list.
Next week’s election for the up-for-grabs 18th Assembly District seat, though, is not about what political stripes you wear, as Bonta sees it. It’s about a palpable fear among many Oaklanders that simply walking outside their front door is as much a danger as smoking three packs a day for 20 years and devouring 4 Big Macs everyday for a week. After months of walking door-to-door and proselytizing his message, there is no doubt, he says, that public safety is at the forefront of Oakland’s collective consciousness. “I hear a lot of people who tell me they have had their home broken into,” said Bonta, “and that they question whether they can live here. These are diehard Oaklanders that are having an internal struggle whether they should stick around or leave.”
The neighborhood around San Antonio Park in Oakland seems safe, at least, on this sun-drenched early Saturday afternoon. Yet the unconscious fear of residents, many Hispanic and Vietnamese, is spoken without words, but in rows and rows of homes fortified with iron fences of varying colors and barricaded windows. The cacophony of barking emanating from the throats of very large dogs is all you hear. The fences are the visual warning; the dogs, the audible one. As we wind around to 16th Avenue at 4 p.m., however, the residents appearing as sentinels begin to peek out their windows or peer through the bars that close off their porches to visitors. Dusk is coming and people around here know the night gives cover to the bad guys. There is much distrust on this street. Even a smiling, well-coifed Assembly candidate stocked with a stack of campaign brochures featuring the same smiling guy cannot be trusted. An older Vietnamese woman tending to her garden sees us coming. She stops what she’s doing and hurriedly padlocks her dilapidated chain-link fence.
Rob Bonta on 18th Avenue Oct. 27 in Oakland.
It’s not always like this, said Bonta, although he recalled a humorous moment at a gated community housing complex months ago on Seminary Avenue. “You’re not going to rob anyone, are you?” said the administrator. “Nah,” said Bonta before rustling up about six new voters. Bonta’s likability index is quite high. In fact, outside of a small band of vocal dissidents in Alameda, it’s very difficult to find someone who truly dislikes the guy. He’s smooth, funny, shows genuine empathy, has nice hair, is progressive with a pinch of ethnicity and touts a pitch-perfect family. If a political scientist sought to create the perfect candidate for the East Bay, the end result would be Bonta. However, the Bonta we see today sitting pretty as the likely winner of next week’s election bears little resemblance to the nervous, somewhat unsure candidate of just nine months ago. During a particularly inclement night at a forum in Chinatown last April, Bonta, while clasping the microphone like it was a crucifix between his praying hands, he hit all of the notes, altough his political guitar seemed a bit out of tune and not without a litany of fits and starts and a chorus of “ums.” His mother, sitting directly in front of me, whispered encouragement to nobody in particular and reminded her son of neglected talking points of which he could not have possibly heard. That guy doesn’t exist anymore. In fact, Bonta’s opponent in the general election, Abel Guillen, has followed the same amazing trajectory from a babbling, bumbling mess to quite an impressive candidate, himself.
“What are their names,” Bonta quickly asked Oddie, who fired off four names.
“Kenny, Moe, Robert and Steve,” Bonta repeated. “All Democrats?”
“Robert is a Republican,” said Oddie just as Bonta rang the doorbell and knocked on the door.
Both have been walking precincts together for months now and their teamwork is more intuitive than anything. Even hard to pronounce Vietnamese names with no Anglo indicator of their gender isn’t problem for this well-oiled machine. They’re like Montana to Rice, Manning to Harrison, a no-look pass in traffic from Magic Johnson to a trailing James Worthy for the dunk. It also includes some good-natured ribbing from Bonta. After spending a few minutes with an enthusiastic potential voter, Bonta zeroed in on closing the deal. “Can we put a sign in front of your house?” he asked the woman, who agreed and instructed them to place it in front of the tree dominating the front of her home. “You might need a hammer or something,” she said, “because the ground is hard.” Oddie intimated they would make do somehow and added digging the sign’s metal tines into the earth was easier next to cracks along the concrete border. “There’s no crack in front of the tree?” the woman yelled out in mock anger. “Yeah, Jim!” interjected Bonta, while using his partner as a foil, “Why aren’t you listening?!”
Around the corner sits Anthony Wilson. He’s 18 and graduated last year from Skyline High School. On this sunny Saturday afternoon he’s quietly parked on the stoop smoking a cigarette. He tell us this will be his first time voting. It’s the first and only time we witness how the future looks not to three guys nearing their 40s, but how it looks for many young Americans like Wilson. “It’s not too often we get people running for office coming around here,” says the affable African American teenager. There is already despair on his face and that’s the most troubling aspect of Anthony Wilson. Slap a black-and-white filter over this portrait of Wilson sitting on the porch with his sad, vacant eyes and exchange his designer hoodie for a heavy leather coat and it’s no different than the ghostly images of Depression-era laborers in long lines looking for work many generations ago. “I don’t have too many friends who have a job in Oakland,” he laments. He has already seen two girls, with whom he graduated with last year, offering themselves to johns on International Boulevard, he says.
Bonta seemed particular affected by his meeting with Wilson and offered his personal business card. It’s a gesture he offered no other person, at least, on this particular day. “It gives detail and reality to what we’re saying in this campaign,” Bonta said later. In particular, he said, human trafficking is a major public policy problem. “But when you hear these stories, it puts meat on the bone. It’s why we’re focusing on public safety because we hear about it from voters all the time.”
Just as Bonta was finishing his time with Wilson, the young man’s sister opened the door and popped her head through the small opening. “I know you!,” she said to Bonta. “I recognize your voice from the TV! I came out to see, is this for real?!” While Bonta moved on to the next house, I stayed to ask Wilson some questions. “I actually saw his commercial on TV, too,” he coyly said. “But I didn’t want to say anything. I wanted to see what he had to say first.” Did you like what he said, I asked? To which Wilson pulled a drag of his cigarette and said, “He’s got my vote.”