Newly-appointed Alameda School Trustee Gray Harris.

ALAMEDA SCHOOL BOARD | Alameda’s newest school board member is striking at first glance. With a set of evenly placed tattoos from her shoulders to her elbows and two-toned shocks of blond and copper hair, Gray Harris draws attention. During an interview at a Park Street coffee shop in September, patrons often glanced up from the computers to catch a glimpse of the statuesque school board member recently appointed to replace the late Niel Tam. “The look,” as she calls it, represents individuality and a timeline of her personal history.

Most like her tattoos, she said, but some are critical of her distinctive look—an assemblage of stars each with differing portraits, including a vintage car, a mermaid, and a drawing of her mother as a cowgirl. Some people tell her, “ ‘You shouldn’t look like this, if you’re going to be on the school board.’ I’m like, why? I don’t understand, as long as you take your job seriously and are professional about it, it shouldn’t matter.”

Harris’ body art is also a way to express herself, she said, along with being a library of the memories associated with her tattoos.

It can also be advantageous for Harris in the typically staid world of school board politics. “People can be dismissive of women,” Harris said. “Why does Hillary Clinton have to wear those weird suits? Because she’s a female candidate, and if she just dresses like whatever, she wouldn’t have a chance. There’s this idea of how women should be, and I don’t think it’s true.” She believes her look can be intimidating to some. “If I wasn’t confident and didn’t have my own thing going on, I think it would be easy for some people to discount me. I use it to my advantage.”

Those who understand the local dynamics of Alameda politics know not to discount Harris and her extensive resumé. Few people have their political ducks in better order than Harris. It’s a background with ties to the local Democratic Party apparatus, Alameda Assemblymember Rob Bonta, and various powerful unions that make her formidable, not only as a school board candidate but also as a higher officeholder one day. On that matter, Harris said she is focused only on the school board and campaigning for re-election next year. Her appointment fills out the remaining year of Tam’s term.

But it’s not hard to extrapolate the fundraising power and access to campaign foot soldiers she could tap, thanks to a stint as Alameda Education Association union president and through leadership with the statewide California Teachers Association. For the past two years, Harris has also served as co-president of the Alameda Democratic Club. And there is another connection that rankles some of Alameda’s more moderate-to-conservative residents: Harris is also romantically connected to firebrand Alameda firefighter’s union president Jeff Del Bono. It’s a fact that anti-union voices derisively cite as Harris literally being in bed with the unions…