Upsets, scandals, and ambition: The biggest East Bay political stories of 2018

One major story never stood out above the rest in 2018, but several were significant, and a few could become full-fledged headlines in 2019. There was scandal in the most unexpected places this year and upsets at the ballot box that nobody saw coming. Extreme ambition flavored other stories and disappointment animated others.

Few would have expected a tawdry sexual misconduct scandal in San Leandro at the beginning of 2018, although, in hindsight, you could see the potential for one in Alameda. But dirty laundry was exposed in both East Bay cities. Both featuring the city managers’ offices. Both had cinematic flair. San Leandro City Manager Chris Zapata was accused of sexual misconduct by Rose Padilla Johnson, the well-known CEO of the San Leandro Family Resource Center. The accusation covered many years and featured business meetings in Padilla Johnson’s car at a now infamous Foster’s Freeze parking lot in San Leandro. Text messages provided by Zapata suggested that Padilla Johnson viewed him as a friend–and maybe more. An independent investigation discredited Padilla Johnson’s claims. Zapata and the city agreed to part ways for $300,000 before he was hired as Anaheim’s city manager. In a twist, Zapata donated his entire settlement to a small San Leandro non-profit for the homeless.

Remember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan? You probably can’t because you never knew her in the first place. Her upset of Catharine Baker was by far the biggest upset in East Bay politics.

However, there was no Hollywood ending in Alameda. In October 2017, Alameda City Manager Jill Keimach had accused two councilmembers of violating the City Charter. One member, Councilmember Jim Oddie, had been accused by the police chief of saying Keimach could be fired if she didn’t choose the fire chief candidate preferred by the powerful Alameda Firefighters union. An independent investigator’s report found Oddie violated the charter, but also uncovered an explosive fact. Keimach had secretly recorded Oddie and another councilmember without their knowledge. Keimach was placed on paid leave and the warring sides of Alameda politics brought out the knives. Keimach and the city parted ways for a whopping $900,000. Unlike Zapata, Keimach kept her settlement money, but hasn’t found a job. The Alameda County DA looked into charging Keimach for the recording incident, but in October found that she had made the recording under the impression a crime was about to be committed. Oddie, meanwhile, was able to stave off a re-election defeat only because of Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft’s defeat of Mayor Trish Spencer. Technically, he is serving out Ashcraft’s remaining two-year term on the council.

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Alameda County DA Nancy O’Malley and Pamela Price in San Leandro.

Being an election year, 2018 saw a number of upsets. But the most vicious campaign of the season occurred in June between Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and civil right attorney Pamela Price. It got ugly in March when Price accused O’Malley of receiving a $10,000 campaign contribution the Fremont Police Officers Association in exchange for not charging two of its officers in the killing of a pregnant 16-year-old girl in Hayward, which O’Malley denied. A Price mailer called O’Malley corrupt. O’Malley hinted personal retribution against Price. Progressive George Soros even tried to help Price attempt one of the biggest upsets in Alameda County political history. It didn’t happen. O’Malley won by 20 points. Establishment Democrats who backed O’Malley would have egg on the face when O’Malley had the audacity to endorse Republican Assemblymember Catharine Baker in the November election against Democrat Rebecca Bauer-Kahan.

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Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan

Remember Bauer-Kahan? You probably can’t because you never knew her in the first place. Her upset of Baker was by far the biggest upset in East Bay politics. There were other upsets, but some insiders had an inkling something was up. Not the race in the East Bay’s 16th Assembly District. Real hints of an upset didn’t even register until after the first ballots were counted on Nov. 6. Slowly but surely, Bauer-Kahan began to gain ground. More than a week after Election Day came daily updates showed Baker’s small lead rapidly dwindling until the lead flipped. After two attempts by the local Democratic Party to stop the moderate Baker in AD16 with more experienced, bankrolled candidates, Bauer-Kahan did it with none of those attributes. How did she do it? Thanks, Donald.

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Abel Guillen didn’t just lose by “thismuch,” he was blown out by Nikki Bas in his bid for re-election to the Oakland City Council.

Baker wasn’t the only incumbent to be taken down in November. In most cases, the reason had to do with housing. But depending on the part of the county, it was because there wasn’t enough or additional housing will gum up already clogged up roads. Oakland swept away two incumbent councilmembers in Abel Guillen and the irascible Desley Brooks. The only way Brooks’ lost dealt with housing is because she delivered a “roundhouse” blow to Black Panther icon Elaine Brown in 2015, costing the city $2 million in damages. San Leandro Councilmember Lee Thomas was turned away by voters, as was, Marvin Peixoto in Hayward; David Bonaccorsi in Fremont. Concerns over her support of housing around BART stations also led to the defeat of Anu Natarajan, a candidate most believed was a shoo-in for the BART board. Mayor Spencer in Alameda was also upended due to her opposition to housing.

On the flipside, Hayward elected Aisha Wahab to its city council. Her dominant victory made history. Wahab became the first Afghan American elected to office in the U.S.

Meanwhile, like a drum beat with every, near daily, appearance on cable news, East Bay Rep. Eric Swalwell moved closer to eyeing a run for president… of the United States.

Also looking through a national lens, the East Bay’s biggest story may have been Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s war of words with President Trump and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. After Schaaf alerted residents of an impending raid by ICE agents in late February, she became the target not only of the White House but conservatives across the country. Trump later suggested that Session charge Schaaf with obstruction of justice. Lock her up! To this day, Schaaf says she has no regrets.

Transportation by railway in the East Bay was two of the biggest stories in the East Bay. Oakland’s stinging defeat in the courtroom against blocking the proposed transporting of coal through the former Oakland Army Base raised questions about Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker’s competence, but galvanized a city overwhelmingly opposed to the proposal. It is virtually the only issue that all of Oakland agrees with Schaaf. Over the east county, the long proposed $1.6 billion BART extension to Livermore was put on hold.

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If built on the Oakland waterfront, the A’s proposed new ballpark might not be pretty, but it will be ours.

When it came to ambition, two stories in 2018 rose to the top and is almost certain to reverberate into the new year. As promised, the Oakland Athletics announced a plan to build a new ballpark at Howard Terminal, near Jack London Square. They also intend to redevelop the existing Coliseum as a tech and housing hub. The first plan seems more plausible than the second. The city of Oakland also took aim at the NFL and the Oakland Raiders, suing each for the move to Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, like a drum beat with every, near daily, appearance on cable news, East Bay Rep. Eric Swalwell moved closer to eyeing a run for president… of the United States. Many insiders in the East Bay have seen this coming for years. In November, Swalwell began making the most overt suggestions yet that he will indeed run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. If he makes the leap, expect him to focus on gun violence, “new energy,” and trash-talking Trump and his Democratic presidential opponents on Twitter.

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