Why I’m voting for Sean Sullivan for Oakland City Council District 3

So I’d been holding onto a draft version of yesterday’s blog for over a month, and only ended up finally posting it at the forceful urging of a number of friends. I thought that the reason I couldn’t bring myself to post it was because I just wanted so badly for it to be really good and damning and persuasive and that I just couldn’t let go because it would never be good enough. But by the time I hit the publish button, I realized that it wasn’t about those things at all – the reason I waited so long to make an elaborate case against Nancy Nadel was because I didn’t really want to. Not because I didn’t believe in what I’d written (I do), or because it wasn’t all true (it is), but because I just don’t care about it anymore. Last winter, this election for me was about replacing my incredibly ineffective and unresponsive Councilmember. But I realized yesterday that over the last few months, it hasn’t been about that for me at all. It’s about getting someone into office who I really, really, really believe in.

Sean Sullivan sent me a really nice e-mail last October, saying that he’d read some of my work on Novometro as well as here on the blog, informing me about the new Covenant House opening in Jack London Square, and saying he’d like to meet for coffee to talk about issues facing downtown and West Oakland. My immediate reaction was that I obviously couldn’t possibly have anything useful to say to the guy who runs a homeless youth shelter about what Oakland needs! I wanted to write a really good response, so like I’ve done with so many of my wonderful readers, I decided to wait to respond until I had more time, and ended up up just waiting too long, to the point where it would have been straight up embarrassing to write back, and eventually I just archived the message and stuck it in my substantial bank of things to feel guilty about.

Then he contacted me again back in January, informing me that he was running for City Council, and invited me again to meet. I wrote back right away this time! I had been desperately looking for someone good to run against Nancy Nadel, and at the time, it was becoming increasingly clear that the person I had been really hoping would run wasn’t going to do so. I showed up (late!) to our meeting just crossing my fingers that the guy would be at least reasonably competent.

It was immediately apparent that I needn’t have worried. As we spoke, I saw quickly that Sean was smart, informed, and most important, practical. I was particularly impressed during our conversation with his nuanced grasp of Oakland’s problems and the solutions we really need to be pursuing. Even with the Councilmembers I like, I often feel that there is little attention to the subtleties of the issues before them or concern for implementation. I saw that we shared a similar, although not identical perspective, and I particularly appreciated that unlike many people I find myself talking to about Oakland politics, he didn’t simply parrot my own talking points from this blog back to me. (He also showed genuine concern for the very real needs facing the District, although he isn’t unique among local politicians in that respect. I believe, many people tell me naively, that everyone on our City Council and everyone running really does believe they’re doing what’s best for the people they represent and wants to help. The problem is that they’re often really misguided in their attempts to do so.)

I wanted to make this post a super case for Sean that would persuade everyone, but then I realized that I don’t know everyone’s issues, and it would be pointless to try and cover them all. So instead of telling you why you should vote for Sean, I’m going to talk about why, specifically, I am.

Sean just, I don’t know…gets it. Specifically, he just gets it on the following issues:

  • Affordable housing

Some people assume that because I oppose inclusionary zoning, I am not interested in affordable housing. That couldn’t be further from the truth (and I’m glad that there’s at least one person who realizes that). I oppose inclusionary zoning precisely because it will stymie our efforts to create affordable housing in a meaningful way and because data shows that it will reduce the amount of funding available for affordable housing.

I’ve sat around and watched the Council take no action on the affordable housing issue for years because they’re all too busy with their petty fights about inclusionary zoning. They bicker and delay and squabble and because they can’t make a decision on IZ, they sit around and do absolutely zilch. Instead of sitting around talking about ways to get people making $80,000 year into re-sale restricted condos where they cannot fully realize the benefits of homeownership, Sean has spent the campaign pointing out that there are plenty of real, non-restricted units available in Oakland at a price you don’t find anywhere else around here and talking about how we can get people into them. Our First-Time Homebuyers program has helped some people, but it really doesn’t provide anywhere close to the level of assistance that similar programs in other cities do, and it is in dire need of attention and advocacy.

I further appreciate that Sean is not wedded to the idea that caring about housing only means caring about getting people to buy homes. Supportive housing, transitional housing, emergency housing – these are things that matter and that currently do not have a strong advocate on the City Council, and Sean will provide that.

  • Food

Sean cares deeply about food access and food security, and has demonstrated his commitment to the issue already through his work with HOPE. I find it immensely frustrating that there is currently no champion on the City Council for food issues.

Food security and food access is a huge problem in Oakland, and in District 3 specifically, and Sean is the only candidate running in any District who’s bothered to make the issue a part of his campaign. Oakland’s disturbing food system assessment (PDF!) was published more than two years ago now, and the Council has done absolutely nothing to address food security issues since then. Sean’s platform includes a number of incredibly low-bar actions that will provide immediate results, like working with community groups to provide nutritional education and an outreach campaign to increase food stamp/EBT participation. Sean clearly understands the urgency of these issues, and gets that getting access to food in West Oakland isn’t about picking up the phone once every couple of years, or writing a check of taxpayer money to someone who sounds well-intentioned, then forgetting about it. I get that West Oakland isn’t a wealthy community, but neither is Fruitvale, and they have plenty of places to buy food. They have grocery stores in East Oakland. Getting one in West Oakland takes hard work and persistence, and a real devotion to the issue, and Sean can and will provide that.

  • Jobs

Sean appreciates the need for a diverse economy. Sean just gets this in a way that I don’t see from anyone currently on the Council, or anyone else running for Council. Bringing opportunity to Oakland isn’t just about retail jobs, or industrial jobs, or green jobs, or whatever the vogue term of the moment may be. Different people need different types of jobs. Retail and service industry jobs provide opportunities for young people new to the workforce, students, and others who need or want flexibility or supplemental income while pursuing other things. (The elitist attitude on this issue displayed by the current Councilmember is infuriating! In response to an e-mail I sent her a few years ago where I talked about how I was a cook, and hated that I had been having to work in San Francisco, and how excited I was by the new opportunities for work in this industry appearing in Oakland, and specifically downtown, as we add residents, she wrote “Of course restaurants benefit from housing. But I don’t want to create lowpaying restaurant and retail jobs.”) Sean, I guess because of his work at Covenant House, understands exactly why and for whom these types of jobs are important.

But unlike some other Councilmembers, who I feel sometimes take it too far and act as if service industry jobs are all we can hope for (which makes me kind of feel like they’ve given up on the possibility of making serious progress in this city), Sean also understands the need to bring family-supporting jobs as well. He has a refreshingly (and uniquely) realistic understanding of the reasons behind our business attraction problems, and is committed to doing something about it – through incentives like a restaurant business tax holiday, improving the performance of our enterprise zone, infrastructure improvements, and by actually listening to people about how we can help through a Small Business Commission. Sean’s business and job attraction platform accommodates needs today while building on itself with an eye towards our long-term future.

I especially appreciate that while he is an advocate for industrial and green jobs, he, unlike so many others, does not fall into the trap of ignoring the importance of office jobs. The highly politicized CBD zoning update process often seems entirely geared toward limiting residential development in a few small sections of downtown, and the parts relating to commercial development, which is generally much less controversial (and to me, much more important) were created without consideration of the demands of the market, the type of employers we want to bring here, or the need to maximize job density in transit hubs. 100,000 square feet of office space accommodates 400 jobs! It isn’t responsible to arbitrarily limit that. Sean Sullivan, bless him, gets this enough to show up at the Zoning Update Committee, which hardly anyone cares about, and speak on the issue. That’s not something you do to get votes. You do it because you care.

  • Bringing people together

Sean talks all the time about treating people with respect and about bringing people together rather than fueling battles. Most people in this city, and certainly most of those involved with local politics, share the basic same goals. But so much potential progress in Oakland is slowed because we can’t get over these abstract battle lines that people have drawn and that help nobody. And when you look at his supporters, I think it becomes really clear that Sean really can move us beyond this.

His amazing work at Covenant House has yielded a significant amount of grassroots community support, because people have seen firsthand the energy, devotion, and results he can bring to Oakland. Although a newcomer to politics, he commands enough respect from veterans to earn the endorsement of two of the current Councilmembers (the same number as Nancy Nadel!). Pat Kernighan and Desley Brooks don’t share the same position on many of our most controversial issues (like Equal Access or inclusionary zoning, for example), but they both endorsed Sean because they know they’ll be able to work with him on shared goals to bring productive change. (Funnily enough, the only recent major issue of contention I recall them voting together on was the industrial land use policy, where they both took a more protective position of industrial land than Nancy Nadel, who has tried repeatedly to make Sean’s alleged opposition to industrial preservation an election issue.) Pat Kernighan, Desley Brooks, the OPOA, OakPac, Kathy Neal, Darrel Carey, Nancy Reiser, Carl Chan – this is not a set of names you expect to see on the same list. That Sean has support from such a broad cross-section of the community, and from interests that are so frequently at odds with one another, speaks volumes about his ability to bring people together and move us past the unproductive barriers we’ve created for ourselves.

It all comes down to the fact the he’s practical. Sean doesn’t approach issues from a black or white, us or them perspective, which is the way that far too much of Council business is currently conducted, and is a big part of the reason we can’t get anything done.

Watching the other Council races, I’ve realized just how incredibly lucky District 3 is to have someone like Sean Sullivan running. Anyone working or volunteering for any campaign will be happy to explain to you, and complain to you, at length about how impossible it is to unseat an incumbent in this town (the short version: complacency and pay-go). And it’s true. It really is. You’d think that the general sense of frustration in this town right now and the poor record of several long-term incumbents, things would be easier this year. But in every other race, the challengers don’t impress me. Even Patrick McCullough, who I have endorsed, is only a viable candidate because I believe he will work harder and deliver more for Oakland than the current Councilmember whose performance I find very poor. I certainly wouldn’t be endorsing him if he were running in District 5 or 7. Clifford Gilmore may have fared better for me if he were running against Nadel, but I found him generally to be incredibly uninspiring. But I would be happy to see Sean replacing the incumbent in any District. I don’t think there’s any shortage of incredibly smart, hard-working, caring people in Oakland, but there’s clearly a real dearth of them who want to run for City Council, and the more I watch the Council debates for other Districts, the more I see what a true treasure we have in Sean Sullivan.

Getting someone this good, this smart, this competent, practical, hard-working, energetic, caring, implementation-minded, and thoughtful to run for Oakland City Council is like winning the freaking lottery and District 3 voters would be fools not to leap at the chance to elect him as their representative. Three months ago, Sean was someone I decided to support because he was an alternative to Nancy Nadel. But since March, he’s become someone I’m eager to pour every last second of my free time into volunteering for because he truly inspires me and gives me hope that we can finally, finally, get this City moving in the right direction and make real, honest-to-God progress. Sean doesn’t share my position on every issue, and not even on every issue I think is important, but I know that I’ll never find a candidate that does. I endorse Sean Sullivan, absolutely wholeheartedly and unequivocally, and when I mark my ballot for him on Tuesday, I will do so with a sense of pride and hope and a total lack of reservation that I have never before felt when voting for anyone.

22 thoughts on “Why I’m voting for Sean Sullivan for Oakland City Council District 3

  1. Chris Kidd

    “I saw that we shared a similar, although not identical perspective, and I particularly appreciated that unlike many people I find myself talking to about Oakland politics, he didn’t simply parrot talking points from this blog back to me”

    Aw man, you called me out. I’m gonna go sulk in a corner now. Well, at least I’m an evil dirty-hippy socialist when it comes to zoning…

    Seriously V, you make me almost want to live in D3 just to vote for Sean. But I won’t, cuz Jingletown rocks. Too bad.

  2. Becks

    Thanks for this V. I realized this weekend that I’m supporting Sean Sullivan (though I don’t live in the district), but this gives me more ammo to convince some of my friends who live in the district.

    Just today I was having lunch with a friend of mine who works for a political consulting firm and he said “Isn’t Sean Sullivan conservative? Isn’t he bad on affordable housing?”

    I practically wanted to scream but I calmly explained to him that there’s a difference between IZ and affordable housing, and that Sean’s not conservative. I urged him to check out Sean’s platform and that if he did, he’d see that Sean’s not conservative and really understands the city. I also tried to explain to him how unresponsive Nadel is to her constituents and that I think she’s become more bitter and disconnected since her mayoral campaign.

    It’s frustrating that some of my activist friends are out phoning for Nadel for tonight (I tried to encourage them to phone with me for Rebecca Kaplan instead). I know that if they just got to know Sean a bit better, they’d probably support him over Nadel. Maybe if there’s a run off they’ll get the opportunity to do this. I’ve already decided that if district 3 goes into run off and at-large doesn’t (kind of unlikely), I’ll be devoting most of my election volunteer time to Sullivan’s campaign. Even though I don’t live in the district, I think he’ll be good for the whole city, and besides, I’m likely to move to the district within the next couple years.

  3. V Smoothe Post author

    Becks –

    Your blog about Sean was so sweet, and I totally meant to e-mail you and thank you for writing it, but I’ve just been so busy lately that it slipped my mind and never did. (I did tag it for my news feed over here, though.)

    The fact that the left has somehow managed to paint Sean Sullivan, who has spent his career providing shelter to homeless youth, as the “conservative” candidate or someone who doesn’t care about affordable housing depresses me beyond belief. I’m glad you’re trying to help spread the word.

  4. masb

    I have already voted for Sean (absentee ballot) and I appreciate your enthusiasm. I wonder, though, if maybe you do him a disservice by coming on so strongly against Nancy Nadel. She’s been around a long time. My point is that by really ranting aginst her you may actually push some of her stalwarts back into her corner. Anyone who is paying attention knows she has stayed past her time. She may have been effective at one time but she’s been there too long. Most politicians get lazy if they hang around too long with little opposition. I guess I would just rather hear about what is wonderful about Sean and not so much what’s terrible about Nancy.Don’t under estimate the intelligence of your readers or those who live in District 3. At least, I hope the results will show that most of us are paying attention.

  5. Ralph

    now this is a decent post, always a lot easier to swallow sugar than venom. that said, sean seems like a practical guy i do disagree with some of his thoughts on housing, so i suspect he will come around to prop g vs prop f thinking

  6. scottpark

    Very well written and convincing. If only everyone thought so much, or cared so much, about who was on city council. If I were in District 3, I would take your words very seriously

  7. dto510

    I echo everyone else, this is a great blog. It’s refreshing to read about your issues, because so much of blogging means responding to the media and the political discussion. The fact we hear so little about food access and entry-level jobs is an argument in and of itself for new leadership on the Council.

  8. Jim Ratliff

    V, You don’t mention Greg Hodge, the third candidate for this district’s seat. Do you have thoughts/analyses about him. Presumably you’ve also come to the conclusion that Sean is better than Greg. What’s your thinking?

  9. Kent Lewandowski

    V, though I respect your views I disagree with your opinion that Sean Sullivan is the solution to the problems facing District 3. Oakland needs comprehensive solutions that impact the whole city, and not district solutions. The beefs you repeatedly bring up against Nancy – inability to bring retail stores, and food stores, to her district, or the high crime in her neighborhood – are citywide issues, requiring citywide solutions. Though I’m sure Sean is a great guy and could be a good councilperson, electing him isn’t going to change anything as long as do-nothing Dellums is still the mayor. Nancy Nadel, meanwhile, has a proven track record of defending her constituent’s interests, whether they be affordable housing, jobs / industry, or pollution and air quality issues affecting West Oakland. She has shown long-time dedication to her neighborhood, continuing the work of her deceased husband and neighborhood / city activist, Chappell Hayes. Some of your claims, for instance that she was not by her husband’s side in opposing the reconstruction of the Cypress Freeway, I simply do not believe, since you have given little evidence to support them. It seems you are enamored by Sean. That’s fine and good, but I think it’s a shame you are using your fine journalistic skills to take sides in a political race, and not sticking to the higher pursuit of truth and fact-finding. I will continue to support Nancy in good conscience.

  10. Becks

    Kent – I think that type of thinking about Dellums is dangerous. The council can get things done, with our without the mayor. Even if Dellums is silent on an an issue, the council can take action and create solutions.

    Also, newspapers endorse all the time so why should it be any problem for V Smoothe, a journalist, to endorse? (Especially when the MSM isn’t covering any of the council races in depth.)

  11. Max Allstadt

    Jim Ratliff -

    As far as Greg Hodge goes, I have to say I like the guy. I think many people’s reservations with him stem from the slow start of his campaign, and the general lack of momentum. Sullivan just seems to have his act much more together. When you’re trying to unseat an incumbent, that really matters. I also haven’t seen Sean and Greg disagree on very much during debates. There are few little issues where I’m definitely with Sean in terms of practicality though.

    I’d like to see Sean win outright, but if I’m in fantasy land, I’d almost like to see Hodge and Sullivan in a runoff. Imagine: two sincere, articulate guys spending the next 5 months debating our district. Not a bad outcome. Still, unlikely.

    Kent Lewandowski:

    If you want more attention paid to bicycle issues, vote Sean. If you want somebody who can work with the rest of the council, vote Sean. I also don’t think Sean will be a threat to the Sierra Club’s interests in any way.

  12. Joanna/OnTheGoJo


    I completely agree that we are incredibly lucky to have several really great options to choose from here in District 3.

    I will just say one thing in regards to the Sierra Club having worked with Joyce Roy on many issues over the last six years. Her issue is Oak to 9th and Sean’s relationship with Signature Properties. Whether it will affect decisions made in the future, who knows? But that is her concern. Personally, I would hope that whether it’s Sean or Greg, that either one would be willing to have a true conversation with their constituents and not already have their mind made up as to how to proceed. Based on preconceptions or relationships. An open mind and a willingness to listen and not just give the deer in the headlight stare.

  13. Max Allstadt

    I’ve said this before:

    If you think Sean Sullivan cares about money enough to be bought, think again. Take a look at Sean’s car, and think again. If Sean Sullivan cared about money enough to be bought, he wouldn’t be caught dead in a late 90′s Honda with a cracked windshield. It’s a piece of crap. And so are any allegations that Sean Sullivan can be bought.

    He’s also the only candidate who is a renter, and who has promised to work solely as a Councilman, with no outside work. This is not the profile of a fat cat. It just isn’t.

  14. dto510

    Kent – I’m sorry, you’re just wrong. Grocery stores are not a citywide issue, they are a West Oakland issue that Nadel has repeatedly screwed up. East Oakland is getting a Fresh & Easy, West Oakland is not, and it’s Nadel and her ally EBALDC’s fault. Her plan for a “worker-owned cooperative” is a black hole of city money.

    Nadel has convinced a lot of people that problems aren’t her fault, but this election is about demanding accountability from our representative. Where does the buck stop?

  15. V Smoothe Post author

    Jim –

    I have come to that conclusion, and here’s why. I commend Greg for the admirable work he’s done in the community and specifically for youth, but I don’t see him as someone who is going to bring what I’m looking for to the City Council. In a City where money is always tight, we need someone who considers budgetary issues with an eagle eye, and I just don’t see that coming from Greg. The School District fell into a multimillion dollar deficit on his watch, and since them, he hasn’t demonstrated that he’s learned the lessons and come around to a more fiscally responsible approach. Less than a year ago, upon discovering that the School District was facing a $4.7 million deficit in their budget, Hodge shrugged it off as no big deal because it was such a small percentage of the total budget. When you’re dealing with taxpayer money and trying to provide service to citizens, every penny is important. This is something Hodge doesn’t seem to get, and we’ve already witnessed the consequences of that attitude.

    Hodge, while an excellent speaker with the right overall attitude, and again, a very caring and community-minded person, has also been short on specifics during the campaign, and unlike Sean, has really failed to propose anything in the way of specific new policy initiatives, which is something we are in dire need of. So although I’ve watched him at multiple candidate forums, I’m still having a hard time understanding what exactly he intends to do as Councilmember. He statements on some issues, such as education (among other things), are well thought out and I agree with them. But on other issues that are very important with the City Council, like planning or economic development, he hasn’t demonstrated for me the same nuanced understanding that Sean Sullivan has.

    I am also concerned with the fact that it doesn’t appear that Hodge intends to work full-time as a Councilmember. I have not been able to confirm this, in spite of three separate attempts to contact his campaign about the issue, because I have never received any response to my question. But from what he’s said at forums and in written statements, I get the idea that he intends to continue his work on the Equal Voice for America’s Families Campaign. This is no doubt a wonderful initiative and he should be lauded for his work on it, but I think that if this City is ever going to make any real progress, we need someone who will have no other professional commitments and focus their energies exclusively on City Council issues.

    I do think that Greg Hodge would be a preferable alternative to Nancy Nadel, and if they were the only two candidates in the race, I would be voting for him and probably volunteering for him as well. But I wouldn’t be nearly so excited about my vote, because I’m not confident in his ability to deliver tangible results, and I don’t find him inspiring enough to devote anywhere near the amount of time I’ve been giving to Sean.

  16. V Smoothe Post author

    Chris –

    I assure you that the line about parroting talking points was not in reference to any of my regular commenters, whose contributions I do value.

    masb and ralph -

    I’m going to try to respond to your comments about being critical of Nadel on the post about her this afternoon, since the issue came up there as well. Here, I’ll just say that I think the case against Nancy Nadel and the case for Sean Sullivan are equally relevant points to make in the election, and that’s why I wrote about both of them in separate posts.

    scottpark –

    From someone who’s often critical of my work, that means a lot. Thank you.

    Kent –

    First, I’m not sure what you’re referring to in reference to the Cypress Freeway. I have never made any comments about Nadel’s involvement on that issue either way, and regular readers should know I never make claims about anyone’s record without citing evidence to support it.

    “Enamored by” isn’t the word I would pick to describe my thoughts on Sean Sullivan, but it’s a fair enough characterization, and I tried to use this post to explain the process by which I arrived at that opinion. And since this blog is like one giant, daily editorial column, I don’t really understand the criticism about “tak[ing] sides.”

    And for your more specific points – I think Nancy Nadel has failed her constituents on both a citywide and district level. Food access and crime issues are certainly citywide problems, but on the District level, we’ve seen more action in other areas. Other low-income neighborhoods, like Fruitvale and East Oakland, have grocery stores. Yet West Oakland continues to suffer without one. Teenagers in District 3 have little access to recreation opportunities, while other parts of the City see movement on this front. On a citywide level, I feel that Nancy has again failed to advocate for effective or responsible solutions as well. I find Nadel’s divisive and hostile approach to governance disturbing, and I really think it is holding us back from progress in a major way.

    And I’d like to echo Beck’s sentiment that the comment that nothing will change “as long as do-nothing Dellums is still the mayor” is incredibly depressing. The Council is tasked with crafting policy, and no matter who is Mayor, then can and should be doing in a way that will move the City forward. Sitting around waiting for Dellums to take action is precisely what’s wrong with the current Council, and I look forward to seeing someone with Sean’s level of energy bring new ideas and initiatives to the table.

  17. ralph

    v – your blog, your rules. i no more listen to a salesman who tries to convince me to buy his car buy telling me the negative attributes of a competitor model than i listen to any “527″ doing the same. and i use “527″ with nothing but love

  18. V Smoothe Post author

    dto510 –

    Thank you. I appreciate the compliment. I really enjoyed your endorsements blog. It’s funny – writing about this election has really crystalized for me what my issues actually are. If you had asked me in January how I would evaluate my choices for City Council candidates, I would have answered without hesitation that I would look for people who shared my positions on planning and development. It surprised me to realize that those factors weren’t that important to me after all. Maybe that’s not the right way to put it – they’re still important, but I’m willing to overlook different positions on those issues in favor of things that are more, I don’t know, abstract? More than anything else, I’m looking for people who are detail-oriented and pragmatic. There are no incumbents on the City Council that meet the bar I would like to see in this respect (although some come closer than others), and that’s why I can’t muster the same enthusiasm as you do in your endorsements of incumbents like Reid and De La Fuente.

  19. Ethan

    Out of 1/2 doz NN Adams Point neighbor endorsements – 2 actually live in District 2 and 1 lives near RIchmond Blvd….not in Adams Point. Either she is out of touch with Adams Point that she hasn’t a clue or she is hard up to find Adams Point supporters to step up to the plate. Perhaps her web designer is asleep at the wheel.

    She turned a blind eye to the Lake Merritt tree masacre and the loss of the meadow on Lakeside. That cost her Adams Point and Lakeside near Masonic temple. That and jerking their chain about a dog park.

    Hodges: nice guy, well spoken and affable enough — bothersome that he has only showed up for only some of the candidate forms.

    Those are job interviews, dude.

  20. Barry

    Adams Point is the most densely populated neighborhood in Alameda County. If Nadel looses Adams Point, she looses the election.