OPINION I first saw Aimee Allison, District 2 candidate for the Oakland City Council, when she addressed a large, enthusiastic crowd of high school students, mostly students of color, from Oakland Tech, McClymonds, and Skyline. She spoke about the ruin and costs of war, the need for decent jobs, and practical ways and means for overcoming poverty in Oakland.
What impressed me about the young, vivacious candidate from the Grand Lake–Chinatown district was not just her Ron Dellums–like vision of Oakland, where "a better world begins." It was her special ability to break through youthful feelings of despondency, the Generation X cynicism that continues to impede social progress. Allison has a special asset that her adversary, incumbent Pat Kernighan, lacks: an ability to inspire hope and activism among youth, including the struggling students in the least affluent sections of our city.
On Sept. 17, Constitution Day at Laney College, students hosted a debate between Kernighan and Allison. After the debate I talked with Reginald James, a 24-year-old Laney College student. He told me other students agreed that Kernighan was unprepared. "She was unable to relate to youth, to find common ground."
James said Kernighan tended to blame the federal government for Oakland's problems, deflecting responsibility from the City Council on which she serves. In contrast, Allison said incumbents should accept accountability for their failures, and she challenged the students to become active in their own cause.
During the debate Kernighan was almost fatalistic. "When there are not enough resources, we have to make hard decisions," she argued. After the debate, Oakland teacher Jonah Zern summarized Kernighan's presentation: "Pat continuously stated that she was powerless to change the problems of Oakland, that it was the state and federal government that need to make changes. It made me wonder. Why was she running for City Council?"
It was not her political positions as such or even her record that irked the youthful audience. One student asked Kernighan why the streets in the flatlands are not as clean as those above the freeway. She replied, "They don't sweep the streets up there because the people do not tend to throw their trash out in the street." The insinuation that people in the hills are superior to less-fortunate folk upset some students. Allison's remarks, in contrast, were well received. Allison said, "In rich neighborhoods, parents can raise money for their kids' sports teams. In others, schools don't have teams. In rich neighborhoods, they can send their kids to music lessons, while in poor neighborhoods, music and art programs are being cut. Every child deserves an opportunity."
Kernighan works hard. She knows the ins and outs of city government. But she has no vision, no plan to address the structural defects of Oakland's social life. As a successful businessperson, Allison responds well to the needs and feelings of the middle class. But unlike most politicians, she maintains close relations and ties with the young and poor of Oakland. She has a valuable talent for enlisting youth in the fight against crime, for uniting our diverse cultures.
Understanding the needs and longings of young Oaklanders, tapping their potential to become agents of change, is a precondition of effective leadership on the City Council. If the Laney debate is an example, Kernighan is out of touch. SFBG
Paul Rockwell is a writer living in Oakland.