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Carol Lee Tolbert, Oakland City Council At-large candidate. (Photo by ABCHarrell Portraits)

OAKLAND -- Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente likes to say he alone has made Oakland's November election worth watching. It might be his only campaign claim that Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan won't dispute.

De La Fuente's decision to abandon his safe seat representing the Fruitvale district to challenge Kaplan for the seat representing all of Oakland could potentially sway the balance of power on the fractious council and determine whether Oakland adopts De La Fuente's get-tough policing tactics.

The two candidates have no love for each other. De La Fuente accuses Kaplan of being unwilling to take tough stands or provide leadership on the council.

Kaplan says De La Fuente has no qualms pursuing policies that will hurt the city if it means furthering his political ambitions -- namely setting himself up in two years to run for mayor against Jean Quan.

Balance of Power

De La Fuente doesn't just want to stay on the council; he wants to once again lead it.

With four-term incumbents Jane Brunner and Nancy Nadel not seeking re-election, De La Fuente's decision to challenge Kaplan ensures three new faces on the eight-member council.

If those races go his way -- he's endorsed Noel Gallo to replace him in District 5 and Richard Raya to replace Brunner in District 1 -- De La Fuente might be able to end the squabbling and restore the five-vote majorities on key issues he commanded during a decade as council president that ended in 2008.


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"I'm doing what I believe is in the best interest of the city," he said. "The only way we can break this up (is to) send these people packing -- Rebecca Kaplan this year and Jean Quan in a couple of years."

But to Kaplan and other De La Fuente foes, his re-ascension would only make the dysfunction worse by positioning the council majority in direct opposition to the mayor.

"I would be concerned for Oakland about his approach," Kaplan said. "Because I would worry that he would vote to have things go badly so he could say look how (Jean Quan) made things go badly."

Kaplan notes that late last year, during the height of the recall effort against Quan, De La Fuente co-sponsored an emergency ordinance to use all necessary means to prevent Occupy Oakland supporters from once again disrupting the Port of Oakland.

De La Fuente said at the time there was intelligence that a third port protest was being planned. But the port quietly opposed the measure, which the council rejected. No port protest ever materialized.

Kaplan said De La Fuente either had bad intelligence or bad intentions. And if he knew that no protest was being planned, then Kaplan said De La Fuente likely was trying to provoke one to "feed the recall" against Quan.

"Like they needed provocation," De La Fuente replied. "It was absolutely a potential there would be a huge shutdown of that port."

De La Fuente says he hasn't decided whether to challenge Quan, who he criticized frequently during a recent sit-down interview. But he said he wouldn't work against her if he is once again council president.

"Look at the way I operate," he said. "I lost (the mayor's race) to Jerry Brown and the next day I was working with him to make Oakland better."

Law and order

Like many council candidates Kaplan is stressing both public safety and economic development. She says she pushed for the free Broadway shuttle bus service, has championed developments near transit hubs and has been representing Oakland on several regional boards.

De La Fuente often seems as if he's running for sheriff of a lawless town.

His campaign is "100 percent" about making the city safer amid dramatic increases in robberies and burglaries and a continued climb in homicides. Oakland, he says, needs to get back to protecting life and property and focus less on social services.

He also blames Kaplan -- and Quan -- for creating a culture of permissiveness he said allowed Occupy Oakland to run amok over the past year.

The divide over public safety is clearest when it comes to one of De La Fuente's pet issues: youth curfews.

Kaplan said a curfew would be an extra burden for Oakland's already understaffed police department. The only curfew she might consider supporting is one that would operate more like a social program, providing resources and social services for youth from broken homes that were picked up in a sweep.

Police Chief Howard Jordan has proposed such a plan but hasn't identified funding for it.

De La Fuente doesn't want a curfew to help troubled youth. He wants it to give police more latitude to go after young criminals.

Curfews and gang injunctions, he said, give police justification to stop and search people they think are criminals or are carrying weapons.

If that sounds like New York City's increasingly-criticized "stop and frisk" policy, there's good reason for it. "Those words inflame people more," De La Fuente said. "But in reality it's the same."

Kaplan said the police department's biggest issue is that it doesn't have enough officers and that De La Fuente is the prime culprit for the staffing shortage. He led the effort to lay off 80 police officers two years ago and successfully opposed rehiring some of them last year.

"Every single time there has been a contested vote to restore police numbers, he's voted to reduce them," Kaplan said.

De La Fuente said the council had to lay off the officers two years ago because the police union wouldn't agree to concessions without a guarantee that there would be no layoffs for the remainder of its contract.

"It's irresponsible for any elected official to sign your life away when you don't know what the financial situation will be next year," he said.

End of the line

De La Fuente has lost his two previous bids for citywide office, dropping mayoral contests to big name politicians with national profiles: Jerry Brown and Ron Dellums. Kaplan is no Jerry Brown, but she polls as Oakland's most popular council member, and most City Hall watchers give her the edge.

De La Fuente, of course, says he will win, but he also says he'll be at peace if he finds himself off the council for the first time in two decades. "If I lose, so what," he said. "For 20 years, I kicked (butt)."

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.

Oakland City Council At-large seat
Rebecca Kaplan
Age: 42
Occupation: Oakland City Councilmember (At Large)
Elected history: Oakland councilmember, 2009 to present; AC Transit Director, 2002 to 2009.
Personal: Worked as housing rights attorney, policy advocate and legislative aide. Also a trained Bible scholar and avid bicyclist.
Website: www.KaplanforOakland.org

Ignacio De La Fuente
Age: 63
Occupation: Oakland City Council member (District 5), International Vice President for the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics, and Allied Workers International Union, AFL-CIO
Elected history: Oakland City Councilmember 1993 to present
Personal: Immigrated from Mexico at age 21, settled in Oakland and worked as a machinist, later becoming a union representative.
Website: www.idelafuente.com