OAKLAND -- Councilmember Jane Brunner's campaign to become Oakland city attorney certainly could have been easier.
The four-term council member representing North Oakland wanted the job last year after incumbent John Russo abandoned the post to become Alameda city manager.
But she couldn't muster enough votes on the City Council to win the appointment or get her colleagues to call a special election to fill the post -- a contest Brunner likely would have been favored to win.
Instead, the council chose to promote Russo's top deputy, Barbara Parker, to serve out the remainder of his term.
That 5-3 vote essentially flipped the script on this year's race between the two City Hall veterans.
Brunner, a former council president and one of the city's most influential politicians, has been thrust into the role of challenger. While Parker, whose last campaign was for high school treasurer nearly a half century ago, now is the incumbent.
To the surprise of many of her supporters, Parker has raised more money than Brunner and snared many key endorsements. She also has a narrow lead among likely voters, according to two polls conducted last month.
Brunner has no shortage of money or supporters. And, she has run the more aggressive campaign, accusing Parker of wasting taxpayer funds and running a department that is too slow to provide answers.
"If I thought she was a good manager, and I thought she was doing a good job, I would not be running," Brunner said.
Parker, who worked in the city attorney's office for 20 years before being appointed to the top job, says she is better qualified than Brunner, whom she described as being a part-time lawyer and full-time politician.
Oakland's city attorney oversees a roughly $12 million budget and staff of 30 attorneys plus support staff. The office defends the city against lawsuits, gives legal advice to the council and mayor and plays a key role in negotiations including ongoing talks about potentially handing control of Oakland's embattled Police Department to a federal overseer.
It's also a political post that can pit the city attorney against the mayor and council.
Russo, who sat on the council before he was elected city attorney 12 years ago, feuded with several council members, who often felt his actions were guided by political calculations. Mayor Jean Quan so distrusted him that she hired a separate legal adviser upon taking office.
Parker says that she has restored trust in the office by staying above politics, and that Brunner would plunge it back into partisan battles and petty bickering.
"It would be very challenging for her to serve in an impartial role or even be viewed as impartial," Parker said.
Brunner countered that her two-year term as council president and recent work on the redevelopment of the Oakland Army Base showed she could work with council members and community members of all stripes. "What I am is a consensus builder," she said. "I will not be Russo II."
Brunner has the backing of Councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente and Desley Brooks.
Parker is endorsed by Councilmembers Larry Reid, Pat Kernighan, Rebecca Kaplan and Libby Schaaf. She also is supported by the Chamber of Commerce, the Democratic Party, legal organizations and many members of her staff, who have been volunteering on her campaign.
Brunner supporters include Assemblyman SandrÃ¨ Swanson, the Alameda County Central Labor Council, building and trade unions and Oakland's police and fire unions.
Both candidates say public safety is their top priority.
Parker points to her success in shutting down two motels notorious for prostitution and child sex trafficking. She also says she's created a code enforcement unit to deal with problem liquor stores, foreclosures and blight.
Brunner says she'll improve public safety in part by cutting the office's budget so that the city can spend more money on police and other pressing needs.
Oakland's city attorney's office consumes nearly twice as many funds as offices in similarly sized cities, Brunner said. In addition to the $12 million annual budget, the office has paid about $10 million contracting out work to outside attorneys over the past two fiscal years.
"I think you have to go in and cut," Brunner said. "Government needs to shrink its backroom departments to make sure it has front line services."
Brunner would cut outside attorney expenses. She also said settlement costs could be lowered if the office managed to get a handle on lawsuits more quickly. Brunner said she would first need to be on the job before producing a plan for exactly what to cut and how much could be saved.
The city attorney's office has not been spared during the two economic crashes of the last decade. Since 2004, the office has seen its funding drop by one-third, forcing it to eliminate 19 attorney and 14 support staff jobs.
Parker said Oakland has several issues that require it to spend a lot on legal services, including numerous police-related complaints and an activist council that puts forth initiatives requiring legal analysis.
"The work has to be done and (we've) already been cut to the bone," she said.
Parker said that budget cuts enacted by the City Council led to the rise in outside attorney costs. However, since taking office last July, Parker reduced payments to outside firms by 40 percent: from $6.8 million to $3.9 million.
Payouts for claims and lawsuits also dropped from $12.8 million two years ago, when the city settled 10 major police-related lawsuits, to $6.05 million last fiscal year.
Parker said that 78 percent of claims against the city are resolved for no money and that the city wins 61 percent of cases that go to trial.
Since taking office, Parker has made headlines by challenging the federal government's bid to shut down Oakland's biggest medical cannabis dispensary, rescinding the council's appointment of a port official because council members didn't follow proper procedures, and warning council members not to violate the city charter's prohibition on directing the actions of city employees.
"By making the call based on the facts and the law, I'm a force for change," she said.
Brunner said she will be a straight shooter and an activist city attorney with a focus on going after predatory lenders and defending seniors and worker rights. "I'm a doer and an implementer," she said. "And I actually get things done."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.
Barbara J. Parker
Occupation: Oakland city attorney (appointed)
Elected history: None
Background: Parker grew up in Seattle. After attending Harvard Law School, she worked for two private sector law firms, private companies and the U.S. attorney's office before joining the Oakland city attorney's office in 1991. She is a longtime Oakland resident and has one daughter and a grandson.
Occupation: Council member, senior attorney at Siegel & Yee
Elected History: Four terms on City Council
Background. Brunner grew up in New York City. She was a teacher before going to UC Hastings College of the Law and working as a labor attorney, first with a union and then with a private firm. She was elected to the City Council in 1996. The longtime Rockridge resident is married and has two children and three grandchildren.