Red states, blue states. Lavender and indigo. The country is awash in swathes of paint as we attempt to color code our politics. I live in a blue city in a blue county in a purple state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate in a generation, and isn’t likely to in this race, either. My county hasn’t gone red in more than fifty years. But is this a good thing for California’s cities? I wanted to unpack this, issue by issue, to see. I should preface this post by saying that I am an unabashed Obama supporter. But many of the reasons for this have to do with my personal politics and values, and not necessarily my Oakland issues. What do my city, my neighborhood, and the thousands like them across the country have to gain or lose on Tuesday? I looked at some of Oakland’s key issues to see. (The position overviews are somewhat abbreviated to capture the big ideas, and are based on the New York Times‘ assessment of each candidate’s positions based on candidate websites and campaign speeches. So make of that what you will.)
This is (still!) long, so here’s a menu:
THE HOUSING CRISIS
Oakland is suffering dramatically from the foreclosure crisis, and the city desperately needs help to manage the impact on neighborhoods of having bank-owned homes sit empty. Affordable housing is also a huge issue throughout the Bay Area. We need teachers and janitors and police officers and nurses, but at the same time it’s so costly to live here, even in the current market, that the middle and working classes are still being priced out. The city needs federal and state involvement in housing and bank regulation to ensure that there are housing opportunities for everyone, and to fund innovative solutions to the foreclosure crisis to protect neighborhoods from blight and disinvestment. Predatory lending in the sub-prime market was a big issue here, as in other parts of California; we need strong legislation against this.
Obama would: Enact foreclosure moratorium; increase regulation; offer joint fed-state loan restructuring; offer mortgage credits for non-itemizers.
McCain would: Purchase and restructure mortgages; privatize Freddie and Fannie; create more transparency in process.
Advantage: Obama. This is mostly because I think regulation is the key here, and McCain has been a lukewarm supporter of federal regulation (as is traditional/appropriate for a Republican, since small federal government/free market principles are a tenet of Republicanism).
THE ECONOMY & JOBS
Again, another area where Oakland, like the rest of the country, is suffering. The East Bay has lost thousands of jobs in the last year, and California’s unemployment rate is currently at 7.7 percent, the highest in over a decade. So we need jobs, and specifically we need jobs for workers who may not have college degrees or advanced training. A great area to focus on are the “green-color” jobs—jobs in new green industries that Oakland residents and others in the region can be trained and prepared for. Small local businesses also need support to stay afloat, and they’re a crucial part of the Oakland economy. We’ve lost several large plants in recent years, and while the city is working to retain the few big industries it has left, there are acres of vacant formerly-industrial land in some areas (including most notably the old Army base, which is being planned as I write).
Obama would: Cut middle-class taxes but continue to tax higher income brackets; create jobs through infrastructure investment; provide federal aid to cities and states; extend unemployment benefits.
McCain would: Cut taxes across the board and extend Bush cuts, including capital gains; halve capital gains tax rates; cut corporate taxes; guarantee all savings accounts for six months; provide business tax deductions for capital expenses.
Both would: Suspend mandatory IRA withdrawals and taxes on unemployment benefits.
Advantage: Obama. My liberal values shine through here—I firmly believe that folks in higher income brackets should pay more taxes, because for low-income families, a tax represents a much greater sacrifice than it does for a high-income family. Moreover, our tax code and other policies have historically supported high income earners and helped them build wealth, so it only seems fair that the reverse can be in play as well. (However, I would much prefer a tax code that adequately captured cost of living, since that’s a very valid complaint of some of those high-income earners: $250K may be rich in Kansas, but it doesn’t go very far in Oakland. If legislators could devise a system that looked at living wages and cost of living and factored that into AGI, that would be my dream system.) I also believe those taxes should be used by the federal government as aid to states and cities to pay for infrastructure and services best managed/coordinated nationally (e.g., roads, schools, etc.).
This is a more subjective one, but generally I think that Oakland—and most cities—would benefit from a solid national health care system. Oakland is also home to four major hospitals and a sea of medical centers and clinics, so health care is a huge industry here. Better support for and good regulation of the industry are key to keeping costs down. Somewhat ironically, parts of Oakland (notably West Oakland and Deep East Oakland) struggle with huge health concerns, too: high childhood asthma rates, rampant diabetes, a number of diseases related to toxic environments (especially in the case of West Oakland, one of the city’s most polluted neighborhoods because of its proximity to the port, freeway system, and major truck and rail routes). Moving forward, we need to be much more cognizant of community health, from the food we eat to the air we breathe to the water we drink. I’m looking for an administration that will launch an effort to create healthy, sustainable communities across the country, but especially in our cities, where pollution and toxins are often highest.
Obama would: Require universal coverage for children; require employers to provide insurance or contribute to the cost, but exempt smallest businesses, and reimburse all employers for catastrophic health costs; provide subsidies for low-income people; create purchasing pool with choice of competing private plans and one public plan like Medicare; make plans portable from job to job; expand Medicaid and State Children’s Health Insurance Program; prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to people with health problems or charging them higher rates.
McCain would: Oppose mandate requiring everyone to obtain health insurance in order to give individuals free to choose their own health care; make plans portable from job to job and accessible across state lines; provide $2,500 tax credits for individuals and $5,000 for families to buy their own insurance; eliminate the tax deductibility of employer-sponsored health insurance; move to compensate medical providers based on the quality of their work; bring greater competition to drug markets by safe reimportation of drugs and streamlining the process for introducing generic drugs; offer federal assistance for states to create high-risk pools that would contract with insurers to cover consumers who have been rejected on the open market.
Advantage: Obama. Again, this comes back to the fact that I strongly, strongly believe in a national health care system, and I think it would be a terrific thing for cities, where there are dense concentrations of residents. If you don’t agree, McCain’s a better bet on this issue. But under our current system, America spends more per capita on health care than any other nation, and our system is far more flawed. We need wholesale reform, whether it’s public or private. I’d support a hybrid system that provides nationalized basic coverage but preserves some private choice over supplementary insurance, facilities, doctors, etc. to address concerns that care will degrade if everyone is eligible for it.
CLIMATE & ENERGY POLICY
Like many parts of California, Oakland is striving to be a green city and has taken a number of steps in that direction, including the recent inception of the Oakland Green Jobs Corps. While California has been proactive on enacting climate change legislation, including the recent SB 375, one of the first measures to connect climate change and energy policy to land use and transportation planning, we could use more help from the feds on this. We also need increased development of transit, alternative transportation modes, and federal standards that respect cyclist- and pedestrian-friendly communities. After eight years of an administration that refused to sign on to Kyoto and debated, at times, the causes and even existence of climate change, it will be refreshing to have Washington moving proactively on this front.
Obama would: Support taxing oil company windfall profits; support ethanol subsidies; oppose drilling in the Arctic and require oil companies to use existing lands before any new lands are made available; provide incentives to spur renewable energy development. [Obama initially opposed all domestic drilling, but has since said that he’s changed his mind and would allow some offshore drilling.]
McCain would: Oppose taxing oil company windfall profits; support expanding nuclear power; oppose ethanol subsidies; oppose drilling in the Arctic but expand drilling offshore; oppose tax subsidies as a means to spurring renewable energy development.
Advantage: Obama (but both represent big improvements over Bush). “Drill, baby, drill”?!? Are you for real? Actually, I think—hope—that either candidate will be a huge improvement over Bush on the energy front, and the fact that it was a big campaign issue on both sides of the aisle is promising. Honestly, my biggest fear on the McCain end is that he’ll drop dead and Palin will be running the country, which is scary for alternative energy. Yes, Alaska has some oil. But drilling there is a band-aid to the much larger issue of our reliance on oil, and when it runs out—which it will, and in our lifetimes—we’ll have no oil and a devastated landscape. Also, there is no reason to be providing incentives for oil extraction a la windfall tax breaks. Instead, that money should go into encouraging metro areas to build up their mass transportation systems and dense urban cores.
On density and cities: My favorite line from this campaign was from a Minnesota congresswoman explaining the liberal agenda: “They want Americans to take transit and move to the inner cities. They want Americans to move to the urban core, live in tenements, [and] take light rail to their government jobs. That’s their vision for America.” Yup, exactly, sounds good to me! (Except that our bungalow, located at the heart of one of Oakland’s densest neighborhoods, gets miffed when she gets called a “tenement,” as do the lofts and the Victorians down the street.) Dense urban centers don’t always translate to high-rises or slums, as nay-sayers like to claim. Our neighborhood is a mix of Victorian and arts and crafts single-family homes with yards, historic fourplexes, mid-century apartment buildings, and brand-new condo buildings. We have, within a few blocks: two grocery stores, three churches, a synagogue, a lake with trails and a public boathouse, a creek, a museum, a senior center, one big park, a rec center, lots of little parks and tot lots, a dog park, a number of schools, two hospitals, art galleries, auto shops, a children’s storybook park, and coffee spots and restaurants galore. Several bus and train lines run through our neighborhood. The people who live here range from urban singles to families in their first homes to families with older children to empty nesters enjoying retirement to seniors on fixed incomes in assisted living facilities. We have some urban grit here and there, but we know our neighbors and feel safe. The “inner city” (and at less than a mile from city center, we’re as in as it gets) isn’t such a bad place to live! Cities aren’t for everyone, true—but we should be ensuring that those who do want to live in cities are able to do so with as minimal a footprint as possible.
I should note that I do have one big issue with Obama: ethanol subsidies. There are huge issues with the ethanol industry today, not the least of which is the notion of providing incentives for fuel rather than food in a nation where children in Oakland and other places across the country don’t have enough to eat. I’d like to see a reformed farm bill address the connections between food and fuel, deal with the corn lobby, and ensure that any new energy generation is both sustainable and ethical.
Oakland needs reinvestment in education across the board, from preschool programs to K-12 education to community colleges and trade schools. California is fortunate to have one of the nation’s strongest community college systems, but it’s faltering as funding dries up. We need regional, state, and federal funding to repair our aging schools, boost teacher salaries, and provide better early childhood education. We need loans and grants available to youth to encourage them to pursue higher education. We also need to get rid of No Child Left Behind once and for all. Yes, accountability and assessment are incredibly important. But for inner-city schools whose students may come from homes with a plethora of challenges, evaluation is not the be-all-end-all way to measure success. California schools are currently monitored to see if students meet state and federal proficiency standards. Proficiency is great, but we’re talking about school districts where kids may be moving from school to school; where they may enter the classroom performing well below grade level from day one; where they may miss big chunks of the school day for a multitude of reasons beyond the school’s control. We need to be evaluating more comprehensively to see where students started, what progress they’ve made, and what the factors in the progress or lack of progress were. Only then can we begin to make assertions about how successful a school or a teacher has been.
Obama would: Rewrite NCLB to offer more help to high-need schools and better fund and measure the program; negotiate pay performance programs with teachers, prioritize recruitment and offer professional development; spend $10 billion a year to expand early childhood education; increase federal funding for after-school programs; double federal spending on public charter schools while holding them accountable.
McCain would: Keep NCLB but change mode of measurement; offer bonus pay for teachers who raised achievement or worked in hard-to-staff schools; use federal money to support existing early childhood programs; allow parents to choose the school for their children; expand federal support for vouchers; promote online learning.
Both would: Expand after-school programs.
Advantage: Obama. NCLB has to go. Accountability is a good thing, but NCLB’s approach to achieving it has been devastating to our public schools, where teachers now “teach to the test” and often are forced to abandon the enrichment that could be exciting children to learn. And universal preschool is one of my big, big issues. We’ve had models for this for decades, and we still have kids entering kindergarten (and even first grade, in some states) with no exposure to education; they never make up that gap. After-school programs are another big concern, especially for Oakland, where many youth have nowhere to go after school, so I’m glad to see support for this from both candidates. I’m strongly opposed to vouchers, which in my view abandon and degrade our public schools. I still have some issues with Obama on education—for instance, I’m only a lukewarm supporter of charter schools (as a former teacher in one!) and I don’t think we’re ready for performance-based pay, though I certainly believe teachers should be much better paid and supported. Finally, we also need to expand support for higher education, something the candidates have only briefly touched on. The credit crisis has taken a huge toll on college students and their families this year; we need to make higher education, including community colleges and trade/vocational schools, much more accessible financially.
This is a biggie for Oakland in part because we have one of the country’s busiest container ports (only LA, Long Beach, and NYC are busier). The city has a giant challenge: preserve our active port and the many jobs it provides for residents, but at the same time reduce our reliance on foreign goods and enhance our local economy. The port is also a huge polluter, so we need to transition it to greener fuels and deal with the emissions of the thousands of trucks and trains that shuttle imported goods across the country. We need federal regulation of ports on this front, though. If Oakland tries to break new ground on its own, it risks losing container ships to other California ports. Ideally, we need federal or even continental strategies for greening the shipping industry. We need to balance our exports and imports so that we can stop sending empty containers back across the ocean, burning fossil fuel all the way. As a nation, we need to think carefully about what we trade and how. We should be trading only those goods that we do not have or cannot produce efficiently (and by “efficiently” I don’t mean Indonesian children, either!) and—importantly—that we actually need. And we should be offering those supplies that we have or can efficiently produce for other nations that may not have those resources. If it’s not in one of those two categories, we should be making it in the United States, growing it locally, or adapting to go without. We should also be thinking carefully about the future of our ports if we do reduce exports and imports over time, and should be planning accordingly. (Also see “immigration” below for more on trade.)
Obama would: Reform NAFTA to better protect workers’ rights and the environment; resist free trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia without reforms.
McCain would: Continue to support and strengthen NAFTA in its current incarnation.
Advantage: Obama on NAFTA; neither has said much to address intercontinental trade, which is problematic. Conceptually, having a continental trade agreement is a great idea. But NAFTA has issues—big issues. It was supposed to generate American jobs and raise Mexican wages and benefits, but in both cases the reverse has happened, which has had dire consequences for Oakland and the rest of California. Mexico’s agricultural economy has failed in part due to the subsidies U.S. agriculture receives. None of the three countries have seen the promised living conditions or environmental benefits. The coalition against NAFTA is hugely diverse, which should raise a big red flag. It needs to be tossed and constructed anew. If you’re not familiar with NAFTA and its provisions, definitely learn more about it (Wikipedia provides a decent starting place). Its huge failure over the last fifteen years also leads us right to….
Immigration is a big issue in many cities, but it’s a HUGE issue in Oakland and across California. While there are clearly a wide variety of views on whether immigrants should be here, the reality is that they are. Oakland schools have hundreds of immigrant students whose first languages are Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Amharic, Oromo, Vietnamese, Spanish, and dozens of others. We need a comprehensive set of programs to support children and their families so that students are healthy, learning, and engaged in their communities. While there’s an argument that says that we should only offer such programs to American citizens or immigrants with green cards, the consequences of excluding these children have the potential to be devastating—both for the youth themselves and for our communities. My preference is to create a path to citizenship as we have had for so many immigrants in past generations, but at a bare minimum we need to find effective way to provide education, health care, and other basic necessities to all families in the United States. Our investment there will come back to us tenfold in educated young adults who are active members of our communities and our work force, rather than youth who are relegated to underground gang activities and other under-the-radar means of getting by.
Obama would: Support a path to legalization for illegal immigrants that includes learning English and paying fines; toughen penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants.
McCain would: Secure borders, including a fence between the U.S. and Mexico; support comprehensive immigration reform, possibly including a guest worker program [before his presidential run, McCain also supported a path to legalization very similar to Obama’s proposal, but says he has now changed his mind].
Advantage: Obama. We need to address immigration in conjunction with foreign relations, and specifically in conjunction with our trade agreements with Mexico. Mexicans come to the U.S. because they have so few opportunities there. Improving conditions within Mexico would be a great first step in creating a disincentive to flee. I understand the notion of border security, but in California, at least, immigrant workers play (and honestly, have always played—see also the Chinese workers of the 19th century!) a huge role in our local economy, filling jobs that Americans aren’t taking. We need to address this on a number of levels: prepare Americans who do want manual labor, agricultural, and trade jobs to work in those industries, if they so choose; we do a terrible job of this right now. Then consider the labor gap that remains, and recognize that currently, illegal workers fill that gap. If you want to formalize some sort of guest worker program to allow immigration at that level so those jobs are filled, that’s okay by me, as long as it’s a fair and ethical system. But it should also allow those workers who do come to bring their families, work towards citizenship, pay taxes, and share in the benefits other residents receive. (We already do this with H-1B visas for workers in high-end professional industries where there are shortages; we should offer similar rules and similar benefits for workers who fill critical needs in less sexy manual labor-based industries.) Otherwise it’s effectively just slave labor—no benefit for the workers who help keep our country running. As an added benefit, allowing workers to enter legally removes the market for coyotes and makes it much easier to deport those immigrants—and they’re the minority—who are involved in criminal activity. Right now, there’s a huge culture of distrust, and people are afraid to speak up on injustices or crime for fear of what INS might do. In Oakland, INS raids on parents picking children up from elementary schools became a huge concern (and to OUSD’s credit, the district refused to allow it). Change that culture, and you get stronger neighborhoods, better law enforcement, and, ironically, much greater control over immigration.
It probably goes without saying that guns and gun control are huge issues for Oaklanders. There are several camps on this one, too; we have friends and neighbors who keep legal handguns for protection, something I wouldn’t be comfortable with personally. But the bigger issue around here is illegal handguns. They’re rampant, and contribute to the drug culture and gang warfare plaguing a number of areas of the city. We need better control and regulation of guns, and I believe this should extend to bans on automatic assault weapons and other guns that are clearly beyond the definition of “hunting” or “self-protection” weapons.
Obama would: Support some restrictions on gun ownership.
McCain would: Oppose gun control. [McCain did support some restrictions before his presidential run, but has since changed his view on this. He does, however, support mandatory background checks at gun shows.]
Advantage: Obama. This is not even a discussion. Oakland needs guns off the street today. This is a litmus test issue for me.
So there you have it, in a nutshell. I’m not even going to open the box on issues like the war, abortion, foreign relations, the death penalty, or gay marriage (a big one in California this year). Those all affect Oakland, too, but I could write a book on all this, and this is enough for one election!
(You can also read my two cents on the California ballot measures and the Oakland/East Bay elections.)