Fred Blackwell

In Oakland City Government Management 2017, Black Men, Once Common, Are Rare

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Fred Blackwell
Fred Blackwell

John B. Williams, Lionel Wilson, Carter Gillmore, Marcus Foster, George Williams, Henry Gardner, Avon Manning, Elihu Harris, Robert Bobb, Gregory Hunter, Cedric Williams, Clint Bolden, Austin Penny, Ray Leon, Fred Blackwell, Kofi Bonner, and Ron Dellums, Larry Reid, and Lamont Ewell are some of the top names in a long list of distinguished black men who have served executive management positions in the City of Oakland since 1968.

Elihu Harris
Elihu Harris

If you know Oakland at all you know many of the names: John B. Williams was the City of Oakland’s legendary boss of its redevelopment agency, and going back to 1968. Lionel Wilson was Oakland’s first black mayor in 1979. Carter Gillmore was the first African American elected to the Oakland City Council in 1977. Marcus Foster was the first black Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, who was killed by the Symbonese Liberation Army in 1973. Henry Gardner was Oakland’s first black City Manager. Avon Manning was Assistant City Manager under Gardner. The legendary Ron Dellums became Oakland’s 48th Mayor in 2007. Robert Bobb was Oakland City Manager and then Oakland’s first City Administrator in 2000. Larry Reid is the current Oakland City Coucilman for District

Larry Reid
Larry Reid

Seven and was Mayor Harris’ Chief of Staff. And Gregory Hunter, Cedric Williams, Clint Bolden, Austin Penny, (now San Francisco Foundation CEO) Fred Blackwell, (now Lennar Urban Director) Kofi Bonner, and Lamont Ewell all held positions as City Manager, Assitant City Adminstrator, or head of Oakland’s economic development and redevelopment departments.

What these gentleman represented was what became something of a tradition in Oakland: an expectation of seeing a black man run something. That’s not to say there wasn’t a great list of black women then, but there are many African American women in high positions in Oakland today – however the ranks of black men in City of Oakland management positions have lessened to such a degree that Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf did not have one black male in any position in her office for most of her time as Mayor, and that includes the City Administrator’s Office.

As one who served as Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris’ Economic Advisor from 1995 to 1999, and then as the founder and Executive Director of The Oakland-Alameda County Sports Commission from 1999 to 2001, I’m proud to say I’ve known the majority of the men I’ve listed, and many others. For example, Mr. Bonner and I have a relationship that goes back to September 15th 1985, when I met him in the computer room of The University of California at Berkeley Department of City and Regional Planning, where we were both students. Part of the Berkeley Mafia.

But something has happened, and that it has became obvious to me when I was at Mayor Schaaf’s thank you event earlier this year. I made a livestream of the gathering, which is up at Zennie62 on YouTube as I write this. It was a fantastic time, but one moment just completely shocked me: when Mayor Schaaf asked her staff of what was by my count 29 people to come up for a photo, there was not a single black man. Black women, yes; black men, no.

That was jarring to me.

It was particularly bothersome because prior to what I will call “The NFL issue”, Mayor Schaaf and I had been close – after she was elected Mayor, she referred to me as her “brother” and so I returned the act, and called her my godsiter, and it went on from there.

This all started because we’ve known each other for about 30 years, and both shared a love for the Oakland community. In May of 2009, I was the one who told Libby she should run for Mayor, and I said it in front of her parents, my godparents, and my Mom, at their place. Libby ran for District Four Oakland City Council, and won in 2010, even as I wrote that she was going to run for Mayor of Oakland as an April Fools story that many took seriously.

But, in 2013, things changed: Bryan Parker, a black Oakland busness man new to politics, asked me to support his run for Mayor. I held off to ask Libby if she was going to run; she said no. But I was completely blindsided by the news she changed her mind – and it did not come from her. Libby never asked me to join her team – just expected that I would automatically dump Bryan and back her. But that’s not something one does in politics. Rank Choice Voting saved me – I could pick Parker 1, Schaaf 2, and Joe Tuman 3. But I was, and still am, hurt about that. The one who pushed her to run for Mayor and laid the publicity groundwork – the one who has a deep history in Oakland government – was left on the outside of her campaign, even as a black man in Bryan Parker asked for my help. That really dd hurt.

Then came the NFL: Schaaf rotinely learned on me for advice – some she took early on (like working to develop a relationship with Oakland Raiders Owner Mark Davis) but most she did not take (the stadium plan Mark Davis asked for from me, landing Pier Jaffrey Investment Bankers for the stadium project, letting the NFL purchase the Coliseum land, forming an incentive package and a plan to have the A’s go to Howard Terminal, and so on). But what was occasional at first became for all practical purposes a job for me. So, when I changed my mind and sought to be brought on as a consultant, and after Oakland Raiders Owner Mark Davis asked me to form a plan for Coliseum City – and after I cold-called Piper Jaffrey Investment Bankers and introduced a spreadsheet financial plan the firm blessed that called for no tax subsidy. Even with all of that, Libby never hired me – just maintained what I called the brother code.

We lost our preliminary bid to keep the Raiders, and for reasons that, had I been placed in an official position to fix, would not have existed. That because I have a relationship with the National Football League which goes back to 1995, and the return of the Raiders to Oakland from LA. After my work from 1999 to 2001 to have Oakland bid for the 2005 Super Bowl (we lost to Jacksonville), I wound up covering the NFL Draft from 2005 to present year.

Anyway, on March 26th 2017, by a vote of 31 to 1, we lost. A lot happened that weekend leading up to that day that involved the Mayor and I will not go into. But after that, I started to put things together, and look around at my City of Oakland – and that’s when the problem I wanted to ignore became impossible not to pay attention to: black men in non-elected executive positions were all but impossible to find in Oakland’s City Hall.

Now, you can say my reasons for being so interested in this issue now are self-serving, and you would be correct. But look: the whole point of being gainfully employed, being able to be well-compensated for being good at what you do, is self-serving. It would have been great to see other black men in many different high-level positons in Oakland, thus meaning it really was just my lack of whatever, but that is not the case. Oakland has gotten rid of black male managers under Mayor Schaaf.

That this is happening under Libby, and that I am compelled to point it out, makes me sick to my stomach. But someone has to shed a light on this problem. One media publication I will not named pointed to the “sisterhood” but I contend deliberately failed to note the lack of black men. Moreover, that publication has had a history of attacking black male government executives in Oakland. So, when I read that article, it seemed to me that the publication was engaging in a kind of dog-whistle racism, celebrating that black men were nowhere to be seen, without saying so.

This has to be considered a crisis of perception based on race and sex. A combination of some kind of weird hatred for competent black men, combined with what seems to be a white guilt over the race issue. Even though Oakland’s had and has a great history of powerful black women in many executive positions in Oakland, to see the ranks today and the media coverage, you’d think Oakland had never seen sisters before. Perish the thought.

Clearly, we collectively took a wrong turn over the last few years. If Mayor Schaaf was committed to ending the problem of perception, she would have hired me to represent her on the NFL issue, rather than just repeatedly calling me her brother and saying I have her ear. When you believe someone is truly competent at something, you pay for their services, and not seek free advice and work from them.

Something is wrong in Oakland. It’s not the way we used to be. That said, the new City of Oakland Planning Director William Gilchrist, an African American man, is a step in the right direction. It’s not that the ranks have to be as they were when Oakland was a majority black city, but the drop in black men has been so dramatic that people have talked about it – I decided to write about it.

Stay tuned, because I’m not done trying to figure out what happened to Oakland.