One Friday afternoon, I joined Patricia Kernighan for some door-to-door campaigning in the lower San Antonio. It was late afternoon, and dead quiet. The neighborhood kids were inside playing video games, or watching television. The parents were still at work. Ms. Kernighan and her team of about six middle-aged Vietnamese volunteers accounted for just about all of the action on the hilly streets tucked behind Highland Hospital.
The leader of the volunteers was Trung Nguyen, a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Navy who first came to Oakland in 1969 to train at the Navy Supply Base. He returned to Oakland for good in 1981. But not before spending a few years in a Vietnamese prison. Mr. Nguyen pointed to another volunteer and said that the man had been a captain in the South Vietnamese Navy. The man smiled. Mr. Nguyen said that Oakland’s Vietnamese love Ms. Kernighan. If that’s true, it might be because Ms. Kernighan was once the chief of staff to Danny Wan, who represented the district until he resigned in 2005. Mr Wan was known as a politician who built bridges to Oakland’s Vietnamese community.
In her tight race against Aimee Allison to keep her City Council seat representing Oakland’s District 2, Ms. Kernighan is wise not to take the support of any group for granted. Ms. Allison, a smooth-talking political newcomer with a Green Party membership and a Stanford B.A. has been winning over supporters since the runoff race began in June. Ms. Allison, 37, depicts Ms. Kernighan, 57, as a pillar of the establishment.
With a troop of former officers in South Vietnamese Navy acting as her street team this particular Friday, Ms. Kernighan doesn’t even try to shake the image as an establishment candidate — although she protested the Vietnam War when she was a student at the University of Washington, and she opposes the war in Iraq. Only in Oakland could she be considered a conservative. She says she agrees with much of what her opponent says about the state of crime, affordable housing, and job opportunities in Oakland. But she says the political and fiscal realities inside City Hall quickly take their toll on high ideals.
Ms. Kernighan won the council seat after Mr. Wan resigned. She didn’t have much of a political career before that. She was active in her children’s school, Crocker Highlands. She did “volunteer stuff.” She ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 1990 against Jean Quan, who now serves on City Council. “We were just a couple of unknown housewives,” she says. She has a law degree from Hastings, but she hasn’t practiced law in years.
A politcal ally of City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, Ms. Kernighan did not endorse Mayor-elect Ron Dellums, who beat Mr. De La Fuente in June. I asked her what she thought of the new mayor.
Kernighan: I think it’s going to be interesting. I’m pretty excited to have someone who is going to be more present and engaged.
NovoMetro: What do you think is the cause of Oakland’s crime spike this year?
Kernighan: I don’t think anyone really has the answer to that. It’s kids hitting a certain age. There’s also a new drug. I don’t know the street name, but it makes the (users) crazy.
NovoMetro: What about negotiations with the police officer’s union that would change the hours police officers work?
Kernighan: I think the council is going to be tough on (the police union). Somehow the message needs to get to get to (the union) that people are not supportive of what they are asking for.
Walking down East 27th Street towards 14th Avenue, Ms. Kernighan points to a pothole and says Oakland’s roads are a disaster. (This was before a study was released, which found that they are indeed among the worst in the state.) “The streets are always what we don’t do,” she says.