Lynette Gibson Mc Elhaney walks into an early morning scene at Old Oakland’s Caffe 817 with the confident air of someone who has just been elected to City Council. Which she was, in District 3, a wide swath of territory which includes West Oakland, Uptown/Downtown, and Lake Merritt. She wasn’t the favorite to win—Sean Sullivan was often projected to be the winner—but when the returns came in, Gibson-McElhaney emerged victorious, by a close margin.
In an hour-long conversation with a reporter, Oakland’s newest elected official spoke about the challenges of her district, the new dynamic of Oakland politics, public safety, economic inequality, upward mobility, environmental health issues, and even the Occupy movement.
A public housing professional for twenty years before deciding to run for office, Gibson-McElhaney is grounded in housing issues – which offer her considerable insight into economic and social policy. “Where we are challenged in this country, and it shows up in this district and in our city, is in the growing inequity gap,” she says.
“I am a bit frustrated with how constrained we are with speaking truth,” she admits. “There’s something we’re not able to quite get at in our current conversation. That was something I really appreciated about Occupy. As a person who’s worked in low-income communities for 20 years… I want to talk about intersections of race and class, and I want to talk about racial inequity. And people will say, ‘ooh, Lynette, you sound so ‘60s, you can’t talk about that.’
“We went away from talking about housing as an extension of the social justice movement, an extension of the civil rights movement, to talking about things like workforce housing, low and moderate income, adopt all these euphemisms," she says. "The bankers didn’t want to talk about poor people, the housing authority didn’t want to talk about poor people, I mean we’re just like, so constrained.”
She sees her district’s diverse population as a microcosm of Oakland overall, while she views the city as having the potential to be a post-millennial version of Montgomery, Alabama – a place which “could be that epicenter for a 21st century movement that’s around equity.”
What I love about Oakland,” she says, “is we have even here a business community that is interested in helping support initiatives which will actually strengthen the fabric of our city overall.”
Businesses have a slightly different perspective than residents, she adds.
“They want to know they’re in a city that can address the crime and violence and provide a workforce, so that they can attract employees, whether they’re from here or not from here. They have an interest in our location, logistics, the advantages we have, so we have corporate citizens ready to help us invest in things that are gonna make a dent in these larger social challenges we have.”
The fact that Oakland also faces significant environmental challenges is not lost on the Councilperson-elect. Gibson-McElhaney says she’s not a “green expert,” rather someone speaking from the perspective of a mother with one asthmatic child and another with birth defects: “I didn’t know that was what I was getting when I purchased my little home next to a freeway. I didn’t realize I was contributing to my baby’s future health challenges. I have a son that was born with birth defects, largely because of the air I breathe. That makes you cry, like I did this. Like I should have chosen some place else. Nobody should have to live somewhere else. We can do better than that.”
Adding that she’s looking forward to working with environmental advocacy groups and experts, she notes that the Port of Oakland recently conducted a shore power test: “that’s gonna make a tremendous difference in the quality of the air we breathe… So I think there’s a lot of stuff that’s moving in the right direction.”
The number one issue in Oakland,she stresses, is public safety. As a candidate, Gibson-McElhaney supported Operation Ceasefire and community policing measures; in conversation, she says the police union represents a large piece in the public safety puzzle. The union needs to “get off of the defensiveness and feeling embattled,” she says. “I want them creatively engaged in solving their problems.”
Gibson-McElhaney isn’t afraid to speak her mind. On the issue of gentrification, she quickly debunked the popular view that African Americans are being displaced from their traditional neighborhoods – a cause of alarm ever since the 2010 census indicated blacks were leaving Oakland in droves.
“Are we seeing people move out of economic choice or we seeing displacement?,” she asks. “I think it’s important to define our terms... When I look throughout West Oakland and District 3, but also North Oakland, and parts of East Oakland as well, if we’re talking about the declining African American population, I don’t see gentrification as the cause for that.”
Educated urbanites with good incomes who are moving into homes in West Oakland formerly occupied by black families, represent “an investment in the community,” she says. At the other end of the spectrum Gibson-McElhaney references the fact that black elders who can’t afford upkeep on their homes are selling their houses for good prices and moving to gated communities.
There’s a sense of optimism—not just from her, but from senior Council members, she relates, as she prepares to take office. Time will tell how that plays out, and whether that optimism translates to more functional leadership than in the past.
As one of three new City Council members, Gibson-McElhaney represents a breath of fresh air for an elected body known for gridlock and infighting.
“What’s gonna be different,” she says, “is there’s just new folks in the conversation. We don’t bring any grudges that I know of, everybody’s really enthusiastic, including the reelected incumbents, and I think the newness of it just allows a reset button.”