The cast of characters active in local politics range from the familiar to the fringes. Some may look familiar, but do not behave as you might expect. Understanding how the various pieces fit into this political puzzle will be necessary in order to cast meaningful votes in our local races come November. What follows is a rundown of the various politically active participants in no particular order.
The Good Old Boys
One of our current Councilmembers recently remarked that Vallejo is one of the biggest small towns you will ever see. While there has been considerable churn among the resident population since the Navy base shut down, the old crony network from the glory days has managed to maintain considerable political influence. These include major property owners and chamber of Commerce types.
Bill Pendergast, a mayoral candidate from the 2016 cycle, served four terms on the school board culminating in the district’s bankruptcy. He describes the demographic transition in Vallejo over the years in an SFGate news article from 2005:
"When I grew up, Vallejo was almost all white," Bill Pendergast says. "The population when I was in high school was around 30,000. You knew everybody, and pretty much everybody knew you."
The Mare Island Naval Shipyard closed in 1993, but the writing was on the wall long before that. As cheaper housing attracted families who were priced out of other parts of the Bay Area, many Vallejoans who could afford better moved on, often cursing the newcomers on the way out.
"I saw a lot of that growing up and I still hear it: 'You've got to get out of there. Vallejo is going to the dogs. It's all the Filipinos. It's all the African Americans. It's all the Hispanics. It's all the fill-in-the-blank,' " Bill Pendergast says.
Representatives of the old guard property owners can be found in the Chamber and the Central Core Restoration Corporation (CCRC), where President Buck Kamphausen holds court. The CCRC administers a Property and Business Improvement District for Vallejo’s downtown area.
A Brown University study in 2012 identified the Vallejo/Fairfield area as the most ethnically diverse metropolitan area in the entire nation. But all too often these ethnic groups operate in parallel, independent of one another. A 2001 New York Times article notes how a lack of interaction among various local community networks had developed in Vallejo, which tend to support political candidates of the same ethnic background:
"Vallejo's racial balance is a result of addition and subtraction. For many years, it was a Navy town, dominated by the Mare Island Shipyard, which during World War II employed more than 50,000 people, including thousands of blacks who were drawn from the South. Even before the war, the city attracted large numbers of Filipinos, many of whom had served as stewards on Navy ships."
In many ways, Vallejo goes out of its way to acknowledge its diversity. City officials strive to ensure that all citizens' commissions and advisory boards are balanced. Yet the city also has a Black Chamber of Commerce, a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a Filipino Chamber of Commerce, in addition to the original Chamber of Commerce, which is dominated by white businesses.
''Every time we try to put ourselves together,'' said Thomas Egidio, who is white and president of the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce, ''we end up fighting with each other, so it was decided that each group would have its own organization.''
The Hispanic community has continued to grow in relative numbers, but has remained largely unrepresented and disengaged from City politics. Mina Diaz, is a longtime activist and founder of Diaz & Loera Centro Latino in Vallejo, a multi-service community center. Mina ran for a council seat in 2016 and lost by a narrow margin.
The Filipino community by contrast has been well organized and very successful in electing political candidates. They boast four of the seven current Councilmembers, one of whom is up for re-election. Incumbent council candidate Jess Malgapo is a former naval commander whose background exemplifies the parallel institutional development within a community network. A Times Herald profile of the candidate ahead of the 2011 election reads as follows:
“Malgapo lists his primary political experience as serving as a campaign manager and fundraiser for friend Councilman Hermie Sunga. He has also held lead positions in organizations like the Filipino-American Chamber of Commerce, the Vallejo Veterans Memorial Building Council and President of the Filipino American Retired, United States Armed Forces Association.”
Mr. Malgapo became the principal organizer and president of the clandestine ad hoc ‘shadow government’ committee revealed through public records requests to have used City public employees to pursue a private agenda. Members included the applicants for the controversial Vallejo Marine Terminal/Orcem slag cement milling operation proposed for the south Vallejo waterfront. The committee worked out of public view to entice the Army into resuming regular deep dredging of the length of Mare Island Strait to allow large cargo ship traffic. The reactionary vision pushed by this secret committee would return heavy industry to the Vallejo waterfront, and flies in the face of the shared community vision produced through the public planning process.
Malgapo’s political mentor Hermie Sunga is also a retired Naval commander who was forced to step down from the Council by the two term limit in 2014. Sunga is now serving a third term after winning again in 2016. Joining Sunga as the only other successful member of the 2016 JumpStart slate of Council candidates is Rozzanna Verder-Aliga. She was president of the school board when it went bankrupt in 2004, by her own admission utterly clueless as to the actual state of the institution she was responsible for managing. Verder-Aliga also participated in Mr. Malgapo’s secret ad hoc committee, attempting to turn our waterfront into a version of Stockton or west Oakland. In spite of a record of spectacularly bad decisions they keep getting re-elected.
The African American community has also been politically active, often through church groups or social organizations like black sororities. They were among the strong supporters of former Mayor Osby Davis and the former Superintendent of the public school district Ramona Bishop. They also play a prominent role in the newly chartered Community Democratic Club, which has been opening it’s meetings by welcoming those who oppose planks of the Democratic Party platform like support for gay marriage and legal access to cannabis. Members of the black community have also been highly visible in the dominionist movement, which we turn to next.
Dominionist Church Network
Now here’s something you don’t see every day as a political observer, and something I never expected to find in a Bay Area city. Former Mayor Davis found some of his strongest political support among a network of local churches that aligned with the international Transformation movement. This religious subculture works hard to combine church and state into an all encompassing theocracy.
Adherents are sometimes called dominionists because they believe they are supposed to take control, or dominion, over all aspects of society. Also known as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), the leaders of this movement believe and teach that Christians have a mandate to reclaim "for Christ" Seven Mountains of influence, which they have designated as:
On the Transformation Vallejo web site you can find the following dominionist mission statement: “The discipline of nations is our primary task on earth.” Reading further you find an explanation of what they mean by that:
“Key Point: It is possible to disciple a nation. Nations have been, and are being, discipled all the time. To disciple someone means to turn that person into a follower of the teachings you espouse. In the case of a nation it means to impact its life so that it will conform to a set of specific values and develop a corresponding behavior.
- The Romans “discipled” nations by conquering and imposing on them the Pax Romana.
- Lenin “discipled” Russia and the Soviet Union by molding in a regimented and
all-encompassing way the lives of millions with Communist philosophy.
- Mao discipled China with Communist philosophy.
- Militant Muslims actively take over nations and disciple them a la Ayatollah Khomeini to be
followers (disciples) of Mohammed.”
Sounds great, right? Trust them, it’s for our own good. They go on to further explain that this is a sequential process that starts at the city level and expands to include regions and then nations and on to the ends of the earth. These are some of the same self-styled religious leaders that have been traveling to African nations like Uganda spreading a gospel of hate against gays, who they believe are inhabited by demons, and encouraging punitive anti-gay laws. Mayor Davis went on a junket to Tanzania while in office to share the Transformation message with the leader of that nation.
Leaders of the NAR movement consider Vallejo to be their United States west coast beachhead and stronghold. Back in 2011 on the Harvest Evangelism web page, Mayor Davis is quoted under the banner VALLEJO CITY OF GOD - Mayor and City Council Look to God to Heal Their City: “If the church does her job,” declared our Mayor, “the city will be transformed.” Instead of healing the city, our mayor and his supporters continued to link the name of our city and its officeholders with divisive minority views on issues like gay marriage at events like an annual Mayor’s prayer breakfast. Leaders of this movement typically call for unity when confronted, and try to paint opponents as divisive troublemakers.
The Vallejo dominionist network has rebranded itself several times, as each promised dramatic transformation of the City under their leadership fails to materialize. In 2007 they organized as the Vallejo Faith Organization and helped elect Osby Davis as Mayor by a two vote margin in a ballot recount. Following some unifying public pronouncements by Mayor Davis such as “government can’t help the poor, nor should it,” and gays are “committing sin and that sin will keep them out of heaven,” the group morphed into Transformation Vallejo. They played a part in electing the current majority to the City Council in 2013 by supporting the JumpStart slate of candidates.
More recently members have surfaced in the form of New Dawn Vallejo, which sponsored a midnight basketball program. Leaders also play prominent roles in the new “Community" Democratic Club (CDC) chartered through friends at the county Democratic central committee. In a city where the Democratic Party registration far outnumbers all others, everyone wants to run as a Democrat. The CDC will try to make it hard to distinguish the real Democrats from the Democrats In Name Only (DINOs). We’ll look at how to tell the difference in the next section.
In Solano county registered Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one. Naturally, it will increase your chances of winning if you run for office as a Democrat. Former Republicans like newly elected Senate and Assembly candidates Bill Dodd and Tim Grayson switch their party labels when they try for higher office. More than 63% of Vallejo voters are registered with the Democratic Party. Special interest players with hidden agendas will continue to engage in deliberate and cynical attempts to deceive local voters by masquerading as Democrats.
In the 2013 election cycle, the president of the long-established Democratic Party club in Vallejo appeared to endorse the ‘JumpStart Vallejo’ slate of candidates. This was the result of the manipulation of one confused individual and not a vote of the membership. The seeming 'endorsement’ by the United Democrats of Southern Solano County allowed the backers of the JumpStart slate to put out glossy mailers giving voters the false impression that these candidates supported Democratic Party principles. This collection of JumpStart DINOs included a dominionist homophobe pastor, who became the only member of the slate to lose in the election.
In the wake of that sorry 2013 spectacle the United Democrats ousted the president who allowed it to happen, and installed leadership that vowed never to let the club be used like that again. In need of a new way to confuse voters and pretend to be Democrats, dominionist pastors joined their political allies to form their own new club, and received a charter from the Democratic Party county central committee where allies wield significant influence. The new Community Democratic Club (CDC) has taken to opening its meetings with a message from the president welcoming members who oppose planks of the Democratic Party platform like gay marriage.
While regional dominionist leaders preach against the evils of labor unions, the local CDC is closely allied with the union interests that recruited and financed JumpStart. They speak the language of black lives matter, yet support building a slag cement plant that would harm the health and quality of life for residents of south Vallejo who already suffer an unfair share of the regional burden of industrial pollution. They preach intolerance couched in the language of unification, and the glaring moral and philosophical inconsistencies reveal the leaders of this political alliance as self-serving and manipulative.
One response to the CDC has been the formation and chartering of the new Stonewall Democratic club, which highlights LGBT issues and supports the principles and platform of the Democratic Party. The dominionist faction active in the CDC publicly opposed the right of local patients to access medical cannabis, and backed the attempt by the Mayor and Jumpstart councilmembers to run the dispensaries out of town in violation of campaign promises to implement Measure C.
Napa/Solano Labor Council
If you fall on the left side of the political spectrum you’ll be accustomed to supporting the interests of labor unions and believe that they have been important institutions that helped build an American middle class. This author was raised in a blue collar union family with a father who negotiated private sector union contracts for a living. He landed in jail more than once when I was young for fighting with company goons in the streets over the right to strike and bargain collectively. I can hardly be accused of bias against labor unions.
However, as with any democratic institution, people will sometimes make bad choices and vote in bad leadership. Witness the current Republican president. It was a disappointment to find that some of the strongest labor influences in Vallejo politics have consistently been on the wrong side of local issues. In particular the leadership of the public safety employee unions and building trades unions have played a major role in electing candidates willing to serve a narrow set of interests at the expense of members of other unions and the City as a whole.
When my father sat at a contract negotiating table in the private sector, the people on both sides knew they were going to have to live with the resulting agreement. That is a very different situation from public safety unions who are able to use member dues to choose the elected officials sitting across the table negotiating deals. The resulting labor contracts will impact City finances long after their terms in office have ended.
As a young man I was working in one of the union shops represented by my father during contract time, and had the opportunity to listen to the message the leadership delivered forcefully to their members. They would negotiate the best deal possible, but the members had to hold up their end and work hard to make sure the company stayed profitable enough to afford the contract package. The leaders of public safety unions in Vallejo forgot that lesson if they ever learned it, and used their leverage to ram through lavish compensation packages that the City could not afford.
Base salaries in Vallejo were set at 10% above a 14 city average with an additional 30% added for extra pay categories. Many opted for early retirement ahead of the bankruptcy, having been able to stockpile unlimited accumulation of sick pay, three years accumulation of holiday pay and four years accumulation of vacation pay. These accumulated benefits could easily add up to a $200,000 payout per employee upon retirement. After 30 years service they could retire with a pension that amounted to an extraordinary 90% of their final salary with the City covering 100 percent of their health care costs.
Given the potential to rig the negotiating process it’s important to have public sector union leadership with a balanced perspective, able to consider more than single minded self-interest. The union movement was founded with a spirit of worker solidarity and mutual support, another aspect not fully appreciated by local public safety union leaders. Other City workers with less political clout suffered severe cuts as a result of the pursuit of naked self interest by these individuals.
The current executive director of the Solano Labor Council is Jon Riley, a retired Vallejo fire captain. He earned the moniker ‘Abalone Jon’ after it came to light the firefighter's union under his leadership was charging the City some $24,000 per year for ‘business’ activities that included things like abalone diving, while Vallejo slipped into insolvency. Maintaining their influence at City Hall means working and spending on local campaigns to elect officials that will vote with them. In a speech to the Contra County Taxpayers Association, a former Vallejo City Council member recalls her experience going before the Solano Central Labor endorsement committee as a candidate. She relates that she was asked point blank during the interview if she would “stay bought.”
Mr. Riley and his predecessor have used their access to money and manpower to maintain influence in county and regional level Democratic Party politics. That influence was recently used at the Party’s county central committee in the push to charter the Community Democratic Club. Mr. Riley’s involvement with the dominionist fringe pastors leading the Community club is a classic case of politics making strange bedfellows. The dominionist movement explicitly opposes labor unions in their literature and in speeches by their leadership, as well as opposing Democratic Party platform planks like support for gay marriage.
With access to the United Democrats club closed to him, Mr. Riley needed a new way to dress up his DINO candidates as Democrats. This latest unholy alliance represents an attempt by two fading political factions to cling to power through one more election cycle. While other local unions continue to deserve support from progressives, the endorsement of the Napa/Solano Central Labor Council, JumpStart Vallejo, or other association with Jon Riley in local races should be considered disqualifying. If Riley’s for it on the local level, we’re probably against it.
Real Estate Lobby
It’s not hard to see a link between the outsized campaign contributions from public safety unions to the JumpStart candidates for city council and their desire to restore binding arbitration to city contract negotiations. The county level building trades unions behind the JumpStart PAC would love to help build terrible projects like a slag cement plant on our waterfront that would compromise the health of local residents for generations to come. While these goals run counter to the public good, the motivating self-interest is obvious. But what about the money pouring in from outside real estate PACs to particular Vallejo city council candidates? What’s in it for them?
The amount of outside real estate industry money spent in the 2013 election that put incumbent council candidates Malgapo and Dew-Costa in office was significant in the context of the total spending. The JumpStart political action committee reported raising $126,472 in that election cycle. Along with the public safety and building trades union money and more than $10,000 from a large real estate developer with local interests, we find an $8,000 contribution from the California Real Estate PAC (CREPAC). They contributed another $4,000 directly to JumpStart candidates, while Jesus Malgapo and Pippin Dew-Costa received another $32,482 from the National Association of Realtors.
Three of the four sitting JumpStart majority councilmembers are real estate agents, and it’s understandable that local developers and property owners would want to buy some political influence - which they did. But why are state and national lobbying groups spending money to tip the political balance in Vallejo city elections? Who are these people and why do they favor some local candidates over others?
CREPAC acts in support of the larger association mission:
“The purpose of the CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® is to serve its membership in developing and promoting programs and services that will enhance the members' freedom and ability to conduct their individual businesses successfully with integrity and competency, and through collective action, to promote real property ownership and the preservation of real property rights.”
How does enhancing “members’ freedom” and preserving “real property rights” translate into public policy at the local level? Bottom line - they don’t want to see any sort of movement anywhere in the direction of strengthening tenant’s rights.
CREPAC backs state candidates who support association policies, with a fund inside the CREPAC budget to support local candidates. A look at the the successes trumpeted to members by the Silicon Valley branch in the last cycle tells the story of how they go into cities to fight rent control or stabilization measures:
“We were extremely successful in our lobbying efforts, with scores of REALTORS® showing up again and again at city council meetings to say NO to bad policy. Thanks to our lobbying efforts:
• Mountain View City Council voted on three separate occasions to not adopt rent control, but
instead adopt a comprehensive tenant protection program that did not punish landlords.
• Atherton Town Council voted against creating a business licensing program that would raise
taxes on some real estate brokerages from $250 to tens of thousands of dollars.
• Menlo Park City Council exempted single-family homes, condominiums, second units, duplexes and three-unit rental buildings from its new long-term lease requirement."
Sadly, they had to report ultimately suffering a setback after managing to stymie local Council action repeatedly: “Lost rent control in Mountain View. After multiple successful rounds of lobbying on the issue, tenants were able to place this issue on the ballot and it passed with approximately 53 percent of the vote. In a community that is 60 percent rental, it was an uphill battle. We will fight this issue whenever and wherever it comes back.”
As Vallejo residents struggle to keep pace with rapidly rising rents and the homeless remain a fixture on our streets, the question of what mix of housing policies we should pursue will need to be addressed. We need people in office who are free to weigh all sides and find a balanced approach that will serve the long term needs of the community as a whole. Candidates like incumbent councilmembers Malgapo and Dew-Costa who are part of the industry and were elected with the help of lobbying powerhouses like the CREPAC can’t credibly claim to bring an open mind to these issues.