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Yes We Ken

Justin Berton | October 21, 2014 | Story

As the 2014 political circus nears its grand finale, San Francisco magazine peers under the big top. Here, a series of insider stories about issues, candidates, and races both important and absurd. Check back between now and November 4, as more stories go online.

Monday, Oct. 20: Consultants for Chaos
Tuesday, Oct. 21: Yes We Ken
Wednesday, Oct. 22: Soda Makes You Fat & I'm Ok With That
Thursday, Oct. 23: Republicans for Ro
Friday, Oct. 24: Cars Are People Too
Monday, Oct. 27: Build, Berkeley, Build
Tuesday, Oct. 28: I'm With David. No, I'm With David
Wednesday, Oct. 29: Pissed & Proud

Blame it on the amniotic warmth of tequila on a Sunday afternoon, but about halfway through a
glass of Don Julio with outsider Oakland mayoral hopeful Ken Houston, his candidacy starts to seem logical. Fated, even.

Houston was born in East Oakland’s flatlands—he still lives in the same neighborhood, Stone City, near 105th Avenue. Now, sitting in a bar in the Woodminster district with a Raiders game on nearly every set, he recalls walking to Castlemont High School as a hungry teenager and finding sustenance in the form of free lunches provided by the Black Panthers. “My soul was fed by the movement,” Houston says with the cadence of a pastor. “I am the son of Oakland. I am Oakland.” He shakes his head. “No other candidate can say they came from where I came from.”

Since his Castlemont days, Houston, 50, has worked to become one of the city’s most well-connected contractors—and has cast himself as a fiery advocate for the city’s working-class poor. An engaged fixture at city hall, he championed the municipal law that raised “local participation” hiring rules on new construction sites from 30 to 50 percent. At his own company, he says, he has trained 60 ex-felons fresh from San Quentin State Prison.

But it wasn’t until June that Houston thought about running for office. That’s when he found himself looking on as councilmember-at-large Rebecca Kaplan announced her own mayoral campaign on a trash-strewn East Oakland street chosen to illustrate the city’s failures under Mayor Jean Quan. Houston, who has organized armies of volunteers on his own time—and dime—to paint over graffiti and pick up trash, was insulted by the political theater. Instead of holding a press conference, Houston says, Kaplan—now arguably the front-runner in a race packed with 15 candidates—should have reached down and picked up the litter.

He leans across the table to grasp my forearm: “I’m getting sick of seeing politicians use my community as a prop. People asked me, they said, ‘Ken, how are you going to let her disrespect us like that?’” He raises his hands to indicate that he was left with no alternative but to run for the city’s highest office.

It certainly helps Houston’s admittedly minuscule chances that in 2010, Oakland adopted ranked-choice voting, the stated purpose of which was to level the field between cash-rich politicians and the rest of us. In that respect, it has delivered: This year’s mayoral ballot contains a plethora of relatively obscure candidates, most of whom hope to pull off the same upset that Quan managed against the well-financed state senator Don Perata in 2010.

After Houston filed papers to run, he told the Chronicle that he was just another socially conscious, pissed-off Oaklander tired of the leadership vacuum at city hall. He also described himself as a “bad boy” with a taste for white lightning. “Dude, I like to drink tequila,” he told reporter Will Kane. “I drank it last night. I like motorcycles. I like women.”

I tell Houston that Oaklanders might appreciate his authenticity as they watch other candidates contort themselves into various forms of Who Oakland Needs Next: the Crimefighter (Joe Tuman); the Safe Bet (Libby Schaff); the Socialist Utopian (Dan Siegel). The city is on the precipice of shedding its bum rap, and its residents are eager not to regress. Oakland sometimes feels as if it’s been stitched together by people who would rather buy a bucket of paint than call city hall. But when it comes to picking leaders, the citizenry often fall for the dreamer (Ron Dellums comes to mind) over the doer.

Houston takes in that observation in the same way that he enjoys his Don Julio. He’s under no illusion that he’ll win: Five weeks from Election Day, polls showed him tied with five others at the bottom of the ballot. Even so, he says, his candidacy has charged him with purpose. A handful of contenders have called him recently, wondering what they could do to ensure that their names are listed as the second or third choice on his ballots.

“That makes me a decision maker now,” Houston says, taking another pull from his tequila. “But I’ll tell you,” he adds, “I won the race the day I signed up. We sparked something with the kids. If Ken Houston can run for mayor, why can't they?"

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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