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Oakland City Councilwoman Desley Brooks Is Combative, Scandal-Prone, and…Popular. Can She Win Another Term?

Is this the year Oaklanders give up on their most polarizing politician? Or will they stick with the devil they know?

Elaine Brown, the 72-year-old former Black Panther leader, lay on the floor, her rotator cuff torn. Looming above her was Desley Brooks, the 54-year-old Oakland City Council member. It was Brooks who, in the heat of an argument over housing policy inside Everett & Jones Barbeque in downtown Oakland, had shoved Brown to the ground, between tables and chairs, where she hit her head. During the ensuing 2017 trial over the events of October 30, 2015, Judge Paul Herbert determined that Brooks had lied under oath in claiming self-defense. The incident will cost city taxpayers more than $2.2 million and Brooks herself possibly $75,000.

Come November’s election, the fight could also prove to be a career ender for the veteran councilwoman, who is known in Oakland for being, depending on whom you ask, a champion of the oppressed or a loose cannon with little regard for rules. The lawmaker once referred to as the “Donald Trump of Oakland” by Mayor Libby Schaaf may yet survive this latest test of her resilience. After all, Brooks has already won four terms in office despite a history of ethical and legal imbroglios, and she is again running a vigorous, unapologetic campaign. Though she is clearly disliked by some council colleagues and Schaaf, she is still hailed by supporters in East Oakland’s District 6 as a fighter for the disenfranchised, particularly African Americans. That is a crucial factor in an area where nearly 19,000 of the 31,000-plus registered voters are black.

James Taylor, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco who has lived in Oakland for 18 years, says that many in District 6 support Brooks precisely because she is so confrontational. “Desley Brooks benefits from a sense of being under siege,” Taylor says. “People just see it as more of the same persecution of a black woman representing her district.” Where many outside the district see favoritism and corruption in Brooks’s commitment of city money—incidences of which the city auditor and a county grand jury called illegal in 2013—many of her constituents instead see an effort to deliver long-denied benefits that are rightfully theirs. “They think she’s fighting the Man, trying to get a return for them,” Taylor says.

As for Brooks’s assault on Brown, supporters are circumspect: “There are always two sides to every story,” says the Reverend Harold Mayberry, Brooks’s longtime pastor at the First AME Church in Oakland and one of many religious figures who’ve endorsed her in the past. In the wake of the guilty verdict against her, Brooks has pointed an accusatory finger at the media, charging a historically racist press, in league with her political enemies, with waging “a concerted effort” to oust her from office and muzzle “the community.” “It’s about silencing the voice of the people,” Brooks said at a city council meeting in February, “because I’ve been that the entire time that I’ve been here.” (In late May, Brooks filed an appeal challenging the verdict against her in the Brown case and the $75,000 she was ordered to pay the plaintiff.)

Given Brooks’s stated distrust of the media, I was surprised when she agreed to my request for an in-person interview. I had sent her office an email saying that I wanted to speak to her supporters and hear from her about what she hopes to accomplish in a fifth term in office. When Brooks graciously responded via email, we agreed to meet several days later at the Eastmont Town Center, a long-blighted mall that is now anchored by a police substation and several social service agencies.

When I arrived, Brooks was sitting in the lobby of the police station. Seeing me, she jumped up and headed out the door to her white Lexus while I attempted to make small talk. We both got in, and Brooks began driving along 73rd Avenue before turning onto Bancroft. I asked if she minded my taping our interview; she did. For the next several minutes, Brooks talked of her efforts to get free food distributed in her district and free concerts staged there.

She then bemoaned the lack of press attention given to her positive contributions to the district, citing a recent groundbreaking ceremony for a project she’d spearheaded that was attended by only the East Bay Times. I asked her if the Oakland Post, a local publication focused on African American affairs that has been supportive of Brooks in the past, had also sent a reporter to the event.

It was as if I’d touched a live wire. “Why did you ask that?” Brooks said, turning to look at me while we were stopped at a light. “You could have asked a lot of things, but you asked that. Why?”

Unsettled, I backpedaled, emphasizing that I’d meant nothing by the question, that I had no agenda. “I think your question spoke volumes,” she said.

When the light turned green, Brooks made a U-turn, and it became clear she was taking me back. I asked what she thought I’d intended in choosing that question. “You know,” she said, refusing to elaborate. Brooks pulled to the curb and waited for me to get out. “It was very nice to meet you, Mr. Hoge,” she said. And I got out.

For the next several months, I repeatedly asked Brooks to reconsider my interview request, but she refused, accusing me of being duplicitous. “I wish you had been straight with me from the start. I set up the interview with you in good faith. I put no limitations, other than you writing an objective article. You tipped your hand that that wasn’t your intent early on in our meeting,” Brooks wrote. “You decided what you were going to write a long time ago. You need not pretend to be objective or fair.” And that was that.

Not much is
known about Brooks’s life before she entered politics. Her biography on the city website says she is a native of New Orleans who moved to Oakland in 1989 from Seattle, where she’d earned a BA from the University of Washington and a law degree from Seattle University. In an interview with the Berkeley Daily Planet, Brooks said she’d grown up in Los Angeles and Seattle, where, according to court testimony, her mother continues to live. Brooks and her sister, Darleen, her campaign treasurer, live together in a fixer-upper home in East Oakland that Brooks bought out of foreclosure in 2012 for $405,000.

Brooks previously worked as a trial attorney with what was then the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, as an assistant district counsel with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as a staff attorney with the Washington State legislature, and as a public defender in Seattle. Before running for office, she served as chief of staff for Alameda County supervisor Keith Carson. Repeated requests for comment from Carson were unsuccessful, but Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who endorsed Brooks during her first council campaign, in 2002, said that he would never support her again. Brooks was reelected to the council in 2006, 2010, and 2014.

As a councilwoman, Brooks has become known for her truculent style, for rallying supporters to swamp hearings with chants and protests, and for hurling accusations of racial bias. In 2015, while on the council dais, Brooks called Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney a “hanky head,” a derogatory term for black people who are submissive to whites. “She is unnecessarily and inexplicably abrasive, insulting and even abusive to some people in city hall, including her colleagues on the council, some members of the public who don’t agree with her, and, I’m told, even to her own (former) staff,” Councilman Dan Kalb said in a note.

In April, after a committee hearing attended by nearly 100 of Brooks’s supporters, Vice Mayor Annie Campbell Washington announced that she would not seek reelection because of the “corrupt” environment at city hall. The next day, Mayor Schaaf called for Brooks to be voted out of office: “I think Oakland would be tremendously served by having that individual replaced on the city council,” she said. The hearing concerned Brooks’s proposal to give 5 percent of city capital-improvement money to specific job-training programs, a plan that Schaaf and a volunteer city-budget advisory committee believed was illegal. Brooks compared her plan to the way the city funds public arts projects. Why, she asked, couldn’t bond money be used to train people for jobs on construction projects? “You are now put on notice that we expect more of you, that we are not going to continue to have false promises,” Brooks told her colleagues.

Brooks led a rally in front of city hall attended by union leaders as well as officials and students from the Cypress Mandela Training Center, which is in her district. She cited statistics showing that the city’s unemployment rate, which has shrunk to 4 percent overall, remains at 20 percent for African Americans and 11 percent for Latinos. Brooks then harangued Campbell Washington and other members of the council for postponing consideration of her measure. Speaking in a mesmerizing cadence punctuated by supportive outbursts from the crowd, she said, “I guess if you aren’t black or brown, we can pay for your jobs. When it comes to communities of color, we always tell them, ‘We must wait.’” (The proposal ultimately stalled out.)

In the wake of the Brown debacle, Brooks has continued to campaign aggressively. A filing covering the second half of 2017 showed $24,800 in donations to her reelection campaign. In February, Brooks unveiled an endorsement from Bobby Seale, a cofounder of the Black Panthers (who has decades of bad blood with Brown). Seale said in a phone call that he’d met Brooks about four times and thought highly of her. Then in March, Oakland Firefighters Local 55 endorsed Brooks’s campaign. In early May, state assemblyman Rob Bonta also endorsed Brooks, just days after Judge Herbert wrote that he believed, as the jury did, that Brooks had “testified falsely many times under oath.” Asked through a spokesman about that opinion, Bonta provided a statement noting that while he does not “always condone her conduct,” the assemblyman believes that she cares deeply “about the people she represents…fights for her district, and is an unwavering advocate for social justice.”

Councilman Noel Gallo, a frequent ally of Brooks’s, laughed when asked how he viewed her chances this November. “If you were to ask me about a vote right now, I think she would get back in.”

For much of
the campaign, Brooks’s leading challengers have been reluctant to attack her directly, instead suggesting that, given her divisiveness, a new voice might better serve the community. “She is an impassioned advocate for the issues that are relevant to the black community. I applaud her for that,” Loren Taylor said early in the spring. Taylor is a 40-year-old business consultant and a board member of the group 100 Black Men of the Bay Area; with Schaaf’s backing, he’s running for Brooks’s seat. “I just believe it is time to move from advocacy and impassioned speeches to collaboration and new, fresh ideas and an approach that leads to results,” Taylor said then.

Another candidate, Natasha Middleton, is a management analyst at the Alameda County Probation Department who has lived in District 6 since 2009. She has also avoided lashing out at Brooks but says she thinks a change is in order, highlighting the cost to taxpayers of the Brown assault case. Middleton, who picked up Campbell Washington’s endorsement, previously worked for Schaaf as a policy analyst. (Schaaf has also endorsed Middleton.) “I want to focus on the problems...and not be someone that engages in other unnecessary fights,” she says.

That’s not to say the campaign hasn’t had its testy moments. During a Juneteenth concert and picnic that Brooks’s office and various community groups hosted in Arroyo Viejo Park, Taylor was ordered by Brooks to stop distributing campaign materials. When Taylor refused, event security guards from the Nation of Islam dismantled his canopy, he says, and threatened to remove him and his supporters from the park. “She is pushing the boundaries of what she can get away with in order to ensure that we can’t get our message out,” Taylor later told me. Brooks, in response, wrote in an email that Taylor had violated a legal prohibition against using city resources for political purposes. She denied knowledge of the security guards’ actions, though Taylor said the guards claimed they were acting at Brooks’s direction.

Brooks’s allegation of impropriety appears to be spurious: The Oakland city attorney’s office has previously stated that candidates can collect campaign donations in city parks, though not inside city buildings. And, asked about this specific incident, Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of UC Berkeley’s law school, and David Snyder, the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, both sided with Taylor.

Whether any of it will matter in November, though, is anyone’s guess. “None of our politicians are perfect,” says César Cruz, a Harvard-trained educator who is starting a school for previously incarcerated kids in East Oakland. Cruz has known Brooks for more than a decade and remains a supporter. “I deeply admire the way she fights.” Pastor L.J. Jennings of Kingdom Builders Christian Fellowship is similarly forgiving. “Desley is about making sure that she finds out and stays in touch with what the community needs.”

Indeed, it’s not hard to find residents—black and white—who praise Brooks for securing new playground equipment, steering money toward food programs, attending community events, or picking up trash. And her tenure has included some notable legislative achievements. Last year she spearheaded the city’s cannabis-industry equity program, in which people who have marijuana convictions or have lived in neighborhoods with high rates of drug-offense incarcerations are given priority in dispensary applications. In April, Brooks celebrated the opening of a new shopping center on a formerly city-owned plot of land at Foothill Boulevard and Seminary Avenue, an area long known for gang and drug activity. Brooks was a staunch supporter of the project, which got built only after receiving extensive financial aid from the city. “Desley Brooks was instrumental in making that happen,” Pastor Jennings says.

And though a chief criticism of Brooks is that she’s written her own laws, she has never been charged with corruption. In 2005, it was reported that the Alameda County district attorney was investigating Brooks’s hiring of her boyfriend’s daughter for a $5,000-a-month city position while the latter was a full-time student in upstate New York. No charges were ever brought, though in a recent deposition Brooks confirmed that she had hired the young woman for “five or six months.”

Former city council president Pat Kernighan, who was in office from 2005 to 2014, recalls a series of reports released in 2013 by the city auditor and the Alameda County Grand Jury that concluded that Brooks had violated separation-of-powers laws and misused city resources to open two teen centers in her district. Brooks was cited for circumventing competitive-bidding rules in hiring a contractor, for purchasing music equipment, and for using her own office’s staffing funds to open a youth center and hire employees without performing required background checks. “There’s a list of charter and legal violations as long as your arm,” Kernighan says. “She just has this attitude that she was doing something good for her community.”

Plenty of people seem to side with that sentiment: After the reports, when Kernighan suggested that the city council censure Brooks, a crowd of shouting, clapping supporters filled the council chambers to defend her. The council backed off. Brooks, for her part, rejected all the allegations, and in 2014 she was reelected—though by only 484 votes of 12,383 cast.

Meanwhile, allegations about her keep piling up. On April 6, Sidney Wilson, a former aide, filed a claim with the city alleging that Brooks had forced him to quit by verbally abusing him; perhaps of more significance, he also accused her of illegally collecting and spending cash from vendors at the Millsmont Farmers Market, which Brooks had been running out of her office even though the market’s operating permit belongs to a nonprofit called Oakland Citizens Committee for Urban Renewal. A vendor who sold food there last year confirmed to me that he’d paid cash to both Wilson and Brooks directly; he also said that he’d never heard of OCCUR. The city’s Public Ethics Commission has said it is investigating. In late June, Brooks abruptly announced the cancellation of the farmers’ market.

But the larger question remains: Will District 6 voters care about any of these dealings, or are they just grateful that Brooks tried to bring them a farmers’ market? “What my constituents are concerned about is whether I am addressing their needs,” Brooks said just minutes before kicking me out of her car. “And I do that quite well.”


Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco 

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