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It’s crowded and hot in Oakland, Calif.’s University of Creation Spirituality and the crowd is anxious to hear from the evening’s guest of honor, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. But a warm rush of applause greets Oakland City Council candidate Rebecca Kaplan when she takes the podium to boost her campaign and issue a challenge to her opponent, incumbent Henry Chang. “Al Gore challenged George W. Bush not to accept any [political action committee] money to fund his campaign,” Kaplan told the crowd. “I wrote Henry Chang a letter asking him to reject PAC money and to face me in a series of debates. That was two months ago, and I have heard nothing.” An attorney with a short resume of labor and tenants’ rights cases, Kaplan garnered just over 26 percent of the vote in a five-way race in March for the council’s one at-large seat. Her surprise showing forced a November runoff against Chang, who is working hard to win a second term. While Oakland adjusts to sharply rising housing costs, increased interest from business investors and a strong mayor initiative, both Kaplan and Chang see the broad influence of the at-large seat as crucial in working for the city’s best interests. But in contrast to her opponent, Kaplan is running a shoestring campaign in hopes that Oakland voters will prefer her outsider platform, which stresses affordable housing, transit, environmental and open government issues. Unabashedly activist, she has aligned herself with a rainbow of progressive causes. “My whole reason for going to law school was to gain skills to be a better public advocate,” she said before joining a tenants rights protest outside Oakland City Hall recently. “But I think I’ll have more impact through working in public policy than through litigation.” For his part, Chang, who outspent Kaplan in March by more than 3-1, says Kaplan’s activism is her shortcoming as a council candidate. “She’s out there pushing for ‘just cause’ evictions, and I’m saying that landlords and tenants shoud work out something that works for everybody,” he said. “Part of the job of a councilman at large is to build bridges.” Kaplan spent about $20,000 for the March race and Chang spent about $60,000, not including his share of more than $365,000 raised and spent by a political action committee created for Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and California State Senator Don Perata, D-Oakland. Chang and others on the City Council voted last week to impose the first-ever limit on contributions to the PAC to $500. As for Kaplan’s invitation to debate, Chang says he will wait until the fall, when a “bona fide” organization like the League of Women Voters typically sponsors a formal debate. “They set it up fairly and not to hustle you,” he said. Asked what he sees as his strengths as a councilman, Chang points to his experience working with overseas business to attract and retain commerce for Oakland’s port. Chang, 65, is also vice-mayor and an architect. His career in public office began in 1974 with a seat on Oakland’s planning commission. Kaplan, 29, has never before run for public office. She says her career as an activist began at 14, growing up in Toronto, when she became involved with a group that worked for the rights of political prisoners. While attending MIT in Boston, she worked with numerous political groups on campus. She earned a master’s in public policy from Tufts University and a J.D. from Stanford Law School in 1998. In her second year at Stanford, she worked as a summer associate at the San Francisco labor firm Altshuler, Berzon, Nussbaum, Berzon & Rubin. There she worked closely with partners and associates on labor and employment cases. Soon after law school but before passing the bar, Kaplan worked with Oakland sole practitioner Phil Rapier, a tenants’ rights lawyer who used Kaplan’s research and writing skills mainly on one major case. The case involved a woman who was abducted and raped in the parking lot of her apartment building. After discovering that there had been four other assaults on women in the same lot, Rapier and Kaplan were able to win a $2.5 million premises liability settlement from the building’s owner. Rapier says the case has been sealed to protect the woman’s privacy. “Rebecca was instrumental in bringing in one of the largest settlements in this field,” Rapier said. “These cases are very difficult to prove, but she wrote a brief that showed the defendant’s liability and showed that they would be subject to punitive damages.” Kaplan is not actively practicing law right now. Her focus is on winning in November and if she wins, she says will not hold any other job. She criticizes Chang for not doing the same. Chang says that, in fact, his business is suffering because he works more than full-time as a councilmember, including evenings and weekends. Of the three other candidates in the March race against Chang, none so far has given Kaplan their support. Selwyn Whitehead, a consumer activist and third-year law student at New College of California School of Law in San Francisco, says she is waiting to see if Kaplan addresses the needs of the African-American middle and working classes. “I don’t like the idea that if you’re poor in Oakland, you go to bad schools and have nothing to look forward to except going to jail,” Whitehead said. “Rebecca could speak to these issues, I’m sure, but I haven’t heard her do so yet.” Kaplan says that endorsements from the African American Construction Workers Association and the consumer advocacy group Acorn show that she has, in fact, spoken to the issues Whitehead is concerned about. “I talk about them nearly incessantly,” she said. “But obviously I need to continue to talk to Selwyn.”

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