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Oakland Mayoral Candidates Personify City's Changes

THE leading candidates in Oakland's June 5 nonpartisan mayoral elections are all black Democrats, a marked change in a city once dominated by conservative Republicans. As with many of America's majority-black cities, Oakland's politics have progressed beyond early battles to win African American representation in city government to encompass a wider range of economic and social issues.

The candidates here range from progressive to moderate, according to Troy Duster, director of the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California at Berkeley. ``One wing wants progressive programs,'' he says, ``but there's also a sizable conservative black middle class that supports downtown business interests.''

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Voters have progressed beyond the issue of electing African Americans, says Mr. Duster, to concerns about who will best serve Oakland's black residents, 36 percent of whom live at poverty level. The city's poverty rate doubled between 1966 and 1986, a result of fewer factory jobs and cutbacks in federal and state funds. Today, issues of crime, drugs, and a crumbling school system dominate the campaign.

As recently as 15 years ago, conservative Republicans ran the mayor's office, City Council, and school board. In 1973, as African Americans became almost a majority in Oakland, Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale ran a nearly successful campaign for mayor.

That effort paved the way for black Democrat Lionel Wilson to beat the Republican incumbent in 1977 by mobilizing overwhelming support in the black community and gathering support from whites and Latinos.

Mr. Wilson, who has served three terms, has helped reduce racial tensions. Complaints of police brutality declined, and the city hired more minority police officers and fire fighters.

Today, however, Wilson faces a tough campaign against seven other candidates. Wilson emphasizes his cautious-but-stable leadership and his success in bringing businesses and jobs into downtown.

Opponents say that his caution has become a liability. ``Oakland's problems are overwhelming,'' says challenger Elihu Harris, ``and Wilson isn't proactive. He is focused on downtown to the point of myopia.''

Mr. Harris, a liberal state assemblyman, says he doesn't want to rely solely on downtown businesses to provide jobs. As mayor he would help establish jobs in the service, transportation, and biotechnology fields.

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As for Oakland's growing drug problem, Harris emphasizes treatment and rehabilitation over law enforcement.

Oakland Councilman Wilson Riles describes himself as the most progressive of the candidates. He voted against what he considered unnecessary city subsidies for a downtown hotel, and he championed a successful ballot initiative making Oakland a ``nuclear-free zone.'' and would have a hard time running the city if elected mayor. He also has run for mayor twice before and lost.

Riles picked up support recently, however, for opposing city subsidies to help the Los Angeles Raiders football team return to Oakland. A popular uproar forced the city to cancel the deal.

Trailing these three in recent opinion polls are city councilman Leo Bazile, community activist Dezie Woods-Jones, and three other candidates. Many voters remain undecided.

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