The Oakland developer’s power and influence is waning, much like the old fossil fuel he wants to ship.
By Robert Gammon
Throughout the late 1990s and the entire 2000s, Oakland was Phil Tagami’s town. In the evening, the influential developer wined and dined with the city’s most powerful politicians—then-Mayor Jerry Brown, then-state Senate President Don Perata, and then-City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. And during business hours, he got what he wanted from City Hall. No questions asked.
But with Brown in the governor’s mansion and Perata and De La Fuente relegated to the scrap heap of Oakland politics, Tagami no longer possesses the juice he once had. At no time was that more obvious than on Monday night, when the Oakland City Council unanimously rejected a proposal to ship coal through a new marine terminal that Tagami is building at the former Army Base. Tagami couldn’t get a single councilmember to vote for the plan.
And he knew it before it happened. Indeed, in a clear sign of his waning influence, the developer didn’t even show up to the council chamber rotunda, a place where he used to instill fear just by strolling through the ornate double doors. Instead, Tagami spent the evening on Twitter, haranguing councilmembers for their decision-making, talking about suing Oakland taxpayers, and subtweeting at reporters.
Terminal Logistics Solutions, the development team behind the coal plan that is working closely with Tagami, dispatched lobbyists Gregory McConnell and Ron Muhammed and bussed in “demonstrators” to shout at councilmembers, make bogus claims about coal-producing jobs, and demand that the council reject Mayor Libby Schaaf and Councilmember Dan Kalb's proposed ban on coal. But the group’s theatrics had no impact on the outcome either—other than to make for a rather tiresome, and long, night.
Coal, in other words, is a fitting metaphor for Phil Tagami: The once powerful fossil fuel used to shape politicians and move governments, but it’s now dying a long slow death in a new era of renewable energy and climate change.
With his political influence nearly gone and the coal plan on the rocks,
Tagami’s only move now is to take some of the profits he reaped from Oakland City Hall deals over the years and spend it on lawyers. He likely will threaten to hold up the redevelopment of the Army Base and decry the potential loss of millions in federal and state grants until he gets what he wants.
Indeed, Tagami’s attorney, Dave Smith, made such threats in a rambling, 17-page letter to the council on Monday. Smith even went so far as to claim that councilmembers could be held personally liable in an upcoming lawsuit if they voted against coal.
But Oakland politicians have no reason to fear Tagami’s threats or his money anymore. Sure, he’s still a close friend and a business partner of Gov. Brown (in fact, Brown also has a financial link to the coal deal). But Brown can’t intervene on Tagami’s behalf now—not without seriously tarnishing his image as a world climate leader.
Moreover, the city’s development deal with Tagami clearly allows the council to take necessary steps to protect the “health and safety” of West Oakland residents who would be harmed by coal-by-rail shipments.
As such, banning coal was a no-brainer. And if Tagami can’t make the Army Base redevelopment pencil out without money gleaned from shipping a dirty fossil fuel that pollutes the air, warms the planet, and harms people’s health, then the city should void its deal with this aging dinosaur.
Our Backyard is an occasional opinion column by senior editor Robert Gammon.