Click photo to enlarge
Dawn McMahan, photographed in Oakland, Calif. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012, is running for Oakland City Council, District 5. (Laura A. Oda/Staff)

OAKLAND -- Voters in the city's fifth district will be confronted this year by an unusual ballot as they seek to choose a city council representative in November.

Ignacio De La Fuente, who is running for an at-large council seat, will not be listed as a candidate for District 5 for the first time in two decades.

De La Fuente's decision to leave the seat he has held since 1992 has opened up the race to a diverse group of candidates who all believe their election will change the course of the crime and debt-ridden city.

The race includes one newcomer to city politics and three people who have experience in the halls of City Hall or running for and holding public office. All four believe crime is the city's top problem yet each has a different idea on how to attack the plague of violence in Oakland.

Noel Gallo

Gallo has been an Oakland Unified School Board member for 19 years, gaining the experience, he said, that makes him the ideal choice to represent the city's diverse Fruitvale district.

A lifelong Oakland resident who raised four children with his wife of more than 30 years, Gallo said his roots in the city makes him the only candidate who truly understands the issues facing the district and the city as a whole.

Meanwhile, he said, his experience as a school board member has taught him the invaluable tools of working in government and with others to find solutions, a trait that each candidate said is lacking on the current city council.

"As an elected official, I know how to work with budgets, policy development and labor relationships," Gallo said. "I know how to work in the neighborhood, I know every block of District 5 inside and out."

Gallo said he's being honest in his campaign about the city's crime problem and how to solve it, suggesting that the city should seek a parcel tax to raise funds to hire more police officers.

"If we are serious about crime and serious about making our neighborhoods safe, we are going to have to," Gallo said of seeking a parcel tax and hiring more police. "Otherwise, we are just dreaming."

Shelly Garza

Garza describes herself as a small businesswoman who is helping lead the way in making Oakland attractive to the growing food truck industry.

As general manager of Rising Sun Enterprises, Garza is helping to craft laws and lead negotiations to ensure food truck businesses are legitimate and safe for Oakland residents.

An aide to former city council member Henry Chang and former city managers Robert Bobb and Deborah Edgerly, Garza also touts her government experience as a reason why voters should select her to represent their district. Garza also worked for the city's community and economic development agency.

That, coupled with her business acumen, Garza said, makes her the candidate with the ability to make sure "new ideas" she brings to the city council will become reality.

Garza said one of her solutions to crime is to grow small businesses in the city and form partnerships between the city, police, residents, business owners and private security firms. In hoping to spark such a partnership, Garza said her first action as a new city council member would be to open a satellite office in District 5.

"You have to have a collaboration with all of the stake holders in the city," Garza said. "We have to go back to the basics and listen to your community."

Mario Juarez

Juarez should be just as familiar to District 5 voters as Gallo since he challenged De La Fuente four years ago in a contentious election in which the Honduras native surprised many by almost forcing a runoff in another four-candidate field.

Since then, the real estate broker has been building his political muscle gaining the most endorsements of any candidate in the current District 5 election, including support from the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, Alameda County Democratic Party and several unions.

Juarez said his solution to crime is also to increase the police force but he believes it can be done by raising the fees of passengers using Oakland International Airport. Juarez also wants to force banks to pay transfer taxes when the bank forecloses on a city home.

While both ideas face considerable legal and legislative hurdles, Juarez said a city council that works together can ensure more money is raised. And Juarez said the upcoming election could result in a new dynamic on the council dais as many longtime council members are either leaving public office or running for a different seat.

"I'm already working relationships with some of those leading contenders to ensure I can secure the five votes needed to move Oakland forward," Juarez said. "I talk about issues and I talk about ideas that are practical."

Juarez also said he would like to have more police officers live in the city and believes he could entice city high school students to seek future jobs with the police department by creating more outreach and programs to set them on a path toward becoming a law enforcement officer in the city.

Dawn McMahan

McMahan is an artist and social worker who has worked with the homeless and children using art to educate and heal community woes.

A Palo Alto native, McMahan works as executive artistic director for the Pythia Arts Foundation and created the Phoenix Rising Homeless Project and Oak Tree Arts Center, which were formed to help the homeless through art.

Unlike the other three candidates who tout their government and political experience as reasons why voters should select them, McMahan focuses on the fact that she does not have that background as a reason why she is the ideal candidate.

"I'm coming to this as a public servant, I am not coming to this as someone with a political background," she said. "I've noticed there are a lot of politicians who are not that bright."

McMahan also believes crime should be a top concern of the city but says the government should approach the problem on a more personal level rather than focusing on building "some militant force that makes us all feel like we are in Germany."

McMahan said government agencies, including the city, should offer more programs to residents, especially those recently released from prison and jail. If elected, McMahan promises to get "personally" involved with the police department in hopes of moving its image away from a department seen as an occupying force.

"I am definitely the most liberal of the four (candidates) and I got a lot of positive feedback from that," she said. "I am very interested in getting the different cultures to talk to each other and share."

Oakland City Council District 5
Noel Gallo
Age: 58
Party: Democrat
Occupation: Oakland Unified School District board member
Professional: Regional director for Ray and Associates, a headhunting firm
Personal: Married, four children
Education: MBA from UC Berkeley School of Business
Website: www.galloforoakland.com

Shelly Garza
Age: 46
Party: Democrat
Occupation: Businesswoman
Professional: General manager for La Placita Comerical Kitchen
Personal: Single, five children
Education: Associate degree in business administration, Heald College
Website: www.shellygarzaforcouncil.com

Mario Juarez
Age: 35
Party: Democrat
Occupation: Real estate broker
Professional: Mario Juarez Real Estate
Personal: Partner, four children
Education: GED
Website: www.mario2012.com

Dawn McMahan
Age: 49
Party: Democrat
Occupation: artist/social worker
Professional: Executive artistic director for Pythia Arts Foundation
Personal: Single
Education: Bachelor's degree in theater, history and literature from University of Southern California
Website: www.dawnmcmahanforoakland.net