So far, April has not been a good month for Oakland Mayor Jean Quan. First, her handpicked choice for city administrator, Fred Blackwell, decided to jump ship for a job in San Francisco just one month after she appointed him to the position. Next, she performed poorly during a well-attended mayoral debate on public safety. And then late last week, she made an erroneous statement about the crown prince of Dubai being a partner in the financial team that’s backing Oakland’s Coliseum City project, a proposal that would feature a new stadium for the Raiders and possibly a new ballpark for the A’s. If this trend continues, it’s a good bet Quan won’t be celebrating her reelection in November.
It’s hard to pinpoint which of the mayor’s recent problems was worse, because each was emblematic of troubling themes that have come to define her tenure: the revolving door of top officials in her administration, her penchant for misspeaking in public, and her tendency to say things that aren’t true. However, of the three, her lackluster performance in the mayoral debate may turn out to be the most politically damaging because campaigning had traditionally been one of her strengths.
In fact, in the 2010 mayor’s race, Quan easily out-campaigned ex-state Senator Don Perata and consistently bested him in debates (whenever he decided to show up, that is). But the April 3 debate hosted by the Metropolitan Greater Oakland Democratic Club and the pro-public safety group Make Oakland Better Now was a different story. The standing-room-only event at Temple Sinai featured Quan and eight other mayoral candidates, along with four journalists (including me) who asked them questions. And the mayor had a night she probably wishes she’d quickly forget.
Throughout the evening, Quan repeatedly evaded questions and gave long-winded, non-responsive answers. In fact, at times she seemed to be answering questions that were not posed to her, producing groans and exasperated sighs from the crowd of more than five hundred people. The mayor also repeatedly said she couldn’t hear some of the questions — although she was the only candidate who voiced such problems.
By contrast, some of her competitors had strong performances. Councilmember Libby Schaaf positioned herself as a competent and reasonable candidate. She already enjoys strong backing from political moderates in the city, although at times during the debate she also appeared to be reaching out to liberals and progressives by declining to defend the Oakland Police Department’s ongoing inability to enact court-ordered reforms.
San Francisco State University professor Joe Tuman also had a solid evening. The former debate coach and longtime TV news commentator is an excellent public speaker who clearly enjoys being in front of large crowds. Throughout the year, he’ll likely compete against Schaaf for the moderate pro-law-and-order vote, and during the debate he seemed to be positioning himself to the right of her. For example, he repeated his call for adding three hundred police officers to OPD over the next several years. He also fiercely criticized the mayor.
Perhaps the strongest performance of the night, however, was by Dan Siegel, the longtime civil rights attorney and former Oakland school board member. Siegel, a former ally of Quan’s, is the only true progressive among the major candidates in the race, and he quickly showed during the debate that he’s a viable candidate for liberal voters who have become disenchanted with the mayor. He’s the only major candidate, for example, who does not believe OPD needs 800 to 900 officers; he thinks the department can function effectively with 700 or so cops (it has about 650 now). The key, he said, is to reorganize the department, reemphasize community policing, and refocus resources on solving violent crime. Siegel was clear, well spoken, and forceful — without coming off as angry.
Port Commissioner Bryan Parker, by contrast, failed to take advantage of Quan’s bad night. He, too, was evasive, and often spoke in empty platitudes, rather than outlining a specific plan for improving public safety. City Auditor Courtney Ruby also seemed out of her depth. She said she plans to find money to hire hundreds of police officers by eliminating waste and fraud in the city and OPD. But she then was completely flummoxed by a question posed by Oakland Tribune reporter Matthew Artz, who noted that she has failed to uncover significant fraud and waste during her tenure as city auditor.
Of course, it can be easier for some challengers to do well in debates than incumbents, because incumbents have track records that can be readily criticized, while challengers often do not. That’s why many incumbents refuse to participate in debates. However, because of her low approval ratings, Quan likely will have to show up to all of the debates this year — and there likely will be many more of them. If she has any hope of winning, she’ll need to do much better than she did on April 3.
She also needs to avoid making errors like her assertion about the prince of Dubai. Her administration also can’t afford more setbacks like the loss of Blackwell. Although Quan quickly found a competent interim replacement in former City Manager Henry Gardner, it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to make the same impact as Blackwell, who had the potential to make a real difference in Oakland — and boost the mayor’s reelection chances at the same time — because of his extensive involvement in trying to keep the city’s sports teams from leaving town. Without Blackwell, Coliseum City’s future suddenly doesn’t look as promising. And neither does Quan’s.