Oakland’s two-decade-long experiment with putting well-known politicians in the mayor’s office hasn’t had much success. In 1990, voters hoped that longtime state Legislator Elihu Harris would solve the city’s seemingly intractable problems. They were wrong. So in 1998, they turned to Jerry Brown, the former two-term governor and perennial presidential candidate. Surely he would fix Oakland. Wrong, again. Yet Oaklanders still hadn’t learned their lesson. So in 2006 they elected Ron Dellums, a onetime Lion of Congress and Slayer of Apartheid, to be their savior. Strike Three.
But even with that dismal record, Oakland voters may once again elect a big-name, career politician as their mayor in 2010. Recent polls show that Don Perata, the former president pro tem of the California Senate, state Assemblyman, and county supervisor, is leading the race even though there’s scant evidence to suggest that he’ll be any more successful than Oakland’s last three mayors.
Indeed, there’s ample reason to believe that Perata could make the city’s problems worse. After all, he was the behind-the-scenes architect of the 1995 Oakland Raiders deal, perhaps the biggest financial debacle in city history, and one that is costing Oakland $10 million in debt payments annually through 2025. Perata also has a long history of putting the needs of his friends, his family, his donors, and himself above those of taxpayers. His ethically questionable financial dealings over the years prompted a five-year, public-corruption probe by the FBI.
Perata, 65, also seems no more interested in governing than Dellums. His campaign slogan is: “I Believe in Oakland,” yet he has skipped the vast majority of the mayoral debates so far, and when he does attend, he mails it in. He repeatedly ignores questions and instead launches into long-winded, rambling critiques of city government without offering viable solutions for fixing what’s wrong. At last month’s Chamber of Commerce debate, he acted as if he didn’t want to be there, often mumbling his answers into the microphone and forcing spectators to shout: “Speak up!” or “We can’t hear you!”
Still, political mythology can be more powerful than reality. And the mythology surrounding Perata is strong. Over the years, he has fostered a reputation for being both a tough guy who cleans house and a political pragmatist who gets things done. But a closer look at his long political record shows that his true genius is raising campaign funds and rising to power — not bettering the lives of taxpayers. Several years ago, this newspaper conducted an exhaustive analysis of Perata’s legislative record in Sacramento, examining every bill he ever introduced. It turned out that he had one of the worst records in the capital for getting his legislation passed into law.
As the leader of the Senate, Perata also failed to address California’s systemic budget problems, including the unsustainable public employee compensation and pension benefits that are now helping bankrupt the state. Among the public employee unions he protected from budget cuts was the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Then when he was termed out of office, the prison guard’s union promptly hired him as a “political consultant.” Records show that the union has paid him more than $400,000 since early 2009, while mounting no political campaigns — other than funding hit-piece mailers attacking two of Perata’s main opponents in the Oakland mayor’s race.
Voters, however, have other choices in this election. Ten candidates total, including Perata, are running for mayor, and three in particular are mounting viable campaigns his fall: Councilwomen Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan, and longtime political science professor and TV news analyst Joe Tuman. All three are smart and energetic, all of them have exhibited a passion and love for Oakland, and all are clearly outworking Perata on the campaign trail.
Quan, Kaplan, and Tuman are by no means perfect candidates. Each has their strengths and weaknesses. But none is a big-name politician who views himself as Oakland’s savior or is just looking for someplace to land. And none of them is even remotely tainted with the smell of corruption.
In addition, if either Quan or Kaplan ultimately wins the race, it will be historic. Oakland has never had a woman mayor before. Kaplan also would be the first openly lesbian mayor of any large California city. But the question is: Will Oaklanders vote for change, for a lesser-known candidate who’s passionate about turning the city around, or will they choose a big-name pol for the fourth time?
Jean Quan is the Hillary Clinton of Oakland politics. She’s not a particularly inspiring speaker. She’s a wonk’s wonk. Indeed, no one may know more about the intricacies of city government than her. And she’s not shy about telling people about her accomplishments or sharing what she knows.
Politically, Quan is cut from the traditional Clinton-Democratic mold. She’s pro-worker and a fighter for social justice. And she’s been endorsed by numerous labor unions and nonprofits in the city. You could say she’s the anti-Ron Dellums. She’s not going to deliver a fiery — or flowery — speech. But she has been the hardest-working candidate in the mayor’s race, holding more than 160 house parties and block parties, most of which have attracted dozens of voters. And she’s walked precinct after precinct throughout the city, chatting up residents.
The councilwoman also has enlisted some of the most ardent supporters in the campaign, and her impressive array of volunteers has been knocking on doors and talking to voters in all parts of Oakland. In short, Jean Quan is no reluctant candidate. Unlike Dellums, she didn’t have to be cajoled into running. She really wants to be mayor, and she’s in the race with her eyes wide open. No one may know of the depth of Oakland’s problems better than her.
There’s every reason to believe that Quan will put in just as many hours in the mayor’s office as she has on the campaign trail. It’s what draws so many people to her. “I’m really impressed with her work ethic and her commitment to the city,” explained state Assemblyman Sandré Swanson, who is also the co-chair of Quan’s mayoral campaign. “She pays attention to detail, and she’ll be a hands-on mayor who will find solutions for the city.”
Swanson’s early endorsement of Quan was a bit of a surprise, because it came before Dellums announced whether he planned to run for reelection. As a longtime former aide to the ex-Congressman, Swanson was expected to endorse the mayor if he decided to run again. But Swanson said in a recent interview that he would still have backed Quan even if his old boss had jumped in the race.
Swanson and Quan have been friends for years, and Swanson said she was one of his earliest and most dedicated supporters when he first ran for state Assembly. “She was the person who stayed on me to keep knocking on doors,” Swanson recalled. “We walked her entire council district together.”
Quan’s family has been in Oakland since the early 1900s. She met her husband Floyd Huen in the 1960s at UC Berkeley, where they were student activists. They raised their two kids in Oakland, sending both to public schools. Quan became an activist parent who sought to save music and arts programs, and she eventually won a seat on the Oakland school board. Education is her true passion, and she’s vowed to create a stronger partnership between the school district and the city if elected.
But her time on the school board also has been a source of criticism during the mayoral campaign. Just before she left the board to join the city council in 2002, district financial officials discovered that the school system had overspent its budget by $30 million. Eventually, after Quan left, the district’s deficit grew to $57 million before the state took it over. The state, however, then made matters worse by deepening the district’s debt.
Swanson, whose work in the Legislature eventually helped lead to the return of local control of Oakland schools, said he does not believe Quan deserves blame for the school district’s initial financial mess. At the time, there were ten people on the Oakland school board, and managing the district had become unwieldy. Swanson also said that after Quan left the board she labored tirelessly with him to free the district from state control.
Quan pointed out in an interview that she also questioned the wisdom of the 24-percent raise awarded to teachers in 2000. “I’m on record, asking if we could afford it,” she said. But the district’s top financial officials repeatedly assured her that there was enough money to pay for it, she continued. Ultimately, state auditors cited the teacher raise as a prime culprit for the district’s financial mess.
Quan’s competitors in the mayor’s race, however, also have criticized her for the city’s current budget woes. They note that she voted for the overly generous employee compensation and pension benefits that are now helping bankrupt the city — not unlike what Perata did in the state Senate. But Quan notes that she spearheaded the effort to shave more than $100 million from the city’s budget in the past few years and slash more than 200 jobs with little acrimony. In 2009, for example, she helped convince city labor unions — who are now endorsing her — to take a 10 percent compensation cut.
Quan, 60, also is the only candidate in the mayor’s race to take a tough stance with the Oakland police union over its refusal to contribute to its pension plan. (Perata sided with the union.) And she voted to lay off eighty cops when the union said it wouldn’t start paying 9 percent into police pensions unless the city guaranteed no layoffs for two years. Quan argued that such a guarantee would have been financially irresponsible because voters might reject tax measures in next month’s election.
As an avid supporter of community policing, Quan strongly backs Measure BB on the November ballot. Also known as the “Measure Y Fix,” it changes the language of Measure Y — a violence-prevention parcel tax that Quan authored and Oakland voters approved in 2004. The fix would allow the city to keep collecting the parcel tax without having to maintain minimum police staffing levels. If voters approve Measure BB, then the community policing officers who were reassigned to patrol in July will return to their jobs.
Quan’s position on Measure X, the $50 million parcel tax, is more muddled, however. She voted to put it on the November ballot as part of deal reached with the police union. If voters approve it, the union has agreed to pay 9 percent to their pensions — like all other city employees. It also will allow the city to avoid laying off another 120 cops after the election. Quan has said she plans to vote for the measure, but she also has said she doesn’t think it will win and she doesn’t “support” it. She said later that she meant that she won’t campaign for it.
But Quan has been much less wishy-washy about Don Perata. Until recently, she was the only candidate in the race to openly go after him and call attention to his troubled history. A mailer she sent to voters last month showed two doors, one depicting a Perata mayor’s office, and one showing a Quan mayor’s office. The Perata door stated, “Special Interests Only,” while the Quan door read, “Everyone Welcome!” Behind the Quan door was a list of her accomplishments. Inside the Perata door, the mailer read: “Don Perata: A history of conflict of interest,” and then it detailed numerous news stories over the years about his questionable financial dealings and the political favors he’s delivered to his major donors. In an interview at a Laurel District cafe, Quan summed up her assessment of Perata: “He definitely gets things done — if you pay him for it.”
During her eight years on the council representing the Montclair, Dimond, and Laurel districts, Quan has earned a reputation for getting things done for her constituents. For example, she was instrumental in the opening of a new Farmer Joe’s supermarket in the Dimond. She also rid the district of a rundown motel on MacArthur Boulevard that had become a haven for drug dealing, violence, and prostitution. If elected mayor, she says she plans to do more to help small businesses and attract retail. She’s also a strong supporter of transit-oriented development. And she plans to recruit 2,000 volunteers to work with Oakland youth.
She also has a legitimate shot at winning. A recent poll commissioned by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce showed that she was only four points behind Perata, 26 to 22 percent. The poll also appeared to undercount Asian voters in the city — a voting block expected to heavily favor Quan.
If Quan resembles Hillary Clinton, then Rebecca Kaplan is the Barack Obama of the mayor’s race. She, too, is wonky, but she also is a gifted public speaker who possesses what politicos call “the vision thing.”
Last month, she shined during the standing-room-only mayoral debate at the Kaiser Center. Most of the candidates, including Perata, easily detailed Oakland’s many problems, but Kaplan was the only one to vividly describe not only how she would fix them, but how she would turn Oakland around by capitalizing on its strengths — its great weather, its burgeoning reputation as a foodie mecca, its resourceful residents, and its many small businesses. Audience members repeatedly ignored requests by event moderator Martin Reynolds, editor of the Oakland Tribune, to hold their applause until the end of the debate and instead clapped approvingly when Kaplan finished her answers. “Oakland’s greatest days,” she said at one point, “are yet to come.”
Kaplan’s vision for Oakland’s future includes the development of dense housing, retail, and businesses along major transit corridors. She has long been a believer in smart growth — both as a way to boost Oakland’s economy and to stop suburban sprawl. “It’s easily the most effective way to fight climate change,” she noted in an interview at a Jack London Square restaurant.
Having spent eight years on the AC Transit board of directors, Kaplan also is a mass transit junkie. She says she will develop a comprehensive transportation plan for the city. And as a councilmember, she was a driving force behind the free Broadway shuttle, which connects Jack London Square with downtown and the city’s hip Uptown district. Not surprisingly, she has won the endorsement of many local environmentalists, including the Sierra Club. She’s also a bicycling fanatic. She often rides to various city events and plans to transform Oakland into a more bike-friendly city. “We should have the highest rate of bicycling in America,” she said, noting the city’s hospitable climate and terrain.
But Kaplan’s tenure on the AC Transit board also has engendered criticism. She, too, went along with unsustainable employee work rules and compensation and benefit packages that are now forcing the bus agency to decimate service. And she kept voting to buy expensive, Belgian-made Van Hool buses even after it became apparent that they were accident prone and dangerous for the elderly and for people with mobility problems. To her credit, however, Kaplan also was instrumental in redesigning the buses to make them safer.
As much as she loves talking transportation and smart growth, Kaplan’s signature issue since being elected to the at-large seat on the council in 2008 has been medical cannabis. She led the effort to tax and regulate medical marijuana, helping turn Oakland into a model city for how to manage the lucrative crop. She also co-authored the city’s plans to permit, regulate, and tax four large medical marijuana grows, and to raise taxes on pot through a November ballot measure.
Kaplan also believes that medical marijuana and the growth of green-tech will help rebuild Oakland’s once strong industrial base. And she plans to streamline the city’s permitting processes and capitalize on Oakland’s enterprise zones to attract new businesses and to make it easier for them to open and thrive in the city. She’s a strong advocate, for example, for allowing businesses and residents to get what they need from the city online. “It’s ridiculous that we make people schlep downtown for no good reason,” she said of Oakland’s bureaucracy.
To create more jobs for Oaklanders, Kaplan wants to increase local hiring requirements for businesses that contract with the city. Her policy positions also have helped her win the support of several prominent Oakland black leaders and groups. Geoffrey Pete of the Oakland Black Caucus has endorsed her, as has the influential Black Women Organized for Political Action.
Pete, a longtime nightclub owner and Dellums supporter, said he was impressed with Kaplan when he first met her and asked her for help in revising Oakland’s outdated and regressive nightclub and cabaret regulations. Kaplan eventually led the effort to reform them. “She’s quite impressive, and she’s really, really smart,” Pete said. “She’s smarter than everybody in the race — although Tuman is very bright, too.”
A Canadian by birth, Kaplan graduated from MIT, and earned a master’s degree from Tufts University before obtaining her law degree at Stanford. She recently turned forty and is the youngest of the four major candidates in the race. She also is the most friendly and gregarious. She often greets friends and acquaintances, alike, with a big hug.
But some of Kaplan’s critics contend that she panders for votes. They note her switch from the Green Party to the Democratic Party several years ago. And her decision earlier this year to keep open a black ex-cop’s North Oakland liquor store that neighbors wanted to close drew allegations that she was angling for black votes. Kaplan denied the accusation, but admitted that she should have done a better job explaining her decision. Kaplan said she questioned whether the city had the legal right to close a liquor store that wasn’t a magnet for crime.
In recent polls, she’s been running third, behind Perata and Quan, but still within striking distance. Along with environmentalists, progressives, and transit advocates, her core constituency includes young urbanists and developers who share her smart-growth vision and are uncomfortable with Perata’s style of pay-to-play politics. In fact, the recent poll commissioned by the chamber revealed that Kaplan’s entrance in the race likely is costing Perata more votes than Quan.
Until recently, Kaplan had been reluctant to criticize the ex-senator, saying she wanted to run a positive campaign. Going negative also is a risk in a ranked-choice voting election because you can lose vital second and third place votes if you anger your opponent’s supporters by attacking him. In recent weeks, however, Kaplan has been increasingly willing to go after Perata after it became clear that he was trying to buy the election.
Perata revealed last week that his campaign had broken the city’s $379,000 spending limit in the mayor’s race because an “independent committee” had said it did so, too. Perata contends that he can now spend as much as he wants to win the election. But Kaplan and Quan have noted that the independent committee that supposedly helped lift the spending cap is run by the ex-senator’s Sacramento friends and is funded by the state prison guard’s union. Kaplan strongly questions whether the committee, which also funded false attack ads against her, is truly independent from Perata as required by state and local laws. “When a committee is funded by the candidate’s employer, it doesn’t pass the smell test,” she said late last week.
In terms of the November ballot measures, Kaplan also is a strong advocate of community policing and supports Measure BB — the so-called Measure Y fix. But she opposes Measure X. She voted against the police layoffs and believes the $50 million parcel tax is unnecessary. She says there are more creative ways to solve the police budget problem.
For months, Kaplan has contended that the city could have saved money and avoided the layoffs by offering early retirement incentives to senior cops. She notes that older cops receive much higher salaries and are more costly for the city than the newer officers who were laid off in July.
She also argues that Oakland police officers are paid too well. The average cop costs the city about $188,000 annually in pay and benefits. She notes that police officers in other cities, from New York to Baltimore, make much less. And she points out that Oakland could have more cops on the force if it paid them lower salaries. “We have fewer police officers than other cities because we pay them more,” she argued. “But making the costs so high so that you don’t have adequate finances, in my mind, is not a pro-public safety position.”
Joe Tuman is the true dark horse in the race. The polls show him running fourth, but he’s gaining momentum. Tuman lawn signs have sprung up in recent weeks throughout the city — particularly in wealthy Montclair, which is in Quan’s home district and is a traditional Perata stronghold.
Tuman also is also an excellent public speaker. In fact, he’s the most polished and powerful orator in the campaign and has performed well in the numerous mayoral debates so far. It should come as no surprise. Along with being a longtime political science professor at San Francisco State University, he worked for years as a TV news analyst for KPIX-Channel 5 and KCBS radio. He also was the coach of the highly successful San Francisco State debate team for many years, leading the squad to four national collegiate championships and routinely besting Ivy League schools.
During debates and in person, Tuman comes across as a serious, no-nonsense candidate, and he may have greatly helped his chances during the chamber debate. His opening statement drew the loudest round of applause that night.
As a government outsider, Tuman also is benefiting from the current anti-incumbent fever. And he’s not weighed down by past decisions that turned out to be mistakes. He’s never voted, for example, to award unaffordable pay and benefit packages. To his supporters, his outsider status is a virtue. “He won’t be beholden to people,” argued Oakland City Councilwoman Desley Brooks, who has endorsed his campaign and has long sought to overhaul the city’s budget. “If you look at the people he’s running against — they’ve been around, but look at the situation we’re in. He’s not going to be business as usual.”
But Tuman also is not a political newcomer. As a news analyst, he paid close attention to Bay Area politics and is aware of the financial issues that local governments face. “I’m an outsider who also knows the inside,” he said during an interview at his campaign headquarters across the street from the Grand Lake Theater. As a TV personality, Tuman also has plenty of name recognition. In some Oakland households, he might be better known than Quan or Kaplan. He estimated that about half of the people he’s met so far on the campaign trail knew him already. “People recognize me from TV, and so I won’t have to spend a lot of money to tell people who I am,” he said.
The cornerstones of Tuman’s campaign are small businesses and retail development. He’s run four small businesses in his career and, like Kaplan, he argues that Oakland bureaucracy makes it too difficult for them to succeed. He says he wants to ease local business taxes and increase parking, including adding free parking garages to support retail centers. “I want to start a retail boom,” he said. “I intend to bring jobs here.”
Tuman, 52, also wants to build a major retail development in the Upper Broadway area north of Uptown. He’s been working with a retail consultant, and believes he can convince major retailers, such as Kohl’s, JC Penney, Macy’s, or Nordstrom to open stores there and intends to pitch them personally. He argues that Oakland may be losing $1.5 to $2 billion a year in retail “leakage.” That is, Oaklanders are leaving the city to shop at major retail destinations in Emeryville, San Francisco, and Walnut Creek, costing city retailers up to $2 billion annually in lost sales and costing the city jobs and sales tax revenue.
Like Kaplan, Tuman also says he would have voted against the cop layoffs. He also opposes Measure X, believes that high pay is the root problem for the police department, and agrees that the city would be able to hire the cops it needs if it paid lower salaries. But Tuman differs from Kaplan on how he would solve the problem.
He says he would borrow lessons learned from the California State University system. When Cal State professors get within two to three years of retirement, they’re asked to retire early in exchange for being hired back as part-time, independent contractors, Tuman explained. That way, the professors can begin collecting their pensions, plus earn more money as contractors. And the university saves money because it no longer has to pay professors their high salaries or their pensions, since they’re technically retired.
Tuman argues that the city should make the same offer to cops who are approaching retirement and would rather work part-time — and still collect more than their full salaries when counting their pensions. The city could then replace those senior officers with rookies who not only make less money, but start out at a much lower pay scale than the current one. Tuman estimates that this system could allow the city to add 25 to 30 cops a year without having to raise taxes. “I want to repopulate the police force over the next ten to twenty years with officers who make lower salaries that are sustainable,” he explained. “I don’t want to lay off cops. I want to hire cops.”
Tuman knows that his plan will mean more negotiations with the police union, and acknowledged that it might also require some additional retirement incentives to get senior cops to retire early. He also expects all of the tax measures on the ballot to lose, except possibly the medical marijuana tax, and says after he’s elected, he plans to sit down with all the city employee unions and find ways to save the city money. “And I’m not going to let Ignacio De La Fuente and Jane Brunner lead those discussions,” he said, referring to the two councilmembers who traditionally have led union negotiations for the city. “I will lead those discussions. I will be the loudest voice in that room. It’s going to be my bureaucracy.”
If the unions refuse to compromise, Tuman says he will begin serious discussions about municipal bankruptcy. The threat of bankruptcy could be a powerful incentive for the unions to negotiate because if it happens, then all union contracts are voided. Tuman called it “the nuclear option.”
Tuman also is not shy about challenging his rivals. Of Kaplan and Quan, he said: “Jean and Rebecca talk a lot about change. But if they were really going to bring us change, then why haven’t they done it already?” And of Perata and his absentee campaign so far, he said: “He’s not showing up to the debates. He’s not saying what he’ll do. He speaks in metaphors about fixing potholes, which is sorta nice, but we have so many big problems.”
Over the next four weeks, Perata will likely flood cable TV with political ads and blanket the city with glossy mailers. A legal opinion issued by the Oakland City Attorney’s Office last week effectively allows him to exceed the city’s spending cap, and he probably won’t have to face potential consequences until well after the election. The opinion, coupled with the city’s cumbersome process for investigating campaign finance violations, also likely means that voters won’t know for sure whether Perata has broken any laws until after they’ve cast their ballots.
Kaplan argued that the opinion means that Oakland essentially “has no campaign finance law.” The opinion was prompted by questions Kaplan raised about spending by Perata and the Sacramento group with close ties to him, Coalition for a Safer California. The group recently declared that it had exceeded Oakland’s spending threshold for independent committees, thereby lifting all expenditure caps in the mayor’s race. And Perata told reporters last week that he, too, had exceeded the city’s spending limit of $379,000 for mayoral candidates.
Kaplan noted that Perata and the Coalition for a Safer California effectively turned Oakland’s campaign finance law on its head. The law was written in the 1990s to allow a candidate to exceed the expenditure cap if some group spends large sums attacking that candidate. But a loophole in the law also lets Perata benefit from the group that supports him — Coalition for a Safer California — by allowing him to overspend if it overspends, too.
Kaplan and Quan had contended that the Oakland Public Ethics Commission should decide whether caps have been lifted in the mayor’s race. But the new legal opinion, written by Supervising Deputy City Attorney Mark Morodomi and signed by City Attorney John Russo, said that there is no provision in Oakland law for the Ethics Commission to make such a finding. Instead, the opinion essentially says that Kaplan, Quan, or someone else will have to file a complaint against Perata with the Ethics Commission before it can be determined whether he has gone over the $379,000 cap in violation of city law.
However, Dan Purnell, the Ethics Commission’s executive director, indicated in an interview that it could take weeks, or perhaps months, to fully investigate such complaints. The investigation would have to include an examination of whether the Perata-linked group actually exceeded the city’s cap or not. In other words, there likely won’t be any determination before the election as to whether Perata has broken the law. Dan Siegel, Quan’s campaign attorney, described the city’s bureaucratic process for investigating campaign lawbreaking as “glacial, on a good day.”
Kaplan and Quan had hoped that the Oakland City Council would step in to help stop Perata. But last week, the council’s Rules Committee voted 3-1 to refer the matter to the Ethics Commission, effectively killing any hope of clarifying Oakland law before November 2.
But that doesn’t mean that Perata is a now a shoe-in for mayor. By last week, Meg Whitman had spent more than $120 million of her own fortune, and was still trailing Jerry Brown in several polls. Likewise, the three other major candidates in the Oakland mayor’s race still have a shot at beating Perata — particularly if voters take advantage of ranked choice voting.
Under the new voting system, voters can select their top three choices for mayor. So far in the polls, Perata has had trouble getting over the 50-percent mark because he doesn’t get enough second- and third-place votes. That leaves the door open for one of the other three to slip by him in the balloting if enough voters leave him off their ballots completely, and instead select some combination of Quan, Kaplan, and Tuman.
It’s no wonder that Perata spent months last year trying to kill ranked choice voting for this election.