Fifteen people are running for mayor of Oakland this year, but most political observers I’ve spoken to — both inside and outside of City Hall — generally agree that there are six or seven major candidates in the race: Rebecca Kaplan, Bryan Parker, Jean Quan, Libby Schaaf, Dan Siegel, Joe Tuman, and perhaps Courtney Ruby. Most of the polls so far have backed up this conclusion, although the ranking of the top candidates has varied from poll to poll. Still, six or seven is a lot to choose from — even in a ranked-choice voting system in which voters get to select their top three candidates.
In fact, the 2014 mayor’s race may present the most difficult electoral decision for Oakland voters in a long time. So we thought it might be helpful to put together a guide to the top candidates that places them on the political spectrum from left to right. In this case, however, it’s actually left to moderate, because none of them can be accurately described as being conservative politicians.
Now, we realize that some people — including some of the candidates and their supporters — may disagree with where the candidates land in the guide, but I’ll give explanations about why I think each candidate belongs in each spot. It’s also worth noting that politics are relative. The top candidates in the Oakland mayor’s race probably would be considered liberal in a national context. But here in the East Bay, where politics skew to the left, a candidate who is considered liberal elsewhere might instead be viewed as moderate here (Governor Jerry Brown is a prime example; he’s often described as a liberal in the national press, but locally, many people think he’s a centrist).
With that in mind, the top seven candidates from left to moderate are: Siegel, Kaplan, Quan, Schaaf, Tuman, Ruby, and Parker, with Siegel being furthest to the left and Parker furthest to the right. Indeed, there’s little dispute that the gap between Siegel and Parker is considerable on the top issues in this year’s race. However, the political differences between some of the other candidates — Kaplan, Quan, and Schaaf, for instance — are somewhat narrow. So if you’re thinking about selecting one of those three as your top choice for mayor this year, your decision may hinge on reasons other than politics, such as the candidate’s experience, her work ethic, or her ability to cooperate effectively with people and run a city with complex problems.
This is an easy one. Siegel is the most progressive of the top candidates in this year’s race by a substantial margin. The longtime labor and civil rights attorney was the first candidate to openly push for raising the minimum wage in Oakland to $15 an hour. He also strongly supports Measure FF, which would raise the minimum wage from the current $9 an hour to $12.25 an hour in March.
Siegel is also the only major candidate who believes that the Oakland Police Department does not need to hire a lot more cops. Siegel contends that OPD can become more effective with the seven hundred or so officers it has now by focusing on community policing, reorganizing the department, and implementing reforms such as those adopted in Richmond under Police Chief Chris Magnus. “I just believe that we are not very effective with the seven hundred we have right now,” Siegel said. He also is a strong advocate for holding cops accountable when they engage in misconduct, although as a labor attorney he said he has no interest in rolling back the police union’s collective bargaining rights. Siegel strongly opposes tough-on-crime strategies like stop-and-frisk, youth curfews, and gang injunctions, contending that they result in racial profiling.
Siegel has considerable experience in both the private and public sectors. In addition to running his own law firm in downtown Oakland, he twice won election to the Oakland school board after serving as the district’s general counsel. He said he wants to invest in early childhood education programs, especially for youth from low-income families, and in literacy and job training programs for former prisoners who are reentering society. He also has vowed to work with the school district to lower truancy and dropout rates.
Siegel also said that helping small businesses thrive in Oakland will be one of his top priorities, and that he plans to expand local food production by helping residents create more community gardens. He also has a plan to increase the number of rooftop solar installations in Oakland through the use of the city’s bonding authority. And he wants Oakland to develop its own broadband network and establish a municipal internet provider to attract more high-tech businesses and jobs.
As the former director of the Berkeley rent control board, Siegel also is a strong proponent of protecting tenants’ rights, noting that 71 percent of Oakland residents rent their homes and that the city’s rent control law is much weaker than Berkeley’s and San Francisco’s. Siegel, who also has a reputation for being combative, said he could nonetheless work effectively with other elected officials who may not see eye-to-eye with him. “I have the qualities to establish good relationships with people who disagree with me,” he said, noting that he has negotiated numerous union contracts over the years.
Siegel advocates for more affordable housing — but he’s not a vocal backer for building large amounts of new housing in the city, despite the fact that Oakland is suffering from an intense housing shortage, with home prices and rents continuing to skyrocket and longtime residents being displaced from the city.
Kaplan’s politics and positions on the major issues in this year’s campaign are similar to those of Quan and Schaaf. All three, for example, contend that OPD needs about 800 officers to be effective, which means that the department would have to hire about 100 more cops — a proposal that could cost the city $20 to $30 million. The three are also strong advocates for growing the local economy and building much more housing in Oakland, especially along major transit corridors.
So why does Kaplan have such a substantial lead in most polls so far over Quan and Schaaf? One comprehensive poll last month had her beating Quan 57.5 percent to 42.5 percent in a ranked-choice voting scenario, with Schaaf in a close third place. It might be because Kaplan has stronger name recognition than Schaaf, having won two citywide races as the At-Large councilmember, and because Kaplan comes across in public as a more polished version of Quan: She’s an outstanding public speaker and has an infectious, buoyant attitude about the city and its future prospects. Express contributor Steven Tavares might have nailed it when he recently described her in a blogpost on our website as “Oakland’s cheerleader-in-chief.”
Having said that, Kaplan also has a sharp-edged side. On the campaign trail, she’s been a vocal critic of the mayor, repeatedly referring to the city as being “ungoverned” during Quan’s tenure. In fact, during her interview with the Express, she perhaps had the most negative things to say about Quan, returning again and again to the theme that Oakland has been mismanaged for years.
It seems clear that Kaplan, realizing that she and Quan agree largely on the issues, has focused her campaign instead on her leadership and management abilities (as Schaaf has done as well). In our interview, Kaplan contended that she’s a better “person-to-person” communicator than Quan and will be able to work more effectively with the rest of city government and with the private sector. As an example, she pointed to her recent negotiations with Oakland A’s co-owner Lew Wolff on a ten-year lease extension with the team at the Oakland Coliseum. Quan and Wolff, by contrast, have a frosty relationship. “I have a good track record of getting to the finish line,” Kaplan said.
Many of her council colleagues, however, disagree. They contend that she often doesn’t back up her rhetoric with the hard work required to actually get things done, and has avoided taking tough stands on the issues during her six years on the council. She also has few major legislative accomplishments to point to from her time in City Hall. “In my view, she’s been a barely passable councilmember in terms of what she’s done,” said council President Pat Kernighan, who is retiring at the end of this year, and has endorsed Schaaf. “[Kaplan] doesn’t work that hard … except on transportation issues.”
Kaplan also has been embroiled this year in an ethics controversy over allegations that she used ballot measure committee funds to bolster her first mayoral campaign, in 2010. She denies wrongdoing; the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating the matter. It might be telling that the only endorsement Kaplan has received from council colleagues in 2014 was from Dan Kalb, who made her his second choice — after Quan.
For her part, Kaplan points to her work on regional transportation boards — she was one of the primary authors of Measure BB, a proposed countywide sales tax increase on the November ballot that will fund bike and pedestrian projects and road-repaving in Oakland. The former AC Transit board member has also been a tireless advocate for transit-oriented development, or smart growth — dense urban housing projects built along major transit lines. In fact, her work and advocacy for smart growth and on expanding urban agriculture is why I placed her to the left of Quan, albeit only slightly.
If you just moved to Oakland, you might think to yourself, “Why is the mayor unpopular, and why is she behind Rebecca Kaplan in the polls?” After all, the city is currently undergoing a well-publicized renaissance. The excellence of Oakland’s restaurant industry has been nationally recognized. The city’s arts, culture, and nightlife scenes are thriving. It’s nearly impossible to find an affordable place to live because so many people want to be here, and the unemployment rate has dropped by more than half since the Great Recession. It seems as if every month some organization names Oakland, or a section of it, a top place to reside in the country. Even crime, the city’s albatross for decades, is down substantially in 2014.
As of last week, homicides had dropped 30 percent compared to last year, robberies had plummeted 37 percent, and burglaries had declined 12 percent. During the summer, Oakland went nearly six weeks without a killing — a surprising statistic, considering the fact that the warmer months have usually been associated with crime spikes in the past.
And yet Quan doesn’t get credit for Oakland’s turnaround. Instead, there’s a feeling among many people that The Town is succeeding despite its mayor. Part of the problem has to do with the fact that Quan is not an effective communicator; she has done a poor job of connecting the work she has done as mayor with Oakland’s resurgence. Instead, she’s known more for her mistakes, particularly her mishandling of Occupy Oakland; her verbal gaffes and long-winded speeches; and the relatively high turnover among her top staffers. She’s now on her third police chief (Sean Whent, who succeeded Anthony Batts and Howard Jordan) and her fourth city administrator (Henry Gardner, who followed P. Lamont Ewell, Deanna Santana, and Fred Blackwell) in four years. “I don’t seem to get a lot of luck, but I think that overall I’ve managed well,” she said in our interview. “I’m not a great politician. … It’s taken a while to learn how to be mayor. … I think I should be judged on the outcome.”
Many City Hall insiders and supporters of the mayor also contend that the public has a skewed view of Quan, because they say she has been the subject of unfair media coverage, especially from the San Francisco Chronicle. Indeed, the Chronicle has scrutinized her actions in the past few years much more closely than it typically does with other elected officials in the Bay Area. Earlier this year, for example, the paper seemed obsessed with whether she had been using her cellphone while driving. “The Chronicle has been so hard on her,” Kernighan said. “Their coverage has been totally unbalanced. There are times when she deserved to get beaten up in the press — but not like that.”
Whether you believe the criticism of Quan has been deserved, nearly everyone, including her most strident detractors, concede that she’s hardworking — she’s perhaps the hardest working public official in the Bay Area. She also has accomplishments. The city’s finances are in much better shape now than when she took office. She was instrumental in jumpstarting the $500 million Oakland Army Base redevelopment project and in securing funding from a Chinese financier for the massive $1.5 billion Brooklyn Basin housing development on the city’s waterfront. And three years after OPD’s harsh — and expensive — crackdown on Occupy Oakland on her watch, the department has made more progress toward finally achieving court-ordered reforms than under the two previous administrations. In addition to Kalb, Councilmember Noel Gallo has also endorsed Quan’s reelection.
Schaaf occupies the middle ground of Oakland politics — between left and moderate. In fact, she may be the only candidate in the race other than Quan who will garner a significant number of votes from both moderates and progressives. As the councilmember for District Four (Montclair-Laurel), Schaaf has considerable support in the Oakland hills, which tend to be more moderate than the city’s flatlands (though as a longtime former councilmember and school board member representing District Four, Quan also still has many hills supporters). Governor Brown, a hills resident who is very popular with centrists, also endorsed Schaaf earlier this week.
But over the past year, Schaaf also has taken progressive stands on issues that have endeared her to liberals. For example, last spring, she beat Quan and Kaplan to the punch by coming out strongly in favor of the Lift Up Oakland ballot measure, which would raise the city’s minimum wage to $12.25 an hour starting next March. At the time, the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce adamantly opposed the Lift Up Oakland measure, and numerous business leaders were shocked at Schaaf’s unwavering support of it. “I don’t shy away from hard decisions,” Schaaf said in our interview. “And I’m good for my word.” In fact, Schaaf was the only candidate other than Siegel who never waffled on the Lift Up measure. “It showed that she has courage and backbone,” said council President Kernighan. “Many business people crossed her off their lists” of candidates to endorse after that, Kernighan added. In fact, the chamber, which had been expected to support Schaaf, is now only backing Parker for mayor.
An Oakland native, Schaaf is the only candidate other than Quan to have worked in both the legislative and executive branches of Oakland government. She served as an aide to then-Mayor Brown in the Aughts before becoming a staffer for then-Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente. She also served as a staffer for the council as a whole. As such, Schaaf has a clear understanding of how City Hall works. She also has developed a reputation for being politically independent. Many observers had expected her to align herself with De La Fuente after she was elected to the council in 2010, but instead she routinely clashed with him.
Like Quan, Schaaf also has a strong work ethic. An ardent researcher, she’s known for staying up until the early morning hours, studying the best practices of other cities and crafting policy papers and legislation for Oakland. For example, during our interview, she repeatedly pointed to successes that other cities have had on various issues, and said she plans to examine closely whether Oakland should adopt them.
Of the top seven candidates, Schaaf is the most vocal advocate for good-government policies. She has pushed to improve transparency by posting more city information online. She co-authored Measure DD, the independent redistricting measure on November ballot. If approved by voters, it would take the power of redistricting away from the council and give it to an independent citizens’ panel. Schaaf also has been an outspoken proponent of Measure CC, which would strengthen the city’s Public Ethics Commission. She also has been the top fundraiser in the campaign. On Monday, her campaign announced that she had accumulated more than $404,000 in total donations.
Like several of the other candidates, Schaaf wants the Oakland Police Department to focus more on community policing, and believes that growing the force to about eight hundred cops will give officers more time “to get out of their cars and engage with the community.” Schaaf also successfully pushed the department to hire additional civilians to take on certain duties so that cops could be freed up for patrol and investigations.
In terms of building more housing and growing the local economy, Schaaf’s policy positions are similar to those of Kaplan and Quan. In fact, in our interview, Schaaf said she plans to move forward with many policies that Quan has championed. The difference, Schaaf said, is that she’ll do a better job implementing them and working within City Hall to make them successful.
A year ago, it looked as if Schaaf’s entrance in the race might affect Tuman the most. After all, the two have shared similar political ideologies over the years. Both were members, for example, of Make Oakland Better Now!, a grassroots group that strongly advocates for hiring more police officers in the city. However, in the past twelve months, Schaaf has tacked to the left on a variety of issues, most notably on the minimum wage, while Tuman has not. “I’m narrowly focused in this election on public safety,” the San Francisco State political science professor declared in our interview.
If elected, Tuman said he plans to ramp up the police department to nine hundred officers over the next several years. He scoffs at the downward trend in crime this year in Oakland, which came at a time when OPD had fewer than seven hundred cops. “Crime is down all over the country,” he said, adding that Oakland’s crime drop may be attributable to the increasing number of private security patrols in the city. Tuman also has expressed some support in the past for implementing a youth curfew in Oakland.
Dealing with public-employee pension liabilities is another of Tuman’s top issues. On the campaign trail, he often warns of the mounting debt Oakland will be facing in the years to come. In fact, his emphasis on pensions garnered him the endorsement of the Oakland Tribune, which has made cutting spending and controlling public-employee retirement plans its top issues in all local political campaigns.
But Tuman also has come under criticism because he has yet to outline a concrete financial plan for how the city would be able to afford to hire two hundred more police officers — at a cost of $50 to $60 million — and slash spending at the same time in order to fund pension obligations. Tuman does not advocate for higher taxes, but rather said he will be able grow the city’s economy to pay for his proposals.
Tuman also said he wants to expand the city’s healthcare and technology sectors and attract large, high-end retail chains — such as Macy’s and Nordstrom — to Oakland. He wants to build more market-rate housing and construct micro-units — small apartments or condos for young singles adults. He also wants to relax the city’s parking regulations, reduce parking ticket fees, and expand the number of free parking spaces in Oakland. (Schaaf and Kaplan, by contrast, support demand-based parking, which raises parking rates in busy areas and lowers them in commercial districts that have plenty of parking available, and is backed by many environmentalists because it creates a disincentive to drive.)
A former debate coach, Tuman has done well at candidate forums during the 2014 campaign. He’s smart and well-spoken. Like Kaplan, he also has been strongly critical of Quan, arguing that she no longer has “credibility” as mayor because of her mistakes.
Although Tuman has never before held elected office, he argues that his experience as a department chair at San Francisco State has prepared him well for a leadership position. In 2010, the longtime TV political analyst finished fourth in the Oakland mayor’s race, behind Quan, ex-state Senator Don Perata, and Kaplan. Recent polls have shown him as being in third or fourth place in this year’s contest, sometimes ahead of Schaaf.
Courtney Ruby & Bryan Parker
When the Oakland Chamber of Commerce announced last month that Bryan Parker was the only person it was endorsing for mayor, the former healthcare executive immediately became the business candidate of the 2014 election. In retrospect, the endorsement was not surprising, considering the fact that Parker had also questioned the Lift Up Oakland minimum wage proposal. Like the chamber, Parker advocated for raising the minimum wage more slowly over time, and for creating exemptions for small businesses and certain categories of employees. “I would have loved to have seen a more gradual, phased-in plan,” he said in an interview.
Like Tuman, Parker is hoping to entice more big-box retailers to open outlets in Oakland, noting that the city loses millions of dollars each year in sales tax revenues to other cities with large numbers of chain stores. The former healthcare industry executive also advocates for improving the business climate throughout the city to attract more banks, supermarkets, and other retail outlets.
In terms of the police department, Parker supports increasing the size of the force to eight hundred cops as quickly as possible, and then growing it to nine hundred over the next four to six years. Eventually, he said, he would like to get to 1,200 cops. “It’s a budget perspective in terms of what’s reasonable in the short-term,” he said. “I think eight hundred is reasonable.”
During the campaign, Parker also has said that he believes the police department has sometimes received unfair criticism. For example, he said at a debate earlier this year that he did not believe that OPD was engaging in racial profiling when department reports revealed that officers had been stopping African-American residents and arresting them for marijuana-related offenses at disproportionate levels compared to whites. The large number of stops, searches, and arrests of black residents, he argued, were the result of police focusing on high-crime areas of the city.
At the same time, Parker has repeatedly said that he’s concerned about inequality and wants the city to unite around progressive values. He often notes that he was raised by a single mom in a tough section of Stockton and that he “lost a sister to murder.” “If we really want to get to a safer society, we really have to do more about poverty,” he told me, adding that he plans to embrace “empathetic leadership” as mayor.
Parker has sought to differentiate himself from the other candidates by pointing to his extensive background in business, noting that he has helped turnaround several companies. But Parker also owes much of his financial success to his work at DaVita, a giant healthcare company that has been sued repeatedly on charges of fraud and corruption and of shortchanging medical care to low-income patients. Parker’s campaign also has received substantial funding from DaVita executives. According to a recent comprehensive poll commissioned by Oakland developer Phil Tagami, Parker was running sixth, behind Siegel in ranked-choice voting.
City Auditor Ruby was the only one of the top seven candidates to not respond to requests for an interview for this report. During candidate forums, Ruby also said that she plans to grow the police department to nine hundred officers as soon as possible. Ruby has said that she plans to eliminate waste in city government to pay for two hundred new cops. However, during her tenure as city auditor Ruby failed to uncover substantial financial waste — nowhere near the $50 to $60 million it would cost to hire that many officers.
At this point, Ruby is considered a long shot in the race. In the Tagami-commissioned poll, she was actually running in eighth place, behind former Occupy Oakland activist Jason “Shake” Anderson.