.Jean the Giant-Killer

How Oakland city councilwoman Jean Quan beat the East Bay's much-feared king of big-money politics. Hint: It wasn't just about ranked-choice voting.

Jean Quan‘s adult daughter, Lailan Huen, couldn’t stand the thought of pay-to-play politics dominating Oakland city government. So when her mother asked her and her family eighteen months ago if they were okay with her challenging Don Perata, the East Bay’s king of big-money campaigns, Lailan was unequivocal. “I don’t want that guy to be mayor, mom,” she said. “You’ve got to run.”

To outsiders, Jean Quan may have seemed an unlikely candidate to face off against the former president pro tem of the California Senate and onetime leader of the state Democratic Party. More often than not, Perata instilled fear in most East Bay politicians. For decades, they were intimidated by his stable of deep-pocketed donors and his long history of exacting revenge against those who dared to cross him. “They’re so scared of him,” Quan said late last week during a sit-down interview. “People were looking at me like I was crazy.”

Until now, Quan never had a reputation for being a fierce political candidate. She was known as a consensus builder, a well-respected councilwoman who knew the finer points of city government maybe better than anyone. She didn’t have an A-list of endorsers. And when she started, she suspected that Perata and his contributors would outspend her by a margin of more than 3-1.

But with her family’s undying support, Quan and a cadre of close friends devised a plan for success. Quan and her husband Floyd Huen would take out a second mortgage on their Oakland home. They would depend heavily on her tireless passion for campaigning and on an army of volunteers — nearly 1,000 strong — who would go door-to-door on her behalf. They would attack Perata like no other East Bay politician had dared to do. And they would take full advantage of Oakland’s new election system, ranked-choice voting.

They knew the ex-senator would have a mountain of cash at his disposal. But they nonetheless were confident that they could beat him. What they didn’t know is that he would run a clumsy, mistake-prone campaign. “The race was always predicated on the fact that Perata would have unlimited amounts of money, but my hope was that he would spend it ineffectively — and it turned out that they did,” said Parke Skelton, a Pasadena-based political consultant who managed Quan’s winning campaign.

But Quan and her team also had to contend with Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, a young, whip-smart, up-and-comer who built a formidable coalition of young voters, gay activists, environmentalists, and business advocates. The Quan team knew that Kaplan could help them with ranked-choice voting, but they also were concerned that when Perata attacked Quan, and they returned fire, that Kaplan might benefit. “That was my biggest fear of the whole race — that Kaplan would make a late surge because she was staying above the fray,” Skelton said.

In the end, Kaplan surged, but she ultimately couldn’t garner enough votes to get past Quan. Her entrance in the race also produced the payoff that the Quan team had dreamed about. Kaplan supporters went huge for Quan, picking her above Perata on their ranked-choice ballots by a 3-1 margin, and rocketing Quan to a 2,000-vote victory.

Only time will tell whether Quan will become an effective mayor. But looking back on the 2010 Oakland mayor’s race, there’s no doubt that she outworked, outflanked, and outsmarted her competitors. She easily ran the best campaign. And her winning strategy promises to be one that political junkies will study for years to come.

The Volunteer Army

When Chris Quan joined Jean Quan’s campaign in February, there were already 500 volunteers trying to get the councilwoman elected mayor. Chris, who is not related to Jean, had known the councilwoman when she served on the Oakland school board in the 1990s. Indeed, many of the Quan volunteers first met her during her school district days and were deeply devoted to her. Since the election, she has held two giant parties in their honor.

Chris Quan’s job was being the volunteer coordinator for Jean Quan’s army of volunteers. Eventually, the army swelled to nearly 1,000 members, Chris Quan said. It was an unprecedented outpouring of support for an Oakland political candidate, and it dwarfed what the Perata and Kaplan campaigns assembled. The saying “grassroots campaign” has become an empty cliché in the current era of Astroturf politics, but the 2010 Jean Quan campaign may have reclaimed its original meaning.

Although many of Quan’s volunteers were driven by the prospect of beating Perata, that wasn’t sufficient motivation to inspire so many of them to spend months knocking on doors. The ex-senator’s campaign slogan may have been “I Believe in Oakland,” but Quan’s volunteer army believed in her. “She believes in the collective power of us — that every person’s opinion is important,” Chris Quan said. “We believed in her. And she believed that together we could make a difference. And she made us believe that, too.”

The Quan army grew as volunteers went from house to house. If people said they intended to vote for her, they were quickly enlisted to knock on doors themselves, or phone bank for her. The campaign also targeted neighborhood opinion-makers, people who could sway the votes of residents on their block, noted Susan Montauk, the volunteer coordinator for North Oakland.

Quan’s campaign slogan was: “Taking Back Oakland, Block By Block,” and no one may have embodied that theme more than her husband, Floyd Huen, and longtime Oakland political activist James Vann. For nearly a year, the two of them walked the city, reaching two-thirds of Oakland’s precincts, chatting up residents, and urging them to put Quan on their ballots. They covered more than 200 miles on foot.

Early on, they realized that Perata’s name recognition would be tough to overcome. “One of the most surprising things I found is how many people said they didn’t know Jean,” Vann said. “A lot of people knew Perata. They had voted for him before. They knew his name. It was clear to us that the race was going to be won with second- and third-place choices.”

Perata’s strongest support turned out to be among black voters in East Oakland. The Quan campaign attempted to change black voters’ minds by telling them about Assemblyman Sandré Swanson, an ardent Quan supporter who also is one of the most prominent black elected officials in the East Bay. They also told voters about Perata’s close ties to the state prison guard’s union. Since early 2009, the union has paid the ex-senator nearly $500,000 as a consultant and is his primary employer. “To me, closing the gap with African-American voters was the single most important thing we had to do in the race,” said Skelton, Quan’s campaign manager.

When she wasn’t at the thirty-plus candidate debates, or her two hundred house parties, Jean Quan ached to go door-to-door, too. If it were up to her, she would’ve walked with Vann and her husband every step of the way. “There’s no politician in the Bay Area who walks more precincts and knocks on more doors than Jean Quan — that’s her advantage,” said Swanson, the co-chair of Quan’s campaign and one of the few East Bay politicians who didn’t endorse Perata.

Swanson recalled that when he ran for Alameda County Board of Supervisors in 1986 against Perata, Quan campaigned tirelessly for him. “And when I first ran for Assembly [in 2006], she walked more precincts for me than I did myself,” added Swanson, who has been around Oakland politics since he ran Lionel Wilson‘s first mayoral campaign in 1977. “She’s an opponent’s worse nightmare — a candidate who literally goes door-to-door with an army of volunteers. One thousand of them. I’ve never seen it before.”

Skelton, who managed the successful mayoral campaign of Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, along with Nancy Skinner‘s winning Assembly bid in Berkeley, Richmond, and North Oakland, also said he’s never seen a candidate like Quan. “She’s indefatigable; she’s a machine,” he said. “She would rather go out there and walk than do anything in the campaign.”

The day after besting Perata, Quan’s eyes lit up when the conversation turned to walking precincts. “I love campaigning,” she said, leaning forward in her chair. “I love going to door-to-door. I love doing house parties. I love it. I love it.”

Attack, Attack, Attack

For months, Quan had fretted about going too negative on Perata. She worried about a possible voter backlash. But Skelton was determined to capitalize on the ex-senator’s numerous shady dealings over the years. “There was no way to win without polarizing the race around him — make it a Perata-not-Perata race,” Skelton said.

The other big advantage of the all-volunteer army was that it allowed Quan to save lots of money for campaign ads. By June 30, Perata had spent more than $320,000 on political consultants and campaign staff, while Quan had spent less than one-tenth that amount. Although Perata eventually found a loophole in Oakland election law that allowed him to exceed the city’s campaign spending cap of $379,000, Quan’s savings from employing volunteer workers enabled her to blitz the city with campaign mailings in the weeks before Election Day. By the time voters cast their ballots, she had sent out at least as many mailers as Perata and his friends. “We spent very little on anything but mail,” noted Skelton, who was one of the few paid people on the campaign. “We spent close to $300,000 on mail. I don’t think Perata out-mailed us.”

Quan’s numerous attack ads on Perata surprised many Oakland political observers, mainly because no East Bay political candidate had ever done it before. But people close to Quan expected her to hammer the ex-senator. They know her as a fighter who doesn’t back down. “The only thing that surprised me was how effective her mail was,” said Dan Siegel, who has known Quan and Floyd Huen since their activist days at UC Berkeley in the Sixties. “I thought her mail was phenomenal — the best I’ve seen in a local election. It was so much better than Don’s, and he’s supposed to be an expert at this.”

Quan’s mailers repeatedly pounded Perata for the Oakland Raiders deal, a financial debacle that will end up costing East Bay taxpayers more than $600 million. At least two mailers, showed a mostly empty Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, with the message: “Thanks, Don.”

But perhaps her most effective mailer was one that 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 about his questionable financial dealings over the years and the political favors he’s delivered to his major donors.

Most of the mailers also instructed residents to visit the web site, NotDon.org, also known as “Anybody But Perata for Mayor of Oakland.” Founded and operated by longtime East Bay journalist J. Douglas Allen-Taylor, the site featured news stories about the campaign along with an exhaustive compilation of investigative reports about Perata by the Express, the Oakland Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, and the Sacramento Bee. The site obviously struck a popular chord with readers. If you did a Google search on “Don Perata” in the weeks before the election, NotDon.org usually came up as the second or third result.

Although Quan’s campaign eventually became synonymous with the Anybody But Perata movement, Allen-Taylor said he decided to launch the site after a suggestion by Geoffrey Pete, a supporter of Mayor Ron Dellums and Rebecca Kaplan. The site purposely did not endorse any of the candidates running against Perata. Allen-Taylor was determined to ensure that readers knew his site was independent and not a partisan political attack on the ex-senator by one of the campaigns. “If the web site had supported any of the alternative candidates, it wouldn’t have worked,” he said. “I can’t overstress that.”

After the election, Perata campaign consultant John Whitehurst told the Chronicle that he regretted not attacking Quan and Kaplan more. The Perata campaign had relied on a Sacramento group with close ties to the senator, Coalition for a Safer California, to run negative ads against Quan. But the group laid off Kaplan after slamming her in a mailer in June. And there was a key difference between the group’s hit-pieces on Quan and her attacks on Perata. Theirs contained falsehoods, while hers may have resonated more with voters because they were true.

As for Quan, herself, she credits Skelton with consistently pushing her to grab Perata by the throat and hold on. The ranked-choice voting results indicate that it was sound advice. The electorate was polarized around Perata. They either liked him or they didn’t. Even though he received 11,076 more first-place votes than she did, she trounced him on second- and third-place choices, 24,631 to 11,530, a difference of 13,101 votes, according to new results released on November 13.

“He was very clear that I had to educate people about Don,” Quan said of Skelton. “And it was amazing how many people didn’t know anything about him. But then once people found out more about him, they said, ‘Oh my, God. I’m not voting for him.'”

Outsmarting Perata

Ranked-choice voting, it turns out, is all about humility. It’s about going hat-in-hand to voters and asking them to select you as their second or third choice on their ballots. It’s also about endearing yourself to your opponents’ supporters. And even though Jean Quan has a sizable ego, she understood those facts better than any of her opponents, particularly Perata.

During the campaign, Quan was the first candidate to plea for second- and third-place votes and she kept doing it until Election Day. She even began some conversations with voters by saying, “I’m Jean Quan, I’m running for mayor, and I like you to consider me for your second choice.” Voters inevitably responded by asking, “What do you mean second choice?” Their responses gave Quan an opening to explain ranked-choice voting. And then voters often were so taken with her down-to-earth approach that they agreed to list her first on their ballots.

Quan’s army of volunteers also wasn’t shy about knocking on doors that had lawn signs advertising Perata, Kaplan, or Joe Tuman‘s campaigns. “We would never be intimidated by a yard sign; we would always ask for a second-place vote,” said Sharon Rose, the Quan campaign’s volunteer leader for the Oakland hills. “We would say, ‘We see you’re supporting Perata, but would you think about supporting Jean?’ That way, we could get them to at least think about her.”

She also was the first candidate to urge her own supporters to select another candidate second on their ballots — Kaplan. She started doing it in May, and continued until the election. “It’s an extremely smart thing to do with ranked-choice voting,” said Steven Hill, a ranked-choice voting advocate. It also appears to have endeared her to Kaplan supporters. According to the most recent results, Quan received three times more second- and third-place votes from voters who selected Kaplan than did Perata.

Kaplan also asked for second- and third-place votes, and later in the race urged her supporters to select Quan and Tuman second or third. And there’s reason to believe that Kaplan also might have beaten Perata with the help of Quan supporters if she had gotten past Quan in the earlier rounds of ranked-choice tabulations. However, she fell short of Quan by 2,312 votes before being eliminated.

Perata, by contrast, repeatedly said during the campaign and after the election that he didn’t “understand” how ranked-choice voting worked. The remark prompted much derision within the Quan and Kaplan campaigns. Although the ex-senator clearly understood that ranked-choice voting meant that he needed second- and third-place votes to win, he and his political consultants didn’t seem to understand what he personally had to do — or what the campaign had to do — to get those votes.

Perata’s strategy, instead, was to essentially show contempt for the new voting system. Throughout the campaign, he repeatedly urged supporters to just vote for him, and implied strongly that they should not select anyone else for their second and third choices. Quan and Kaplan also worked much harder than he did to get their rivals’ supporters to pick them as their second or third choices.

It was a head-scratching maneuver for Perata, considering that none of the pre-election polls showed him getting a majority of first-place votes. That meant he knew he had to get lots of second- and third-place votes to win. Yet he didn’t pursue them like his rivals did. And by telling voters to just pick him, he may have alienated Kaplan and Tuman supporters. He also sent an unspoken message that if he was not a voter’s first choice, then they should just leave him off their ballots.

Luckily for Quan, Perata also made several more errors during the campaign. He skipped most of the candidate debates, leaving spectators to wonder what his ideas were. And then when he did show up, he sometimes acted as if he didn’t want to be there, offering up vague responses to detailed questions. He also completely flubbed the Tribune‘s editorial board interview, arriving woefully unprepared. When the Tribune board later selected Kaplan, Tuman, and then Quan as its three choices for mayor in that order, it said it found Perata’s “poor grasp of the issues appalling.”

And even though campaign spending for Perata topped $1 million, shattering all previous Oakland records, the money wasn’t spent that wisely. Perata’s own campaign paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to expensive consultants and staff. And he made a huge cable TV-ad buy — to the delight of the Quan campaign. “He could’ve just shredded that money and threw it out the window,” Skelton said, noting that cable TV shows typically have low ratings and aren’t seen by that many Oakland voters. “There’s no reach. They don’t have an impact.”

And the Perata-linked group, Coalition for a Safer California, appeared at times to just waste money on TV ads so that it would exceed the city’s expenditure threshold, allowing Perata to break the cap, too. “We had people in Toronto tell us that they saw Don Perata ads,” Skelton said.

Fortunately for Quan, Kaplan made some missteps, too. For starters, she waited too long to get into the race. By the time she officially announced her candidacy at the end of June, Quan’s volunteer army was approaching 1,000. Kaplan also spent a lot of her funds on paid campaign staff. In fact, if it hadn’t been for $214,000 in late independent expenditures by the California Nurses Association and Hollywood producer Bryan Zuriff, Kaplan would not have had any citywide mailers in the final days before the election. As it was, she came close to winning, and an earlier start would have given her more time to raise money and recruit volunteers.

A Mandate

After Quan won, some observers questioned whether she has a mandate. The Chronicle editorial board, which endorsed Perata for mayor, noted late last week that the ex-senator received more first-place votes than did Quan. But the editorial neglected to mention that ranked-choice balloting also showed that a majority of Oakland voters preferred Quan to Perata.

Quan’s campaign staffers believe that she also would have won a traditional primary and general election. But this much is clear; if Perata had run in two elections, he could have greatly outspent his opponent twice. Likewise, Quan also benefitted from having Kaplan and Tuman in the race all the way up until the end. If they had been eliminated in a traditional primary, it’s unlikely that all of their supporters — most of whom ultimately backed Quan — would have participated in a general election.

In that way, ranked-choice voting did one of the things its backers wanted it to do, by giving a grassroots campaign like Quan’s a chance against a big-money candidate like Perata by allowing her to run just one campaign.

In fact, ranked-choice voting allowed far more voters to participate in this election than in previous mayoral races decided in primaries. According to the latest figures from the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, 119,603 voters cast valid ballots in the 2010 mayoral race. By contrast, in the 2006 June mayoral election, only 83,891 did so. In other words, an additional 35,712 Oakland voters participated in the 2010 mayor’s race because of ranked-choice voting.

The thousands of extra voters mean that Quan actually received more votes for mayor than Dellums did in 2006. She garnered 53,895 to his 42,108. If she doesn’t have a mandate, then he arguably didn’t either.

Finally, there’s this: Jean Quan beat Don Perata. If that alone doesn’t earn her a mandate from the community, the East Bay political establishment, and Oakland City Hall, what would?


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