Last night, I attended an Oakland mayoral candidate forum at the College Preparatory School, co-sponsored by the Rockridge Community Planning Council and the Oakland League of Women Voters. Let me start by offering kudos to the board of RCPC (which I chair) and the Oakland League for making the event happen. There were close to 200 people in attendance, and I think they came away with a far better understanding of the candidates and issues. It’s too bad more of Oakland can’t see these events. (BTW, the event was videoed, and excerpts will be posted on the RCPC website at http://Rockridge.org .)
The candidates can, in my opinion, be clustered in three tiers. The first and easiest to dispose of are the not-a-serious-candidate candidates. I’m sure these folks have good intentions, but their idea and proposals simply don’t cut the mustard. They are: Larry (“L.L.”) Young, Jr., Marcie Hodge, Arnold Fields, and Terence Candell. [Candell didn’t show up for the forum, but that, in itself, says a lot about how seriously he takes the race.] The second tier are the “front-runners. By all accounts, these are, in alphabetical order, Rebecca Kaplan, Don Perata, Jean Quan, and Joe Tuman. With the exception of Tuman, these are all long-time players in local/regional politics and have the accompanying plus of experience and a track record, and the minus of the baggage that comes along with a record. Tuman makes it into the group primarily because of his experience as a political media commentator, and perhaps secondarily as an academic in the area of government. The third, and is some ways most interesting tier, are two candidates that are not well enough known to be front runners, but show enough thought to be taken seriously. These are Greg Harland, a businessman who characterizes himself on the ballot as an “investor”, and Don Macleay, a Green Party activist who designates himself as “computer network technician”.
Looking first at the front-runners, as I’ve already revealed, I have little good to say about Perata. He’s a consumate wheeler-dealer who’s all too willing to accomodate special interests if he thinks there’s an “angle” in it that works to his advantage. He’s also not averse to drinking heartily from the public trough, and is well-known for his rather extravagant lifestyle. He was the only candidate at the forum who wholeheartedly supported the OPOA’s stance during the budget crisis, a stance that I consider to represent the worst of narrow self-interest in the face of a fiscal crisis. (See my earlier post about the OPAO, the budget, and the campaign.) To my mind, this is NOT what we need in Oakland’s mayor, especially now, with Oakland in a deep budget crisis.
Jean Quan presents a more mixed picture. She’s certainly experienced, having served two terms on the Oakland school board and two terms on the city council. She also is willing to put in the time needed to study issues carefully, and has the advantage of having seen Oakland’s budget crisis develop from the inside. On the other hand, as a council member for eight years, she bears some responsibility for that crisis. While she has, at verious points, expressed trepidation about some of the city council’s labor agreements and some of the ways the city has acted, she certainly hasn’t been the kind of emphatic “Paul Revere” type figure that would have raised the alarm about some of the wrong turns the city was making, especially in negotiations with the OPOA. She also made a surprising statement in the forum, as the only candidate to support high-density (4-5 story) development around the Rockridge BART station. This position may have gained her some support with ardent “smart-growthers”, but I suspect it’s broadly unpopular among Rockridge residents, who are all too aware of the existing traffic congestion along College Avenue. It also may more generally indicate a degree of disconnect for Oakland’s neighborhoods and their residents. [NOTE — I have heard back from Quan’s campaign that she apparently misspoke, thinking it was the MacArthur BART station being referred to, and does NOT support higher development density at the Rockridge BART. Take it for what you will.] I came into the forum feeling she’d be my number one or two choice. She’s now dropped a notch or two in my estimation.
Rebecca Kaplan presented herself quite articulately, but her answers to questions were often somewhat vague. She and Perata were the two candidates who came across most clearly as “politicians” (and I mean that reference to be somewhat negative). She also has not had a lot of experience, with only two years on the city council as the at-large member. I also wonder about her ability to forge any sort of consensus with council members. While she has sometimes sided with the council’s current “progressive” bloc [which also usually includes Nadel, Quan, Brunner, and Kernighan], she’s tended to go off on her own idiosyncratic tack. One thing Oakland has sorely lacked, especially since adopting a strong-mayor charter, is a mayor who can reliably work with the city council to develop, if not full consensus, at least a reliable working majority. For all her intelligence and energy, I don’t sense that Kaplan can provide that.
Joe Tuman presents an interesting picture. As someone who’s never been an elected official, he brings to the race the aura of the knowledgeable outsider. Also, as a local TV political commentator, he’s got a lot of credibility among those who’ve watched his show. In addition, he’s got the credibility of an academic who can claim special expertise in local government issues. On the other hand, as an academic and media person, he’s never had to actually handle the reins of government. One wonders how tractible he’ll find the city and its administration. He said at the forum that he’s already identified two people to whom he’d offer the job of city administrator. This shows admirable foresight. He also said that they were people with a background in administration and experience with city government; but he wouldn’t reveal their names. Oakland’s administrative bureaucracy is big, cumbersome, and often inefficient. [Arnold Fields specifically attacked what he felt was the arbitrary and overbearing attitude of CEDA, and specifically the city’s code enforcement officers.] While several candidates talked about “eliminating waste” and reducing bureaucratic red-tape, nobody presented a clear program about how to do that. From my experience with EBMUD, trying to overhaul a bureacracy is a task on the order of cleaning the Augean stables. [Try looking that up on Google if you’re unfamiliar with the reference.] I think it will take a, literally, Herculean effort to do it, and the pushback will undoubtedly be extreme. I’m skeptical about Tuman’s ability to achieve his lofty promises. For example, he promised to reduce police dept. spending by retiring older officers and starting a new tier of officers with a much lower salary and benefits package. Maybe that’ll work in this economy, but in the past police salaries have been high because otherwise positions go unfilled.
Finally, we have Don Macleay and Greg Harland. Both these candidates had some interesting, if unconventional, ideas about how to make the city work better. Harland was the only candidate to propose moving the city off its defined-benefit pension plans; presumably into something more like private employers’ 401K plans. This is likely to go across to the City’s unions like a lead balloon. It might be a good opening position to push for some flex from the union side, but it would certainly start his relationship with the city’s unions on a very sour note. In general, his ideas were what one would expect from a business-oriented candidate. They’re not likely to gain much tractions among an electorate as Democratically-oriented as Oakland’s. Don Macleay has the opposite problem. As an emphatic Green Party candidate, he’s likely to be seen as too radical by many Oakland voters (although the proposals he presented at the forum weren’t significantly more radical than those of the “mainstream” candidates). More importantly, he really didn’t have anything he could show that would demonstrate he was equipped to handle the enormous challenges that will face Oakland’s next mayor.
Perhaps that was the most depressing part of the forum. As one candidate stated, this could be the most important Oakland mayoral election in many years. The City is facing an extremely trying financial future, with even the potential for joining Vallejo in bankruptcy if things go badly enough. (One of the candidates, I think it was Tuman, went so far as to say that the City was effectively bankrupt already, in terms of not being able to effectively perform necessary government services.) I’m afraid I don’t have a strong sense that any of the candidates was convincing in showing his/her ability to effectively lead Oakland’s government out of its current financial morass. Of course, much of Oakland’s future, like that of all California’s cities, depends on factors outside its control, especially the state and national economy and state and national policies. Maybe nobody short of Superman can “turn Oakland around” the way it needs to; but none of these ten candidates appears to be anything close to Superman.