For the two years since Jean Quan was elected mayor in Oakland’s first ranked-choice voting election, the voice of her administration—through multiple turbulent situations—has been Susan Piper, who retired last month as Quan’s official spokesperson.
Rising economic and racial tensions, the resignation of Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts, and a mayoral recall effort have tested the administration of Quan, the city’s first Asian-American mayor. These challenges culminated in last fall’s Occupy Oakland protest, which brought national attention to an administration already struggling with its public image. With hordes of local and national reporters descending on the city, it was Piper who fielded their steady onslaught of calls and questions day and night.
A few weeks after her retirement, and as the anniversary of the Occupy encampments nears, Piper sat down for a 90-minute interview with Oakland North’s Charles Berkowitz. In the dining room of her house in the Oakland hills, Piper spoke openly about her career in public service; the raising of her three children in Oakland public schools; and the rewards and trials of working as communications director for the Quan administration.
Oakland North: Would you describe your job with the mayor’s office?
Susan Piper: I was responsible for media relations and two websites. As a volunteer, I had done Jean’s weekly e-newsletter for eight years.
In the council office I was responsible for organizing Jean’s Mentoring Initiative and promoted efforts to strengthen seismic retrofitting of buildings throughout Oakland because the city didn’t have anyone handling it. That was really pushed through our office and the office of Nancy Nadel. I handled many of the special events. I was the one who coordinated her inauguration.
Jean always made her own decisions, but she was very interested in what people had to say. If there was an area I was concerned with, I certainly told her what I thought. We had weekly staff meetings and issues would come up—we’d all put in our two cents. But in the end, the buck stops with her, and she would make the final decision. She expected you to speak your mind, and I certainly did.
ON: Why did you decide to work for Jean Quan’s administration?
Piper: I’ve known her for more than twenty years. She understands politics, but she’s a public servant—and there aren’t that many public servants out there. Time and time again, I’ve seen her make decisions that are not necessarily in the best interests of Jean Quan, but are in the best interests of the school district, or the city. You may not agree with it, but that’s where she’s coming from. You can’t say that about most people who are in politics. I much prefer to work with somebody who has those values.
What I like about Jean is that she has progressive roots, but she’s fiscally conservative. That’s important when you’re a mayor. Most of all, she’s honest. What you see is what you get. Jean is interested in making sure that Oakland is, as she likes to call it, a “real” city. You go to New York and you either have to be very rich or very poor to live there. Oakland is a working class city. We have people of all socio-economic ranges, but that’s what makes us so vital. You can live and work here. We want to keep it that way. Jean makes her decisions based on that.
ON: How did you personally deal with the stress that came with being Jean Quan’s spokesperson?
Piper (laughing): Well, I grind my teeth, and I had to have three capped. When I decided I’d retire, I said to Jean, “I can’t give you any more teeth!” It was hard. I probably would have stayed longer, but my husband got sick and I just decided life was too short. Towards the end, I would walk at lunchtime—just walk, for twenty minutes.
You have to laugh a lot. When we were in the council office, I worked with three other people and we were in one room that was quite small. But we were probably the happiest office of all the councilmembers. People would come to our office because we all got along and laughed a lot. You had to laugh, because it was so crazy.
It’s important work, but you can’t solve everything. You can’t take it personally. One of the issues is that it tends to overtake your life, particularly when you’re the only communications manager. It was a 24/7 job.
ON: What was the reaction in the Quan camp to the recall effort? Were you surprised? Did you ever regard them as a real threat?
Susan Piper: When we looked at who was behind it, they were all sort of disgruntled people who didn’t win [the 2010 mayoral race]. Many of them did not feel comfortable with ranked-choice voting and were trying to replay that. It didn’t make sense to us. Yes, they’re upset—but you recall someone if that official does something grossly illegal or immoral. Jean hadn’t done that. She was nine months into the position. She had just gotten on the job. If you don’t like her, vote her out in four years. Why do this? We just had to focus on the work at hand.
ON: Do you think those efforts were based on legitimate criticisms? Was Quan catching flak for things not her fault?
Susan Piper: After Occupy hit, Jean was getting hit from the right and the left. Either she was too liberal or not liberal enough. She wasn’t the only mayor having to deal with it, but Oakland’s Occupy movement in particular was much different than the other Occupy movements. These people didn’t play by rules. By October 25, it was clear this was not the same group of people that had originally gathered. We tried everything, but they wouldn’t negotiate with us. There was no way we could work with them. In other cities, people were able to negotiate.
Jean had to navigate to try and find a balance. She was in Washington at the time everything blew up. She said she got on the plane and the next thing she knew, she got off, and everything had ignited during the hours that she was on the plane.
I think it took people living in Oakland many months to realize what we had realized in early October. Many people, including the mayor’s office, supported the original intent of the Occupy movement. We believe we’re a part of the 99 percent. There’s still some groups doing non-confrontational kinds of things, and that’s fine. We wanted to work with them because in Oakland, we’ve been working with these issues for a long time.
But the anarchists—they just wanted to trash the city. It’s interesting to hear them say, “We know what Oakland wants.” Well, they’re not from Oakland. They are people who live somewhere else, who don’t represent this city because they don’t know this city. If they knew the city, they would understand that people were already working with it. And we work together. We don’t trash our own city.
ON: What was it like working with the press?
Susan Piper: I’ve been around for a long time. Some of the reporters I knew when I worked at the school district. Some of them I knew when I worked at Alta Bates. So I brought with me my own credibility, and they knew that. But I’m going to be pretty honest about this, and I have to start with the local press—they like to play up all the warts in Oakland. You don’t want to play up all your negatives in San Francisco, because of the tourist trade, but they don’t mind picking on Oakland. Many people only get their news from what they read in the papers or what they see on the television. The nature of news these days is the little controversial snippet, not the good news. You don’t usually hear the good news—so people’s impression of Oakland isn’t real.
Unfortunately, when people wanted to interview the mayor because of Occupy, they would only play up the negatives, and wouldn’t show this other part. When Jean first got elected, she would say to them, “Before you interview me, you have to promise a beautiful picture. You can show the lake. You can go up and see the view from the Mormon temple and go to Joaquin Miller Park but you have to have a positive picture.” And people began to see that this is a very wonderful city.
ON: What do you think the city needs to do to handle and event like Occupy Oakland better in the future?
Susan Piper: You’ve got to keep talking to people. The thing we learned about it is that the whole field of communications has changed—it’s not just print. As a matter of fact, print is sort of becoming superfluous, which is a shame, because I was trained as a print journalist. It isn’t just television or radio. Your generation, my kids, don’t read newspapers. They don’t even watch television news. They get it on their cell phones. Social media has just mushroomed, and that’s a real challenge, because which ones do you monitor? There’s so many of them.
There’s a real blurring between what I would call legitimate journalists and bloggers. Unless you’re going to spend the time to be a very astute person—that’s where the critical thinking comes in—you can believe what anybody says and a lot of it is just a bunch of bullshit. Excuse me, but that’s what it is. It’s somebody’s opinion. Unfortunately, it lives out there written in stone. It used to be that if a newspaper had printed something that was incorrect, you’d ask them to correct it and they would. Now, it’s out there forever.
What happened after October 25 was we’re all of a sudden getting phone calls and emails about how we murdered people. I wouldn’t respond, but in one case I got an email from somebody saying, “You terrible people!” And there is no sense of civility at this point, because it’s anonymous. All these four-letter words about us murdering people. I wrote back and asked, “Who died?” When we were looking at where these things were coming from, it was from a whole campaign of people from San Diego. They were saying terrible things about the mayor, which wasn’t based on any facts.
ON: What comes next for Mayor Quan and her administration? What major challenges do they face? What do they want to accomplish?
Susan Piper: It’s making sure that the city is able to bounce back when the recession gets better. There’s a lot of different things Jean’s working on to support that so that we are safer, both in reality and perception. The emphasis has always been on public safety, business development, retail, quality of life. That hasn’t changed, but it’s so much more challenging when the rug has gotten pulled out from beneath you. We finally get a balanced budget for the first time in years, and then the state takes away redevelopment, which for Oakland was a big chunk of our money. We think we have that settled. We’re ready to move forward with the Coliseum City, and now we’re waiting for them to approve it because they’re not sure what we did was correct or not.
The nice thing about Mayor Quan is that she has these big visions. She sees the nitty gritty that you have to do, to get from point A to point Z. You can’t just focus on Occupy. Fortunately, she has that vision.
ON: You lost your home to the Oakland Hills Firestorm of 1991. A recent article in the Oakland Tribune quoted you saying that experience “shaped our lives in so many different ways. The night of the fire, my husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘Maybe we should just move out of here.’ And then we said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’” What prompted you to stay?
Susan Piper: We thought about our kids. My older daughter, who is now 30, has said to me over and over, “I’m so glad you didn’t move, because I would have had a very different upbringing.” All our kids are products of Oakland, but she in particular is culturally very much a product of Oakland. She’s married to a Panamanian. She speaks English with a Spanish accent because she speaks Spanish so well. She has taken on Latino experiences, black experiences—that’s who she is.
After the fire, my husband got involved in landscaping. He decided one way he could give back was to build gardens, because everything was burned. Our daughter, who was then 9, learned that her parents couldn’t protect her from everything. He wanted to show her that everything wasn’t left up to fate—that one person could make a difference.
Oakland North: What brought you into public service?
Susan Piper: I’ve always been involved in the community. It’s in my genes. I worked in healthcare public relations for 15 years, but I wanted to raise a family. As I was raising my kids, I got more involved with the local schools and education.
That’s how I met Jean Quan. I was the PTA president at Kaiser Elementary School, and she was a school board member in an entirely different district. But she was the only member who communicated with the parents. Over the years, Jean and I became very good friends—my interests and hers meshed—and we worked on campaigns for the school district, for the library, and for the Wildfire Assessment District. When she decided to run for city council, she asked me to be her campaign coordinator, after [her] having been on the school board for 12 years.
ON: What do you like about Oakland’s government?
Susan Piper: Let’s put it this way: What I like about the people who work in the city of Oakland is that for the most part, they’re very dedicated. It’s very difficult, because the resources are so limited these days. The problem is that people want government to do everything. And you can’t. I always think measure of a good manager is what you don’t do because it’s impossible to do it all.
In Oakland, there are a lot of competing desires. Take an issue like public safety. Some people feel it should be all police. But if that were so, we wouldn’t have any resources left to do anything else. In Oakland, 65 percent if not more of our resources go to police and fire. That doesn’t leave a whole lot left for anything else. And yet our city has, I think, 16 public libraries and a similar amount of recreation centers. We believe this is important. Many of the people in Oakland rely on our libraries for their Internet access. Our libraries are really becoming community centers.
It’s hard in these difficult economic times to find that balance. Do we cut off services for seniors so we can have more police? Somehow we have to balance it. In the end, public safety isn’t just police. Even the police will tell you that you can’t arrest your way out of the problem. It has to be all of these other services working together. We have to create a very positive environment so that people won’t turn to crime. And that’s a long-term solution.
ON: Are there certain narratives or ideas about the Quan administration that everyone just gets wrong or misunderstands?
Piper: There’s one where people feel that Jean doesn’t get along with other people, and that’s why things have been difficult. She is willing to give you a chance. If you are honest with her, you can make mistakes. But if you lie to her—if you’re not willing to meet her halfway—then it’s a problem. That happened in a couple of cases where the press thought Jean was picking a fight with people, and it was the other way around.
But I have found her to be fair. Being a mayor of a city like Oakland in these times is very difficult. So it isn’t just what your platform is. It’s based on the core values that make up this person. They’re going to be challenged, day in and day out, to make decisions based on what those values are. As a mayor, I would want to have somebody who values transparency, integrity, and what’s good for Oakland first. Knowing Jean, that’s where she’s coming from. I’m not sure that comes across unless people have known her for a long time. There is a consistency with Jean, if you’ve watched her throughout her political career. She’s not afraid to take on the tough issues.
ON: How do you feel about the recent articles in the New York Times and others touting Oakland as a hip town and vacation spot?
Susan Piper: I think it’s great. We worked very hard to get that message across. We’re glad others are picking it up, because it’s true. If you look at all the statistics, I don’t think we’re really any different than any other city. All cities have their warts, but it’s a matter of seeing the whole picture. The hope is to keep that going, because Oakland is a wonderful city.