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Newly-elected Kaplan: “I know we can do it”

on November 26, 2008


The 100 people who funneled last Thursday into the former downtown campaign office of newly elected at-large city councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan were welcomed by jazz music, food, and a number of familiar faces.

They chatted, exchanged hugs and shared laughter during a post-election celebration of her victory.

And then about half an hour into the event, here came Kaplan—striding toward a makeshift podium in the darkened room, blowing one long blast toward the ceiling with her signature shofar, the ram’s horn traditionally used in Jewish celebrations of the new year.

All eyes turned to her as she stepped up on the podium with a wide grin on her face, her petite frame now visible above the crowd

Immediately, it became evident what kind of first impression she wants to make as a city councilwoman: as someone who is going to be amiable, audacious and ready to stir things up as the city faces one of its toughest crises in decades.

“I know we can do it,” Kaplan said as she revved up her supporters, wearing a sweater, collared shirt, jeans and a pair of sunglasses sunken into her short, slicked-back hair—her normal business attire. “I know it’s going to take all of us, but I know it’s possible to have a city that works better.”

Kaplan addresses the crowd at her post-election celebration.

Kaplan addresses the crowd at her post-election celebration.


It is no secret that when Kaplan, a Temescal resident, takes office in January, she plans to try to change the way Oakland politics are being run. 

In recent weeks, she said, she has already been in talks with most of the council members—a majority of whom endorsed her opponent Oakland school board member Kerry Hamill during the election—and encouraged them to keep infighting to a minimum so they could work better together.

When she joins the rest of the council next year, she said, she will continue to stand by that admonition.

“I’ll be clear about that,” she said in a recent interview, adding that she believes they will all get along.

She has also devised a three-point plan she says will address public safety and Oakland’s financial woes, with the main focus on finding the city some funding that is likely not going to be found easily.  

“We’re going to have to get more money,” Kaplan said,  a sense of urgency in her voice. “Like, right away.”

But it also is no secret that she will be facing a number of challenges that have been plaguing the City Council for months.

Suffering financially from the economic downturn and diminishing real estate transfer taxes, the city has been forced to take a number of cost-cutting measures to chip away at a $42 million budget deficit, including closing city offices, libraries and recreational centers the day before Thanksgiving and once every month. Although the council has recently approved new rules to crack down on nepotism, it still struggles to gain the public trust. And known tension among some city officials seems to be preventing the council from making progress in certain areas of city business.

Still, Kaplan says she remains optimistic about what she and the council members can accomplish now that she will be on board. What gives?

“This will be my only job, so that’s going to help,” she said while sitting at one of the newer coffee shops in the Temescal district, sipping a mocha latte. “That will give me opportunities to do things like going to other government agencies that are giving money to Oakland and prepare for council meetings.”

Kaplan, 38, a civil rights attorney, also is pulling from her experience with good government groups and AC Transit, where as an at-large board member she fended off criticism and pushed through several ambitious initiatives, including the all-night bus service from San Francisco to the East Bay.

Her activist roots play an important role as well.

She was born and raised near Toronto, where her American parents had settled after fleeing the Vietnam War draft.

As an undergraduate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was active in the anti-apartheid protests. She later earned a master’s degree in urban and environmental policy and served on the Commission on the Status of Women in Cambridge.

She also makes no apologies for her involvement in fighting for equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

As the second openly gay city council member in Oakland (Danny Wan, appointed in 2000, was the first), Kaplan said her victory shows the changing attitudes toward gay people—not only in Oakland, but also across the nation. According to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which works to get lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender candidates elected, Kaplan was one of 71 openly gay candidates to win elections on Nov. 4 throughout the country.

She likens her election to the political victory of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who in 1977 became the first openly gay elected official in the country. (He was assassinated the following year.) Capturing 62 percent of the vote in the election and beating out Hamill by nearly 50 percent, Kaplan said she has been even more floored to learn that she won her race in every Oakland voting district.

“I have support all over this town,” she said gleefully. Then she paused, looked off in the distance for a moment and said more seriously: “Also, I think we’re ready to get beyond that.”

She has been deeply frustrated, however, by the outcome of Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in the state and is currently being contested in the state Supreme Court.

But Kaplan is not one to stay down for too long, said Andre Jones, her campaign manager. On Election Night after hearing the results, he said, she was already gung-ho about the next election cycle, when same-sex marriage supporters plan to launch their own campaign to reverse Prop. 8.

“The Yes on 8 supporters ran a better campaign,” he said. “But in 2010, we’ll run a better campaign and we’ll win.”  

So as Kaplan spoke in front of her supporters Thursday night, she was very optimistic as she laid out her platform for the coming year.

Standing on her makeshift podium, she said she wanted to create a foreclosure prevention program and a local job-matching program to keep jobs and revenue circulating in the city, and make Oakland a transit hub that supports bicycling and walking—although she didn’t articulate how she would make that happen.

Between each statement, she struck her fists in the air to emphasize her words.

She was preceded by Sharon Cornu, executive secretary-treasurer of the Alameda Central Labor Council, and State Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, who both proclaimed that Kaplan might be the catalyst that could turn the City Council in a new direction. 

Cornu said Kaplan’s election provided “a new way of leadership, new opportunities to work on our own change.”

Swanson said Kaplan’s victory represented “politics at a moment of definition” in Oakland, and that she was elected as a “thinking member” of the Oakland City Council.

The audience broke out in applause, including Councilwoman Jean Quan (Montclair-Laurel), who stood straight-faced but clapping during Swanson’s comment.

Earlier in the evening, Quan, who endorsed Hamill in the election, said she was excited to have another woman on the council and that Kaplan’s presence should add a “strong person in the mix.”

After Kaplan said her final words, she stepped down from her podium and was finally able to take a breather as the embraces from her supporters brought her back down to earth.

One of the last things on her to-do list, she joked later, is to buy a suit. She only has one in her closet (the one in which she posed for her campaign leaflet), so she might have to get another to fit in with the rest of the council members during meetings.

But she won’t change her eclectic personality, she swears, just because she has a new title.

“You know,” she said, “I’m going to try not to let that happen.”


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