Jean Quan embraces “underdog” status in mayor’s race: “I’m not intimidated”
on October 9, 2009
Jean Quan will be the first to admit she is not expected to win next year’s Oakland mayor’s race. But she’s also the first to say her chances are better than a lot of people think. “I have, in every race I’ve run in, been outspent and have been the underdog,” Quan said in a phone interview. “I’m not intimidated.”
An Oakland City Council member since 2003, Quan issued a press release in mid-September announcing her decision to form an exploratory committee for the 2010 race. She has said she will run if she gathers 500 volunteers and raises $380,000, the maximum allowed for an Oakland mayor’s race.
“I think that goal is a challenge to my supporters,” Quan said. “To win, I need to prove I’m a viable candidate. I need to sign up 500 volunteers. Grassroots volunteers offset political machine money. I also expect to raise the $380,000 allowed by campaign financing limits to reach voters citywide. My opponent will have a lot of independent expenditures made outside those limits, but my grassroots support can beat that back.”
Quan was born in Oakland but raised in Livermore, where her father was in the restaurant business. Every summer her mother sent her to stay with relatives in the Oakland area—to maintain her Chinese culture, she said, since there was not a large Chinese presence in the Livermore area. She attended recreation programs and summer school at Oakland Tech.
Before she was elected to the City Council, Quan spent 12 years as an Oakland school board member, serving District 4, which includes the Laurel, Montclair and Dimond districts. Prior to her school board service, she organized a group called Save Our Schools to address funding cuts to arts and music programs in Oakland schools. Her two children, William and Lailan Huen, are Skyline High School graduates. She and her husband, Dr. Floyd Huen, both attended U.C. Berkeley and have lived in Oakland for more than 30 years.
Quan’s formation of an exploratory committee is not a guarantee that she will run, but is a formal way to allow her to begin raising money and coordinating support. She does not have to commit to run until February.
Political consultant Larry Tramutola has run each of Quan’s City Council races but is now running former State Senator Don Perata’s 2010 mayoral campaign. He said he’s the only one in Perata’s camp who believes that ultimately Quan will choose not to run, because doing so would mean giving up her City Council seat, which is up for reelection next fall. City law says a candidate can’t run for two positions at once.
“While Jean covets the job of mayor, she covets being an elected official more,” Tranutola said. “I think if her election isn’t a sure thing, or if the odds are stacked against her, she won’t run.”
Quan agreed the decision would be difficult.
“It’ll be a tough campaign, I’ll probably get hit hard and I’ll have to give up my council seat, so it’s not something we considered lightly,” she said, “but we think the city deserves a choice in this election.”
On the council, Quan still serves the District 4 area. While Montclair Village Association President Claudia Falconer says the group is unlikely to endorse anyone for mayor, Falconer has been pleased with Quan’s work on the City Council, noting that Quan ensures good communication between her office and the Montclair neighborhood, and keeps residents in the loop about what is going on in Oakland government. She said she believes Quan’s leadership in District 4 will extend to the entire city if she is elected mayor.
“There’s a vacuum right now, in having the leadership pay attention to the day-to-day operations of the city,” Falconer said. “Jean will be more hands-on and practical about what the city can do. I think she’s going to be a definite improvement.”
Quan said a big reason for taking the next step in a potential mayoral run is that her current job as an elected city official gives her extra qualifications and credibility.
“The city is tired of parachute politicians,” Quan said, referring to the fact that the last three mayors were outsiders—former Assemblymember Elihu Harris, former Governor Jerry Brown and former Congressman Ron Dellums. “It’s good to have someone who knows Oakland, has worked and raised their family in the city, knows its problems. I’ve been in every school, library or neighborhood in the city.”
Karin Mac Donald, director of the Statewide Database, the redistricting database for California, said that in some ways it’s much easier for an outsider to be elected as Oakland mayor. “Overall, it’s not all that easy for an Oakland City Council person to run for higher office within Oakland, because they don’t have high approval ratings and a lot of Oaklanders aren’t happy with the City Council and what they do,” Mac Donald said. “It’s easier for an outsider to say they can come in and run things better. Jean Quan obviously has some baggage based on her Oakland school board background. But Don Perata has baggage too.”
Several still-unknown factors could change the landscape of the race before next spring. The first is whether Ron Dellums runs for reelection, a scenario considered improbable by most but certainly not impossible. “If Dellums gets in the mayor’s race, which is hypothetical, I think Jean would drop out,” Perata’s campaign manager Tramutola said. “The chance of her overcoming both [Dellums and Perata] is unlikely, and she could keep her safe council seat.”
Mac Donald says a big hurdle for Quan is her lack of name recognition. Many Oakland residents already know Don Perata as a former state senator and state assembly member, and for his work on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. Other well-known candidates could file to run before next February’s deadline. “There are other people coming out of the woodwork, and I think there may be some interesting people in the field,” Mac Donald said. “I think everyone’s looking at this race as a Perata versus Quan race, but I think it’s too early to say that.”
The bigger unknown for many is whether instant-runoff voting, which has been passed by Oakland voters but has yet to be approved by the secretary of state, will go into effect for the 2010 mayoral election. If it does, Oakland voters will go to the polls twice: in June to vote for statewide officials, and then again in November to vote for mayor and the City Council.
Should that happen, Quan said, the extra running time would be an advantage for her, giving her a chance to overcome her lack of name recognition compared to Perata. “If the women, Asian Americans, school and neighborhood activists coalesce around me, I have a good chance to win,” Quan said.
If instant runoff voting is not approved for the 2010 Oakland elections, the mayor’s race will be held in June. A runoff would only be held in November if one candidate does not receive more than 50 percent of the vote.
Tramutola said he thinks it unlikely that Oakland will implement the initiative in time for next year’s mayor’s race. “There needs to be a whole education campaign to educate people on the IRV system,” Tramutola said. “With the budget crisis, the city of Oakland is going to be hard-pressed to find that money.”
Quan points to her desire to better Oakland—to continue to make “real changes for real people”—as the main reason people should vote for her as mayor. Both Quan and Tramutola pointed to the same issue—education and Oakland schools—as a major challenge among many that will face the next mayor.
“I want to be able to help lead the collaboration of the city around the schools,” Quan said. “We can put our arms around every public school. Unless you have good schools we’re never going to get rid of tenacious problems of crime and poverty and build our economic development.”
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