It’s an early February twilight in Rockridge, and commuters are making their way from the BART station to homes and shops along College Avenue. Mayoral candidate Jean Quan and a small group of canvassers are gathering around a silver Prius on Claremont Avenue. Rush-hour traffic creates a steady hum next to this impromptu caucus.
Looking over voter registration lists, Quan and her supporters are trying to find out which candidates Oakland voters are likely to support for mayor in November. Even a seasoned campaigner like Quan, Oakland’s City Council District 4 representative, comes across a few surprises. “A Green, an Independent and a Republican—all in one apartment!” she says with amazement. Not your typical house in a city that’s 69 percent registered Democrats.
It’s more than eight months until Election Day, and Mayor Ron Dellums has not announced whether he intends to run for another four-year term. But Quan is already walking precincts, starting in North and East Oakland. She’s introducing herself to voters beyond the Laurel, Montclair and Diamond neighborhoods she represented on the School Board for 12 years and has represented on the City Council since 2002.
Quan has more than 400 campaign volunteers so far and says she wants to build her campaign around a grassroots strategy. Her main opponent to date, Oakland’s former State Senate representative Don Perata, has a major door-to-door campaign event planned for February 27, but Quan’s team has been more aggressive about neighborhood outreach in the campaign’s early months. The councilwoman says she needs to do this in part because she anticipates Perata will have more financial resources at his disposal.
Perata outpaced Quan in campaign contributions by an almost two-to-one margin in 2009. He is also tapping funding sources based on political capital he developed in Sacramento during his tenure as State Senate president. For example, supporters of a California cigarette tax ballot initiative have sent out materials to Oakland residents highlighting Perata’s efforts on this anti-cancer initiative, a move that helps keep his name in front of voters.
Quan says she fully expects Perata to outspend her, but still believes she will raise enough money to win. “I’m never going to raise as much as Don, but I’ll raise enough,” Quan says. “I’ve won elections where I was outspent two-to-one. This race will depend on whether grassroots efforts can beat big money.”
This grassroots strategy hinges on meeting voters directly and raising small amounts of money from donors. Quan and her volunteers—led by her husband Floyd Huen, a Berkeley physician—started knocking on doors late last year. Quan spends several nights a week meeting Oakland voters on their porches and in their foyers—or sometimes just meeting their dogs through a screen door. She believes the face-to-face dynamic is still possible in a city the size of Oakland, and says she develops some of her best ideas through these dialogues with potential voters.
Can Quan and her team meet all 195,000 of Oakland’s registered voters personally? Probably not, she admits, but that’s not stopping her from trying. “I’m a great grassroots candidate—I’m going to talk to a lot of voters,” Quan says. “I’ve run for School Board on nothing. I’m very used to doing these heavily volunteer, all-ground campaigns.”
On this evening in Rockridge, several doorbells go unanswered as people are still returning home from work. Quan does catch some voters, however. She has a chance to talk about school curriculum with a Chabot Elementary parent and Cleveland politics with a recent transplant from Ohio. Every door holds the potential for an impromptu public policy pop quiz.
“What’s your plan for business in Oakland?” asks Jason Knight, the owner of a Grand Avenue apparel store.
“We’re marketing Oakland as a city of neighborhoods,” Quan says. “Look at what we’ve done in the Diamond District [in Quan’s City Council area]. We’ve brought down crime and made it easier for banks to lend. We’re making changes block by block—that’s where it starts.”
Knight listens intently for a few minutes. He tells Quan he hasn’t made up his mind about how he’s voting in November.
At several doors, Quan introduces herself as the candidate who would be the first woman elected as mayor in Oakland’s history. Oakland and Los Angeles are the only major California cities never to have had a female mayor. Oakland’s most serious female mayoral candidate to date was Nancy Nadel, District 3’s representative on the City Council. She ran in 2006, but finished a distant third in the Democratic primary behind Dellums and fellow council member Igancio de la Fuente.
Quan says her attention to schools and public safety has always helped her among female voters, who make up more than 53 percent of Oakland’s electorate. “There are a lot of women activists in this neighborhood [Rockridge], a lot of strong women that are very civically involved, and they’re very interested in having a woman mayor,” Quan says. “And a lot of working-class Chinese women and African-American women like the idea of a woman mayor in Oakland.”
A fifth-generation Chinese-American who helped found the UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies Program in the 60s, Quan also believes she can appeal to Asian-American voters, who make up close to 10 percent of Oakland’s electorate. “People know who I am and are proud of the idea that I would be the first Asian-American mayor. It’s going to be history-making,” she says.
Catherine Lew, an Oakland-based political consultant who is not advising either Perata or Quan, says both candidates have advantages with certain voters, but will need to appeal to all of Oakland’s constituencies to win the race for mayor. “It’s important for both candidates to appeal to their core constituencies,” Lew says. “Jean will want to maximize her voter base in District 4, among women, and among voters of color, particularly Asian-Americans. For Perata, he should look to Districts 1 and 2. But any candidate will have to run a citywide race.”
Perata campaign manager Larry Tramutola says his candidate has represented large and diverse sections of Oakland in the State Senate and has shown he can win among a wide array of Oakland voters. “Oakland is made up of a lot of different neighborhoods and ethnic groups, and any candidate is going to have to reach out to all of them,” Tramutola says. “I think Don is in a better position to do that than Jean is. Don’s history of working with the African-American community, the Hispanic community, the Asian community—they will serve him well.”
Regardless of how these electoral coalitions shape up, Quan says she knows Oakland better than any other candidate after her two decades on the School Board and City Council. She points out that Oakland’s mayors dating back to the late 1970s—Lionel Wilson, Elihu Harris, Jerry Brown and Dellums—did not have direct experience in Oakland city government. Quan says she believes that Oakland voters are ready for a change in this regard and will want a mayor who has direct experience at City Hall, rather than name recognition and star power based on connections in Sacramento and Washington D.C. “Over 20 years, I’ve worked in every neighborhood, visited every school, visited every library,” Quan says. “I know a lot of people and have a sense of the city that would be refreshing for a mayor to have.”
Quan’s campaign co-chair, Oakland State Assembly Representative Sandre Swanson, says the councilwoman’s on-the-ground, hands-on style will appeal to Oakland citizens who want active stewardship from their mayor.
“Jean gets her energy from the neighborhoods,” Swanson says. “We now have a situation in Oakland where people want positive change that is going to affect their lives in the neighborhood. I think that given her background—that she’s come through the school board and is passionately concerned about our children, and now with her time in City Hall— she’ll pay very close attention to all those things that make Oakland a much more functional city.”
Yet Oakland voters may reject Quan precisely because 20 years on the School Board and City Council have given her a long voting record on controversial measures involving the city budget, public safety and school funding. It is perhaps no coincidence that it’s been 50 years since an Oakland City Council member won a mayor’s race. But Quan said she’s a “known commodity with a long track record” and will run on her record at the two city agencies.
Perata and Quan are the only two major candidates in the race thus far. Mayor Dellums’ spokesman Paul Rose confirmed the mayor will make an announcement about his election plans “at an appropriate time” between now and the August filing deadline. It’s also unclear whether any of Quan’s colleagues on City Council or other Oakland politicians will enter the race.
The presence of other candidates in the race may matter more this year than in the past, since for the first time Oakland’s mayor will be elected in November under instant-runoff voting (IRV). This system eliminates the party primaries that usually happen in June and instead allows each voter in November to rank her three top choices rather than voting only for her top candidate.
IRV’s potential impact on the outcome of the mayor’s race remains uncertain, especially with the number of candidates still unsettled. But IRV will likely make it harder for a more established candidate to win a plurality of votes by dividing and conquering his lesser-known opposition. Candidates who might not win a head-to-head race with a well-financed established politician like Perata may have a better chance of winning under IRV if candidates and their supporters engage in more coalition-building and horse-trading than usual as the election nears—a sort of “I’ll vote for your candidate if you’ll vote for mine” discussion as people head to the polling station.
It will also now matter whether each candidate is a voter’s second or third choice, which makes it harder for politicians to write off voters who aren’t enthusiastic supporters. “Normally, 60 percent of the electorate know who they don’t want,” Swanson said. “In a situation like that, a combination of people that decide on their first and second choices will ensure that the right person wins.”
Quan says she can’t think about whether other candidates are going to enter the race at this point. “If I started thinking about that, I never would have started my campaign. I just have to keep going,” she says. She does say, however, that she’ll be keeping a close eye on how the City’s public ethics committee rules on whether mayoral candidates can accept a maximum of $600 or $1,200 in donations from individuals during the mayor’s race. She believes a $600 threshold would make the playing field more even.
The skies turned to black by 7 p.m. on this evening of campaigning, bringing an end Quan’s swing through this North Oakland neighborhood. She insists she’ll be back again soon and expects to do much more campaigning once Daylight Savings time begins in June. “I can walk from 10 o’clock in the morning until 9 at night in the summer,” she says. “We’ll be out there that long.”