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Joe Tuman's office

Who can participate in Oakland mayors’ forums? It’s debatable

on September 22, 2010

Mayoral candidate Joe Tuman opened a new campaign office at 3219 Grand Avenue only a few weeks ago—not entirely because he wanted one, but because his participation in an upcoming mayoral forum depended upon it.

Staffing a physical campaign office was originally one of several requirements to be considered “viable” by the League of Women Voters (LWV), a nonpartisan political organization that specializes in voter education and political advocacy. The league’s guidelines for viability are often influential in deciding whom among Oakland’s 10 mayoral candidates are invited to participate in local debates. The forum that the league will be hosting at Oakland’s Kaiser Auditorium on September 23 was originally only open to candidates who met these viability standards, which included not only staffing a publicly-accessible campaign office, but maintaining a dedicated campaign phone number, employing a campaign treasurer, and having a legally registered campaign committee.

But in a field of 10 candidates, exclusion from high-profile events can effectively box out a campaign, and over the past several weeks the fairness of these requirements has been questioned by the excluded candidates.

An August forum hosted by the San Francisco Bay Sierra Club, which issued invitations based on the LWV’s criteria, drew criticism for excluding all but three candidates—councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Jean Quan, and former state senate president pro tem Don Perata. Complaints from candidates—those with and without invitations—prompted the Sierra Club’s reversal on the issue and the criteria were dropped. Nine of the 10 candidates ultimately attended the event.

Now, the league has dropped its controversial criteria for the upcoming Kaiser Auditorium debate, allowing all registered candidates to attend—but not because of public pressure. League of Women Voters member Helen Hutchison said the requirements failed to be an effective screening device after the majority of the candidates fulfilled them.

According to Hutchison, the league’s guidelines were originally intended to restrict the number of participants, allowing each forum to offer a more thorough analysis of the candidates’ platforms and plans for the city. Hutchison said the co-hosts of the upcoming Kaiser Auditorium forum, the Bay Area Business Roundtable and the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, initially requested restrictive criteria to keep the pool of participants manageable. “The original design of this was to have a limited number of candidates and to have an in-depth discussion with those candidates,” said Hutchison.

Some candidates, like Tuman, begrudgingly complied with the original criteria, even though they didn’t necessarily agree with them. Tuman opened a headquarters by Lake Merritt in order to qualify for Thursday’s forum, though he believes staffing an office is a “dated” concept and isn’t a requirement for a viable candidacy in modern politics. Modern voters rarely set out to visit a physical office and are more likely to turn to the Internet for information, he said—a highly trafficked website serves the purpose of an office in the Internet age.

“A better metric to use to determine the viability of a candidacy is to look at whether they have a working website,” Tuman said. “We’ve had thousands and thousands of visits and the average time is between 3 and 4 minutes. In the Internet world, that’s a long time.”

In fact, so many of the candidates succeeded in meeting the criteria—seven of the ten, according to Hutchison—that the co-hosts of the September 23 event reconsidered the restricted format. “At that point, the Bay Area Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce said we should invite everybody,” Hutchison said.

Hutchison said that every candidate for Oakland mayor is currently welcome at the event, including those who had not originally been invited. While the complete roster for the forum is undisclosed, candidate Terence Candell has said explicitly that he will not make an appearance. In an email sent Saturday to the League of Women Voters, Candell wrote that forum organizers “have attempted to disrespect me, because I have the votes of people of color, the poor and disenfranchised.”

The Candell campaign has invited roughly 2,000 Oakland residents to a separate event at Laney College on the same evening, where he will take questions from attendees and speak on a broad range of topics. Candell said that the two events, a mile apart from each other, will likely vie for voters’ attention, but believes his will be a more engaging discussion. “If a person wanted to choose in terms of an event, they should probably come to ours,” Candell said. “They’ll actually have political participation which they won’t get at the other event.” Candell’s campaign manager said that all candidates have been invited and some have offered to come after the League of Women Voters’ forum ends.

Candell had previously sent angry letters to the media and event organizers after seven of the candidates were excluded from the August Sierra Club forum, though he attended that event after organizers extended invitations to everyone. More recently, Candell brought a megaphone to a press conference criticizing Perata’s campaign spending that had been organized by the Quan campaign; Candell alleged that racism was behind his lack of an invite, even though a Quan spokesperson said it was an oversight. Candell was originally not invited to the event planned for September 23 and said he will reconsider attending such forums altogether. “These forums have been very, very exclusive,” Candell said. “I don’t intend to be a part of their private shows anymore. People are not going to hear what the candidates really have to say at these events.”

While Tuman believes all candidates deserve to heard, he said he understands that restrictive criteria are often necessary in a crowded contest. “This is a competitive race,” Tuman said. “As we get near the finish line, we’re all going to have to do what we need to do to make sure we’re distinguishing ourselves from one another, and to arm voters with enough information to make an informed choice. If that means being in these debates, it means being in these debates.”

Don Perata, the mayoral frontrunner according to a July CBS poll, has attempted to encourage the inclusion of the whole field by vowing to not participate in forums that don’t extend invites to all candidates.  Perata spokesperson Rhys Williams confirmed Monday that Perata would attend the upcoming forum now that the event will be open to everyone, but said the trend towards restricting participation is unfair to the candidates and voters of Oakland.  “It’s not right to exclude candidates just to be fashionable,” Williams said.

Though the League of Women Voters’ restrictive criteria were specifically requested by the forum’s co-hosts, Hutchison said requirements were dropped only because so many candidates met the guidelines and that the league would consider using them in a similar situation in the future. “If a group comes to us and wants a forum with the number of candidates limited, it could be used again,” Hutchison said. “I think the language was fair.”

Laura Hautala contributed to this article.

Image: Mayoral candidate Joe Tuman’s 3219 Grand Avenue campaign office opened a few weeks ago, both to connect with the community and qualify Tuman for the League of Women Voters forum.

1 Comment

  1. Max Allstadt on September 22, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    Here’s another analysis of how we got to have such a huge brouhaha over the fairness of who gets to participate in debates and who does not:

    In past elections, the League of Women Voters rules have been used to weed out candidates with no chance of winning, and we never saw this level of anger about it.

    What happened this time? Zennie Abraham, a local blogger, had developed a friendship with candidate Don MacCleay, and as such, seems to have made a mission out of loudly declaring the League’s rules to be unfair.

    Don Perata has so much shady business in his past that his best strategy is to avoid as many debates as possible. Don saw Zennie’s multiple blog posts and saw an opportunity.

    Don decided to pretend to take the high road by saying he wouldn’t participate in debates where all candidates were not invited. What he was actually doing was making an excuse for not showing up to debates.

    See, if Perata shows up to a 10 candidate debate, he’s relatively safe: large forums usually involve all candidates being asked the same question.

    In a 3 candidate debate, Perata might be asked a direct question about his shady and questionable past…

    Someone might ask him why he’s taken $410,000 from the california Prison Guards union.

    Someone might ask him why he’s playing games with campaign finance limits.

    Someone might ask him why he keeps saying he’ll attend important events, only to cancel without even having the courtesy to call.

    Rhys Williams, quoted in the article above, is helping Perata execute a strategy of avoiding all difficult questions, while spending tons of money on fancy direct mail pieces. He’s Perata’s mouth, in effect, so his analysis of this so called “debate controversy” is really just blowing more smoke.

    And now you know how this actually came to be an issue.

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