Oakland mayoral candidates, 9 of the 10, address packed auditorium
on September 24, 2010
With one candidate refusing to participate, nine of the ten contenders for the job of Oakland mayor addressed a room packed beyond capacity Thursday night, stating their positions on public safety, the city budget, and local ballot measures. The League of Women Voters forum, hosted at the Kaiser Center near Lake Merritt, used local journalists as panelists and featured an unusual format that allowed each candidate to answer at least one question in depth, rather than providing short answers to a long string of questions. (See video of the forum by V Smoothe of the A Better Oakland blog on Vimeo.)
Although the candidates started by describing their plans for balancing the city’s budget, the Oakland Police Department (OPD) emerged as the hottest topic of the evening. Candidate and professor Joe Tuman, for example, said police chief Anthony Batts’ request for 925 police officers didn’t go far enough. “I’d like to super-size what the chief has asked for,” Tuman said. “San Francisco has double our population, and four times our police size. You do the math.”
Candidates discussed multiple aspects of crime in Oakland, from the cost of paying for more police officers to the effect the city’s reputation may have on business development. “The truth is, we’re not going to get more cops unless we bring the price of cops down,” said candidate and City Council member Jean Quan.
Quan’s fellow council member and mayoral candidate Rebecca Kaplan focused on the price of not having enough police, saying that hiring fewer officers actually costs the city money, because Oaklanders cannot access public safety funding from Measure Y when the police department has less than 739 officers.
Panelist Randy Shandobil, of KTVU News, asked Kaplan how she would remedy the common perception of Oakland as “San Francisco’s less glamorous, more troubled neighbor—more like Newark than New York City.”
“That’s why I voted no on the police layoffs,” Kaplan replied. “So we can really demonstrate to businesses they can be here.”
Panelist Tammerlin Drummond, a columnist for the Bay Area News Group, wanted to know how Oakland can afford more officers, given the city’s current budget deficit. Candidate Greg Harland, a former business owner, responded by saying, “The way we can do it is getting the police to pay nine percent towards their pensions like everybody else.” He also suggested adding “second-tier officers” who would receive different pay and pension benefits.
Panelist and OakBook co-founder Alex Gronke asked about funds for the police department, given that public safety currently takes up 40 percent of Oakland’s budget. Directing the question at candidate Don Perata, he asked what concessions the former state senate president pro tem would make the police union if elected mayor.
Perata said he would support the chief of police as much as possible. “We hired Tony Batts because not only was the police department grossly mismanaged–it was under federal court order,” Perata said, referring to a federal court’s oversight of police department reform. U.S. Federal “Justice Henderson is saying, ‘If you don’t do it quickly, I’m going to run the police department,’” Perata said. “And then you’ve got no control over the budget at all.”
Candidate Larry Lionel Young, Jr., a realtor and former schoolteacher, argued that public safety isn’t the only thing that attracts business. “When big corporations move, they look at the educational records,” said Young. Businesses, Young said, ask, “How smart are the children? How smart is the workforce? Are they budding with young, intelligent people?”
Local business owner and candidate Arnie Fields took more than one opportunity to give his take on what threatens Oakland’s public safety. “People are starting to make the connection between litter and crime,” Fields said. The candidate went on to say that a person who gets away with littering “can break into a house.”
A frequent criticism of this year’s Oakland mayoral forums is that with ten candidates in the running, questions are usually broad and serve only to scrape the surface of each person’s platform and ideas. In an op-ed in Wednesday’s Bay Area News Group papers, panelist Drummond wrote that voters don’t learn enough about the front-runners when there are too many candidates in a campaign. “A candidate who is not expected to get one percent of the vote does not merit the same treatment as a front-runner,” Drummond wrote.
The League of Women Voters tackled the challenge of trying to ensure both equality and probing discussion with an unconventional format. First, candidates were each given time to deliver an opening statement and a comment about the city budget, a top mayoral priority.
With Oakland Tribune editor Martin Reynolds moderating, panelists addressed questions directly at individual candidates instead of the group. Each candidate received two “comment cards” which could be used to chime in on a question asked of someone else. The event concluded with a “lightning round” in which a question was read and candidates were only allowed to respond “yes,” “no,” or “maybe.” Lightning questions included, for example, whether as mayor the candidates would attend all city council meetings and support controversial ballot measures.
Though organizers were ready to give comment cards to every candidate, one set of cards was left conspicuously untouched. Terence Candell, a local private school administrator, objecting to what he characterized as bigotry by the League of Women Voters, organized his own event at Laney College to protest the initial League guidelines.
While some candidates, like Tuman, decided to take action to meet the requirements, Candell was initially not invited to attend the League forum because he did not meet the League’s criteria for viable candidacy by the September 3 deadline. Those criteria were later dropped, but in an email Candell’s campaign rejected the League’s subsequent invitation. “Just because the LOWV finally decided to change their bigoted minds,” he wrote, “does not mean we are, like lap dogs, going to hop to it and be grateful.”
The alternative event was held in a Laney College lecture hall with brick walls, seats with foldout desks, and a large chalkboard at the front of the room. More than 50 attendees filled chairs as Candell appeared, dressed in a dashiki, a traditional garment from West Africa, a move designed to protest what he said were racial biases on the part of other campaigns and constituents. “They are trying to say I should exclude anything that shows I’m black and educated,” Candell said. “I went the other direction and I’m wearing a dashiki. They need to know that I have a history, and I’m very proud of my heritage.”
Candell focused mainly on race relations as he spoke to the crowd, citing what he said was a general disregard for Oakland’s African American population and pledging to rectify this as city mayor. He also brought up each candidate in turn, listing arguments as to why he was the better choice to serve as mayor. “I didn’t get my car jacked, I didn’t get my purse stolen,” Candell said, referring to two incidents that occurred previously to fellow candidates Perata and Quan in Oakland. “You know why? Because this is my city!”
Though Candell said he expected the League of Women Voters forum to draw substantially more attention, he was confident that his absence cost the event a contingent of voters. “As many people as the League of Women Voters forum draws tonight, it won’t be as many as there would have been if I had attended,” Candell said.
Estimating the crowd at nearly 500, Helen Hutchinson of the League of Women Voters said she was “really pleased” with how the forum turned out.
Asia-Renee Johnson of the Bay Area Business Round Table, which co-sponsored the event with the League of Women Voters and the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, said that she could see how the format could be “a little disappointing” for voters. Noting how candidates were often cut off mid sentence by the time limits, Johnson said, “The end might be the most important part.”
Audience member Nena Castro agreed. “I was a little disappointed by the size of the panel,” Castro said. “You didn’t get to hear about the candidates’ real positions.” But Castro said she was grateful for the chance to hear from contenders who might have otherwise been excluded. “It was nice to hear what some of the less-funded candidates had to say,” she said.
Perata said the event was as successful as a forum with nine participants could have been, but that he was sorry there was no chance for more thorough debate. Instant runoff voting, which will be implemented for the first time in Oakland this election, doesn’t pare down the list of candidates to a number better suited to a forum, Perata said.
Under the instant runoff rules, Oakland voters will choose their top three candidates for mayor on November 2. If a voter’s first choice does not receive a majority of the vote, the second listed choice automatically becomes the voter’s new choice, and the totals are recalculated. While the system cuts costs by eliminating an extra round of elections, Perata said forums like Thursday’s were crowded with candidates who might have already been eliminated in a primary.
“That’s the problem when you don’t have a runoff,” Perata said. “People thought instant runoff was going to save a lot of money, but I don’t think that’s the most important thing for a democratic election.”
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