From political commentator to mayoral candidate, Joe Tuman is a familiar voice in Oakland
on September 28, 2010
Many Oaklanders have heard mayoral candidate Joe Tuman talk about politics, but they might not know it. Before he declared himself a candidate in Oakland’s most hotly contested race, he spent over twenty years as a political analyst and a talking head on TV, making him a familiar yet nameless voice in the region’s politics. Now he’d like you to meet the Joe Tuman you don’t know: the policy wonk who thinks he can prevent a meltdown at City Hall.
Tuman said he decided it was “time to get off the sidelines and get in the game” because he feels none of the other ten candidates on the ballot will redirect Oakland from impending financial crisis. “We are functionally bankrupt,” Tuman said.
Tuman has never held political office before, but he considers that a selling point in the mayor’s race; he thinks voters are ready for a change from politics as usual. “Ask people,” said Tuman. “They are hungry for something they’re not getting. There’s an appetite for change. I intend to feed it.”
Tuman says that after all his time as a commentator, he decided he should run for mayor because the city’s current situation requires a leader without political baggage. He calls the three best-known candidates—Don Perata, Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan—all of whom have previously served as Bay Area elected officials, “three shades of the same color.” He said his position as a political outsider with the inside scoop allows him to address problems that other candidates cannot. He can renegotiate labor contracts with the city, he said, but “if you’re one of those other candidates, you can’t really do that if you’ve taken their endorsements and their money over the years.”
Tuman has lived in Oakland 25 years. After growing up in Turlock, in California’s San Joaquin Valley, he received both a bachelor’s degree in political science and a law degree from UC Berkeley. Soon after graduating, Tuman moved to Oakland, where he raised two children with his wife, Kristen, and started at CNN as a political analyst. During his career he has worked for media outlets including local television stations CBS 5 and KGO, as well as KCBS radio, analyzing elections like the one in which he’s currently running.
In addition to providing on-air political commentary, in 1987 Tuman began teaching in the communication studies department at San Francisco State University. He has taught classes on a range of political topics, from freedom of expression to campaign communication. Tuman covers these subjects in books as well—he’s written or edited 16 of them. With titles like Political Communication in American Campaigns, he literally wrote the book on public speaking and campaign rhetoric.
Tuman attributes his interest in politics to his parents, as well as to a political awakening inspired by a presidential campaign whistle stop Robert F. Kennedy made in Turlock when Tuman was 10 years old. His father, a well-known Valley Democrat, was chosen to ride the train with the senator from Sacramento to Los Angeles. Tuman was stunned by how well Kennedy interacted with the Turlock crowd, which was not altogether welcoming. “I had this epiphany about tailoring a message,” Tuman said.
Tuman is not afraid of describing himself as a wonk. “They didn’t hire me on television all these years because of my looks,” said Tuman, who could blend into any crowd as a thin, balding and unassuming bystander. “They hired me because I’m smart, fair and balanced.” This is why Tuman believes voters should take note of his run. “If somebody like me decides our system in Oakland is broken,” he said, “you should listen, because I’m not a person who’s given to crazy claims.”
Tuman’s colleagues and students regard him as an intelligent and knowledgeable speaker who tends to give complex answers. As a teacher, he fares well on RateMyProfessor.com, which allows students to anonymously rate their college instructors, but the word “boring” pops up here and there. “His lecture can be tedious due to very meticulous explanations, but they all tie back to the larger issue,” one student commented.
“Joe not only is a good teacher, he is a popular professor,” said his colleague Dr. Jensen Chung, who teaches leadership communication at San Francisco State and has written two Chinese language books about political campaigns. Chung said Tuman’s speaking style “demonstrates his quick wit, his energy, and his intelligence.”
Tuman’s fascination with politics doesn’t seem to have an off-switch. His campaign website describes him as an “unrepentant triathlete,” and even cardiovascular exercise doesn’t turn off his political analysis. “It’s very interesting to run with him,” said friend Peter Gertler. “He comments on everything: politics locally, nationally, internationally.”
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Despite Tuman’s lack of experience as a politician, he espouses a platform packed with complex ideas. His website brims with information about his stances on crime, business development, and the city’s financial health. And while these topics get their due in separate written statements, Tuman’s campaign literature promotes the idea that they are all interconnected.
Tuman believes that Oakland’s most pressing issue is a lack of public safety, which he contends holds back economic development in Oakland, affecting the availability of jobs, the quality of public education, and the effectiveness of government. Tuman’s plan for addressing public safety hinges on phasing out high police pensions as new recruits replace retired officers. While acknowledging that police are unlikely to renegotiate their own contracts, Tuman believes they would be willing to consider a new formula for the future. “If we don’t deal with it,” Tuman said, “we will forever be stuck with a police force that’s small and expensive.”
Tuman also wants to increase the size and quality of the police department. Describing criminals as “rational capitalists” who want “the greatest return for the least investment—and all with no regulatory oversight,” Tuman wrote in one campaign statement that he would conduct a review of police expenditures and focus on the police department’s community relations, with the goal of increasing law enforcement presence on Oakland’s streets.
Tuman believes that crime also affects the economy of Oakland by discouraging entrepreneurs and business owners. While the city already has a reputation for restricting businesses too heavily, Tuman wrote, “These challenges are in turn compounded by the city’s reputation for violent crime.”
Tuman’s approach to balancing the budget hinges on renegotiating as many labor contracts as possible and paring out items that are redundant or unnecessary.
While acknowledging that some people find his platform complex, Tuman said, “We constantly underestimate the intelligence of voters.” Tuman said voters like what they hear from him. “When I open my mouth and have ten minutes to talk,” he said, “people see there’s some meat on my bones.”
Tuman seeks to campaign in the most efficient ways available, choosing tactics that put him in contact with optimal numbers of voters. “Fundraisers are fine, but we want to be in front of as many voters as possible,” said campaign manger Tod Vedock, who also served as a coordinator for the Oakland Running Festival earlier this year.
Overall, Tuman plans to keep his campaign small. About 20 volunteers staff the endeavor, and he has expressed a goal of raising $35,000, mostly to cover the cost of mailers. Beyond promoting his run on social networking sites and through campaign mail and signage, Tuman said he wants to do things “the old fashioned way.” “You go to the districts, you walk the precincts, and you knock on doors,” he said. In addition to speaking at neighborhood house parties and participating in mayoral forums, Tuman has advertised opportunities to go running with him. “It’s a great time to talk politics,” he said.
His campaign office is also fairly minimalist. He recently opened one in the Grand/Lake area for the sole purpose of qualifying for mayoral forums, even though he thinks such operations don’t serve much purpose. (Under guidelines laid out by the League of Women Voters, candidates asked to participate in many mayoral forums must meet certain requirements, including having a physical campaign office with a working phone. These requirements were later lifted for some forums.) Tuman’s headquarters sits two doors down from Jean Quan’s campaign office on Grand Avenue. A few days after opening, the space had mostly bare walls and a few folding tables out as desks. “There’s certainly value in having an office as a place to centralize efforts and market” to passersby, Tuman said.
But, he said, the concept of a campaign headquarters is “kind of archaic.” “The truth is, your web presence is a much greater source of information than a brick and mortar operation,” Tuman said.
Tuman’s campaign also represents another change to the Oakland mayor’s race. While elections in the past have seen as many as 11 candidates on the ballot, they also started out with June primaries that either determined an outright winner or sent the top two candidates to a November runoff. This year is different. The introduction of ranked choice voting lets voters rank their top three choices and determines a winner with an instant runoff.
Tuman believes that the new system evens the playing field. “I based my decision to run on having the chance, mathematically, to win the race without having to resort to raising millions of dollars,” Tuman said.
He’s not the only one doing the math. Five other mayoral hopefuls have no prior experience in city government, and their best shot is to attract the attention of voters who previously would have selected a better-known candidate.
The crowd of other unknown faces vying to be mayor provides strong incentive for Tuman to get into election events like forums that follow the League of Women Voters guidelines, which are designed to narrow the number of eligible participants. Most organizations have lifted these restrictions from their forums, but Tuman said that he understands why organizers wanted to limit participation. “As a professor and someone who’s moderated debates before,” he said, “I totally get that the more debaters you have, the less time any individual can spend answering.”
“But the truth is,” Tuman said, “we voted for this kind of voting system—instant runoff voting—and that means that everybody’s voice should be heard.”
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On a warm September evening, Tuman, wearing a fresh suit and trying not to slouch after a full day of teaching classes, greeted curious voters at a house party in his own neighborhood, Trestle Glen. Ray and Carol Ellis, his friends of 10 years, hosted the event and had convinced acquaintances from the area to come hear a presentation on Tuman’s platform.
After a bit of mingling and small talk, Tuman stood in the Ellis’ living room in front of a baby grand piano adorned with orchids and addressed a group of about 20 people as they sipped wine and ate finger food. His audience included many undecided voters with specific questions about public education, the city budget, and the high price of parking meters. Even after a long day of teaching college students, Tuman appeared to be in his element, laying out his platform and responding to audience feedback.
He didn’t spare any details when asked questions. A man in the audience asked why the city can’t simply declare bankruptcy and start over with a new budget, and Tuman seized the opportunity to describe four options for filling the city’s budget gap. Explaining the pros and cons of each, Tuman called bankruptcy the “nuclear option.” He finished his lengthy summary by saying, “If we declare bankruptcy as a city, how impossible do think it will be for me as a mayor to attract new business here?”
When asked what his relationship with the city council would be like, Tuman eagerly described how involved he would be in city legislation. “My voice will be the loudest voice in that room,” Tuman said. “If there’s a budget that’s going to be talked about, it’ll be my budget, not theirs.”
Tuman doesn’t lack opportunities to tell voters what kind of mayor he plans to be. With house parties and events planned well into the future, he said he is riding a wave of word of mouth. Tuman counts District 6 councilmember Desley Brooks and Black Economic Council chair Len Canty as supporters. “We need a mayor who will think before making decisions, who is not simply pandering,” said Brooks, who is endorsing Tuman over her two colleagues on the city council, Kaplan and Quan.
Not only does Tuman think voters respond well to him, but Tuman said he is “playing really well on both sides of 580,” making reference to the highway that separates the Oakland hills from the less affluent flatland areas. “I think my chances are very strong,” he said.
Ultimately, Tuman hopes that voters will find a candidate they haven’t seen in action yet compelling. “We’re tired of relying on people to solve the problems who started the problems in the first place,” he said.
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