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Candidates reach out to Oakland’s Asian community at forum

on October 12, 2010

When it came his turn for self-introduction, at one of the two back-to-back political forums Monday night, Oakland mayoral candidate Don Macleay said, “I think we all want the same thing.”  But he said it, word by word, in Mandarin.

“For our children we want good schools,” said Macleay, whose website biography indicates that he has lived and taught English in China. (His grammar was good, by the way, though the sentence would have made more sense if he had used a more Chinese sentence structure.)  “For our businesses, we want a safe city.”

The Asian Cultural Center forum, convened three hours before a subsequent candidates’ gathering at the city’s Humanist Hall, brought the ten mayoral candidates together to share their views on issues important to Asian American communities. The main topics included equal language access, crime prevention and business revitalization.  “Chinatown is an economic engine in Oakland,” said candidate Don Perata. “As a mayor, I’d be a fool to not pay attention to what people are saying is wrong with city hall.  It’s killing us.”

The format was straightforward. After the candidates introduced themselves, each was given 90 seconds to answer every question from Stanley Kiang, an organizer of the event who also serves as vice president of the Organization of Chinese Americans East Bay Chapter.

Candidates were asked to assign a letter grade, A to F, for the city’s Equal Access to Services ordinance, which ended up receiving no better grade than a C plus. “That’s a failure,” said Terence Candell, who gave his F without hesitation. “We don’t have equalized police service in the city. That’s discrimination. And more importantly…it’s racism.”

Candidate Joe Tuman, who said that like many in the audience, his parents were immigrants to this country, gave a C to the equal access program, which was adopted in 2001 to remove language barriers for limited-English speakers using city services. “The question is, does it matter if we all speak the same language, when people on the other side aren’t able to communicate back?” Tuman asked. “Access is one thing, but understanding is another.”

City council member and candidate Jean Quan, who introduced herself in Cantonese, gave the program a C minus. Quan said it’s important to locate neighborhoods that need services, and then change the corresponding job applications to make second-language skills desirable. “We’ve started to do that,” Quan said.

Asked how to improve Oakland’s business environment, candidate and council member Rebecca Kaplan said she believes it is vital to simplify the process for opening new businesses in order to “keep the dollars recirculating in Oakland.” She said that as mayor, for example, she would sign a contract with a local recycling company to develop the former Oakland Army Base.

Candidate Greg Harland said, “The retail business is gushing out of Oakland, and the primary thing is parking. This is the kind of thing that drives customers away.” Harland also said he believes high business taxation is another factor discouraging commerce. “Anybody that goes up to Broadway sees a lot of empty auto dealerships there,” he said. “It’s much easier to move to a town like Hayward and set up a business there.”

Besides high business taxes, Don Perata said, many hidden costs–including high parking fees, and fines that are paid by consumers–are hurting business. “We are charging people [vegetable store owners] as much as $4,000 a year to put vegetables out in front of their stores,” Perata said.  “That’s hidden taxes, too. Oakland is unfriendly to business.”

Crime played an important role in the Asian American forum, with Quan arguing that “The costs, for cops, have got to come down.” As the only forum candidate who declined to speak against the recent city layoffs of police officers, Quan added, “We have to match that with community intervention program and organize our community.”

The forum attracted about 150 people, many of whom wore headsets that provided simultaneous Chinese interpretation. “My biggest concern is safety,” Rosina Ko, a Chinese American insurance agent, said in Mandarin after the forum. “I feel Chinese people are more vulnerable to bullies.” She said she agreed with Quan on crime-prevention issues, but that she had no preferred candidate yet in mind.

Yui Hay Lee, an architectural business owner, said his primary concern was economic development of the downtown Asian business district.    “Chinatown is basically dying very slowly,” he said.  “It’s been going on for 15 years.  But nobody really pays attention to it.”

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