Political novice Greg Harland stakes claim on mayoral seat
on October 22, 2010
On a Sunday afternoon, mayoral candidate Greg Harland stood outside his home nestled in the Oakland Hills, wearing a crisp white button-up shirt and khakis. As he leaned forward against a low wall dividing his driveway from the shrubbery of the steep hill, in the distance, he could see Lake Merritt. To some, the lake is just a place where families go feed the ducks, or a spot for a morning jog. But Harland says it served a different purpose in his life; only in these last few weeks of campaigning and speaking at mayoral forums has Harland started to speak about being homeless for nearly five years as a teen, including a year he says he spent living near Lake Merritt.
“It did something to me that made me extremely strong-willed,” Harland said. “That’s probably what made me go through my business career and be successful.”
Harland sees himself as one of the underdogs in Oakland’s ten-person mayoral race. He’s new to the world of politics; only a year ago did he first entertain the idea of running for mayor. But his lack of political experience is typical in this particular race—five other candidates are in the same position.
Harland spent his career as a businessman, including three years selling real estate. Before that he owned multiple businesses—a clothing company with three locations, a manufacturing business and two restaurants. For the last five years he has enjoyed his retirement with his wife of twenty years, Joan, who works in San Francisco doing pharmaceutical patent work. Harland has never been an active member of community organizations or merchant associations; he has, he said, “always been a loner.”
The first time Harland thought of running for mayor was last year, while sitting at the dining room table in his new home and casually talking to a friend who was living in West Oakland. The two talked about how Oakland’s crime and unemployment rates haven’t changed since Harland first moved to the area in 1954. After that conversation, Harland said he tossed around the idea of joining the soon-to-be heated mayoral race. “Over a month or so just that idea—it was just a comment—but it became something that kind of grew on me,” he said during a two-hour long interview at his home last week. “I wanted to do something about the unemployment in the inner city. Once I got into really looking at the city’s finances, I realized the city would probably be in bankruptcy, maybe even before the election. Oakland has just always been in this problem—it has always had to do with the leadership.”
But the idea didn’t sit so well with his wife, who was hesitant when Harland told her about his new aspirations. “I know what a difficult job it is,” she said, “and also a expensive job—all those things went through my head.” But Joan Harland said she agreed because she knew it would mean a lot to her husband to help out the city he’s been a part of for so long. “He kind of has Oakland in his blood. He used to walk all over Oakland when he was a boy,” she said, referring to his time being homeless.
Harland says that his difficult past is a way to empathize with the people living in areas of Oakland where unemployment is common and crime is prevalent. Along with his entrepreneurship and business sense gained from forty years of owning businesses, he says, his resume qualifies him for mayor as much as candidates with lengthy political careers.
“I think it not only gives me an edge, it puts me so ahead, because that’s really what’s gone wrong,” Harland said. “The city is really like a business and you have to run it like a business. You can’t run it like a patronage, and that’s what they’ve been doing.”
Even Harland’s research of the city’s budget deficit is laid out like the inner-workings of a business. On a nearby coffee table sat his computer, and on the screen was an Excel spreadsheet he made to calculate how the city’s deficit could decrease dramatically by cutting costs. By decreasing the pay of current police officers and hiring new officers at a lower salary, Harland says, he believes the city’s budget woes can be solved while also providing the larger police force necessary to serve Oakland. This is one of Harland’s main platform planks as a candidate and is representative of his desire to address the majority of Oakland’s problems—high crime, unattended street maintenance, and increased parking fees and fines—using business sense.
“When you think of Oakland in terms of the Bay Area, which city is centrally located?” Harland said. “Why is the hub of BART in Oakland? Which city is the most diversified? It has all these wonderful qualities; it just has terrible leadership and a history of it, one after the other. So it’s just waiting. It’s waiting for that right leadership to turn the key.”
Most of Harland’s youth is hard to track, except for the snippets he has chosen to present to the public. And many of those details defy confirmation—there is no one to corroborate, for example, Harland’s account of having been thrown out of the house and into homelessness as a teenager. His parents are deceased, and he says he fell out of contact with his youngest brother nearly 20 years ago. Harland declined to have his other brother, with whom he is still in contact, speak to Oakland North.
Harland says his father was a Navy pilot, and that he spent his childhood moving from state to state as his father relocated for work. He was born in Lake City, Florida, and remembers living in Virginia, Hawaii, and Guam, but spending most of his time in the South Pacific. In 1954, when he was 8, his family moved to Alameda, he says, because his father was stationed at the Alameda Naval Air Station as an aircraft navigator.
Shortly after the family’s arrival in the Bay Area, Harland says, his father died in an airplane accident. He says that without telling him his father had died, his mother sent him to live with relatives in Idaho for three months. When Harland returned home, he says, his mother was remarried to a man who turned out to be physically abusive and an alcoholic. He says his mother soon turned into an alcoholic herself to deal with the emotional stress of Harland’s father’s death.
At 13, Harland says, he was kicked out of the house by his stepfather, leaving behind his two younger brothers. He says that was when he became homeless, and that he chose the area surrounding Lake Merritt as his new home. He says he often sought refuge in a 24-hour laundromat; occasionally he spent a few weeks at a time at friends’ homes, he says, but his friends’ parents would tell him to leave. When that happened, he says, his friends would provide him with food while he returned to living near the lake.
Nevertheless, Harland says, he managed to attend Oakland High School until he was arrested after what he characterizes as a false accusation that he had been involved in a series of car thefts. Harland says it was a misunderstanding, but that the police didn’t believe him, and that he was sent to a reform school in Chino after his mother signed a statement deeming him “incorrigible.” He says his mother thought the consequences would be to stay in jail for a night or two, but that she didn’t realize that the signed paper meant he was in the custody of the state.
He “broke out” of the school after two years, Harland says, and returned to being homeless. Then, after finding his way to Ventura, he says, he was tracked down again and sent by a probation officer to court—but a lenient judge, Harland says, decided not to send him to juvenile hall.
Once he was 18, by Harland’s account, he got a job as a gas station attendant in Oakland, where he earned enough money to purchase a 1953 Buick for $35. The backseat of the Buick became his new home, he says—“paradise, compared to living under bushes and all-night laundromats.” After six months, Harland says, he saved enough to rent an apartment, and began attending night school at Oakland High School to get his diploma.
Later he became a scuba diving instructor, he says, and when he was 26, opened his first business—a clothing store in Manhattan Beach called Sappho’s, which he named after the Greek poet. Then he managed to open another two locations, he says, and that led to him opening a clothing manufacturing business. Then he learned about computers, he says, and left the clothing industry to start building and programming computers. That new venture lasted, he says, until he sold the computer business in 1987 and moved back to the Bay Area.
Harland says he spent the next few years buying and selling real estate, before resurrecting a failing Italian restaurant and pizza place in Walnut Creek called Sepp’s. He sold the restaurant in 2000, and purchased a sandwich shop near the UC Berkeley campus, which he converted into Greg’s Chicago Style Pizza. His wife Joan says she helped him run the business, until he sold it to two of his employees five years later.
Joan Harland says her husband’s past of mixed careers is admirable. “He’s kind of a Renaissance man, you know,” she said during a phone interview this week. “He just doesn’t have that hesitation that you or I might have of ‘Well, I’ve never done that before.’ He doesn’t have that inhibition. It’s not arrogance or anything. It’s just ‘Go where no man has gone before.’”
Harland says the years following the sale of his last business were spent selling off his real estate and stocks. “And that retired me—just that one act alone,” he said.
Harland doesn’t identify himself as purely liberal or conservative. He sees his view on how the city handles finances as conservative, while his focus on how the city should help its most vulnerable residents makes him liberal, he says.
His priority as mayor, he says, would be making Oakland a city “that people really look up to.” His platform focuses on the city’s budget woes, unemployment and parking issues—for all of which, he says, he has effective solutions.
The leading cause of the city’s budget problems, he says, is the high pay of Oakland police officers. Harland’s goal is to increase the police force to 1,050 officers, requiring the hiring of more than 350 cops. To fund this, Harland says the city should cut each current officer’s salary by at least 20 percent, and then require them to start paying nine percent into their pensions.
Harland says the money saved from the pay cuts would allow for a second tier of officers to be hired, who would be offered a $50,000 base salary and benefits, together totaling about $70,000 annually. “They’re gonna’ howl,” Harland said of how the officers will likely respond to the cuts. “But the alternative is bankruptcy.”
Another part of Harland’s platform is to decrease unemployment, especially in impoverished areas. Since 1993, vast sections of Oakland have been designated as one of California’s Enterprise Zones, but Harland says Oakland has never taken advantage of what he considers the city’s “savior.” The U.S. Housing and Urban Development Agency created the Enterprise Zone program to revive economically distressed areas of the country and offer employment opportunities in those areas. Harland says the Oakland Enterprise Zone is currently understaffed, with only one employee. He says to fully utilize the program and its incentives, it would involve hiring only six or seven more employees who would research, identify and encourage businesses to move to Oakland.
Harland says currently the only businesses reaping the benefits of the program are larger, more established businesses already in Oakland which have bookkeepers who understand the benefits and are able to receive the perks. With the program, he says businesses would earn more than $30,000 in state tax credits for each qualified employee hired, and Oakland would receive revenue in taxes and opportunities for employment.
Another one of Harland’s goals is to fix unmaintained streets, sidewalks and storm drains. According to a report by the City of Oakland Public Works Agency, more than 50 percent of the city’s 805 miles of streets is considered to be in fair or poor condition, and the city has a backlog of repairs totaling $418 million. “If you properly maintain streets, it takes about $38,000 to maintain a mile of pavement,” Harland said. “But when it gets to that point where we are now, it takes $1.8 million to redo it. If I could redo the streets, then I’d know that everything else had been done. To me it would just be a beautiful city. It’d be everything it could be.”
Harland’s campaign is a stark contrast to many of the other candidates’ pervasive campaigning methods. He doesn’t boast a table full of colorful T-shirts, pamphlets outlining his résumé, or an overabundance of lawn signs. (He displays some throughout the city, but doesn’t take them with him wherever he goes.) His campaign’s Facebook page only shows four fans and his Twitter feed is just as lackluster with only three followers and two posts—and those were back in August.
His campaign office sits on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, but it’s not a venue where voters to can inquire about his campaign. Instead, it’s an office space that serves as a storage unit. Harland said he originally rented the office to qualify for a League of Women Voters’ forum, which required that all candidates have a public campaign office—though that regulation was later lifted and even candidates without a campaign office were allowed to participate in some forums.
Because he’s one of the lesser-known candidates in the race, Harland believes the media has not paid much attention to his campaign, except for the fact that he’s against Oakland’s Measure V—increasing cannabis taxes. He’s the only candidate in the race opposed to it. Because of his stance, Harland said a reporter flew in from Stockholm, Sweden to interview him earlier this week. Harland says encouraging the use of marijuana is counterproductive in increasing employment because it will raise employee drug-testing issues. He also says the tax only allows the city to temporarily deal with its deficit without focusing on its core causes.
What Harland lacks in social media campaigning and free paraphernalia for his supporters, he makes up for by participating in nearly every forum he’s invited to. On a recent Monday night, Harland participated in a forum at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. He took his seat between Don Perata and Jean Quan and sat solemnly, keeping his gaze straight ahead for most of the two-hour long forum. His glasses caught the glare of the lights beaming onto the stage where the ten candidates sat behind a table cloaked with a red table skirt and banners.
Candidates were told to keep their responses to a 90-second time limit. An orange piece of paper waving in the air meant the 90 seconds were almost up, and a red one signified that time was up. For the most part, the woman in charge of timing each candidate spent a lot of time flailing her arm holding the red one.
In response to a question about the importance of business commerce, Harland blamed the city council for driving customers away from local businesses. He said businesses are losing customers to the increased parking fees, which are a result of the city attempting to obtain additional revenue for city employee salaries. “I think there’s a certain simplicity to this problem,” Harland said. “The part of the city that’s thrived is city hall. All the city employees have done quite well—they’ve got great pensions, great salaries. The private sector has suffered. That is the heart of the problem.”
Harland said when residents are afraid of getting tickets or having to constantly feed a meter, they are more inclined to shop in other cities like Emeryville where parking is easier. That takes tax revenue away from the city, which Harland said is “not leaking out of Oakland, it’s gushing out of Oakland.” Harland said he wants to toss the fees and offer free parking.
After the forum, Harland said if he’s elected mayor, he would reduce the size of the parking enforcement department, and that the resulting increase in business taxes would far outweigh losses incurred by offering free parking. He said the city cannot address its budget deficit by relying on the “false revenue” of parking fees and fines, made possible by the “Taliban parking enforcement.” He then rushed off to Humanist Hall for the second forum of the night.
Harland knows the odds of winning aren’t in his favor. And if he’s not elected, he said, he might run again for the next term. “Win, lose or draw, I’m not going to go away,” Harland said. “I’m going to be in the fight for Oakland from now on.”
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