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Jean the Giant-Killer

How Oakland city councilwoman Jean Quan beat the East Bay's much-feared king of big-money politics. Hint: It wasn't just about ranked-choice voting.

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Early on, they realized that Perata's name recognition would be tough to overcome. "One of the most surprising things I found is how many people said they didn't know Jean," Vann said. "A lot of people knew Perata. They had voted for him before. They knew his name. It was clear to us that the race was going to be won with second- and third-place choices."

Perata's strongest support turned out to be among black voters in East Oakland. The Quan campaign attempted to change black voters' minds by telling them about Assemblyman Sandré Swanson, an ardent Quan supporter who also is one of the most prominent black elected officials in the East Bay. They also told voters about Perata's close ties to the state prison guard's union. Since early 2009, the union has paid the ex-senator nearly $500,000 as a consultant and is his primary employer. "To me, closing the gap with African-American voters was the single most important thing we had to do in the race," said Skelton, Quan's campaign manager.

When she wasn't at the thirty-plus candidate debates, or her two hundred house parties, Jean Quan ached to go door-to-door, too. If it were up to her, she would've walked with Vann and her husband every step of the way. "There's no politician in the Bay Area who walks more precincts and knocks on more doors than Jean Quan — that's her advantage," said Swanson, the co-chair of Quan's campaign and one of the few East Bay politicians who didn't endorse Perata.

Swanson recalled that when he ran for Alameda County Board of Supervisors in 1986 against Perata, Quan campaigned tirelessly for him. "And when I first ran for Assembly [in 2006], she walked more precincts for me than I did myself," added Swanson, who has been around Oakland politics since he ran Lionel Wilson's first mayoral campaign in 1977. "She's an opponent's worse nightmare — a candidate who literally goes door-to-door with an army of volunteers. One thousand of them. I've never seen it before."

Skelton, who managed the successful mayoral campaign of Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, along with Nancy Skinner's winning Assembly bid in Berkeley, Richmond, and North Oakland, also said he's never seen a candidate like Quan. "She's indefatigable; she's a machine," he said. "She would rather go out there and walk than do anything in the campaign."

The day after besting Perata, Quan's eyes lit up when the conversation turned to walking precincts. "I love campaigning," she said, leaning forward in her chair. "I love going to door-to-door. I love doing house parties. I love it. I love it."

Attack, Attack, Attack

For months, Quan had fretted about going too negative on Perata. She worried about a possible voter backlash. But Skelton was determined to capitalize on the ex-senator's numerous shady dealings over the years. "There was no way to win without polarizing the race around him — make it a Perata-not-Perata race," Skelton said.

The other big advantage of the all-volunteer army was that it allowed Quan to save lots of money for campaign ads. By June 30, Perata had spent more than $320,000 on political consultants and campaign staff, while Quan had spent less than one-tenth that amount. Although Perata eventually found a loophole in Oakland election law that allowed him to exceed the city's campaign spending cap of $379,000, Quan's savings from employing volunteer workers enabled her to blitz the city with campaign mailings in the weeks before Election Day. By the time voters cast their ballots, she had sent out at least as many mailers as Perata and his friends. "We spent very little on anything but mail," noted Skelton, who was one of the few paid people on the campaign. "We spent close to $300,000 on mail. I don't think Perata out-mailed us."

Quan's numerous attack ads on Perata surprised many Oakland political observers, mainly because no East Bay political candidate had ever done it before. But people close to Quan expected her to hammer the ex-senator. They know her as a fighter who doesn't back down. "The only thing that surprised me was how effective her mail was," said Dan Siegel, who has known Quan and Floyd Huen since their activist days at UC Berkeley in the Sixties. "I thought her mail was phenomenal — the best I've seen in a local election. It was so much better than Don's, and he's supposed to be an expert at this."

Quan's mailers repeatedly pounded Perata for the Oakland Raiders deal, a financial debacle that will end up costing East Bay taxpayers more than $600 million. At least two mailers, showed a mostly empty Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, with the message: "Thanks, Don."

But perhaps her most effective mailer was one that showed two doors, one depicting a Perata mayor's office, and one showing a Quan mayor's office. The Perata door stated, "Special Interests Only," while the Quan door read, "Everyone Welcome!" Behind the Quan door was a list of her accomplishments. Inside the Perata door, the mailer read: "Don Perata: A history of conflict of interest," and then it detailed numerous news stories about his questionable financial dealings over the years and the political favors he's delivered to his major donors.

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