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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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Perata's strategy, instead, was to essentially show contempt for the new voting system. Throughout the campaign, he repeatedly urged supporters to just vote for him, and implied strongly that they should not select anyone else for their second and third choices. Quan and Kaplan also worked much harder than he did to get their rivals' supporters to pick them as their second or third choices.

It was a head-scratching maneuver for Perata, considering that none of the pre-election polls showed him getting a majority of first-place votes. That meant he knew he had to get lots of second- and third-place votes to win. Yet he didn't pursue them like his rivals did. And by telling voters to just pick him, he may have alienated Kaplan and Tuman supporters. He also sent an unspoken message that if he was not a voter's first choice, then they should just leave him off their ballots.

Luckily for Quan, Perata also made several more errors during the campaign. He skipped most of the candidate debates, leaving spectators to wonder what his ideas were. And then when he did show up, he sometimes acted as if he didn't want to be there, offering up vague responses to detailed questions. He also completely flubbed the Tribune's editorial board interview, arriving woefully unprepared. When the Tribune board later selected Kaplan, Tuman, and then Quan as its three choices for mayor in that order, it said it found Perata's "poor grasp of the issues appalling."

And even though campaign spending for Perata topped $1 million, shattering all previous Oakland records, the money wasn't spent that wisely. Perata's own campaign paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to expensive consultants and staff. And he made a huge cable TV-ad buy — to the delight of the Quan campaign. "He could've just shredded that money and threw it out the window," Skelton said, noting that cable TV shows typically have low ratings and aren't seen by that many Oakland voters. "There's no reach. They don't have an impact."

And the Perata-linked group, Coalition for a Safer California, appeared at times to just waste money on TV ads so that it would exceed the city's expenditure threshold, allowing Perata to break the cap, too. "We had people in Toronto tell us that they saw Don Perata ads," Skelton said.

Fortunately for Quan, Kaplan made some missteps, too. For starters, she waited too long to get into the race. By the time she officially announced her candidacy at the end of June, Quan's volunteer army was approaching 1,000. Kaplan also spent a lot of her funds on paid campaign staff. In fact, if it hadn't been for $214,000 in late independent expenditures by the California Nurses Association and Hollywood producer Bryan Zuriff, Kaplan would not have had any citywide mailers in the final days before the election. As it was, she came close to winning, and an earlier start would have given her more time to raise money and recruit volunteers.

A Mandate

After Quan won, some observers questioned whether she has a mandate. The Chronicle editorial board, which endorsed Perata for mayor, noted late last week that the ex-senator received more first-place votes than did Quan. But the editorial neglected to mention that ranked-choice balloting also showed that a majority of Oakland voters preferred Quan to Perata.

Quan's campaign staffers believe that she also would have won a traditional primary and general election. But this much is clear; if Perata had run in two elections, he could have greatly outspent his opponent twice. Likewise, Quan also benefitted from having Kaplan and Tuman in the race all the way up until the end. If they had been eliminated in a traditional primary, it's unlikely that all of their supporters — most of whom ultimately backed Quan — would have participated in a general election.

In that way, ranked-choice voting did one of the things its backers wanted it to do, by giving a grassroots campaign like Quan's a chance against a big-money candidate like Perata by allowing her to run just one campaign.

In fact, ranked-choice voting allowed far more voters to participate in this election than in previous mayoral races decided in primaries. According to the latest figures from the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, 119,603 voters cast valid ballots in the 2010 mayoral race. By contrast, in the 2006 June mayoral election, only 83,891 did so. In other words, an additional 35,712 Oakland voters participated in the 2010 mayor's race because of ranked-choice voting.

The thousands of extra voters mean that Quan actually received more votes for mayor than Dellums did in 2006. She garnered 53,895 to his 42,108. If she doesn't have a mandate, then he arguably didn't either.

Finally, there's this: Jean Quan beat Don Perata. If that alone doesn't earn her a mandate from the community, the East Bay political establishment, and Oakland City Hall, what would?

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