Notes from the Campaign Trail: The Best and Worst of the Oakland Mayoral Campaigns

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In an interview last week, Oakland mayoral candidate Bryan Parker reacted to polling that placed Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan as the frontrunner in the race by saying that “there’s a lot of football yet to be played” before the election is won. After months of hard work on the campaign trail, said Parker, these are the dog days of the campaign, and in a tight race, the final result may hinge on which candidate wants it the most. 

He made a good point, and there are already signs that some candidates are experiencing a second wind of enthusiasm, while others look as if they need a recharge. Here are some of my impressions of the campaigns being run by the top candidates in the race.

Rebecca Kaplan.
  • Rebecca Kaplan.
It’s unclear if the surge in support for Kaplan is related to the fact that she has strong name recognition and that many voters have already voted twice for the at-large councilmember in previous elections. Kaplan’s insistence since day one of the campaign to actively seek second- and third-place votes might also be helping her in the campaign, especially since many of the other candidates apparently have not learned that valuable lesson from the 2010 race. One thing is clear, though, no other candidate in this field comes across as more energized and more buoyant about Oakland than Kaplan. Insiders, of course, scoff at Kaplan’s exuberance, but regular voters might be seeing something to their liking — an Oakland cheerleader-in-chief.

There is no experience that prepares you better than having run for big-time office before. Through that lens you can understand why Joe Tuman, who finished fourth in the 2010 mayoral race, has run such a solid campaign this year. None of Tuman’s political attributes are off the charts, but he seemingly is doing everything better than average. He’s a good speaker, shows empathy, and has some bite in his comments. Tuman is also the race’s best debater. Unlike many candidates participating in forums throughout the East Bay who concentrate only on answering the question, Tuman is the only one who also listens for holes in his opponents’ responses. A few weeks back, when Mayor Jean Quan suggested a drop in crime was due to getting youths off the streets through her summer jobs program, Tuman was ready to pounce. Tuman quickly skewered Quan for wrongly placing blame on teenagers and not on violent adults. Tuman, however, looks like he could also use a makeover. Oaklanders might be reluctant to warm up to a candidate who almost always wears finely tailored, double-breasted suits that look as if they’re more befitting a Vegas pit boss than the mayor of The Town.

If Tuman’s surprising success in the mayor’s race four years ago was a springboard to today, Bryan Parker’s campaign this year might do the same for his future in politics. Although Parker has struggled to gain traction this year in a crowded field, his name often comes up in conversations with political insiders as a possible strong candidate down the road. One of Parker’s problems in 2014 may have been timing. He was one of the first candidates to enter the race, and since then, several credible candidates have jumped in, leaving his campaign looking a bit stale. That’s no fault of his own, of course — just the natural rhythm of this race. Still, it’s no surprise that Parker has been a consistently good fundraiser, not only because he is a bit more pro-business than the others, but he also because he imparts a sense of gravitas and plays the part of executive well.

Dan Siegel.
  • Dan Siegel.
If Dan Siegel were running for nationwide office, his wickedly clever and concise sound bites would be plastered all over cable news. Who other than Siegel could say, “My theory about change is that the people make history, not leaders, not government” and have it not sound corny, but inspiring. However, Siegel is running for mayor of Oakland, a city in which few reporters follow the campaign. And so his terrific rhetoric does not seem to be having much impact. It’s also unclear whether Oakland voters are as far to the left as he is politically. You can say this about Siegel, though, even if his bid for mayor is unsuccessful, no other candidate has changed Oakland’s political landscape in the last nine months more than he. His call to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour may have felt like pie-in-sky earlier this year, but Siegel led the way for others to secure a compromise $12.25 increase likely to be passed by Oakland voters this November. If he wins, Siegel said he’ll follow through and move to raise the minimum wage to $15 as promised.

With crime down significantly in Oakland and the general feeling of optimism swelling in the city, Jean Quan should, on paper at least, be the prohibitive favorite. However, the mayor so far has yet to provide a convincing argument for why voters should elect her to another four-year term. She’s been instrumental in jumpstarting the massive Brooklyn Basin housing project and Oakland Army Base redevelopment project, and the booming restaurant scene has been winning plaudits from all over the nation. And despite dreadful city finances during the Great Recession, Oakland now seems better off coming out of the economic downturn than it was going in. But Quan has been unable to provide a coherent and repeatable message about her role in the city’s resurgence.

City Auditor Courtney Ruby is like one of those people on Antiques Roadshow who didn’t know the candy dish sitting on her coffee table is actually an historical artifact from Ancient Mesopotamia worth $4 million. If it is true that Oaklanders believe City Hall is corrupt; there should be no other candidate other than Ruby. But, like Quan, she is not effectively communicating her role as city auditor in cleaning up City Hall. You could argue that running as a reformer should be Ruby’s sole message. Indeed, Ruby’s attempt last year to take down Councilmembers Desley Brooks and Larry Reid for violating city law is a real platform to run on, but Ruby rarely makes specific references to this battle.

Libby Schaaf is doing fairly well in the polls and is the top fundraiser in the race, but her campaign seems uneven so far. In response to seemingly every question posed to her at forums and debates, she references one or two pieces of legislation she wrote or helped pass while on the city council. After awhile, the strategy feels a bit forced, especially when Kaplan ends up doing the same thing. But the difference is Kaplan does it likes she's giving a performance at a First Fridays event and Schaaf does it like bureaucrat reading a staff report. Another inherent problem for Schaaf is that her effectiveness in public appears to be predicated on the venue and audience. Last week, she looked downright uncomfortable before a group of rowdy nonprofit and labor representatives, but then looked confident and stateswoman-like before business leaders at a forum earlier this week at Oakland’s Impact Hub. Such a stark difference in demeanor may bolster the belief by some that Schaaf is the candidate of the well-to-do hills and not the struggling flatlands.

Express contributor Steven Tavares is often the only reporter at Oakland mayoral debates and forums. We will be publishing some his impressions of this year’s campaign on the Seven Days blog. 

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