Oakland's two-decade-long experiment with putting well-known politicians in the mayor's office hasn't had much success. In 1990, voters hoped that longtime state Legislator Elihu Harris would solve the city's seemingly intractable problems. They were wrong. So in 1998, they turned to Jerry Brown, the former two-term governor and perennial presidential candidate. Surely he would fix Oakland. Wrong, again. Yet Oaklanders still hadn't learned their lesson. So in 2006 they elected Ron Dellums, a onetime Lion of Congress and Slayer of Apartheid, to be their savior. Strike Three.
But even with that dismal record, Oakland voters may once again elect a big-name, career politician as their mayor in 2010. Recent polls show that Don Perata, the former president pro tem of the California Senate, state Assemblyman, and county supervisor, is leading the race even though there's scant evidence to suggest that he'll be any more successful than Oakland's last three mayors.
Indeed, there's ample reason to believe that Perata could make the city's problems worse. After all, he was the behind-the-scenes architect of the 1995 Oakland Raiders deal, perhaps the biggest financial debacle in city history, and one that is costing Oakland $10 million in debt payments annually through 2025. Perata also has a long history of putting the needs of his friends, his family, his donors, and himself above those of taxpayers. His ethically questionable financial dealings over the years prompted a five-year, public-corruption probe by the FBI.
Perata, 65, also seems no more interested in governing than Dellums. His campaign slogan is: "I Believe in Oakland," yet he has skipped the vast majority of the mayoral debates so far, and when he does attend, he mails it in. He repeatedly ignores questions and instead launches into long-winded, rambling critiques of city government without offering viable solutions for fixing what's wrong. At last month's Chamber of Commerce debate, he acted as if he didn't want to be there, often mumbling his answers into the microphone and forcing spectators to shout: "Speak up!" or "We can't hear you!"
Still, political mythology can be more powerful than reality. And the mythology surrounding Perata is strong. Over the years, he has fostered a reputation for being both a tough guy who cleans house and a political pragmatist who gets things done. But a closer look at his long political record shows that his true genius is raising campaign funds and rising to power — not bettering the lives of taxpayers. Several years ago, this newspaper conducted an exhaustive analysis of Perata's legislative record in Sacramento, examining every bill he ever introduced. It turned out that he had one of the worst records in the capital for getting his legislation passed into law.
As the leader of the Senate, Perata also failed to address California's systemic budget problems, including the unsustainable public employee compensation and pension benefits that are now helping bankrupt the state. Among the public employee unions he protected from budget cuts was the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Then when he was termed out of office, the prison guard's union promptly hired him as a "political consultant." Records show that the union has paid him more than $400,000 since early 2009, while mounting no political campaigns — other than funding hit-piece mailers attacking two of Perata's main opponents in the Oakland mayor's race.
Voters, however, have other choices in this election. Ten candidates total, including Perata, are running for mayor, and three in particular are mounting viable campaigns his fall: Councilwomen Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan, and longtime political science professor and TV news analyst Joe Tuman. All three are smart and energetic, all of them have exhibited a passion and love for Oakland, and all are clearly outworking Perata on the campaign trail.
Quan, Kaplan, and Tuman are by no means perfect candidates. Each has their strengths and weaknesses. But none is a big-name politician who views himself as Oakland's savior or is just looking for someplace to land. And none of them is even remotely tainted with the smell of corruption.
In addition, if either Quan or Kaplan ultimately wins the race, it will be historic. Oakland has never had a woman mayor before. Kaplan also would be the first openly lesbian mayor of any large California city. But the question is: Will Oaklanders vote for change, for a lesser-known candidate who's passionate about turning the city around, or will they choose a big-name pol for the fourth time?
Jean Quan is the Hillary Clinton of Oakland politics. She's not a particularly inspiring speaker. She's a wonk's wonk. Indeed, no one may know more about the intricacies of city government than her. And she's not shy about telling people about her accomplishments or sharing what she knows.
Politically, Quan is cut from the traditional Clinton-Democratic mold. She's pro-worker and a fighter for social justice. And she's been endorsed by numerous labor unions and nonprofits in the city. You could say she's the anti-Ron Dellums. She's not going to deliver a fiery — or flowery — speech. But she has been the hardest-working candidate in the mayor's race, holding more than 160 house parties and block parties, most of which have attracted dozens of voters. And she's walked precinct after precinct throughout the city, chatting up residents.
The councilwoman also has enlisted some of the most ardent supporters in the campaign, and her impressive array of volunteers has been knocking on doors and talking to voters in all parts of Oakland. In short, Jean Quan is no reluctant candidate. Unlike Dellums, she didn't have to be cajoled into running. She really wants to be mayor, and she's in the race with her eyes wide open. No one may know of the depth of Oakland's problems better than her.