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Oakland Mayor's Race Heats Up

Councilmember Libby Schaaf likely will run against Jean Quan at a time when the mayor is enjoying some successes. But will progressive voters care?



Councilmember Libby Schaaf's likely entrance in the 2014 Oakland mayor's race promises to be a game-changer. Inside Oakland political circles — and even at City Hall — Mayor Jean Quan had widely been viewed as a vulnerable incumbent who might nonetheless be reelected. Although her poll numbers have been miserable, she appeared to have a good shot at a second term because the only other announced candidates in the race — Joe Tuman, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, and Port Commissioner Bryan Parker — have never won elected office.

Schaaf's candidacy, however, likely will make it much more difficult for Quan to win, particularly if no true progressive candidate emerges in the months ahead. Indeed, if the race comes down to Quan versus the more moderate Schaaf and Tuman, many progressives may decide to sit out next year's election.

Regardless, Quan's candidacy should not be underestimated. She likely will have the support of organized labor, and she has never lost an election during her two decades in public office. She's also a formidable candidate, having run the best campaign in the 2010 mayoral contest — by far. Going door-to-door for months throughout the campaign, she doggedly outworked her competitors, and she inspired 1,000 volunteers to make calls and seek out voters on her behalf. She also deftly used the city's ranked-choice voting system, urging residents to make her a second or third choice on their ballots, which ultimately propelled her to victory over ex-state Senator (and top earner of first-place votes) Don Perata.

And though she had a rocky first two years in office, Quan has had several successes in 2013 that could fuel her reelection bid. Violent crime is down this year in every major category except robberies. And the Oakland Police Department is finally making some progress on its court-mandated reforms. In a recent report, independent court monitor Robert Warshaw stated that OPD's overall compliance with the reforms was at "the highest level" since his team first began auditing the department several years ago.

Quan also was instrumental earlier this year in convincing private Chinese investors to bankroll a $1.5 billion housing project — known as Brooklyn Basin — on the city's waterfront. That project is now scheduled to break ground in 2014. She also helped attract deep-pocketed investors to develop Coliseum City, a multibillion-dollar project that could include a new stadium for the Oakland Raiders and, possibly, new facilities for the Oakland A's and Golden State Warriors. And she played a key role in the launching of the $500 million Oakland Army base redevelopment this year, which is expected to generate about 1,500 construction jobs and 1,800 permanent ones.

In a recent interview, Quan said the Army Base project was in trouble earlier this year. She said she got a call in January from Jim Ghielmetti, chair of the California Transportation Commission, who had serious concerns about whether the project would break ground in 2013 as promised. Ghielmetti then threatened to redirect $242 million in state funds earmarked for the Army Base to other transportation projects in the state. "We were about to lose that money," Quan said. "They were going to take away that $242 million."

But Quan, her administration, and project developer Phil Tagami got the development back on track, and it broke ground last month, ensuring that it didn't lose the $242 million. "She did her job," Tagami said of Quan in an interview. Tagami also confirmed that Ghielmetti had threatened to redirect the state funds.

Tagami and other Oakland business leaders — along with some of Quan's supporters — also were surprised by her willingness to team up with Tagami, because he was a longtime ally of Perata and is good friends with ex-Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente, who was Quan's toughest critic during her first two years as mayor. Some had expected Quan to search for a new Army Base developer after she defeated Perata three years ago. Instead, she stuck with Tagami, arguing that the man who rehabbed the Fox Theater and helped revitalize the city's Uptown district offered the best hope at redeveloping the base. "She hasn't always given us everything we wanted," Tagami said of Quan and his team's requests for the project. "But she has been very fair."

Quan's recent accomplishments, especially with large economic projects, also could help blunt opposition to her in the city's traditionally moderate business community. Over the years, Oakland business leaders have viewed her as being too liberal and not sufficiently pro-business. Moderates and conservatives also have contended that she's too soft on crime, because she has not embraced tactics like stop-and-frisk and youth curfews. They also criticized her for not cracking down on Occupy Oakland soon enough. And she has resisted calls to dramatically beef up Oakland's police force, noting that it would require the city to gut all other public services, including parks and libraries.

Nonetheless, at least one former longtime city business leader is now fully embracing the mayor's reelection bid. Michael Colbruno, an ex-leader of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce's political action committee, which typically backs moderate politicians and candidates, is now Quan's campaign co-chair. Colbruno believes that Quan has not received credit in the mainstream press for her accomplishments, and that she's far more pro-business than people realize. "I've worked around a lot of mayors in my life — including Willie Brown and Jerry Brown — and she's the hardest-working mayor I've ever seen," Colbruno said. "She goes 24-7. She never stops."

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