Rebecca Kaplan may be running third in the polls, but the energetic councilwoman appeared to be the clear-winner in last night’s big mayoral debate. Kaplan exuded a passion and love for Oakland unmatched by the eight other candidates on hand, and she repeatedly drew the loudest applause from the large, standing-room-only audience at the Kaiser Center. She also exhibited what politicos call “that vision-thing.”
Most of the candidates easily detailed the city’s many problems, but Kaplan was the only one to vividly describe not only how she would fix them, but how she would turn Oakland around by capitalizing on its strengths — its great weather, its burgeoning reputation as a foodie Mecca, its resourceful residents, and its many small businesses. Audience members repeatedly ignored requests by event moderator Martin Reynolds, editor of the Oakland Tribune, to hold their applause until the end of the debate and instead clapped approvingly when Kaplan finished her answers. The event, sponsored by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters, and the Bay Area Business Roundtable, drew at least 500 people.
Joe Tuman, longtime political science professor and TV news analyst, also performed well. And that should come as no surprise; he’s an excellent public speaker, and longtime coach of the San Francisco State debate team who led the squad to four national collegiate championships. Tuman came across as a serious, no-nonsense candidate, and he may have greatly improved his chances in the race. “I swear to you, there’s meat on these bones,” he promised the audience during his opening statement, which drew a big round of applause.
By contrast, Don Perata, the frontrunner in the race, probably should have stayed home. Indeed, if his performance was any indication, it’s no wonder that the ex-state senator skipped all but one of the debates in recent months. If you had attended last night’s event and had no idea who the candidates were, you might very well have written off Perata as some old fart who had no chance of winning. He was that bad.
The veteran politician, for example, repeatedly failed to answer questions posed to him by the debate panelists — Randy Shandobil of KTVU-Channel 2 News, Tammerlin Drummond of the Oakland Tribune, and Alex Gronke of Oakbook. Instead, Perata launched into rambling answers in which we decried Oakland’s problems, but offered no real solutions for how to solve them. For example, when both Drummond and Gronke pressed him on how the city will be able to afford more police officers without raising taxes, Perata criticized the recent police layoffs, talked about the need for more cops, and then skipped the part about how a broke city would be able to pay them. One audience member sitting near this reporter blurted out: “That’s pathetic; he doesn’t answer the questions.”
Audience members also repeatedly shouted to Perata to speak into the microphone because they couldn’t hear what he was saying. Indeed, it looked throughout the event as if the ex-senator didn’t want to be there. He sat expressionless for the most of the evening, with his hands crossed at his chest, and then would mumble something into the mic, forcing audience members to shout: “Speak up" or "We can’t hear you.”
Perata also made a few interesting promises during a portion of the debate when Reynolds asked the candidates to answer “yes,” “no,” or “undecided” to a series of rapid-fire questions. For example, Perata paused and then promised, as did every other candidate, to attend every city council meeting if he becomes mayor. He also vowed, as did all the other candidates, to take a salary cut if elected.
The only bright spot for Perata was that he didn’t put on the worst performance of the night. That honor went to Marcie Hodge, a Peralta Community College District trustee. Hodge appeared to be extremely ill-prepared for the debate, repeatedly offering incoherent answers — even after she raised her hand and asked to speak. Reynolds mercifully cut her off several times after she rambled past the time deadline without saying anything meaningful. At one point, Hodge recognized how bad she was doing, telling the audience: “You guys are scaring me; I’m stumbling up here.”
Maybe the most surprising candidate of the night was Lionel “Larry” Young Jr., a charismatic, engaging young man. He spoke with poise, confidence, and humor. The audience clearly liked him.
The only other candidate worth mentioning was Councilwoman Jean Quan, who is running slightly behind Perata in the polls. She had a workmanlike evening, steady but unspectacular. She showed again that she’s not a charismatic speaker. She’s smart and solid, but she lacks Kaplan’s “vision-thing” and Tuman’s polished and powerful speaking style. She does answer questions, however.