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?

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Work habits notwithstanding, the mayor will have to overcome the personal dislike that many moderates and conservatives — and some progressives — have for her, according to several people interviewed for this report. They say the mayor is too often focused on self-promotion, doesn't accept criticism well, and is not a good listener. Quan also has a history of saying things that are not true — and then having embarrassing news stories printed about her mistakes. For example, she repeatedly claimed early in her mayoral tenure that most of the city's violent crime was relegated to just one hundred blocks in the poorest sections of East and West Oakland. However, Urban Strategies Council, a respected nonprofit in Oakland, later conducted a detailed analysis of the city's crime data and found that much of the violent crime takes place in a significantly larger area — about 1,300 blocks.

Quan's perceived personal shortcomings also provide an opening for Schaaf. The former aide to Jerry Brown and De La Fuente had been viewed in the past as being more moderate than Quan. But since she was elected to the council in 2010, representing Quan's old district (Montclair-Laurel), Schaaf has gradually moved to the left. In fact, she has often sided with the mayor and with fellow liberal councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan, Pat Kernighan, and Nancy Nadel (before she retired) against the more conservative De La Fuente (before he left office) and Larry Reid. Schaaf even came out against youth curfews during a recent council committee meeting. Schaaf also is well liked and has strong approval ratings in her hills district — much better than the mayor does, even though Quan represented that district for eight years on the council.

In an interview late last week, Schaaf said many people have approached her and asked her to run for mayor, and that she is "seriously considering" it. Although she declined to say she's definitely in the race, she is now widely expected to officially launch her campaign as early as next month. An advocate for better government transparency, Schaaf also said she believes Oakland deserves "stronger and more competent leadership."

Schaaf's candidacy, meanwhile, also could spell trouble for Tuman. They have similar political views — although he's a bit more moderate now that Schaaf has moved closer to Quan politically — and thus the two likely will draw on many of the same supporters and donors. In an interview last week, Tuman advocated for increasing the size of the city's police force from the current 640 or so cops to 900 — about 200 more than Quan's plan — in the next few years. He also said he would support a curfew, at least on a trial basis. He said he does not believe Oakland will be able to attract a significant number of private-sector jobs until it reduces crime substantially. Tuman, a longtime political analyst for TV news, finished fourth in the 2010 mayor's race, behind Quan, Perata, and Kaplan.

A Quan-Schaaf-Tuman race also could leave Oakland without a true progressive candidate. Many progressives have yet to forgive Quan for her administration's harsh crackdown on Occupy Oakland. "I think it's still very much an issue," said Dan Siegel, a longtime progressive and close friend and ally of Quan's who strongly disagreed with her response to Occupy. Siegel and others believe Quan has become too moderate, and has effectively ceded control to her pro-police city administrator, Deanna Santana. In addition, if Schaaf and Tuman, along with Parker, are Quan's only competitors, the mayor could be prompted to move even farther to the right during a campaign in which the issues of the size of the city's police force and getting "tougher" on crime could take center stage.

Such a scenario is becoming a concern for many progressives. In fact, Siegel, a former longtime member of the Oakland school board, said he is considering getting in the race to provide a progressive voice. "It's concerning to me that the race could be between Jean and Libby, considering Libby's politics," Siegel said.

Indeed, if no true progressive gets in the race, many liberal voters who are unhappy with Quan may decide to stay home on Election Day, particularly since 2014 is a non-presidential-election year. It also seems unlikely that progressives would vote for Schaaf or Tuman, since they are both to the right of Quan.

As for Siegel, he has been out of politics since 2006, and thus it's unclear whether he has the name recognition needed to win a citywide campaign. That's not the case, however, for Kaplan, who came within 2 percentage points of beating Quan in 2010. Kaplan has twice before won citywide races, having been elected the council's at-large member in 2008 and 2012. And in the most recent campaign, she pummeled De La Fuente by 20 percentage points.

As such, Kaplan would instantly be a top candidate for mayor next year, should she decide to run, and she could inspire progressives to go to the polls. In an interview late last week, she declined to rule out the idea, although she praised the mayor for "working very hard" for the city over the past three years.

A Kaplan-Quan-Schaaf-Tuman race would inject excitement into a race that appeared a few weeks ago as if it might be an election to forget. But jumping into the campaign also would be a gamble for Kaplan. If she were to lose to Quan again, then Kaplan might be damaged politically, having lost two mayoral elections. But if she were to sit out next year's race, and Quan wins, then she'd likely be the frontrunner in 2018.

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