Forefront Excerpt: Why Jean Quan Failed Oakland’s Grass Roots

An introductory excerpt from this week’s Forefront.

Credit: Darcy Padilla

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Oaklanders will have a chance to vote for a new mayor next year. In Forefront this week, Sarah Goodyear sets out to see if the city could finally gain a new sense of leadership to move forward, or if it will continue its tepid acceptance of a troubled status quo.

Oakland would seem to have every advantage a city could want. Its climate is sunny and temperate. It encompasses miles of waterfront on one of the world’s great harbors and gorgeous hills with sweeping views of San Francisco Bay. In the earliest years of European settlement, an abundant supply of timber, including huge stands of redwoods, fed the sawmills that turned out the boards that built the towns of a place white men called California.

Things went very well for Oakland for a very long time. Some serious political wrangling helped it beat out San Francisco as terminus for the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century, and it remains an important freight rail destination today. During World War II it was a major shipbuilding and manufacturing center, and a boom of industrial jobs attracted people of all different ethnic backgrounds from all over the country. It became one of the main destinations of the Great Migration and a stronghold for union activists.

Today, the city still boasts the nation’s fifth-busiest container port. It is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country, with vibrant Latino, Asian, African-American and white populations. And these days, it is part of one of the nation’s most economically prosperous regions.

Yet the city has struggled for decades to attain financial stability. “We have an ineffective government,” says Amanda Brown-Stevens, an Oakland resident for 11 years and a concerned observer of the political scene. “The fact that Oakland has so many problems — you really have to have a dysfunctional city.”

How Oakland got to this point is a long story, one that pivots on some of the same patterns of deindustrialization and suburban flight that hobbled many U.S. cities in the latter half of the 20th century, but also defies others. Oakland reached its first peak of population right after World War II, with 384,000 residents in 1950. It slowly shrank to about 340,000 in 1980 before rebounding to its present estimated level of just more than 400,000, an all-time high. Over the years, it lost much of the industry and commerce that had supported the working class and middle class alike. As in much of the country, people and businesses moved to the suburbs.

While affluent communities in the hills retained their value, much of Oakland went into a long decline, especially the flatlands neighborhoods of West and East Oakland, which have a largely African American population. Many industrial properties are vacant and decaying, while housing in once-tidy working-class neighborhoods has become rundown. Big employers such as Kaiser Permanente Health have provided some stability, but Oakland has consistently lagged well behind its richer neighbor across the bay in good-paying jobs. Between 2007 and 2011, according to census numbers, the median income in Oakland was $51,144. In San Francisco over the same period, it was $72,947.

Yet Oakland has also had its share of consistent, small successes. In the 1980s, a plan to rebuild the civic center downtown resulted in the restoration of historic structures and the construction of several new office towers. In the late ’90s, a community group called the Unity Council came up with a plan to build a mixed-use transit-oriented development next to the Fruitvale BART station, which in the early 2000s became reality, providing affordable housing along with quality retail and office space in this mostly Latino neighborhood.

The person most closely identified with the city’s redevelopment is California Gov. Jerry Brown, who served as mayor of Oakland between 1999 and 2007. Brown won the mayor’s race by campaigning for stronger executive control, and used his new power to woo investment downtown through a so-called “10K Plan” to attract 10,000 new residents to the city’s hollowed center. With Brown in City Hall, Oakland helped developers erect a number of shiny market-rate and mixed-income housing complexes, including a glassy new portside residential, retail and office complex at Jack London Square. Within a decade, Brown’s 10,000 people came, and more, many of them fleeing the high rents and fog of San Francisco.

They came, yet on a gorgeous weekday afternoon much of the downtown still has an empty, haunted quality — like an architectural rendering of a prosperous place without the people. Condos advertising luxury living glisten in the sun, but the plazas around them are dead. The retail landscape downtown is so bleak that landlords are offering free rent to “activate” the storefronts in hopes of attracting permanent, paying tenants.

Those same downtown streets became a battleground in October 2011, when police moved in to break up the Occupy Oakland encampment, which had sprung up in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. The police used teargas and stun grenades in their assault, injuring some protesters, one critically. Quan, who had been in office for less than a year at the time, was widely condemned for the city’s handling of the situation, and later heckled when she tried to apologize.

It was a painful episode for a mayor who had long positioned herself as a progressive. Quan initially entered politics as a community activist, starting an organization called Save Our Schools and running for election to the Oakland school board in 1990. She moved on to the city council in 2002, backing legislation that defended library funding and banned polystyrene takeout containers, among other things.

She ran for mayor in 2010 in a 10-way race that for the first time in the city’s history depended on a ranked voting system, in which voters indicate their first, second and third choices. Candidates with the fewest first-place votes are eliminated in successive rounds of counting, and their ballots reallocated according to the voter’s following choices. Quan’s win was far from resounding — she won against the other candidate left standing, Don Perata, with 50.96 percent of the vote, even though Perata got more first-place votes in the initial round.

For the first hundred days Quan marshaled decent approval ratings, but the bad days would soon outweigh the good. Police chief Anthony Batts resigned just a few months into her tenure, deepening concerns over the city’s confused public safety policy. Then came the Occupy debacle. Quan also inherited persistent budget woes that would force deep cuts to programs and staff across the board.

The cuts hurt. Tina Ramos, aka “Tina Tamale,” is the third generation of her family to run a food business in the Old Oakland neighborhood downtown. Ramos sees a lot of positive change in her community, but she also sees growing imbalances in advantage that she says the Quan administration hasn’t done enough to address. “A lot of our communities have been held down a long time, and don’t have the resources to pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” she says.

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Tags: mayorsbudgetspublic safetyoaklandprotestsjean quan

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