Crime and the Oakland Mayor's Race

Is it really the top issue? Polls suggest that moderates’ hope of riding the issue to victory may have been premature.


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Recent polls put Kaplan ahead of Quan, pictured.

Chris Duffey

At campaign events and on web pages, in brochures and door-to-door chats, Oakland’s 15 mayoral candidates are busy promising the number of police officers that they will deploy as the city’s leader. 700. 800. 900. More.

Cop-counting is a major theme in November’s election. Perhaps that’s understandable, given that Oakland’s homicide rate jumped from 90 in 2010 to 126 in 2012, according to Oakland Police Department statistics. Robberies and assaults also spiked during the same time period.

In survey after survey, public safety has been identified as the number one concern of Oakland residents. And the candidates have been listening. Public safety has been an overarching theme of the mayor’s race since even before campaigning began in earnest. Surveys also have made it clear that residents are disappointed with Mayor Jean Quan, whose reign coincided with this increasing crime, serial turnover among police chiefs, and a reduction in rank-and-file police officers, due largely to post-recession budget cuts. 

And so, for the past few years, the political momentum has suggested that Oaklanders might be ready for the first time in decades to embrace an unabashedly moderate candidate for mayor—particularly one who pledged to put bolstering the police department first. 

But then a couple things happened.

First of all, Oakland’s homicide rate declined significantly in the second half of Quan’s term, from 126 murders in 2012, to 90 in 2013 and just 51 so far in 2014, according to the Oakland Police. These declines coincided with a much smaller 5.4 percent national reduction in violent crime.

Secondly, improving upon another national trend, Oakland’s economy has rebounded from the recession, with increased hiring and job creation, and an upswing in optimism. 

So when three successive mayoral polls in September showed progressive Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, followed by the progressive Quan, notions that Oakland might tilt moderate in November seemed dubious. 

Of course, the polls also showed a large number of undecided voters, ranging from 19 percent to 41 percent. And a come-from-behind moderate success is still possible under Oakland’s ranked-choice voting system, in which voters’ second and third choices make a difference if no candidate wins a majority of the first-place votes. Joe Tuman, a San Francisco State government professor generally regarded as moderate, and Councilwoman Libby Schaff, who leans progressive with some moderate tones, placed third behind Kaplan and Quan, depending on the poll. The other leading candidates are former school board member and Quan aide Dan Siegel, businessman and Port Commissioner Bryan Parker, and city auditor Courtney Ruby. 

“The race remains competitive and no one should claim victory at this point; nor should any of the top contenders feel they are out of contention,” said Greg McConnell, CEO of Oakland’s Jobs and Housing Coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan business advocacy group that commissioned one of the September polls.

But ranked-choice voting rewards candidates with the broadest appeal—those who receive voters’ second- and third-choice nods even if they aren’t number one. And all three polls suggest that trend favors one candidate.

“Kaplan remains popular as a citywide elected,” said Corey Cook, a University of San Francisco political science professor and election expert. “Her base is definitely progressive, but she’s done reasonably well—17 percent—among moderates. That’s the key — that she has broader appeal. If she was just seen as a progressive alternative to Quan, I think Quan would survive. But if Kaplan beats her among progressives and even breaks even among moderates, Kaplan will win.”

 

Labels illuminate ideology, but seldom tell the whole story. Kaplan’s wide appeal raises the eyebrows of some of the city’s progressives, who aren’t endorsing her in part because they aren’t sure where she really stands.

“I think the label progressive is increasingly becoming less meaningful in the Bay Area where we have different definitions of progressive,” said Esperanza Tervalon-Daumont, executive director of the progressive group Oakland Rising. After considering leadership style and positions on housing, jobs, gentrification, and the minimum wage, Oakland Rising endorsed Quan and Siegel. 

Meanwhile, the Wellstone Club, the local progressive group named for Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, ultimately endorsed Quan. Pamela Drake, Wellstone’s local politics coordinator and a Quan campaign worker, said many progressives feel Kaplan is unreliably progressive, “a wild card” who has ducked controversial votes as a councilwoman. “She wants to be liked so bad, she can’t take tough positions,” Drake said. “You really don’t know what’s driving her; what really matters to her.”

Kaplan’s campaign manager Jason Overman called this critique “fabrications” by supporters of her opponents. And he pointed to public safety as one place where his boss’ city council votes have sent a clear message.

“Since 2010, she voted no on police layoffs at every budget opportunity she’s had,” Overman said. “She has voted for or been the primary author or coauthor to increase the numbers of police officers, even short-term like contracting with highway patrol.”

The leading challengers to Quan have continued to trumpet the size of the police force they’ll aim for if elected mayor; Schaaf and Siegel support the 707 officers funded in the current budget, as does the incumbent mayor; Parker backs 800, Kaplan favors 836, and Tuman tops out the field at 900. At theend of September, the actual force was just 665, up from a low of 613 in 2012.

All say community violence prevention efforts are essential to reducing crime.

But as Oaklanders begin to feel a little safer, perhaps other progressive ideals have become more important. Indeed, for the first time in its history, San Francisco’s Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club endorsed in Oakland’s mayoral race, going with Kaplan and Siegel. And concern that rising rents don’t price out low- and middle-income residents was partly behind its decision.

“What we find is increasingly our membership is moving to Oakland, or already live in Oakland,” said group co-president Tom Temtrano, explaining that the city’s high cost of housing is pricing people out. And he hopes that progressives will have more luck fighting for affordable housing in the East Bay. “Our honest hope would be that a strong progressive voice in Oakland would ripple back across the bay.”

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