She's white. She's butch. She's a former rabbinical student known for hauling out a shofar at political rallies. And she's now among the leading candidates to be the next mayor of Oakland. Rebecca Kaplan just announced that she is entering the wide-open race, and she has a real chance of winning. Here's why.
When I was reporting this month's feature about the race, Kaplan was the implicit—and some cases explicit—elephant in every room. Some people assumed she'd be entering; others seemed to be hoping against hope that she wouldn't. Some consultants and city hall insiders considered her candidacy such a sure bet—and such a game-changer—that they refused to comment on my story until she announced. One candidate nervously asked me outright if I'd heard anything. And last night, they all got an answer when Kaplan announced her candidacy, tweeting that "Oakland isn't ungovernable, it's ungoverned." (Ouch.)
All the anxiety is, by the way, completely warranted. Barring a major gaffe or ungodly cash infusion for someone else, it's hard to pencil out a scenario in which Kaplan doesn't mount a formidable challenge. She's the only contender other than Quan to have won citywide election, in 2008 and again in 2012 as City Councilperson at Large*. In 2010, she mounted a strong bid for mayor; in the end, she came in third—but was trailing Jean Quan by fewer than 3,000 votes before the last round of ranked-choice voting, and some post-facto election analysis suggested that if she'd beat Quan in the second-to-last round, she would have won.
She has a broad swath of supporters: Young progressives rallied behind her 2010 campaign, smart-growth and transit advocates appreciate her experience on the AC Transit Board and with environemntal issues, the LGBT community is understandably excited by her record on gay rights (and the prospect of having a self-proclaimed butch in the top seat of a high-profile city). In 2010, many of the city's black churches—a major political force in Oakland—supported Kaplan as well, however improbably. Some polls have suggested that she's the city's most popular elected official, period, and a November poll showed that if Kaplan were to enter the mayor's race, she'd lead Quan 26 percent to 20, with Joe Tuman and Libby Schaaf trailing in the mid-teens.
In other words, this race just became really, really interesting. It's early, and ranked-choice voting can resolve itself in unforseen and sometimes mystifying ways, but at this point, given the numbers, it's hard to see Kaplan doing poorly. For someone to leapfrog over her and win, a large portion of the electorate needs to leave Kaplan off their ballots altogether. That's exactly what happened in 2010, when a Kaplan-and-Quan-led "Anyone But Perata" campaign gave Quan so many second-place votes she overtook the front-runner. But Perata was a polarizing figure, and convincing voters to not vote for him in first, second, or third-place was easy. Kaplan is the opposite—a popular candidate with broad support and high name recognition.
*Full disclosure: I spent a couple afternoons making phone calls on Kaplan's behalf in 2012. I will not be volunteering for any of the candidates this election.