This is "Think Tank," a series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Name: Rebecca Kaplan
Job: Oakland City Council Member at Large
Residence: Longfellow District, Oakland
You’ve said that Oakland isn’t ungovernable—it’s simply ungoverned. What does that mean?
In Oakland, we have a strong mayoral form of government. City council members don’t have the authority to do things like fill positions or enforce laws—that power is held in the executive branch. I decided to make sure that the laws and budgets that I’d gotten passed manifest in the real world—that we actually get this trash off the streets, that we actually get an adequate number of 911 dispatchers and police evidence technicians. It seemed important to take that jump to the executive branch, where there would be the ability to insist on things actually getting implemented.
You touched on crime. It does seem to be the predominant issue in this race—the robbery rate, hill dwellers hiring private security forces...
Absolutely. It’s a side effect of the police layoffs. The types of crime that have gone up since 2010 are primarily economically motivated. Oakland’s an easy mark now—for robberies, for auto thefts. People feel like they can get away with crime, and residents feel like they have to resort to something else. I don’t blame them for feeling that way.
But the lack of beat officers isn’t necessarily the underlying issue—the economic situation is. Can Oakland police its way out of this problem?
Of course it can’t. It’s sort of like, you can’t have a good healthcare system by only having an emergency surgical wing. If you’re going to promote public health, you need nutrition, you need exercise. But when you need emergency surgery, you need emergency surgery—otherwise, people die. In other words, we need more jobs—and we have the capacity to create thousands of them filling potholes, fixing broken sidewalks, building new transit-oriented development projects. But when someone has a home invasion robbery in progress and calls 911, you need police.
When you first ran for mayor, in 2010, it was Oakland’s first year of using ranked-choice voting. What do you make of the criticisms against it?
There was a candidate [Don Perata] who lost the mayor’s race last time, and both he and his supporters have loudly denounced the voting system. I suspect that if their candidate had won, they would have had no objection. It’s clear to me that ranked-choice voting saves taxpayer money and encourages broader voter participation by having the election in November, when turnout is higher. The allegations about how it changes outcomes have been overblown.
Do you think that it forces candidates to be a little less confrontational? One of the major criticisms of you is you’re too nice to everybody. Are you capable of standing up to people?
Yes. The things my grandparents taught me are absolutely relevant to this business: that you talk to people respectfully, that you say “please” and “thank you.” That’s not a sign of weakness—it’s how you get things done in the world. When you have a head-to-head runoff, sometimes a candidate can win exclusively by attacking the other person. It’s much harder to do that under ranked-choice voting. You have to have a platform, you have to make a really positive case for yourself. That is a shift, but I think it’s for the best.
Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco magazine
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