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Unraveling the Tangled Web She Weaves

James O'Brien | September 18, 2012 | Story Politics News and Features

Jean Quan can be a difficult interview. It’s not that the mayor of Oakland is taciturn or uninformed; on the contrary, she will wear you down with words. It’s not that she’s occasionally standoffish either. The problem, she tells me, amid piles of files in her office at city hall, is that “I have no social graces. I’m not that great at debating, because I tend to get too much into the weeds.”

Verbally, too, Quan gets tangled. She talks very fast, so words get jumbled, lost, or skipped. She will screw up sayings and clichés, as when she told me she doesn’t “toot her own hat” (and then went on to do just that). She also tends to start a new sentence before she’s finished the original one. Sometimes the new one seems to have nothing to do with the topic at hand, but if you let her go on long enough, she just might get back to it. Indeed, by the time Quan’s done answering a question, you might have a picture of Oakland you’ve never considered before—an Oakland that is part ambitious dream, part idle fantasy. So you begin to wonder: Is she inspired against all odds? Dangerously out of touch? Or is she simply sloppy with words?

These are important questions because despite being 22 months into an administration beset by bad luck, bad press, bad timing, and poor communications, Quan is already thinking about a second term. Even more astoundingly, she’s also thinking about her legacy, which she’d like to be centered on development: new stadiums, new retail, new condos downtown. “I was never particularly fond of bricks and mortars,” she tells me, “other than I thought that kids should have beautiful and decent schools. But probably one of my legacies, if I’m mayor for two terms, is that huge infrastructure is going to be built in Oakland.”

It’s a long shot, given the loss of $28 million when the state shuttered its redevelopment agency, and the fact that the three main professional sports teams are threatening to leave Oakland. But then again, Quan’s entire career has been a series of long shots. She was the first Asian American on the school board, the first nonwhite to be elected to represent her district on the city council, and the first woman as well as Asian American to be mayor, shrewdly using the new, poorly understood ranked–choice voting system to get there (she actually received fewer first-choice mayoral votes than Don Perata). Ever since, she has worked relentlessly to address the beleaguered city’s most pressing problems, and she is always out in the field— talking, marching, going door to door.

Yet despite Quan’s earnest efforts, her administration always seems to take one step forward, then two steps back. She balanced the city budget despite inheriting a $134 million deficit, but she famously allowed the police to mishandle the Occupy Oakland protests. She gained key concessions from the policemen’s union on pensions, but then the police chief quit on her when the feds threatened to seize control of the department. And she came up with an audacious plan to halt the spiraling murder rate in the city, but she misconstrued a crucial piece of information, claiming that 90 percent of Oakland’s violence occurred on just 100 of its blocks, when the problem was really far more widespread. It was too important of a statistic to get wrong.

Still, now that two recall campaigns have failed to get off the ground, Quan is searching for a mayoral turnaround. And there’s a pugnaciousness about her—as well as a vigorous embrace of her role as booster-in-chief—that may serve her well. She tells me that Oakland is set for a population boom not just because every place else is filled up and more expensive, but because Oakland’s just cooler than anyplace else in the Bay Area, even down to its food scene. “Quite frankly, our restaurants are better than the San Francisco restaurants,” she says. “The people who come to Oakland [to dine] are a little bit better educated, a little bit more adventurous.”

Alienating the hipsters and chefs of San Francisco seems harmless enough: The mayor of “Cindarellaville” should have a chip on her shoulder. But it’s a different thing entirely—boosterism gone awry, perhaps?—when she misstates facts about her city’s most pernicious problem.

There happened to be a killing in Oakland the day I spoke with her. Information was just trickling in, but this we knew: In the 32nd week of the year, it was the city’s 69th homicide. That’s a rate of more than two murders per week, but Quan offered a completely different set of numbers. “We’ve been having about one [murder] a week,” she stated, after a lengthy digression about the roots of violence in the city.

Yes, homicide numbers in 2012 are lower than they were in the mid-2000s. And maybe—by some math, for some isolated, cherry-picked stretch of the calendar—Oakland was having one killing a week. But even if you subtract the seven who were gunned down by one man at Oikos University in April, the reported murder rate over the course of Quan’s administration is nearly twice that. Clearly the violence, and the deeply embedded issues that plague parts of Oakland, were on Quan’s mind during our discussion. That’s good to know. But her willingness to spin those particular numbers seems to trivialize a catastrophe that is both civic and personal.

Fortunately, there are times when Quan’s actions speak more clearly than her words. Even after the policy disaster of the 100-blocks plan, she’s jumped back into the fray, supporting the city’s latest effort at violence prevention, Operation Ceasefire. And she is still out there, mixing it up and talking with people.

A few hours after our interview, I met up with Quan at a crime-reduction event in a park in East Oakland. After talking about taking back the parks, about the city’s push to renew its violence-prevention parcel tax, and about the plight of the homeless, she left me to go pose for pictures with young families, and to chat up the Oakland cops who’d brought food for the event, which was part of a program for which Quan and her staff had heroically scrounged up funds. Looking on, I wondered if Oakland would be better off with an articulate and straightforward mayor, or one with the tenacity to outlast whatever obstacles arise. Then I wondered why Oakland couldn’t have both.

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