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California

Stephen Schwartz
Quan Agonistes
Oakland’s mayor is in deep trouble of her own making.
11 January 2012

Jean Quan, the ideologically leftist Democratic mayor of Oakland, California, has presided over her city in a manner both inept and irresolute. She let herself be badgered and manipulated by the neo-Trotskyists and would-be anarchists who march under the Occupy Oakland banner, vacillating between appeasing the demonstrators and arresting them. Quan’s wildly shifting posture has angered almost everyone and satisfied virtually no one. Now, the community-activist-turned-mayor faces at least two campaigns to recall her from office.

The recall, of course, is a firmly established institution in the Golden State. But while recall petitions may be commonplace, successful recall elections are rare. California’s recall of Governor Gray Davis in 2003 was national news not just because Arnold Schwarzenegger assumed Davis’s place, but also because it was the first time since the Progressive Era reform went into effect in 1913 that the state’s voters actually kicked out a sitting governor.

Public animus against Quan doesn’t bode well for her political survival. Gene Hazzard, a photographer for the Oakland Post, a black community newspaper, launched the first recall campaign on December 7. Hazzard’s effort focuses on Quan’s failure to improve public safety and attract new business investment to the city. His supporters are aggressively canvassing neighborhoods with petitions. Hazzard’s recall drive has support from the Committee to Recall Jean Quan and Restore Oakland, which originally intended to launch its own campaign. “Right now, there is one petition out there,” commented Charlie Pine, a retired economic analyst and “Recall and Restore” spokesperson.

A second recall campaign is seeking certification, however. Its chief backer is entrepreneur Greg Harland, who lost decisively to Quan in the 2010 mayoral election. (He finished eighth in a field of ten candidates, earning just 0.9 percent of the vote.) Oakland uses a “ranked-choice” voting system, in which voters select their first, second, and third choices for office. The idea is to minimize runoffs, but the system has other strange effects—such as propelling laggards like Quan into office. Quan won only 24.7 percent of the first-choice ballots, but because of the quirks of ranked-choice voting, she beat former state senator Don Perata, who had 34.39 percent of first-choice votes. Quan won because a much larger percentage of voters for liberal activist and city council member-at-large Rebecca Kaplan picked Quan second over Perata.

Though only in their infancy, the recall campaigns have already drawn opposition. Representatives of the Alameda County Labor Council last month condemned the petition drive. Labor Council executive secretary-treasurer Josie Camacho said: “This lady has been in office less than a year; we need to give her some slack.” But the recall campaign against Quan doesn’t have much to do with her lack of on-the-job experience or the long-standing, ongoing social pathologies that bedevil Oakland. It will almost exclusively be a referendum on the mayor’s abysmal response to the Occupy Oakland tumult.

Quan has been worse than useless in dealing with Occupy Oakland, arguably the most radical and disruptive among the dozens of demonstrations and tent cities that have sprung up around the U.S. since September. Sure, Occupy Wall Street shut down the Brooklyn Bridge for a few hours one day and caused endless traffic snarls around Lower Manhattan. But in addition to trashing swaths of downtown in October and November, Occupy Oakland blockaded the fifth-largest port in the United States not once, but twice. Quan’s personal and political confusion was never more evident than in her posturing on the port disruption.

During the first port shutdown, advertised as a “general strike” on November 2, Quan promised to protect Oakland’s business community. But businesses—even those with signs expressing solidarity with the “99 percent”—suffered widespread vandalism and theft. (Incidentally, Quan’s husband, Floyd Huen, and her daughter, Lailan Huen, both participated in the demonstration that shut down the port.) A smaller group carried out the second port shutdown on December 12 and 13. Oakland police said that the November blockade drew 7,000 protesters, while Occupy supporters claimed 100,000 people turned out. Though it was part of a much larger effort to stop port operations along the West Coast—from Anchorage to San Diego—the December disruption, by contrast, drew no more than 3,000 participants, according to a media estimate. Aside from the costly cancellation of a night shift at two marine terminals in Oakland, the second port “strike” succeeded only in closing down cargo operations briefly in Portland, Oregon, and at the small port of Longview, Washington, where the local International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is mired in a jurisdictional fight with another union. Police skirmished with protestors in Seattle, Long Beach, and San Diego, but otherwise it was business as usual.

After Occupy’s second port incursion, however, Quan seemed to flail in all directions. She condemned the interlopers as “a small group of people” determined to “hold hostage this port, this city, this economy.” True as far as it goes, but Quan then told the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board late last month that the city could not guarantee against future disruptions. The mayor said that she would deploy 500 police to stop another Occupy intrusion—but then said she’d charge the Port Authority $1.5 million for the service. Port representatives said they were unaware of such a proposal and opposed paying for city police. “Keeping the port open and operational is how we’re going to sustain jobs for the region,” said Isaac Kos-Read, a port spokesman.

Quan betrayed her incompetence and weakness further when she admitted to the Chronicle’s editors that city officials were overwhelmed by the second blockade. She said that they had expected only 300 Occupy participants to appear and were surprised when—in her estimate—1,200 showed up. Quan also claimed that the ILWU supported Occupy Oakland’s attempt to disrupt port operations—and that it would halt work and call a mediator if even a single protestor on a bicycle appeared at the port gate. This was a complete fabrication. Robert McEllrath, ILWU’s international president, warned in a December 6 letter to union locals: “None of this [port disruption] is sanctioned by the membership of the ILWU or informed by the local and international leadership. . . . Simply put, there has been no communication with the leadership and no vote within the ILWU ranks on . . . Occupy actions.”

Further undermining Quan’s shaky claims of authority, the Chronicle reported that Oakland police said they were ordered not to prevent the December Occupy obstruction, which cost the port facility between $4 million and $8 million. And the newspaper added that “major retailers, including Target, Walgreens, J.C. Penney and Crate & Barrel, are threatening to pull out of the Oakland port and move business to the Port of Los Angeles.” Asked if she was concerned that major businesses would desert Oakland in the face of Occupy’s campaign of chaos, Quan replied nonchalantly: “Are businesses threatening to leave? Maybe.”

Regardless how the competing recall efforts sort themselves out, proponents must submit 19,811 valid signatures—that’s 10 percent of Oakland’s registered voters—by May 14. Jean Quan’s fecklessness, in a period of economic distress, appears to have made her removal from the mayor’s office more likely than not. This time she won’t be able to depend on ranked-choice voting to skew the outcome. If the recall makes the ballot, it will be strictly “Yes” or “No” for Jean Quan—no waffling allowed.

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