November 2, 2011

Somewhere floating around there may be a credible case for recalling Jean Quan from her job as mayor of the city of Oakland, but I ain’t seen it yet.

In case you missed the news, after petition-gatherers turned in a sufficient number of recall signatures last week, the City of Oakland authorized a recall petition campaign to try to oust the recently-elected mayor. Recall Quan campaign organizers and supporters now have 160 days to collect close to 20,000 additional signatures on their petitions. If they are able to do so, there will be a recall election next year, where all Oakland voters would get the chance to decide if Ms. Quan will continue as mayor or a new mayor will take her place.

Who is behind this move to get rid of Ms. Quan?

Well, that’s something of a puzzlement. No organizations appear to be publicly claiming credit for the effort, so far.

The Oakland Tribune lists one of my very good friends, longtime Oakland political activist Gene Hazzard, as the main organizer of the effort, reporting him as being affiliated with the Oakland Black Caucus. Mr. Hazzard is, indeed, a Black Caucus member, but the Black Caucus itself immediately issued a formal statement stating that they are not behind the recall effort, have not taken a position on the recall of Ms. Quan, and don’t intend to take a position.

Then who’s driving this train?

The impetus of the recall effort initially appeared to come from the struggle over Ms. Quan’s failure to reappoint West Oakland environmental activist Margaret Gordon to the Oakland Port Commission. But if the West Oakland-based progressive-environmental coalition that fought for Margaret Gorton is indeed one of the major forces behind the Quan recall, it would seems odd that there is no mention of that particular issue on the official petitions saying why petitioners think the mayor should be recalled.

Instead, the Notice Of Intent To Circulate Recall Petition filed with the city gives two broad reasons why recall organizers believe Quan should be put out of the mayor’s office.

The first, petition organizers say, is that “Mayor Quan … has willfully ignored the City’s most pressing issue: public safety.” The second is that the mayor “is squandering an opportunity to shape the largest development project in Oakland’s history—the Oakland Army Base.”

The first point—that Ms. Quan is ignoring Oakland’s public safety problem—is clearly way-over-the-top hyperbole. While one might make a case that Ms. Quan has not done enough to solve Oakland’s public safety crisis, or that one thinks she’s been doing the wrong things, it’s simply untrue to say that she’s completely ignoring the problem.

As for the Oakland Army Base development, that hasn’t been on the public radar in months, so it’s difficult to know if there’s anything that’s in front of the mayor right now that she’s supposed to be doing.

Recall elections are probably the most powerful weapon in the voters’ arsenal, and should properly only used in the most extreme of circumstances. If Ms. Quan, indeed, was “willfully ignoring” Oakland’s public safety problems, that would certainly qualify as enough to justify considering a recall. Since she isn’t willfully ignoring the problem, at least in my opinion, there is a case to be made that the mayor should be doing more things or different things or more things differently, but not that she should be immediately tossed out of office.

That leaves two possible motivations that may be driving the get-rid-of-Quan movement that aren’t showing up in the official reasons on the petitions themselves.

The first is that in her first eight months in office, Ms. Quan has managed to make herself very unpopular among Oakland voters. A late October KPIX-TV-sponsored telephone survey of Oakland adults found that 64% disapproved and only 20% approved of the way the mayor was handling her job. Ominously for Ms. Quan, the disaffection with her administration tracked almost equally bad over all age groups, political affiliations, and races and ethnicities in the city. Even where Ms. Quan would be expected to do her best and did her best, among Asian-Americans and self-described “liberals,” her disapproval rating was more than 50%.

While one should never take opinion polls as absolute gospel, especially ones done in isolation without confirmation from other samplings, findings this dismal would seem to have at least some element of truth to them, and therefore shouldn’t be dismissed out-of-hand.

What would drive Ms. Quan’s opinion polls down so badly?

One big reason may be the timing of the poll. The telephone sampling was taken in the immediate wake of the Oakland Police early morning raid that removed the Occupy Oakland protesters from their encampment in front of Oakland City Hall, an action in which—rightly or wrongly—Ms. Quan has gotten as much of the blame as the police. Of the 80% of the KPIX poll respondents who said they’d heard about the Tuesday night police raid, 72% said they “disapprove[d] of the way Jean Quan has handled the protesters,” while 56% said they thought the police response to the protesters has been “too harsh.”

Another reason for Ms. Quan’s bad polling almost certainly has been the lingering effects of the resignation of Anthony Batts as Chief of the Oakland Police. Many Oakland residents believe that Ms. Quan was primarily responsible for driving Mr. Batts out of town (I’m not one of those who believes that, but that’s a subject for another day).

Another factor that almost certainly is driving the recall Quan movement is the fact that there are many in Oakland who believe that her election as mayor was illegitimate in the first place. This position was first begun immediately after last year’s elections by the campaign of former State Senator Don Perata, who lost to Ms. Quan in the November race after many people thought he was a shoo-in to win. Mr. Perata and his close associates immediately claimed that some sort of improprieties or confusion surrounding the city’s new ranked-choice voting system robbed Mr. Perata of a victory that was “legitimately” his, and many of his supporters almost certainly still believe so.

People who believe they have been robbed are almost always the first in line to try to get what they believe is their “rightful” property back.

And that’s what worries me most of all about a possible recall Mayor Quan election in Oakland. Regardless of who started the recall movement or why, the most likely result if Ms. Quan is actually recalled out of office is that she would be replaced by Mr. Perata—if he chooses to run in the recall election—or by someone who Mr. Perata and his wealthy financiers choose to support, if he doesn’t run himself. A majority of Oakland citizens—including some who now sit in the recall-Quan camp—worked very hard last year to keep Mr. Perata out of the Oakland mayor’s seat. It would be more than a shame if this whole recall thing allows the Perata forces to immediately overturn the results of that election and come into Oakland City Hall by the back door.