February 4, 2014

From time to time, for some peculiar reason I can’t quite figure out, friends ask me to publicly declare who I’m supporting for office in a particular election. I always respectfully decline.   

I stopped doing endorsements some years ago when it became clear to me that voters had adopted the peculiar but predictable habit of voting exactly the opposite way I suggested. Once back in South Carolina, a candidate for the state legislature asked for my endorsement. I declined, and he easily won. Two years later, I endorsed him for re-election, and he lost. It was then that the thought began to occur that perhaps I was not so much a bad judge of electoral outcomes as I was the cause, in a negative way.

So despite the fact I enjoyed a little bit of success in Oakland’s last mayoral election giving a recommendation as to who folks should vote against, I think I’m going to continue pass on any requests this time around to tell people who I’m voting for for mayor. The candidates all deserve a fair chance, and I don’t want to be the one to jinx anybody.

On the other hand, I don’t think it will hurt anyone to share some thoughts on how I believe the decision to support an Oakland mayoral candidate might be made.

If you wanted to take one issue on which to judge those candidates, crime and violence wouldn’t be a bad choice, since it intersects many other issues—economic development, social policy, youth policy, race, neighborhood parity, and so forth—that are of importance to our city.

The folks at the San Francisco Chronicle  would seem to agree. The newspaper recently published an article late last month by reporter Will Kane on the subject, “Oakland Mayor Jean Quan’s Re-election Hinges On Crime” [January 31, 2014].

Mr. Kane starts off on the right track on the subject. However, as sometimes happens when the folks in San Francisco try to figure out our strange, foreign city far across the bay waters from them, while, the reporter doesn’t go quite far enough in his assessment and assertions, and then stumbles a bit before he gets to the end.

In his article, Mr. Kane tells us that “experts” are telling him that Mayor Quan “must convince voters…that she is a competent leader who is doing something about the crime problem if she is to win re-election.”

There are a couple of things wrong with that sentence, the first thing being that it seems to limit that necessity to the incumbent mayor. Although the article was focused on Ms. Quan, I think that particular importuntion should have been widened to include all of the candidates.

To date, there are four major candidates running to deny Ms. Quan a second term: Port of Oakland Commissioner and business executive Bryan Parker, former Oakland School Board member and former Quan advisor and longtime attorney Dan Siegel, business owner and political commentator and 2010 mayoral candidate Joe Tuman, and former political aide and now Oakland City Councilmember Libby Schaaf. To those four, just for the sake of this discussion, let me add a fifth possible: Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. While Ms. Kaplan has not indicated any plans to run in the 2014 mayoral election, until the filing date is reached and she has not filed her papers with the city, you cannot assume that she won’t.

Anyways, both Ms. Schaaf and Ms. Kaplan have taken votes on various crime, violence, and police issues during their respective years on Council, and from that you might be able to get some idea of their priorities and in what general direction they might point. But while I would never downplay the importance of the City Council setting city policy and priorities, there is an enormous difference between votes on individual laws and Council items and the development, implementation, and overseeing of an overall citywide crime and violence program for which one is held individually responsible. So far, Ms. Schaaf and Ms. Kaplan have not had the benefit of that experience, and so we cannot say for certain what they actually would do if we give them the opportunity.

The same holds true for the other three candidates.

While we do have the benefit of Mr. Siegel’s long history of action and activism to judge him on and Mr. Tuman’s positions and statements taken from the 2010 election, Mr. Parker’s views on the subject are still somewhat unknown. I don’t see this as a negative, only that in the absence of actually running a city’s anti-crime and anti-violence program themselves, Mr. Siegel, Mr. Tuman, and Mr. Parker must join Ms. Schaaf and Ms. Kaplan—as well as Ms. Quan, the second time around—to let us know how they would handle the job.

But let us know in what way?

That brings us to the second—and certainly the more important—part of the “she must convince voters” statement in Mr. Kane’s article. That’s the part where the experts the reporter has consulted tell us that what the mayor (and for our purposes, the mayoral candidates) must convince us of is that she is (and they are) “doing something about the crime problem.”

I’ve got problems with that “something” part, and that is confirmed when you get down to the “somethings” that Mr. Kane’s experts believe the mayor (and for our purposes, the other candidates) should be doing.

Ms. Quan should “firmly and confidently lead,” Mr. Kane’s experts say in the Chronicle article, which they say, among things, means “participat[ing] in conversations about crime policy in the mayor’s office that project consistency and credibilty” and “be[ing] seen as consistently having the same priorities and talking about the same steps to take and the same kind of coordination” and “look[ing] like she’s competent.”

This is absolute mush, and it would lead to such mushy, election-year actions as Ms. Quan recently participated in by handing out automobile steering wheel locks to selected Oakland residents. This is where I join with my conservative friends in one of their most vocal opinions about government; there are some things the government ought not to be doing for us that we ought to be doing for ourselves. I want my city government to help prevent my car from being stolen and, in the alternative, to catch the thieves and recover my property if my car is taken. I can buy my own steering wheel lock.

Meanwhile, the absolute one thing at least one of Mr. Kane’s experts said Ms. Quan should not be doing is introducing any new plans to deal with Oakland’s problem of crime and violence. The Oakland Mayor “needs a brand-new crime plan right now like General Custer needed more Native Americans,” UC Berkeley School of Law professor Franklin Zimring was quoted as saying.

Let’s leave aside the offensiveness of the example (really, couldn’t a UC Berkeley law professor have something better on hand to compare with than Sioux warriors storming up a greasy-grass hill to the slaughter of U.S. Cavalry troops?). On the main point Mr. Zimring was making, I could not disagree more.

In fact, the one thing I require seeing both from Ms. Quan and from anyone challenging her in the upcoming Oakland mayoral election is a brand-new crime and violence analysis and plan, one that takes advantage of the experiences we’ve had in the past but moves forward from where we are now. And by a crime and violence analysis and plan, I’m not talking about the kind of plan recently commissioned by the City of Oakland and produced by now-New York Police Chief William Bratton, which took the police department and police and its needs and responsibilities as its focus. While the police certainly have to be a large portion of the discussion, what is needed is to take a step back and produce something far more fundamental than that.

So what is needed?

Although the answers will be tremendously complicated, the questions that need to be answered by candidates for Mayor of Oakland in 2014 are actually quite simple.

A solution should never precede an understanding of the problem. So first, all of the candidates should give us their analysis of how Oakland became such a violent city, and why has it remained persistently and consistently violent over such a long period of time.

Once that’s done, a plan for solution is in order.

Therefore second, the candidates should provide us with a specific plan on how they propose to use the office of mayor of Oakland to bring down that level of violence and the criminal activity associated with it, including measurable benchmarks and expectations so that the public can determine if those goals are being reached.

It’s possible that at the present time, one or more of the candidates might not know the reasons for Oakland’s long and persistent epidemic of violence. If that’s the case, I want them to be honest about it. Say they don’t know, but give us a plan for how they intend to find out.

That seems enough for now, since I’ve probably overstayed my time and many readers’ patience, and what I’ve asked for will take a bit of doing for the candidates to digest and then put together and carry out. But this is an important issue—perhaps the most important issue in Oakland today—we ought certainly to follow up and discuss it in more detail as the campaign for Oakland mayor continues.

That’s my plan, anyways.