March 4 , 2014

A campaign for re-election has not really begun until the incumbent begins a series of election-year “official” community meetings with the explicit purpose of telling constiuents—in case we haven’t already gotten the word—how much the officeholder has done for us during this term. The implicit purpose—not normally said out loud in these “official” meetings but widely understood—is that we constituents would be best served by going to the polls at the next election and voting in the incumbent for another term so that they can continue to do these good things for us.

And so we that Oakland Mayor Jean Quan has begun a series of five “Public Safety Town Hall Meetings” throughout the city this winter and spring to, as she writes to her email list, “get feedback on the changes to date [in Oakland public safety activities and policies] and to improve community collaboration.” The first meeting was held a weekend or so ago at McClymonds High. Others are scheduled for Castlemont High (March 15), Fremont High (April 5), the North Oakland Senior Center (April 19), and Bret Harte Middle School (May 10).

Some time ago, with the passage of former Mayor Jerry Brown’s strong mayor initiative, Oakland voters mandated regular, citywide town hall meetings by our mayors, but don’t be fooled by that. Ms. Quan’s round of “Public Safety Town Hall Meetings” this winter and spring is part of her re-election campaign, pure and simple.

For my part, I’m neither surprised nor disturbed by that. It is simply a fact of political life that most public initiatives put together in an election year by public officeholders running for re-election are done primarily with that re-election campaign in mind. Since the alternative seems to be a system in which voters don’t select our city leaders and, therefore, our city leaders feel no need to check in with us at all, I’ll take the system we have, imperfect as it is.

However, while one can hope for the best, there’s a great danger that Ms. Quan’s new round of Town Hall meetings will fall into a depressing and familiar pattern. City officials—led by Ms. Quan—will present the list of public safety programs and initiatives put forth by the administration, followed by a barrage of statistics showing arrests have gone up and crime has gone down. Residents will counter with tales of shootings and burglaries and muggings auto break-ins in their neighborhoods, and declarations that statistics and programs be damned, they flat-out don’t feel safe in their communities. The town hall discussions would likely then continue like that at cross-purpose, and another opportunity to sort out the problem and come up with a workable solution will have been lost.

As a starter, Ms. Quan might do well to provide the answer President Kennedy once gave to White House reporter Helen Thomas. Asked by Ms. Thomas—at a time when there were few women in top positions of American government service at any level—what steps the President had taken to bring women officers into has administration, Mr. Kennedy replied with a sheepish smile, “I don’t have the exact figures on hand, but I’m sure that whatever the number is, you’ll probably tell me it’s not nearly enough.”

Although we always like to know what our mayors are doing and has done, and our mayors are equally eager to provide an answer, I hope that isn’t the beginning and the end of the campaign. For my part, in order to make my own personal choice for who will be the next mayor, I’m more interested in finding out if the current mayor—or anyone with ambitions to succeed her—has an idea about how Oakland’s public safety problem came to be and, therefore, how we might eventually solve it.

Oakland’s current crisis of public safety and violence is both years in the making and now deeply ingrained in the body of the city, and there’s no magic pill to take or program to adopt that’s going to expel it out of us in some short space of time. For that reason, I’m tired of hearing officeholders and the wannabes trailing behind them fiddle around with crime statistic numbers or police recruitment numbers or the latest violence prevention initiative from out of Chicago or New York or the results of another ambitious study.

The root and original causes of Oakland’s crime and violence problems have long ago been overtaken and overshadowed by what currently drives much of the crisis now: fear. Fear by too many of the young people on the street that if they don’t “man up” and show toughness themselves and hit first, they will be thought “soft” and therefore become targets to be hit themselves. Fear by too many residents not involved in the game that they or their loved ones will become victims of muggers or burglars or worse. That fear is irrational, and not easily dissipated by argument, or reason, or—in the case of the crime perpetrators—by threats or the reality of incarceration. Even as the city attacks the other causes of crime and violence, we must also attack its effects or, like any other disease, it will rebound and resist eradication because all of its manifestations have not been rooted out.

For the next mayor of Oakland, I want to have someone who demonstrates that she—or he—understands those basic facts and, further, can present the public with some sort of detailed, achievable plan of the next steps needed to be taken to address it. And if they don’t know, they better ask somebody.

The upcoming and remaining Public Safety Town Hall Meetings can be a way for Ms. Quan to demonstrate that she understands this need. The mayoral debates that will be coming up later in the year—as well as various neighborhood meetings and campaign events—will be opportunities for Ms. Quan’s many challengers to do so as well. Let’s hope—for Oakland’s sake—for our sake—that the opportunity is seized. Let’s demand it, in fact.