June 20, 2014

We will almost certainly never be able to know exactly how much damage the recent West Oakland auto accident will do to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan’s chances for re-election. But whatever one thinks of Ms. Quan’s level of responsibility or irresponsibility in the accident, or how much importance one gives to this incident in the overall scheme of Oakland life, we can all agree that this minor, non-injury fender-bender has certainly done some political damage to the mayor already.        

In case you missed it—and goodness knows you really had to have been removed from the news and social media this month to have done so—the car Ms. Quan was driving was struck by another car in the intersection of 26th and Market on a Sunday evening a couple of weeks or so ago, an accident that may—or may not—have occurred while the mayor was doing something with her cellphone.

Witness accounts vary dramatically. At least one witness says Ms. Quan was most definitely not using her cellphone, and that the traffic light was yellow when the mayor entered the intersection. Several other witnesses contradicted that, saying that the mayor most definitely was using her cellphone, and that she ran through a red light before being struck by the other auto. For her part, Ms. Quan says she wasn’t “on the phone” just before the accident, and invited Oakland police to check her cellphone records to confirm.

It is generally against California law to use a telephone while driving, unless that phone is operating as a hands-free device. Although there is no evidence that Ms. Quan was doing so, the mayor would not have been breaking California law, however, had she been consulting a GPS map app on her cellphone while driving. A California Appeals Court ruled last February that this is an exception to the California driving-while-cellphoning law. [“Using Cellphone Map While Driving OK'd By California Court” San Jose Mercury News February 28, 2014]

Meanwhile, back to the mayor’s West Oakland accident: in Ms. Quan’s favor, there have been no published allegations from law enforcement officials or any of the various witnesses that she was speeding or driving erratically before the accident, or that she speeded up to try to beat the light, or that she was drug- or alcohol-impaired. And no pedestrians appear to have been involved.

Working against the mayor, on the other hand, is the fact that the West Oakland accident combines elements of two earlier auto-involved incidents by the mayor in which she has either admitted guilt or was issued a ticket. Only a few weeks ago, local news outlets published photographs showing Ms. Quan driving while holding and talking on her cellphone which, as we have said, is a violation of California law. Meanwhile, while reporting on the mayor’s West Oakland traffic accident, reporters uncovered the fact that Ms. Quan was ticketed for running a red light in Newark last February.

Thus even if the West Oakland accident was not the mayor’s fault, it has now become part of a storyline rather than an isolated incident, and it’s storylines, after all, that stick in voters’ minds. And the mayor’s electoral cause—as opposed to her legal cause—won’t be helped if the Oakland police choose not to issue a ticket to her for the West Oakland accident. Voters leaning against her would only dismiss that as a coverup, whether or not such a charge had any basis in fact.

Many Oakland voters will see the mayor’s distracted driving storyline as a distraction from the major issues of concern in Oakland of public safety and jobs and economic development. But rightly or wrongly, it will cost the mayor some unknown number of votes amongst currently undecided voters, something Ms. Quan cannot afford in such a tight mayoral race with so many formidable candidates running against her.

And it would get worse for Ms. Quan if she is involved in any more driving incidents. The mayor can't completely prevent that by driving more carefully, because she will suffer political damage if any new incidents occur, even if she is at fault. The only way for the mayor to prevent any new driving incidents to happen is to stop driving altogether.

This is not unfair to the mayor nor an admission of any guilt. In fact, it’s something Ms. Quan should have been doing all along. Clearly, there are better things the mayor can be doing with her—and our—time than trying to maneuver her way through Oakland’s complicated and stress-inducing traffic.        

This would not and should not require the hiring of additional city staff to chauffer Ms. Quan around. For official city activities, one of the mayor’s current staff members—or a staff member from the City Administrator’s office—could be assigned the job. That staff member could use the time while the mayor was at her destination to work on their regular duties by iPad or cellphone—the same thing the mayor could be doing while she is being driven—so with a little bit of planning and organization, no city work time would be lost.

Meanwhile, for campaign events, a campaign volunteer could be recruited to do the driving job.        

There’s nothing the mayor’s re-election campaign can do to contain the damage already done by the previous driving incidents, and she won’t make up any ground lost by the West Oakland accident or the two previous incidents, no matter what she does in the future. But freeing the mayor’s time up from driving would not only be the best way to contain the problem, it would be the best use of her time to conduct the important business of being the mayor of the City of Oakland. That won’t improve her electoral chances any. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good thing for the mayor to do.        

It’s just a suggestion, anyways.