By Alex Emslie
Seven of them sat shoulder to shoulder at a forum in West Oakland Thursday night and pitched their platforms for the future of the city while the state’s two gubernatorial candidates duked it out in Sacramento.
The candidates responded to questions on a range of topics — including public safety, civil rights, race, education and the city’s economy.
“I’ve been very proud to be the first woman and the first Asian-American mayor of Oakland,” incumbent candidate Jean Quan said in her opening statement. “I came in at a really tough time, and most of you know that we were tens of millions of dollars in debt.”
Quan said she had successfully moved development in the city, citing a project at the old Oakland Army Base and a plan to build 10,000 new homes, one-quarter that will be below market rate, she said.
Quan is quick to point out, though, that she’s often the subject of criticism. City Auditor Courtney Ruby was quick to oblige.
“We have the best city in the Bay Area, but we have the worst city government,” Ruby said. “Our leaders, they’re certainly entitled to their own opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own facts. And they have relied on their own facts and their own numbers that aren’t based in reality.”
Oakland’s crime rate and police department often dominate the city’s politics. Just last month Oakland won a $2 million grant for having the highest rate in three violent crime categories in the state. The city is struggling to hire more police to make up for a steep decline in ranks after dropping about 200 officers since 2009.
“We do need better policing, not just more police,” City Councilwoman Libby Schaaf said. “It’s intervention, prevention and root causes.”
The department also has yet to satisfy a negotiated settlement agreement that has kept it scrutinized under federal monitoring for over a decade.
“It’s a disgrace to me that Oakland is the only city in the United States that’s been under federal court oversight for 12 years,” civil rights attorney Dan Siegel said. “We have to turn that around.”
Quan said that, despite challenges, public safety has improved on her watch.
“I’m really proud that in the last 15, almost 16 months now, an Oakland officer hasn’t even pulled a gun to shoot at anybody,” she said.
She added there hadn’t been a murder in Oakland in over a month, something that hasn’t happened in 15 years.
The candidates responded to a question about military equipment transferred to the police department and Urban Shield, a regional emergency response exercise in Oakland this weekend.
San Francisco State University law professor Joe Tuman said the “optics” of the exercises look bad, but he wants to better define “militarization” before condemning equipment the department may need. He said police officers could face suspects with automatic rifles and armor piercing bullets.
“Are they supposed to take a service revolver into that situation?” Tuman asked. “Is it taking military weapons if that’s what they need to defend themselves in that situation? I think we’re oversimplifying if we say you can never have those sorts of things.”
City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan said she was against the Urban Shield exercises coming to Oakland.
She said Oakland police had used weapons during Occupy protests that were supposedly banned for use in crowd control in the city 10 years ago, such as tear gas canisters fired from grenade launchers.
“Under my administration, we would not hand the police the weapons they’re not allowed to use and then be shocked when they use what we’ve handed them,” she said.
Racial and Economic Inequality
More than a quarter of Oakland residents identified as Hispanic or Latino in the 2010 census, and 28 percent identified as African-American. According to data released by the U.S. Census in 2011, 28 percent of Oakland children live in poverty.
“This city is divided. It is full of unequal opportunities,” said Bryan Parker, an Oakland port commissioner and private sector executive, “This condition has led to deep-seated hopelessness in some of our communities. It’s poverty, and we shouldn’t be surprised that we have higher incidents of crime in these areas. And City Hall is not getting it done.”
Parker’s platform includes leveraging Oakland’s port for job creation and expanding health care and technology sector jobs.
Siegel said he’d immediately introduce a measure to raise Oakland’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. His second priority, he said, is creating universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in Oakland.
“That is the best way to level the playing field between children from low-income families and children from affluent families,” Siegel said. “Unless we can increase the graduation rate above 50 percent, which is what the number is for African-American and Latino children in Oakland, we’re going to continue to have these problems, no matter how many people we put in jail.”
Listen to the entire forum below. The audio has been slightly edited for time. Check back for more information on additional Oakland mayoral candidates.