Jean Quan Faces High Disapproval from Oaklanders

Oakland’s first Asian and female mayor Jean Quan has incurred the disapproval of a majority of Oakland residents during her two years in office, including two-thirds of Asian Americans, according to a recent KPIX5 poll.

Sixty percent of respondents disapprove of the way Quan is doing her job, according to a Survey USA poll of 500 Oakland residents conducted last week. An even larger 65% say the city is headed in the wrong direction.

Perhaps most surprising is the fact that the highest disapproval rating of 67% comes from Asian Americans who make up 17% Oakland residents.

Quan is continuing to wrestle with the problems stemming from Oakland’s high poverty and crime rates exacerbated by a tax base that collapsed during the 2008 financial crisis. To make the situation more precarious for the city, it was hit by the worst part of the crisis during the term of her predecessor Ron Dellums who is generally considered one of the least effective mayors during the first 158 years of Oakland’s often troubled history.

Since taking office on January 3, 2011 Quan’s biggest struggle has been trying to gain control of the city’s dysfunctional and understaffed police department which has been headed by a succession of police chiefs of questionable loyalty and effectiveness. As a result, many Oakland residents have come to feel that the city is unable to protect its citizens. By way of a direct slap at Quan, her Oakland neighbors each chipped in $800 a year to hire a private secrurity firm to patrol the neighborhood. Quan has pledged to grow the police department to 803 officers over the next five years. At the moment the force has dwindled down to about 625 officers due to attrition and difficulty recruiting applicants for its police academies.

Quan has only until next year to rebuild the police department and create a sense of security that has only existed sporadically in Oakland during the past half century. If she fails she is likely to be a one-term mayor despite her success in other areas, including a school system that has seen some marked improvement during her first two years. Even before taking office, Quan played a big role in upgrading the city’s school system during her two decades on the city’s school board. Her first stop on her inaugural walk on January 3, 2011 was Lincoln Elementary School on 11th Street which that year had become the first Oakland school to win the National Blue Ribbon award.

“My number one priority is to put the children at the heart of the politics in Oakland,” she said that day, reiterating the pledge that won her the mayor’s office.

As mayor Quan has been judged by the city’s struggle with the epic challenge of uniting its disparate economic strata and racial groups to believe in a city that has struggled to free itself of the poverty- and violence-ridden image it took on during the 1960s and early ’70s. The city’s racial composition is 31% African American, 27% White, 25% Hispanic and 17% Asian American. A yawning gulf separates white and Asian professionals who tend to live in the Hills and commute to San Francisco from African American and Hispanic blue-collar workers who tend to live in the flats and labor at the Port. That gulf has only widened in recent years.

But there is also room for optimism. The city gained 5,000 new jobs during 2012. Despite the loss of some federal funding, the city was able to avoid layoffs for the first time since the financial collapse of 2008. Quan is now able to work with a city council that’s largely supportive of the goals she has enunciated during the past year, including opening a second police academy to produce officers at a faster rate.

Jean Quan was born on October 21, 1949 in Livermore, some 25 miles east of Oakland. She was only five when her father died, leaving her to help make ends meet by working a variety of part-time jobs while attending junior high and Livemore’s Granada High School. Their plight was made more difficult by the fact that her mother was a recent Chinese immigrant with virtually no English skills. Quan did well enough at Granada High to win a scholarship to UC Berkeley.

Quan’s social activism began at Berkeley where she tutored kids in impoverished West Oakland. She also helped reshape the curricula of universities across America by participating in the Third World Strike of 1969. As a direct result of that strike UC Berkeley and hundreds of campuses around the nation established ethnic studies departments to raise awareness of social issues pertaining to African Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans and Asian Americans.

Quan’s public service began officially in 1990 when she won a seat on the Oakland School Board. In 2002 she was elected to represent District 4 on the Oakland City Council. In the 2010 general election Jean Quan employed an intensively grassroots campaign to narrowly defeat former state senator Don Perata under the city’s unusual new ballot system that lets voters indicate first, second and third choices for mayor. Out of a field of 10 candidates Quan, Don Perata and Rebecca Kaplan were the top 3. Perata led Quan 40,342 to 29,266 in the initial tally but lacked a majority of first-place votes. According to protocol the votes were re-tallied after allocating the votes of third-place Kaplan to Perata and Quan. The resulting tally gave Quan the victory by 51% to 49%.

Jean Quan is married to Floyd Huen whom she met while both were attending UC Berkeley. Huen was president of the Chinese Students Association on campus. He was also active in the Third World Strike. More recently, Huen, a doctor, served as physician for the 1999 UC Berkeley hunger strikers who successfully won their demand for a stronger Ethnic Studies department. The couple have two children.