So. Like I said in my post about why I can’t vote for Jean Quan, it took me a long time to come to a decision about who I was going to support for Mayor. And much of the reason that it took me so long was because I was trying my absolute hardest to find a way to reconcile my desire to support Rebecca Kaplan for her energy and ideas with my nagging fear that she just does not possess the management and leadership skills to handle the job. I tried and I tried and I tried. In the end, I just couldn’t find a way to do it.
A breath of fresh air
It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to Rebecca Kaplan as a breath of fresh air on the City Council. And that is true. She is wicked smart and has a genuine interest in the nuances of policy, which is a surprisingly rare thing to find in politicians. She always seems so excited about the many possibilities for finding new ways to do things, and she isn’t all hung up on tired battles from like 10 years ago. It is so refreshing.
Late last year, somebody mentioned to me, kind of offhand, about the possibility of Rebecca Kaplan running for Mayor. I thought that it was kind of weird, since I remembered her being questioned about it at a candidate forum during her City Council campaign 2 years ago, and she had been so insistent that she had absolutely no interest in being Mayor, because she was so passionate about legislative work and didn’t want to do anything else. But I thought, hey, people change their minds, and because I had been so impressed with how she had been such a welcome voice of reason on the City Council, I decided I was pretty into the idea. I even e-mailed her to say that I really hoped she would run.
And when I would tell people that I was hoping she would run, they would always ask me things like “Well, do you think she’s ready? She has no experience. Aren’t you concerned about that?” And I would be just be like “But she’s so smart! How hard can it be?”
And, as silly as it seems in retrospect, that was totally my attitude. I loved the idea of instead of Oakland having a Mayor who was not yet another politician coming back to Oakland at the end of their career, and instead was someone young and full of energy. I would look at cities like Portland and Newark, with their smart, forward-thinking, young Mayors, and dream about how great it would be if Oakland could have that too.
I mean, who wouldn’t want that for Oakland? I had this image in my head where, with our very own young gay bicycle pot Mayor, news articles about Oakland wouldn’t be only about crime anymore. They would be about how the City is turning around, and how our fresh new leader is a symbol of all that. And when people from other places thought about Oakland, they would think of bicycles and fun instead of murders.
And when you’re just thinking about how much you want your own version of Sam Adams or Cory Booker, well, it’s really easy to project that onto Rebecca Kaplan. Because, you know, she’s super smart. And she speaks so well, and she’s so charismatic. And she’s such a relentless cheerleader for Oakland, and she agrees with you on all the ways that the City is stupid. It’s really appealing.
Reconsidering my decision
But then, as time went by, and winter turned into spring, and as it became more and more clear that she was going to run, I started having some serious second thoughts. It’s amazing how much your impression of someone can change once you start looking them through a different lens.
When you’re watching one of eight Councilmembers, it’s so exciting to have someone up there saying all these things you agree with, even if nothing ever comes of it. You know, speaking truth to power and all that.
But then, when you’re trying to imagine this person actually running the City, the standards become very different. Oakland is seriously bad shape right now, and fixing it is going to require real leadership. When you’re in charge, it’s no longer enough to just say the right things. You have to actually make things happen. You have to be willing to make difficult and unpopular decisions. You have to be able to build coalitions. You have to be willing and able to craft compromises that, while not perfect, can satisfy enough people that you have five votes to pass them. It feels great to get to say that you voted no on something unpopular. But if you can’t get four other people on your side, then all you have to go home to is an inflated sense of self-satisfaction.
Here’s one example. Last winter, during one of the many budget cutting meetings we’ve had to endure over the last two years, one of the things that came up for cuts was more cuts in the IT department. And when Rebecca Kaplan voted against cutting those positions that provide IT support for the public internet computers at the library, I totally cheered. It was great to have her up there talking about how it’s so wrong to cut IT. But the thing is — she didn’t offer an alternative. And so the IT staff was cut. And now the public internet computers are broken all the time. So at the end of the day, what was the point?
And that really gets to the heart of why I just can’t support Rebecca Kaplan for Mayor. She’s great at saying all the right things. But when it comes time for action, she just can’t seem to get the job done.
An underwhelming record
Rebecca Kaplan has done some very laudable things since joining the City Council. She deserves credit for taking the initiative to rescind Oakland’s century-old “immoral dress” ordinance, as well as partnering with Nancy Nadel to reform Oakland’s outdated cabaret regulations. Both of these achievements represent needed progress in Oakland, and I do not want to minimize their importance.
However. They are also both issues on which there is broad agreement. When it comes to topics that are more divisive, Rebecca Kaplan has not been able to demonstrate an ability to push through reforms. The condo conversion proposal she and Councilmember Pat Kernighan submitted last November was a good idea, and would have generated some much welcome cash for the City. But it went nowhere. When the Airport Connector made it to the City Council, Kaplan was just not able to persuade her colleagues that the project was bad for Oakland, even with all the facts on her side. Her work with Councilmember Larry Reid to pass a vacant building registration ordinance seemed very promising at the time, but now that the ordinance has been in place for a while, it has turned out to be kind of a failure and to not have much of an impact, either in terms of reducing blight or generating revenue.
When it comes to the achievements she does point to, there are some legitimate questions to be asked about their veracity. At every candidate forum I’ve watched, she has boasted about how she removed conditional use permit (CUP) requirements in the new downtown zoning, to make it easier to open small businesses like bakeries and bicycle shops. But when you look at the actual text of the zoning, there is no change in the permitted and conditionally permitted activities between a draft from August 2008 (PDF) and the final version adopted by the Council (PDF). So while I’m very glad those CUPs aren’t in there anymore, I have a hard time figuring out what she had to do with it, since they weren’t in there before she was on the Council either. She often talks about how she’s responsible for creating Transbay bus service after BART stops running, but as I noted back in 2008, there already were all-night Transbay buses. I know because I used to take them home every night after I got off work at 2 AM. Her work did make the service more convenient. But I think there’s a really big difference between creating new service, as she claims and improving something that already existed.
Failure to Lead
So all these things worried me. But I so wanted that fresh, exciting Mayor, and I agreed so much with Rebecca Kaplan’s positions on issues like transit and technology and the like that I just kept trying to push all these nagging fears to the back of my head.
And then there was that liquor store. You know, I don’t expect to agree with every vote of anyone. That’s just not a realistic standard to hold people to. So although I disagreed with Rebecca Kaplan’s vote to allow new alcohol sales in North Oakland over the vociferous opposition of the neighborhood, I wasn’t going to change my mind about supporting her because of it.
But what I do expect, and I think that it is a more than reasonable thing to ask, is that when politicians take a position on controversial items, they offer a justification of their reasoning to the public. There was a tremendous amount of impassioned public testimony at hearing after hearing on this item. And when you are going to sit and listen to all of that and then vote the other way, you owe those people an explanation of why you think you know better than what they said. And Rebecca Kaplan didn’t do that. Instead, we just got some weird rambling apology about procedure. That was a real problem for me, and is not the type of behavior one expects from a leader.
And then the same thing happened with the Merritt Bakery. Now, this one bothers me more. I could see both sides of the liquor store issue, but it is just impossible for me to see the justification of voting in favor of giving a $150,000 loan to a business that was clearly not exercising any kind of financial controls (PDF). Kaplan’s comments about how people want to buy juice while they’re running around the Lake just didn’t do it for me. And that’s when I really started thinking that maybe this whole Kaplan for Mayor thing really was a huge mistake.
But I felt like it was too late too change my mind. I was already doing some volunteering for her campaign, and I felt awful about the idea of going back on that commitment. And then the budget happened.
You know, I could write a whole long post just about this issue, but I don’t think my typical long-windedness is necessary here. If you’re going to vote against the budget, you have to offer an alternative.
This summer’s budget decision, and the question of whether to lay off police officers was hard and unpleasant. And nobody wanted to do it. But someone had to balance the budget, and it wasn’t going to be easy, and whichever five people willing to put up the votes for it was inevitably going to take a ton of heat.
But making unpopular decisions when there are no good options in front of you and then living with the consequences is part of being a leader. Whoever is Mayor is going to have to do that over and over and over again in the next four years. And Rebecca Kaplan took the easy way out. She had an opportunity to show that she had a better way to handle this, to prove wrong that all those people who said she wasn’t ready or was too inexperienced, and she blew it. That was pretty much the end of it for me.
The last straw
Any lingering doubts I had about whether or not I could feel good about supporting Rebecca Kaplan for Mayor were squashed in July when she brought forward her proposal for a new marijuana tax (PDF).
Now, it should not be a hard thing to do to get a higher tax on marijuana on the ballot in Oakland. And when you own an issue as much as Rebecca Kaplan owns taxing marijuana, there really is just no excuse for not coming in ready with something you know you’re going to be able to pass. But she couldn’t do it.
The whole thing was just such a testament to complete disorganization. First, she submits this proposal for a 8, 10, or 12 percent tax. Then she wants a 4 percent tax. Then she can’t even vote for a 5 percent tax?
I mean, I know that I keep using this word, and I’m sure it’s getting really repetitive, but that’s just not leadership. I can’t understand that thought process, and I can’t imagine how someone who couldn’t handle something as relatively small as this could possibly handle being in charge of the whole City.
I just can’t cast that vote
Like I said before, this has been really hard for me. I genuinely like Rebecca Kaplan. And I do think that she has been a good addition to the City Council. She is full of ideas and energy, and she can talk about ways to make the City better until the cows come home.
But being Mayor is about more than just talking. It requires action, and Rebecca Kaplan just has not demonstrated that she is able to translate all her good ideas into tangible action. She has had several opportunities this year to show that she can do so, and she has failed the test every time.
Something Kaplan says a lot in interviews and in forums is that she’ll be able to get things done as Mayor that she can’t as Councilmember because “A councilmember can suggest and share information, but a mayor can direct that Things Shall be Done.” You get this idea that she thinks the reason she’s can’t seem to do anything is because of the job she’s in. But that’s not why. It’s because she doesn’t look at the big picture of what it takes to put votes together. Yes, Mayor is a more powerful office than that of Councilmember. But there’s nothing magic about it. You still have to make hard decisions and you still have to convince the Council to pass your policies. And if she can’t do that as a Councilmember, I just can’t see how it would be any different with her as Mayor.
So as much as I wish I could support her (believe me — it sounds like a whole lot more fun than supporting the old guy who everyone on the internet hates), I can’t do it. Picking a Mayor isn’t about who is the most likable or who is the most fun or who is the smartest or even who has the best ideas.
It’s about who is the best able to lead the City out of crisis and in a new direction. And I just don’t see any evidence in Rebecca Kaplan’s time on the Council that she is at all prepared to do that. In fact, I see a lot of evidence that she isn’t. Like I said, I think she’s a very good Councilmember, and Oakland needs her energy and optimism. And just because she is clearly not ready to be Mayor now doesn’t mean that she’ll never be. Leadership skills can be learned, and I hope that she grows into them. Maybe in four or eight years, she’ll be ready. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.