Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My Day With Jean Quan, Mayor of Oakland

Last time we saw Jean Quan, she was at a campaigning party in our living room. A couple of months later she was the Mayor of Oakland, dining with President Obama at the White House. Not saying if I invite you round you'll then meet Barak Obama, but...

Me and Jean Quan at East Oakland's Castlemont High School
It's been five months since Jean Quan, 61, took over as Mayor and I was keen to follow her for a day. After an long-ish email exchange with three of her incredibly friendly staff I got a message on Friday that Saturday was good. Could I pick up Jean from her house at 8.30am for a day which would end at 10pm?

My husband, Kevin, laughed: "Poor Jean, she's going to sit in our smelly minivan all day?" The next morning I plucked two chicken bones, three half-eaten apples, four crusty socks and two unidentified objects off the car floor, brushed down the seat and headed out. It was too late to do anything about the whiff of sour yogurt.

State of the City: Poor Jean alright. What has she inherited? A city with a shortfall over next two years of $58 million despite previous cuts of more $170 million, unemployment of nearly 17% and increased home robberies, though the murder rate has dropped. The huge issue is that police and firemen consume two thirds of the budget and police. Police don't have to contribute to their pensions which can be $100,000 per year on retiring at 50. (We would have to make contributions of $1million at age 45 to receive this pension).

Mayor Jean Quan with family at her inauguration. Photo by Acontraluz-Photo.com
Relations with the police got off to a rocky start when the chief resigned but a quiet dinner cleared the air and there's now hope the police will step up and agree to contribute. Nonetheless Jean Quan describes her three budget options as: The Bad, The Really Bad and The Really Ugly. "I am trying" says Jean " to do the least amount of harm."

It's always all hands on deck with Jean. I had already realised that if you're around her, you're working too. She never complains about anything; long days, angry people, being hungry. In the nine hours I was with her she ate half a chicken sandwich and a bagel. "I never ask others to do something I wouldn't do myself, " she says. And she never mentioned the car smell once, though she did wind down the window at one stage.
Jean and her assistant Hatzune
David vs Goliath: All the media cliches came out last November in the mayoral elections which became a "David and Goliath" fight.  Councilwomen Jean Quan with funds of $400,000 vs Don Perata, a former state senate president and one of the most powerful Democrats in California with the backing of the police and prison workers unions and $2million-plus to spend. One small example of their differences was the frontlawn signs they distributed. Perata's were new, slick and obviously professionally designed. Jean Quan used her old council signs and taped in the word "Mayor."

In a cliffhanger result, Jean Quan became the first Asian-American woman to become mayor of a major US city (Oakland pop. 390,724) winning by using a grassroots campaigning method her team called Block By Block.

Jean Quan, her husband, Floyd Huen, 63, together with their children Lailan, 29, William, 32, and many volunteers walked most of the streets in the City - 85 precincts.  Over 11 months they knocked on nearly 30,000 doors and talked to whomever answered. Floyd and Jean turned up to around 50 doors a day and100 in the weekend days. Floyd lost 20 lbs and Jean lost 7lbs. Jean also spoke at 220 "house parties" all over town including tattoo parlours, fancy restaurants and homes that were about to have power cut off. The toughest crowd were the prisoners at San Quentin who had done days of research on the issues.

Via Block by Block Campaign
She made time to educate people about the new rank choice voting and won the election because she proved to be a more popular second and third choice.

Home and Family: I drove the ten minutes from my house on a crisp, bright spring day to Jean's ranch-style home in the old hilly leafy Oakmore district. The bought it in 1983 for $245,000 and recently mortgaged it to pay for part of her mayoral campaign, leaving them with a $100,000 debt. At the door is a vast collection of potted succulents in various stages of life and old gift baskets. The house of a very busy person. Later she tells me she's just finally "broken down" and hired a gardener: "I'm cheap" she says, adding that she hems her own trousers, strings her own bead necklaces and cooks all the food for her holiday parties including prime rib for 200 guests.

I peek through the side fence to the wide, blue views of Oakland. I'm 15 minutes early and Floyd answers the door. I was hoping to take some pictures of Jean inside the house before we leave, I said. "Sorry" he says, "it's so untidy in there, we haven't picked up since the campaign. Do you mind waiting outside?"

Floyd re-emerges with tie in hand on his way to work - he is  a physician and gerontologist with the Over-60 Health Centre and former medical director at Highland Hospital. He tells me that usually Jean gets up at 6.30am and spends an hour reading work papers and picking her clothes. Many years ago a fellow school board member told Jean: "If you put on lipstick and wear high heels maybe the men wouldn't be so scared of you!" These days more than 1000 people a day meet her so she takes more care. Today she's "slept-in" until 7.30am.

Floyd and Jean met at Berkeley in the summer of 1968 when she was 18. He was her boss at an outreach programme for minorities: "She was wearing a short Mexican dress and had long hair, pretty and shy. Yes, quiet, it's hard to believe now, she has become so much more outgoing...She was quite sheltered and I taught her to ride a bike and drive a car." Though dating others at the time, they started riding to political meeting on Floyd's motorcycle. They were married in his backyard.

Jean and Floyd's wedding day. Photo courtesy of Quan Huen family.
Through children, jobs and activism they have always tried to maintain Saturday "date night." They love eating out - working their way through Zagat guidebook - and watching movies, their favourites being Forrest Gump and  Seven Samurai, two movies about common people fighting for their interests.

Jean's recent trip to China was one of the few times they've been separated: "Everything we do, we do together," Floyd says and when I compliment him later on their wedding photo: "I feel like we were beautiful together."

Jean comes out with wet hair, loose heather-green cardigan, long black skirt, flat green shoes and a green garnet necklace that she's beaded herself. I ask if I can take some photos. I need to comb my hair she says, going back inside. She takes the old holiday wreath off the door and I take some snaps of her.

Jean Quan at her front door in Oakmore

Jean usually gets whomever she's going with to drive so she can answer texts and calls on her iPhone with the pink cover. Tapping in, she reads about a shooting from last night. She has asked to be informed of every shooting. Then she notices garbage along the motorway and immediately calls one of her staff to get it picked up: "Caltrans is slacking off.

Jean Quan is softly spoken, easy to approach, serious and all-business all the time. My attempts to chat were always diverted into politics. She does not respond to gossip. She answers the same queries about budget and crime all day and yet each time she delivered the answer fresh as if she had heard the question for the first time.

She must have faced a hostile or, at best, indifferent police force (my words). But she has been to 11 police line-ups  - shifts -  ranging from 11pm to 6am to meet as many of them as she can. As far as I can see this is how Jean does things -  turning up, turning up, listening, unemotionally returning your complaints with a factual and lengthy response, then solutions and phone numbers with department heads or agencies. Then turning tables -  presenting you with ways to help others. Then she's back again -  turning up, remembering you, asking what you're done about your complaint. You're worn down. You're with her.

We arrive at the Walk To End Poverty on Lake Merritt to highlight the plight of nearly 80,000 Oakland residents who live in poverty, one of every five children here.  For a family of four that means living on less than $22,000 a year. Jean Quan recognises many of walkers and even knows which senior centres have not turned up.

In between talking to the steady stream of people who approach her, Jean puts down her bag and her coffee and takes photos for her newsletter." Are you stretching for the walk?" she asks Summer Neal, aged three. "That's so cute. Let me take your picture."

Jean takes a picture of Summer Neal stretching
She is always polite, considerate but firm about not being late to the next meeting: "Walk with me" she says when people approach her. "Two minutes" she says during the day when people stand up to ask her a question.

And I have found someone who takes more photos than me. "I want to introduce Oakland to itself" she asks me to stop on the road a couple of times so she can take more snaps with her Nikkon.

Jean taking pictures for her newsletter
We head to Peralta Elementary School in a comfortable relaxed area of North Oakland, where 40 locals gather to hear about the three options for the budget and make their objections. The we head towards the grittier East Oakland for Castlemont High School. This is the 7th of the Saturday Town Hall meetings Jean promised when she took office.

East Oakland gets a say: 300 locals have turned up today making a total attendance of these new meeting 2,500. These three-hours meetings, all held at local schools are organised by both council and community. Jean introduces her department heads to the people.  We then break off into 10 groups including "education" and "social justice."  The local people air their issues and together with the  department heads work out solutions. Always solutions -  Jean tells me she didn't want this forum to disintegrate into just complaining.

Castlemont High is a well-kept, lively school with a swish new auditorium, a legacy of Jean's days on the School Board and her insistence on seismic retro-fitting. The former building was dangerous and consequently demolished. (At the time Jean got a lot of flack for calling attention to the deficiencies of these buildings.)

We are directed into a parking spot by some friendly, helpful men who are part of an organisation for former criminals. Around 50 of the East Bay Dragon Motorcycle Club have turned up and Tobie, their president since 1959, says: "We're here to support Jean. How is she doing? Let's wait and see. What I see is huge damn violence, shooting and cutting and I was broken into and had all my clothes stolen and they were real clean (stylish) like these..." he says pointing to the yellow crocodile shoes he bought in LA.

Tobie, president of East Bay Dragon Motorcyle Club since 1959
The principal and a school board member speak passionately about how much they love this school and one of their exemplary students Jelani Noble plays the piano.

Far left, school board member Alice Spearman and middle, Principal Matin Abdel Qawi
All of Jean's 16 department heads wear leis and each head up to microphone, give a little blurb and their phone numbers.  The head of public works says: "615-5566 Hotline. Report potholes! Welcome!" Jean calls out from the side: "It works! I take pictures of potholes and send them to him all the time!"  From the head of Police: "Since we're giving numbers... 911!"

I mean to scoot around to each of the "break-out" groups but the public safety one is too compelling. Each of the 40 locals in the break-out group has something to say. Six cars dumped on my street, one crashed into our mailbox. Kids' donuts on our street. Drug dealing right in front of our house. "Extra curricular activity" in our front yard and we have to clean up the debris every morning. Tagging, the precursor to gang activity, just hit our street. Took 20 minutes for a fire truck to get to a school teachers' house, it burned down. Parked cars for sale or being fixed on the street. My grandson was a good boy and he was gunned down. I heard a gunshot and saw a man dead on the street. All the kids are smoking dope on the street when I come home from lunch. Unattended pit bulls in our street.  We need grocery stores, not liquor stores. Kids driving both ways on a one way street. My grandson was shot on McArthur, the police treated us like we were nothing...

The final one: Someone says the sewers in their street haven't worked for years with overflowing fecal matter on the street. I am starting to feel really depressed about all the anecdotes but at every turn Jean is always looking for the solution: "Where's the public workers for the sewer ladies? Raise your hands, make sure you get hold of each other."

Andrea and sons Chevalo and Derek talk about the number of kids hanging around their street waiting to break in. "It seems like Jean Quan is around and doing what she can to help, "says Andrea.

Andrea and her sons Chevalo and Derek
Jean is worried about federal cuts eliminating the mayors' programme which usually provided 500 youth summer jobs. Every time she sees people from schools, gyms, churches and rec centres she asks them about staying open for the youth in the weekends, late on Friday and Saturday night and through the summer. When she meet potential mentors including 100 Black Men, Men of Valor and Oakland Black Cowboys she asks them about what they can do to help.

Childhood: Before the meeting I had cornered Jean in the car to ask a few questions.  I had been surprised that Jean hasn't been extensively profiled, the exception being an excellent article by Cecily Burt in the Oakland Tribune. In that Jean Quan remembers a childhood in Livermore being teased: "I was the only Chinese kid and it was very hard...People would say 'Ching Chung Chinaman' and 'You're a Jap'.  So I was pretty intense and shy.' Her father died of lung cancer when she was five and her mother, who could not speak English or read, ran a restaurant and took in piece work from a garment factory.

Young Jean. Photo courtesy of Quan Huen family 
What made her an activist? Voted at her high school "most likely to succeed," as a sophomore at UC Berkeley she was cited for posting a flier urging a boycott of the cafeteria for selling grapes (to protest the poor treatment of migrant workers). This is the first time I see her emotions come to the fore. "The Dean dragged my mother in and threatened her, told her I was going to lose my scholarship". Her mother cried. "That made me so angry that he tried to intimidate that poor woman, she was illiterate, working all the time." Up until then she had been a "good girl, a good student, I had never lost my temper." Amid that scene of rascism, arrogance and institutionalism her activism was born.

Jean with other  health activists in NYC. Photo courtesy of Quan Huen family
Visibility: "People think I'm doing a good job though they really don't know what I'm doing."

"Jean doesn't do a lot of double talk" says a former fellow parent at Skyline High School (an Oakland public school) Andrew Spider Norris, 59, AC Transit retiree and now web designer says:"She says what she can do and can't do. She's bringing people together now because she's visible."

"So many people ask me; are you tough enough?" says Jean Quan,  "You don't need to be tough, you have to listen."

Posterity: What does she want to be remembered for? "Who knows what people will say about you, it may have nothing to do with the reality of what you have done." Despite twenty years of service authoring improvements to schools, parks and saving libraries, as well as a myriad of other issues including closing the Hillcrest Hotel which harboured child prostitution, preserving education recreation and after-school programmes and helping ban the use of styrofoam,  she garnered the biggest headlines for voting to recognise Ebonics, or black English.

Energizer Bunny on Steroids.  Outside I meet Sue Piper, 62, who's worked with Jean Quan for 20 years as a parent activist and now in her office: "She is like the energizer bunny on steroids."

"Jean is one of the brightest people I have ever met.  Jean is not about Jean. It's never been about her, it's what can she can do for you. She doesn't like the intrigue. She's very respectful, very civil, very loyal and caring. I always say there are politicians and public servants and Jean is a public servant."

Tomorrow morning Jean is off to a trade show in Vegas to sell Oakland to retailers and she will miss a budget meeting, a first for her, and the regret is palpable. "I want to do both."

Lailan Huen, 29, says her mother is tireless. She and her brother grew up hearing politics every dinner time at 6pm when her mother always cooked, often a dish from countries they visited on their vacations or her scholarships. When her mother was running for Oakland School Board in 1990, brother William, then 12, pedalled his bike to all 16,000 homes in their area to deliver Jean's message and Lailan, then 8, licked the stamps.

On the mayoral campaign Lailan says: "We'd get to Sat night around 7pm and everyone else was thinking about going home. She would be like -  there's still a little bit of light, what's the next street, give me another clipboard." Or: "We would be talking and she would have raced ahead to cover a whole block herself."

What about her sense of humour?  Lailan pauses: "She's quite serious...she has her own sense of humour, but I get my seriousness from her, it's straight to work, straight to business."

Jean camping with Lailan and William in Yosemite. Photo courtesy of Quan Huen family.
We head off to the Malcolm X Jazz Festival in the young, hip multi-cultural area of Eastside. Does Jean ever relax? As we get out of the car Jean tells me she loves to vacation in foreign countries. But I already know from her husband and daughter that vacation involves more than six museums a day and enormous background research into the history of the country. What will you do after this, I ask her. "If I'm lucky I'll do two terms and after that I'll be very, very tired. Maybe grandchildren..." Lying on the beach, I ask? Lying anywhere? No, she says, she'll always have a cause to work for.

Her staff trims her 500 emails a day down to 50 but still she finds it hard to turn down an invitation. Her schedule is public and "I accept more than my staff would." Walking at the festival, Sean Wright and Ron Lusk walk up to her to tell her about a foundation they have started: "If you have a fundraiser I will come" she promises.

Until then I had seen her listening, often smiling, mostly serious and always calm and absorbed. But when Floyd walked up, she beamed. Not date night but she seems so happy. The wind lifted her hair, swished her skirt around and she put her arm around her husband for my photo.

Floyd and Jean
Spoken word poems and rap music filled the air as the sun shone down on the Oakland Jean Quan has worked for most of her life.  A city that has murders, carjacking and schools where kids can't learn. A city with glossy stores, world-class restaurants, kids with talent and heart, parents and teachers who care so much. A city with green hills and heartbreakingly beautiful views of the Bay.

It's 5.30pm and I'm exhausted. After this festival they are heading to a fundraiser in Oakland's Chinatown and then Independence Day celebrations in Richmond for the East Bay Eritrean community. They will end their day at 10pm. I'll leave you here, I say.

They stride down the hill toward the festival, the sky still bright. "We can get something to eat," I heard her say to Floyd. And she was off.


  1. Wow, Jody. Excellent article on Jean. I have never read anything like it about her! It really gives me a great sense of what she is like as a person. Randy (husband)tells me he ran into you that day at the Town Hall meeting and didn't realize that you were in the middle of an interview. He didn't mean to interrupt you. What an interesting day you had.

  2. Thanks Leslie, I was really amazed that very little has been written about Jean Quan, the first Asian American woman Mayor ever! An historic figure right here amongst us! it was great to Randy at the Town Hall. What an inspiring group of people who want to make East Oakland a better place.

  3. Wow. I was brought to tears by this woman, and by your amazing description- of your day, and her life. So strong, focused, determined to make a difference.

    We read a book (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford) a couple of months ago that described the childhood of a Chinese man and a Japanese women... growing up in San Fransisco, and how they were surrounded by and teased by the other children. The short part that you wrote about her as a little girl, and her experience in high school reminded me of this book.

    Thank you for sharing her story!

  4. Thanks Torrie, I will look into this book. Sounds like a good choice for our bookclub

  5. Reminds me of a book, as well. Seems like this material would make an excellent book, Jody. You should consider doing a coffee table picture book celebrating Oakland, activism and the U.S.'s first asian american mayor.

  6. What a day!!!! :d cool honey!



  7. Gosh I have no connection (or known interest) with any of that but you had me hooked. What a fantastic woman.

  8. Wow, what an amazing lady. Surely an inspiration. We don't have mayors like that as such but boy our councillors could learn a thing or two! I look forward to hearing about her progress over the next few years, I think she's got true grit and I want to see her succeed.
    Wonderful report.

  9. This is such a great and fun day in the life. I really enjoyed it, Jody. I love the way that you've dived into Oakland life. One of my oldest friends grew up and lives there--I have to introduce you.

    xo Mary Jo

  10. What a fantastic article and thrilling experience, Jody! Jean is such an inspirational individual! :)

  11. WOW what a strong woman interviewed by another amazing woman! This is so inspiration!

  12. great profile of an earnest public servant. Refreshing to see some insights that shed a positive light on a politician for a change. Mayor Quan is showing some amazing courage and strength, attempting to do what she is doing....

  13. What a change from Ron Dellums! We're fortunate to have a mayor that leads by example and doesn't shy away from the day-to-day details of running the city.

  14. Hopefully the police and firefighters unions will cooperate and agree to pay something toward their pensions.

  15. A wonderful profile of an outstanding woman. She stated her comments straightforwardly, no "policking". There is hope for Oakland afterall! A very nice interview, well done.

  16. Hi Jods. Am still amazed that some people are so civic minded that they give up most of their working lives to help people in the community.It seems to an outsider that Oakland and California jst cannot progress unless the people who live there pay more taxes. Good storey well done. Haere Ra, D

  17. http://tinyurl.com/6g6zmgb


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