OAKLAND, Calif.—Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou might have some words of advice for this city's first Asian-American mayor-elect, Jean Quan.
When he was elected president in 2008, at a time of great economic hardship and political instability, Ying-jeou famously said, “One day of excitement is enough.”
Quan should remember those words, says Kai Ping Liu, the veteran reporter who covered her mayoral campaign for the World Journal. Quan was declared Oakland’s next mayor on Wednesday, after a week of nail-biting suspense in one of the city’s tightest electoral races in recent years.
For Quan, “there is not much time to take the victory lap,” says Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. “She has to hit the ground running.”
Oakland’s unemployment rate hit 17.3 percent in September, much higher than the state average of 12.4 percent. A series of robberies and assaults this year have heightened racial tensions and suspicions, especially between African Americans and Asian Americans.
Also, the two-year sentence given last week to Johannes Mehserle, the ex-BART police officer, in the fatal shooting of young Oscar Grant, has soured relations between law enforcement and many communities.
Carl Chan, a long-time Oakland community leader who has worked with Quan on many issues, thinks she can bridge some of these divides. The mayor-elect, who has been part of the civil rights movement, knows the hardships that immigrant minority communities face, Chan says.
Ling Chi Wang, professor emeritus in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley, is cautiously optimistic. “I know her commitment to racial equality,” says Wang, who first met Quan when she was an undergraduate in 1968.
Wang adds, “In light of the intense racial tensions, I hope she can do something to resolve suspicions and do something not just for Asians or African Americans, but for the city of Oakland as a whole.”
With her long history of community organizing, Quan might just have the track record to do that, says Mona Shah, co-director of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. “Jean Quan is proud of her heritage,” Shah says. “But she never stuck with just her own community. She is really good at dealing with different communities.”
Although Black-Asian violence has grabbed the headlines, Oakland remains one of the most diverse cities in America. According to the 2000 Census, African Americans and whites each make up about one-third of the city's population, followed by substantial percentages of Latinos and Asians.
Serena Chen, who helped found the Asian Cultural Center and hosted the Bay Area’s first Asian-American television talk show, says Quan can bring all these groups to the table.
“She’s not the warmest, fuzziest person,” says Chen, who has known Quan for four decades. “But she’s the most hard-working politician I know.” Chen says hard work is what helped Quan win, not her gender or her ethnic heritage.
“That provides a real opportunity for a truly multiethnic, urban coalition,” says David Lee, executive director of Chinese American Voter Education Committee. He notes that even though Quan's victory is historic for Chinese Americans, they were not the group that pushed her past the initial front-runner, former State Senator Don Perata.
Quan was declared Oakland’s next mayor under the city’s ranked-choice voting system, in which voters mark their first, second and third selections. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of first-place votes, the “instant run-off” feature—eliminating the need for a costly second election—gives the victory to the candidate with the most votes overall.
“Chinese Americans were important because she had to have her base,” Lee says. “But it was really the [third-place candidate] Rebecca Kaplan voters, who chose Quan as their second choice, who put her over the top. And those were not the Chinese-American voters.”
Quan’s heritage, though, may be helpful in other ways, says Carl Chan. The new mayor will be in the right place to promote Oakland to the international market, especially in Asia, he says.
Chan observed that as a City Council member, Quan has been proactive in deepening relationships between Oakland and sister cities, such as Dalian, China, and Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.
As Oakland’s first Asian-American mayor, Quan will certainly be a role model for other Asian Americans. David Lee remembers that 20 years ago there were not only few Asian Americans in elected office, but also hardly any who considered running. “The difference is night and day now,” he says.
Vincent Pan says the historic win is “a high point for Jean, but not out of left field.” Chinese Americans have been coming of age politically especially in the Bay Area for quite a while.
State Senator Leland Yee has just announced that he is exploring a bid to become San Francisco’s mayor. And Evan Lo, just 26, made news in 2009, when he became mayor of Campbell, Calif., making him one of the youngest mayors in the United States.
However, Joseph Leung, editor in chief of Sing Tao Daily, says the Chinese community shouldn’t expect too much from these newly elected officials.
He emphasizes that elected officials often become more reluctant about advocating for their own community because they are afraid of being described as favoring their ethnic group.
It remains to be seen whether Quan will face that problem. But the World Journal’s Kai Ping Liu says maybe the Chinese community needs to step forward as well.
“Perhaps instead of depending on Quan for change, the community should also think about what they can do for Oakland,” says Liu.