Oakland’s Former Mayor Blasts Mayor Jean Quan On Occupy Oakland

Even though Elihu Harris hasn’t been the Mayor of Oakland since 1999 (and was Mayor between 1990 and 1999), he’s still a fixture in Oakland. Always willing to offer his points of view on various topics (even ones I elected not to include in our interview), Mayor Harris (or “Boss” as I still call him), sat down for 30 minutes on video (and a lot more off video) to talk with this blogger on the state of Oakland, and his time as Mayor.

I worked for Elihu Harris from 1995 to 1999, severing first as economic consultant, then from 1996 to 1999 as economic adviser to the Mayor (and from 1999 to 2001 worked form the bid to bring the 2005 Super Bowl to Oakland, but we lost to Jacksonville).

In the role of economic adviser, Mayor Harris gave me a wide stretch of land to cover, from redevelopment to the Raiders and the Oakland A’s. But of all of the things I learned from Elihu, the greatest lesson was in out to build relationships to accomplish an objective, and how to cultivate power.

Elihu’s greatest gift to his group of young aides was that he let us lead, and then corrected us when necessary. Because of that experience, I came up with the idea of interviewing him at a time of great leadership problems in Oakland.

We started with Occupy Oakland.

In just two months the Occupy Movement has captured the attention and the imagination of the industrialized World. The group who’s objective is to occupy land in protest of what it sees as the negative practices of corporate capitalism gained visibility after hash police action in New York City. But what happened in New York would eventually pale in comparison to what happened in Oakland.

The Occupy Oakland movement took the City of Oakland by surprise, as it slowly took root on the grass at Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of Oakland’s City Hall. Jean Quan, The Mayor of Oakland, expressed support for Occupy Oakland (even to the point of initially telling the campers that she just wanted them to avoid peeing on the Oakland Tree), but also said the occupation was not legal and causing a serious health and public safety problem.

In an action that took her supporters by surprise, Quan ordered a pre-dawn removal of the encampment on Tuesday, October 25th, which led to a full day of protests, leading to a night time clash between police from a number of San Francisco Bay Area cities and some protestors. One, an Iraq War Veteran Scott Olsen, was almost killed after being struck in the face with a rubber bullet fired by a police officer.

What does Elihu think about what happened?

“I think the situation’s out of control, and that’s unfortunate, Mr. Harris said. “It wasn’t the Mayor’s making, but I think it’s certainly the Mayor’s problem. As the ‘strong mayor’ under our new form of government, I think the Mayor has got to take responsibility, and take the steps necessary to bring this crisis to an end. When you’ve got legitimate protestors along with anarchists, destroying the downtown, small businesses being victimized, and the image of Oakland is done continued harm – it’s already had a bad image – and there’s no solution in hand, then I think people are really questioning leadership. I think it’s a time – you’ve got to make some decisions and come up with a solution that’s going to be hopefully in the best interests of the city (of Oakland) as well as something that’s going to be fair and equitable and honors due process and first amendments rights.”

And how would Elihu have handled the Occupy Oakland matter if he were still Mayor?

“I think first of all, I wouldn’t let people occupy the space in front of City Hall,” Harris remarked. “I think that was the wrong thing to do. It is the City’s park, it is not the Occupy Oakland park. There are probably places in Oakland were you could occupy – have a tent city – that would not be precarious or challenging for other public citizens who wanted to come to City Hall and take care of their business. I think the issues that are raised by Occupy Oakland are, in many ways, correct, but appropriate, if not urgent. And I think, now, the whole issue (the economic imbalance movement is pointing to) has been skirted by violence on both sides of the issue, and certainly the now confrontational matters that have happened that makes it a more difficult issue to bring under control and resolve.”

I then asked Elihu if he thought Mayor Jean Quan could “survive this,” and by that I meant not just the negative public views of her actions, but even a much-talked about recall effort (which has yet to gain the necessary number of signatures to be considered a credible threat to her tenure as Mayor). Harris’s view was not good for Mayor Quan.

“I think it’s questionable (that she could survive the political problems caused for her by her handling of the Occupy Oakland matter),” he said. “I think there are people who believe she has abdicated leadership and as a result, should resign. There are certainly still people talking about recall. And before either of those things happens, I think she still has time to make some decisions, and certainly to take some actions that are going to give people some comfort and a sense that there is leadership and certainly there’s the willingness to stand up and do what’s necessary. Bringing this under control.”

In the interview, I then turned to a conversation about the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, which I will save for another blog post. But I did so because that disaster was Elihu Harris’ finest hour as Mayor of Oakland. Mayor Harris made sure the City of Oakland took quick and effective action to meet the needs of 6,000 residents who’s homes were damaged or lost along with many valuables, and those who lost pets and in some cases loved ones. It’s proof that crisis shows how good, or how bad a leader is.

In closing, the interview was divided into several parts: Occupy Oakland, The Oakland Hills Fire, The Return of The Raiders To Oakland and the Raiders Deal, The Ebonics Issue, Oakland Education, the Oakland Police Chief Issue, and a review of what he’s most proud of accomplishing during his time as Mayor of Oakland. I will have separate blog posts on each subject later as the week progresses.

On Why I Avoided His Time At Peralta

For those who want to know, it was my decision not to mention his time as Chancellor of Peralta Community College District. The reason is that I have a very strong negative view of what I see as a witch hunt by a very irresponsible Oakland Tribune on a person who had served longer than most of Peralta’s past chancellors, and did a lot for the district itself.

If I were Mayor Harris, given the way the Oakland Tribune handled a story that was arguably very slanted, I would have filed a giant lawsuit against the paper. Thus, I elected to avoid the issue altogether in my talk with Elihu. Of course I have a bias in that I worked for Mayor Harris, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to be loyal to him. But I am, as are many, many other people in Oakland, and that’s for a long list of very good reasons. Elihu may have his faults (and some columnists may take the bait and jump into my trap by listing them) but they’re far, far outweighed by his strengths.

Mayor Quan, take note.

Stay tuned.

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