Is Oakland Ready? Jean Quan Hopes To Crack Mayoral Ceiling

If all politics is local, Oakland City Council member Jean Quan should get a fair shake in that town's mayoral race this year against former California state Senate leader Don Perata. Quan, one of 12 women to ever serve on the City Council (and the first Asian-American woman), hopes to give Perata a run for his money (and he is said to have much more of it than she) on the merits of her two-plus decades of community-oriented work in Oakland.

It was Lailan Huen, Quan's 27-year-old daughter, who eventually convinced her to run for mayor.

"She said, 'Mom, you'll always wonder what a difference it'll have made,' " says Quan, 59, recalling her daughter's encouragement.

The fact that there has never been a woman as mayor of Oakland is something that neither Quan nor her family takes lightly. "The mayor position [in Oakland] has always been a boys club," says Huen. "Women are more collaborative, and that's what's needed."

Indeed, the fact that Oakland, known for its progressive politics and as being one of the most diverse cities in the country, has never elected a female mayor is almost baffling. But the egregious gender gap reflected in our choices for public officeholders is nothing new. From the local level to the federal, men continue to dominate the political landscape: According to Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, of the 1,156 mayors of U.S. cities with populations over 30,000, just 203, or 17.6 percent, were women; similarly, in Congress, women make up about 17 percent of the membership.

What's especially vexing about the gender disparity in politics is that when it comes to many of the qualities people say they value most in leaders, polls show women outperform men. According to the results of a 2008 Pew Research survey, of the two leadership traits that respondents most valued, honesty and intelligence, women outscore men by large margins. In fact, women outscored men in all but three leadership traits: hardworking and ambitious were equally scored; decisiveness is the only trait in which men outscored women. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said that men and women make equally good leaders.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between polling and what happens in the voting booth. We'll see in November whether Quan convinces Oakland voters to back up their claims to pollsters.
By Frances Tobin
Posted: 1/18/10