This past Monday was a historic day for Oakland and possibly for America, with the swearing in of Jean Quan as mayor, Oakland’s first woman and Asian American to elected to that role. In fact, she may be the first Asian American woman mayor of any major American city! (Norm Mineta was the first Asian American to be elected mayor of a major U.S. city for San Jose, California in 1971.)
From a political standpoint, it’s even more interesting is that she is the first person in over 44 years to have been elected who previously held an Oakland city council seat, which is kind of shocking. (Outgoing mayor Ron Dellums was a congressman, Jerry Brown was a governor, and Elihu Harris came from the State Assembly.) Quan also served three terms on the school board before being elected to the city council in 2002.
Over the weekend, the San Francisco Chronicle did an excellent profile of Quan. Her and her family history is pretty fascinating.
“People know me as this nice, middle-aged, Asian American elected official,” she said. “They have no idea of the kind of movements I worked on when I was younger and the kinds of changes that have happened.” Quan’s story is intertwined with Chinese American history in California. Her great-grandfather came to the United States around 1880. After he and his three sons lost everything in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1906 earthquake and fire, they found refuge in a family association representing their clan on Eighth Street in Oakland, just six blocks from where City Hall now stands. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 severely curtailed the ability of Chinese to immigrate, much less become citizens, and men who were already here far outnumbered women. But the earthquake’s aftermath provided an opportunity.
Her personal history has been tied to the San Francisco Bay Area for over 100 years! While she was at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s, Quan and her future husband were activists and also helped found the Asian American studies department. She has a fascinating history and background in activism, community involvement and service.
Quan obviously has deep roots in the community, and hopefully her past commitment, knowledge and dedication to Oakland will payoff, because the city needs all the help it can get. Oakland has been known in the past few years for mostly gang and drug related deaths. Like many cities across the nation, Oakland is also facing a huge budget deficit. Being mayor, Quan is definitely a shining example of an Asian American in public office serving the public good and will not only encourage more Asian Americans to get involved in the community, but all of Oakland. Her campaign was built on reaching a wide swath of the Oakland community and hopefully that will serve her well as mayor.