Jean Quan became the 49th mayor of Oakland on Monday, delivering a message of optimism as the first woman and Asian-American to lead the city in its 158-year history.
On a day when newly elected officials elsewhere across the country pledged austerity and swift responses to their fiscal crises, Quan’s swearing-in ceremony at the downtown Fox Theater struck an altogether different tone. In an inaugural address, she shared a far-reaching vision that firmly placed education and civic engagement — rather than budget cuts or revenue measures — at the core of her administration’s priorities.
“The first thing I hope to do is put children at the heart of the politics and business of Oakland,” said Quan, 61, as she spoke onstage at the Fox, the opulent icon of the Roaring '20s that has become a symbol of downtown Oakland’s revival since its renovation last year.
Quan, a former community organizer and a Democrat known for her left-leaning politics, vowed to use the same kind of volunteer-driven approach that propelled her campaign to improve educational opportunities for poor and troubled youth in Oakland.
Bettering education for those children, she said, would target the persistent social ills that have hobbled Oakland, one of the nation’s young and dynamic cities.
Quan said she would form an education cabinet and immediately seek to organize 2,000 resident volunteers to mentor foster children and young people with criminal histories or records of truancy. “The enrollment rates will increase, the rate of crime will go down,” she said.
Quan, who was known during her eight years on the City Council for dutifully attending community gatherings large and small, urged residents to “volunteer for Oakland” for as little as one hour per week, organizing cleanup crews or forming neighborhood crime watch groups.
The longtime Oakland resident, looking at ease in a bright red, double-breasted suit, maintained a bullish tone throughout her speech as she called on her constituents to get out, explore and take pride in their city.
“Go and introduce Oakland to yourself,” she said. “This is a gorgeous place. This is a diverse place. This is a beautiful place.”
Quan, whose executive skills will be closely scrutinized by political observers, offered scant details on her fiscal agenda on Monday. Education and public safety — the two looming priorities for her city — have been undermined in recent years by devastating budget cuts at the school district and police department, respectively.
Quan did urge her constituents to spend more of their money on local businesses, arguing that the sales tax proceeds would help city government restore parks and services.
Still, as she spoke of her personal story, Quan said that her rise to office heralded an era not of diminished means but of renewed possibilities.
“Oakland is a city of dreams,” Quan said. “I’m asking you to dream. A lot of us get cynical when we get tired.”
Prior to the ceremony on Monday morning, Quan walked from Chinatown to the Fox Theater — an eight-block trip that represented her family’s journey from being new arrivals in Oakland a century ago to attaining the height of power today, Quan said.
“My family came here 104 years ago with nothing but the clothes on their backs, when the San Francisco Chinatown burned down,” Quan said. “My story is an Oakland story, and together we’re going to create an epic story of a great city.”