OAKLAND - It's after 5 p.m. on a Friday in mid-November and Oakland City Hall is deserted save for a couple of security guards. Upstairs Jean Quan, dressed in plum-colored jacket and matching beads, is seated behind a large mahogany desk that fills her small council office. The worry and stress of the campaign are gone, and she's graciously recounting the story of her life for the umpteenth time since the registrar confirmed her historic victory in the Oakland mayor's race two days earlier.
But now she's a woman in demand. And despite attempts to ignore it, Quan eyes are drawn to her cell phone, which is buzzing. Oakland's future leader, the first woman and first Asian-American to hold that post, will be sworn in Jan. 3 at the lavish Fox Theater. But this evening, she's running late for a celebratory Chinese banquet with her supporters.
Whether it is her soft-spoken, wonkish manner or low-budget get out the vote campaign style, Quan's opponents tend to underestimate her work ethic, her focus and her ability to connect with people.
Just ask Don Perata, or David Stein, two heavy hitters who fell to Quan in the mayor's race and the District 4 council seat she's occupied the past eight years.
Maybe they didn't know that Quan, 61, has worked since she was a child - picking grapes, watering neighbors' yards, working in the elementary school cafeteria during recess to help augment her family's meager income.
Maybe they didn't know she overcame poverty and racist taunts to excel at school. Or that she played a pivotal role in the 1969 Third World Strike at UC Berkeley that launched ethnic studies programs at universities around the country. Or that she was one of the first Asian-American labor organizers for SEIU.
Telling Jean Quan that she can't do something just makes her try harder to prove you wrong.
Jean Quan was born in Livermore on Oct. 21, 1949, but her family's history in the Bay Area stretches back to the 1870s, when her great-grandfather left his village in Hoi Ping, China, and landed in San Francisco.
War separated Quan's parents - her dad George Quan in the United States and her mom May Wong in China - for more than 20 years, and they were in their mid-40s by the time Jean was born.
Her father gave up his job as a union cook at the prestigious Hotel Leamington in downtown Oakland when he was offered the chance to run the Yin Yin Chinese restaurant in Livermore. They moved to the valley and settled in a house near the railroad tracks. It was like a foreign country.
Quan said there were cowboys and physicists, and no one who looked like them. She relished time spent with relatives in Oakland, Berkeley or San Francisco.
"I was the only Chinese kid, and it was very hard," Quan said "I remember being little and being discriminated against. People would say 'Ching chung Chinaman' and 'You're a Jap.' So I was pretty intense and very quiet."
Quan found the libraries and immersed herself in books, never telling her mother about her problems. She realized at a tender age that her mom had enough of her own, especially after Quan's father died of lung cancer when she was 5.
Her memories of him are few, but they have shaped her life. "I remember he was very kind and generous," said Quan, whose family lived by the railroad tracks where they often saw hobos. "There was never an argument whether they would help. I think I always knew you helped people who have less than you do."
Her mom continued to run the restaurant and take in piece work at the garment factory. Every extra penny was sent to Quan's older sister, who was still in China, and there was nothing to spare.
"One of my passions for saving the Oakland schools music program was because I always wanted to take a musical instrument when I was young like the other kids, but I knew we were just pretty poor and couldn't afford it," Quan said. "My mother probably would have qualified for welfare but she didn't know about it and wouldn't have done it. We grew our own vegetables and had chickens - at least until the police chief moved in back of us."
To this day she does not like bok choy because she had to eat it every day as a child.
Roots of activism
Those humble beginnings helped shape Oakland's mayor-elect into a tireless public servant who tries to make life better for others, whether as a patient advocate, defender of affordable housing for seniors, or as a person who would take the time to help African-American adults master civil service tests to land jobs at the new Postal Service facility on Seventh Street.
Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez were her heroes, and she began her early community work with black and Latino students in Oakland and Berkeley.
"I really believe I have been formed and led by the struggles of different groups," she said. "I realize a lot of people think of me as this nice middle class politician, but I came out a very long history of political struggle for the rights of people who are not Chinese-American."
Carolyn Reuben, now a licensed acupuncturist and nonprofit director, met Quan during her freshman year at UC Berkeley when both volunteered in West Oakland. The humble, intelligent young woman she first met in college has great vision that will serve Oakland well, she said.
"She's like Abe Lincoln, inherently shy yet she has a vision that benefits so many people, she can't keep still," Reuben said. "Jean sees the interrelationship of things before other people do. People underestimate her."
But she was able to overcome the odds, like when the senior class at Granada High School in Livermore voted Quan "most likely to succeed."
Or when she was a sophomore at UC Berkeley and was written up for posting a flier urging a boycott of the cafeteria for selling grapes.
"The dean had dragged my mother in and told her I was going to lose my scholarship," she said, the memory still fresh. Quan told him what he could do with the money, which amounted to about $200 a quarter. "My poor, immigrant, illiterate mom was in tears. That radicalized me forever, the arrogance of power. It taught me to take risks; to stand up for what's right."
Quan met her future husband and fellow student Floyd Huen the summer of 1968. He was running an outreach program in minority communities in the East Bay and Quan was his new worker. He remembers the day they met.
"She was very pretty, she was smiling and she had beautiful long hair," he said. "She was wearing an Indian print-style dress and she was very shy."
They were dating others, but it wasn't long before they were riding to meetings on Huen's motorcycle. Quan had done most of her outreach work in the black and Latino communities, but Huen introduced her to people who were doing the same things in poor Asian communities. She joined the Asian American Political Alliance on campus, and began learning about her own culture and history.
"I didn't know about the Chinese Exclusion Act," she said, referring to the 1882 law that barred Chinese immigration until it was repealed in 1943. "And I realized how generations of our family, like my mother, could not see her husband for 20 years and had to be alone during the Japanese occupation and literally see members of her family starve to death. It put all the pieces together for me."
On campus, the Asian American Political Alliance had joined forces with the Afro-American Studies Union, Mexican-American Student Confederation and Native American Students United to demand an ethnic studies program. They set up pickets and went out on strike in January 1969. It ended when the university approved a new department of ethnic studies two months later. Quan, using Xeroxed materials from the Bancroft Library, taught the first class on Asian Women.
Quan and Huen got married on Sept. 29, 1970. They celebrated their 40th anniversary by walking precincts together. Aside from the months in 1972 that Quan traveled to Hong Kong and visited family in her ancestral village in China, they've rarely been apart.
"I spent almost every day with her the last year, on opposite sides of the street, but together," says Huen, 63, a physician and gerontologist with Over 60 Health Center and former medical director at Highland Hospital.
From the beginning, any decision that affects the family, including his wife's run for various elective offices, is made by committee, including son William, 32, and daughter Lailan, 28.
In a short article dated June 11, 1990, the year Quan ran successfully for a seat on the Oakland School Board, the Oakland Tribune called 12-year-old William Huen "Jean Quan's secret weapon." The youngster, a 7th grader at Montera Middle School, had pedalled his bike to all 16,000 homes in hilly District 4 to deliver a copy of his personal appeal. Lailan, then 8, helped by licking stamps.
"No one can outwork Jean, and certainly no one can outwork Jean and Floyd and Lailan and William," said Dan Siegel, Quan's attorney and close friend since those tumultuous college days at Cal. He should know. Quan defeated Siegel's brother David in that race by walking the entire precinct.
Looking back, Quan said her political aspirations were probably hatched the minute school board member Sheila Jordan called and said the district was going to cut the music program, which is near and dear to Quan's heart.
"This guy laughed at me and said they'd never elected a Democrat much less a nonwhite person who works for unions," Quan said. "So I was like, OK you've made us mad, and my family and I walked to every door."
Her efforts prompted the highest voter turnout from below Highway 13 than ever before. She used the same tactic in her 2002 council race, and expanded it citywide in the race for mayor. The decision to run for Oakland's highest office was not without risks. Quan had to take out a mortgage on her house to compete with Perata's war chest. But like the 1969 strike, it was a risk worth taking.
"I'm used to running really tough races," Quan said with a smile.
Quan's 12 years on the school board were not without controversy, however.
As board president in 1996, she voted to recognize Ebonics, or black English, as a language to help underachieving black students. The action did not require teachers to teach anything other than standard English, but it sparked a national furor that made headlines around the country, and the Oakland school board a laughingstock.
Quan prefers to point out her achievements, such as securing new bond financing to repair crumbling school buildings that were in danger of collapsing on the students.
"I tell people, if you are in this for the thank you's, forget it," Quan said. "I get my pleasure every time I go by a school that is new and clean. I helped get Latino kids off year-round tracks."
Toni Cook, an educator and director of student service programs at College of Alameda and former school board member, said she and Quan shared many of the same goals, although they didn't always agree on the way to get there. She appreciated Quan's support on the issue.
"Jean went to elementary school in Livermore. They made fun of her because of her accent, so she knew exactly what I was talking about," Cook said. Cook said that Quan would be wise to build coalitions and avoid the urge to micromanage. But Siegel thinks Oakland needs a hands-on mayor. Quan has arrived, and people better be ready.
"She is tenacious, indefatigable and hard working," said Siegel, who is serving on his friend's transition team. "I think people in City Hall will come to the realization pretty soon that if they don't do their jobs the first person to know that will be Jean. I think it's great that we have a mayor who wants to be mayor, and she's the first one who really will be a strong mayor."