At 29, Rebecca Kaplan decided to run for Oakland City Council. She was a Stanford Law graduate and had volunteered on Sen. Ted Kennedy’s re-election campaign in college, but still, she was an unconventional candidate for citywide office. She was an out lesbian, she preferred wearing suits to skirts, she was Jewish, and she was a proud partisan, even though Oakland city councilors aren’t affiliated with political parties.
“Everyone knows I am running as a Green,” Kaplan wrote in the Spring 2000 edition of “Synthesis/Regeneration,” a publication of the progressive Green Party. “This time there is a real choice — there is a candidate running who is not beholden to corporate interests, and who will put the people of our city first!”
Kaplan lost that election, but not without earning 44 percent of the vote and endorsements from Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky and ACORN. It was a campaign run “with no money,” in a year in which an anti-gay marriage ballot measure, Proposition 22, passed easily.
Running for office was “the most fun, exciting, all-consuming, exasperating, frustrating, time-consuming, exhausting and wonderful thing I have done,” she wrote in the Synthesis/Regeneration essay. The campaign would augur a political career that, 19 years later, is reimagining how a leader of a major American city can look and sound, and how far that person can go to realize a progressive vision.
J. spoke to Kaplan last month on the heels of a job promotion. In January, her colleagues on the eight-member city council elected her president, making her the first openly LGBT person to occupy the role. She now quarterbacks meetings under the stately honorific “madame president” and is charged with presenting a city council budget, among other responsibilities.
Kaplan, 49, is in her third consecutive term in her at-large seat, representing the entire city. In 2010 she ran for mayor and came in third, and in 2014 she finished second. In 2018 she decided to sit out the race and focus on her agenda on the city council. With a broad and diverse constituent base and more than a decade of experience in Oakland politics, many say Kaplan is a likely candidate for mayor in 2022 when Libby Schaaf reaches her term limit.
During her interview with J. at City Hall, Kaplan, a Jewish day school graduate from Canada, wore a wool vest over a blue button-down shirt with slacks. She was flanked in her office by her loyal chief of staff, Julie Wedge, who typed on a laptop. (Wedge sunnily answers the phone “Hey, boss” when Kaplan calls.) She wore no jewelry except for a mezuzah, slung from a silver chain around her neck.
Kaplan came out when she was 16. She’s described herself as both lesbian and bi and is gender nonconforming — recently she’s begun sporting a healthy patch of fuzz under her chin. When she first entered politics, she had friends who urged her to dress differently, less “butch” and more “fem.” “You should wear a skirt, you should wear pearls,” Kaplan said, mimicking her friends. “If you go like this, the straight people will freak out and they won’t vote for you, and you’ll lose!” There aren’t many butch women on the national stage who don’t “tone it down” at least a little, she pointed out. She gave that view serious consideration.
“But then I also realized that actually I have to run, as me,” she said. “And so I’m just going to run as me. And if the people don’t want to be represented by me, that’s their choice. It’s a democracy.”
It turns out the people of Oakland do want to be represented by Kaplan. In 2008 she became the youngest and first openly LGBT Oakland City Council member. In 2016, her most recent election, she cruised to victory with 51.9 percent of the vote, more than the next four closest finishers combined. And she’s made ripples in the national press. In 2010 the New York Times covered Kaplan’s first mayoral bid under the headline, “Lesbian Candidate for Oakland Mayor Gains Surprise Allies.”
Even for Oakland, Kaplan fashions herself a left-wing progressive, but one who relies heavily on “data and evidence.” She’s attacked Schaaf for not doing enough to combat homelessness. She’s argued for more independence for the city’s police commission, which oversees the scandal-ridden force. In 2016 she helped levy steep impact fees on developers building market-rate housing to raise revenue for affordable housing and infrastructure.
Though firmly on the left, Kaplan resists being characterized as an ideologue. She said her policy positions are informed by two things: “real-world” experience, and data and evidence. On facial recognition technology, for example, she cited failure rates from academic studies in proposing a ban on its use by Oakland police (the ban passed earlier this year). Her support for single-payer health care, she said, comes from breaking her leg in Canada.
“I’m not saying that to prove that I’m left enough,” she said about backing universal health care. “I’ve had the experience of what it’s like to go in and get treated, where they don’t stop you on your way in during a medical emergency to check your financials.”
Kaplan has prestigious credentials — a bachelor’s from MIT and a J.D. from Stanford — but operates with a touch of showmanship and flair, useful in the colorful world of Oakland politics. On Sept. 17, her 49th birthday, she hosted a ukulele performance by a lesbian folk duo during a city council meeting. One of her first official acts as president, at a Jan. 22 council meeting, was to skip the Pledge of Allegiance, opting instead for an a cappella performance from a local musical artist. The move roiled some conservatives and traditionalists, leading the Mercury News to wonder: “Does that mean the longstanding patriotic tradition of pledging allegiance to the flag is a thing of the past?”
It wasn’t the first time Kaplan had openly protested the pledge: In 2016 she stayed seated at a council meeting in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who gained global notoriety (and the ire of President Trump) for his kneeling protests against police brutality.
Kaplan eventually brought back the pledge to city council meetings. But she modified it: After “with liberty and justice for all,” she added the word “someday.” “If you add ‘someday’ at the end it changes the whole thing,” she explained from the dais. “We’re not telling a lie about the current conditions of justice, we’re telling an invocation about the conditions of justice we seek.”
Kaplan grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, just over the border from Niagara Falls. The oldest of three, she attended the Hamilton Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox school, where she studied Torah and Talmud in Hebrew and Aramaic. Her parents were not devout, “they just really wanted me to get a good Jewish education,” she said. For high school she went on to CHAT, the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.
Kaplan was a voracious Torah student. She says she was in the advanced class in elementary school. “I was really into it,” she said. At 13, her first job was teaching Torah classes to Hebrew school students who didn’t attend day school. She was the only one of her siblings to choose a Jewish high school. Studying Talmud prepared her for law school, she says. “I was like, a) it’s not in Aramaic, and b) there’s only two opinions, not 20.” Today’s she’s a member of Kehilla Community Synagogue and attends Queer Talmud Camp in West Marin each year, a program of the learning organization Svara.
Kaplan wears a kippah regularly. She had always done so in shul, but started wearing one in her daily life in 2017 after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville (which she referred to as “the white supremacist hoo-ha in Virginia”).
I live in the Bay Area where people look at you funny if you talk about the Bible. But I do it anyway.
After “the ‘Jews will not replace us’ march,” she said, “I decided to start wearing it all the time. Because — and I don’t know if I can say this in your publication — but f– them,” she said.
She recites Bible verses in her daily life, including at city council meetings. It can raise eyebrows among her friends and associates. “I live in the Bay Area where people look at you funny if you talk about the Bible,” she said. “But I do it anyway.”
Demographics are shifting, but Oakland remains an ethnically diverse city. Its scores of black churches, many of them Baptist, are pillars of the community and essential constituencies for anyone seeking citywide office. While black churchgoers, in general socially conservative, traditionally do not line up to support LGBT candidates, Kaplan has never found much purchase in that view.
In 2016, precinct-by-precinct returns from Kaplan’s successful re-election bid show she performed well in East Oakland, where many of the city’s black neighborhoods and churches are located. In most of those precincts she beat the second-place finisher, Bruce Quan, by more than 30 percentage points.
Her appeal to black voters, and members of black churches specifically, stems partly from her upbringing learning Torah. “The black churches know their Torah backwards and forwards,” she said. “Even more than the white churches.
“We can go chapter and verse, back and forth,” she said. “I think that’s an important part of how it was that this Green Jewish lesbian got the support of all these black church leaders.”
Sometimes Kaplan teaches Bible study classes at Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland, a hub of black church life that celebrates its centennial this year.
“I invited her,” said the Reverend Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr., Pastor Emeritus. Now retired, he led the church for decades – in the 90s Ebony magazine named him one of the greatest black preachers in the country. He’s lectured at divinity schools at Harvard, Yale, and Howard University, and earlier this year, the Oakland city council named a street after him.
“I like Rebecca,” he said during an interview with J. on Aug. 28. “She has become like a mentor to help me understand the Hebrew language and the Hebrew text.”
Smith said Kaplan “cuts across” lines of division within the black community on social issues, and attitudes towards LGBTQ people. “Rebecca has a social justice, prophetic vision, like the 8th century prophets, Amos and Micah,” Smith said. “To love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with god.”
During her interview with J. Kaplan cited the Bible at least three times. She said her politics are “intertwined” with Jewish theology, particularly when it comes to helping the poor. About 19 percent of Oaklanders live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census, and the city is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, with the vast majority of low-income households spending more than half their money on rent. Homelessness is soaring.
“God is not impressed with your fasting and wailing and praying unless you’re taking action to help people,” she said, paraphrasing Isaiah 58. “And then shall your light break forth. And then will God answer you.”
“I think a lot of people who aren’t intimately familiar with [Jewish theology] assume it’s just kind of a symbolic, philosophical thing,” she said, jabbing her finger on the table for emphasis. “Like — no. It actually says you have to help the poor. You can’t just pray for the poor. You have to actually take action.”
Her progressive vision isn’t always celebrated, particularly within Oakland’s old guard. She’s been criticized for not being tough enough on left-wing activists, or telling people “what they want to hear.” During the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2012, Kaplan opposed a measure to toughen policing against Occupy protesters, siding with “loud protesters” over city officials, San Francisco Chronicle opinion writer Chip Johnson wrote.
“It’s interesting when people throw out words like appeasement,” Kaplan told J. “Is it only a critique if you care about progressive issues, like affordable housing? As opposed to, say, giving away land and city resources to billionaire developers?
“I recognize my job is to represent all the people of Oakland,” she said. They “care about the poor, they care about police brutality. So for me, that’s the job.”
There’s “a lot I like about Bernie Sanders” on the national stage, Kaplan said, but her approach to politics can look a bit more like Elizabeth Warren’s in the way she couples left-wing populism with a scrupulous approach to policymaking. She can be cautious — one explanation for her 2014 mayoral defeat was that “progressives didn’t buy the depth of her commitment,” Sonoma State political science professor David McCuan told the East Bay Times.
Earlier this month Kaplan announced a new policy to address the need for affordable housing: extending the hours at the building permit desk to 7 p.m. “We know Oakland has a housing crisis and we [need] to build more housing,” she said via press release. “It was critical to fight for extended hours at the permit desk to accommodate working people” who want to build out their homes.
City politicians often take small steps in the face of big problems. But Kaplan has taken some giants leaps, too. In 2016 she championed steep fees on luxury housing developers, levying impact fees of up to $24,000 per market-rate unit, depending on the neighborhood, with revenues going toward affordable housing nonprofits. It has helped raise around $80 million so far, she said. Last year, Kaplan co-sponsored a public land use measure that would require the city to give 100 percent of proceeds from the sale of vacant lots to affordable housing development, and to offer to lease city-owned land to affordable housing nonprofits first. The city council passed the measure in December.
Neither measure, Kaplan pointed out, has been seen through — she’s accused the mayor’s office of slow-walking the distribution of the housing impact fees fund and the execution of the public land measure. “I think they’d rather sell the land to whoever,” she said about the city’s unused lots. “Big-money people.”
Kaplan and Schaaf, the Democrat establishment-backed mayor who starred in a 2017 Sundance documentary and gained national notice for sparring with President Trump over immigration, have had their public disagreements, too. This year they differed widely (by about $100 million) on their two-year budget proposals — Kaplan’s, backed by labor unions, rejected a plan to cut 8 parks maintenance jobs, expanded services for the homeless and included additional funding for wildfire damage prevention. It was criticized by the mayor’s office as overestimating city revenues.
“It is far more fun to spend money, it’s more popular,” Schaaf told the San Francisco Chronicle. “But that’s not the responsible thing to do for Oakland.” Kaplan was quick to point out that the budget approved in June had $87 million more in expenditures than Schaaf’s original proposal, and passed unanimously.
Kaplan sat out the mayor’s race in 2018, supporting the activist, playwright and radio show host Cat Brooks instead. Schaaf cruised to re-election, more than doubling Brooks’ vote count. Kaplan said she would not rule out a run for mayor in 2022, but for now she’s focused on the more immediate future — her legislative priorities this year, and holding her council seat in next year’s elections. “I think we have a lot to accomplish in life, in terms of the work left to do,” she said. “Specifically, Oakland is way behind on affordable housing production.
“People ask me, Are you running for mayor?” she said. “Before I do anything in 2022, I have to run in 2020.” As for her political future, she said, “I think that remains an open question.”