Interview: Political Consultant Chris Lehane on Jean Quan’s, Mayors’ Handling of Occupy Protests

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan has not had an auspicious week-and-a-half. Her approval rating has tanked in the wake of her ambivalent handling of the Occupy Oakland protests, and she has managed to pull off the neat political trick of alienating both those primarily concerned with law and order (like the police) and those siding with the demonstrators.

Chris Lehane, the Gore/Lieberman campaign spokesman, in Nov 2000 (Michael Nelson/AFP/Getty)

On Friday, KQED’s Scott Shafer talked to political consultant and “crisis communications” expert Chris Lehane about how big-city mayors in general and Quan in particular are handling the politically complex problem of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Lehane, who cut his teeth on the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals in the Clinton White House, thinks Occupy Wall Street need not play out for politicians as a no-win situation; there are opportunities, he says…

Edited transcript of Scott Shafer’s interview with Lehane:

Is Jean Quan a textbook example of how not handle a crisis like this?

Whether it’s Mayor Quan in Oakland or mayors in SF, LA, or NY, the critical moment in all of this was when cities and/or mayors made a decision to allow people to camp out. I’ve dealt with this a little bit at the federal level, and once you make that decision to allow folks to physically be there you’re crossing the proverbial Rubicon, and it becomes very difficult to take another position.

Once that decision was made, all of these mayors had effectively created a process that was going to move forward, and at that point you can’t really do anything to reverse it because things are taking place. For contrast, you look at the city of Sacramento, which made the decision to give people parameters and to limit the camp right from the very beginning.

So once the campers are there, your options are limited?

I think at some level a lot of these mayors tried to make the decision either/or. But from what I have experienced in other situations, you can put in place a transparent and open process in which you almost win by just being married to it. You involve and engage people in the process and become a part of the solution.

There have been these representations that you need to move folks because you need to clean up areas from a public health perspective. Assuming that’s true, it doesn’t mean you need to move people completely off the property. There’s ways you can reach a compromise that gets you to a situation that shows you’re in control, and you use a process as a bulwark, as your safety place.

You look at these things historically, ultimately the energy either evolves and manifests itself in a different place in a different way or it just dissipates of its own accord.

Most big-city mayors, with some exceptions, are Democrats, and they tend to be sympathetic to the general message of the protesters. But nationally the Democrats seem to be reluctant to embrace the movement because there’s a fear it could go awry…

I’ve had this discussion with a half-dozen if not more big-city mayors in the last couple of weeks. One of the dynamics in all of this is that big-city mayors tend to be Democrats, as you mentioned. And one of the lessons you’re always told as a Democrat is that job No 1 is public safety, law and order. That is going to dictate whether you get re-elected or not. It really is the bottom line when you’re in the mayor’s office.

So a lot of these mayors go into this with almost this law enforcement perspective. When they see a situation like this, they say this is a public safety issue that I need to get in front of because the broader public in my city is going to be concerned with this from that perspective.

But in fact this is a fundamental misreading of this particular type of protest. The reality is – and polls back this up – a lot of people aren’t necessarily going to be out there themselves in the parks and the plazas, but the vast majority of the country do fundamentally agree with the basic premise that they have been badly hurt over the last four years. We’re 3.5 years into the great economic collapse, and not a single bank has been really held culpable for what took place. I see this all the time in focus groups or polling around the country: people don’t trust these institutions, people are upset.

So this was not your traditional public safety issue, and in fact the middle class and other people in your city basically were in alignment with where these folks are coming from. This may have changed in the past couple of days, but up until then the broader public was not looking at these folks as a threat to their own public safety but as voices expressing their own concerns.

What we saw in Oakland this week was a much broader cross section of the community participating. How does that effect the perception of this movement?

I think we’re at an inflection point in terms of what’s going on. The Oakland situation right now is a bit of a Rorschach test. If you are out there and you basically agree with the movement, you see what’s happened as a positive; you see everyday people — the middle class — trying to take back control and express themselves. Then there are other people who will look at it and see it as a law-and-order situation and be concerned.

I think where this is going to rise and fall is on how effective the movement is in minimizing the violence. Even if it’s caused by a small band of folks, it gets the attention. So one piece of broken glass is what gets covered even if everything else was really done in a peaceful way. I think for the most part these movements deserve a lot of credit for the Gandhiesque approach they’ve taken.

The question is, are people going to look at them right now as standing up for the middle class, or do they see things like the closing of the port negatively impacting the middle class and working class folks?

Some politicans have made their reputation in crises, as Rudy Giuliani did with Sept 11. Is there an upside to the Occupy movement for politicians or is it mostly a downside that has to be managed and the damage minimized?

I think there’s potentially an upside for the politician or business leader or anyone who is effectively able to step up and offer some ideas and thoughts. In Oakland, the chair of a community bank was there offering to sign people up. That’s an example of a local institution being smart and positioning itself.

If some politician, for example, steps up and says I’m going to do a one percent fee on all Wall Street transactions and use the money in some type of good public way, they can immediately become the face and voice of the next phase of this.

I think what has happened has been enormously productive in changing the conversation, showing politicians that people are upset. I’m not sure if it’s fair to say that Occupy Wall Street is responsible for coming up with an agenda or message. The fact that we’re having this conversation indicates they’ve really moved the discussion.

Politicians tend to follow, and this gives someone an opportunity. We’ve seen a little of this with Kamala Harris. She’s one of the few attorneys general who has taken herself out of this big settlement discussion with the banks on mortgage foreclosures, because she says she does not think it’s fair to California consumers. So I think there is space out there. Even some of these mayors have opportunities. They can do things, like take action on where their pension funds are invested.

We heard local journalist Josh Richman say he doesn’t know if there’s anything Jean Quan can do to rehabilitate her reputation. What do you think?

I think ultimately people in these positions will be evaluated over the long term. She’s apologized, which is important, particularly for politicians, who almost never apologize. This situation is so big, there’s going to be little she can do in the day to day. Politicians have to realize you’re not going to immediately come back, they have to have a long-term strategy.

Given her history, that she came up through community activism, she’s someone who can step up with an interesting policy or program and seize the moment in a positive way.

On another topic altogether: How is the Herman Cain campaign doing in terms handling the accusations against him?

I think they made some fundamental mistakes at the start. It appears the campaign was caught flat-footed, and that they may not even have been aware of these issues. Typically you do opposition research on yourself and you have a game plan, so when this happens you know how to deal with it. Or you innoculate yourself pre-emptively. This clearly was not done here. And the candidate made fundamental mistakes. Blowing crisis management 101, in the very first news cycle he drew a line in the sand that had crumbled upon itself within hours.

You rise or fall in these situations based on your credibility. It’s going to come out — it’s not a question of if, it’s only a question of when. You want to compress the schedule, get the information out, protect your credibility. He made the classic mistake: you’re on fire, you throw more fuel on yourself. And people are really learning about him for the first time so this is particularly damaging.

Author

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor