The city budget might be busted, public safety is a major concern, and the last four years weren't what many people had hoped, but Oaklanders are looking to the mayoral election with a surprising sense of hope and possibility.
Maybe it's a case of "been down so long, it looks like up to me."
Ten candidates are running. Former state Sen. Don Perata and City Councilwomen Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan are considered "The Big Three."
"It's really an exciting and interesting time in Oakland," said Preston Thomas, principal and a founding teacher of the Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, a small Oakland public high school. "With the budgetary crisis in the state, city and schools, it requires people to think differently about how to organize things."
Thomas is particularly encouraged by Superintendent Tony Smith's interest in full service community schools that function as multiple resource centers for neighborhoods.
Several people mentioned Smith and Police Chief Anthony Batts as strong leaders who can be key partners with the new mayor.
"We've got a couple of leadership points in the city. A new mayor can capitalize on these assets," said Junious Williams Jr., CEO of Urban Strategies Council, a community-building and advocacy organization in Oakland. Like Thomas, Williams is encouraged that the chief and the superintendent are thinking about issues of crime, education and family support as interrelated. Maybe Smith and Batts, the two Tonys, will be mayoral candidates.
More effective community policing and job creation were on everyone's list, along with the importance of leadership and presence.
"I'm very interested in somebody who has a real feel for the neighborhoods of Oakland and the people who live here," said Naomi Schiff, an Oakland resident, business owner and member of the Oakland Heritage Alliance.
"I'm not downplaying policies or positions, but what I'm looking for is participation, practice and presence," said Pastor Jim Hopkins of the Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church. He and Thomas are members of Oakland Community Organizations, a coalition of community groups. "I'm looking for someone who relishes the job of being mayor, who knows you win some and lose some but loves being in the fray."
Hopkins said it seemed as if residents were an annoyance to the last two mayors. In his view, Jerry Brown was on his way to another position, and Ron Dellums regretted that he'd run.
"It was like they were asking, 'Why are these people bothering me?' Let's have someone who is happy to be in the job. Period."
In spite of disappointments with Dellums, most people said they wouldn't completely write off his administration, pointing to federal funds he has brought to the city and his hiring of Batts as positives. Williams said the citizens' task forces were a good idea, even if their recommendations weren't effectively executed. And Schiff said Dellums made changes to zoning regulations that will make it easier for the next mayor.
For Gilda Gonzalez, CEO of the Unity Council, serving Oakland's Latino community, the economy is paramount: "I don't think I've ever seen this level of instability and prolonged instability." She called on the next mayor to strategically use redevelopment funds to stimulate economic development.
"How does a mayor go out and advocate for more resources for us? That's critical." She also emphasized the importance of the new mayor being aware of the demographic shifts in the city; for example, Latino students now comprise more than 38 percent of the school district.
Not surprisingly, Jacky Johnson, media relations associate of Youth UpRising, a youth advocacy organization in East Oakland, wants the mayor to be committed to young people and their needs, particularly employment.
"We're looking for somebody who has a strong vision for Oakland. People from Oakland have a lot of love and connection to their city. The mayor has to have that love for Oakland. We have a lot of problems; there are also a lot of really amazing things here. He or she should help showcase those things and show a more positive image of Oakland," she said.
While most people hadn't decided on a candidate or declined to state a preference, Schiff said she thinks it's about time the city has a female mayor.
"We've tried the guys, and they didn't work out so good," she said drolly. "The city's 160 years old, I think it's time. I think in general women tend to work more collaboratively and have a broader view because they haven't been entrenched in the power structure. Women, not all women, are better at talking stuff through. Now, Jean Quan is my No. 1 choice."
She also said she didn't think Oakland needs to be the home for yet another retiring politician, a dig at Perata, considered by some to be the front-runner in the race. It's true, the city's past three mayors, Dellums, Brown and Elihu Harris, came to the city after lengthy careers on the state or national level.
People kept returning to the idea that the economic crises offer an opportunity for new ideas and approaches.
"We need to get down to who really has a plan to integrate the community organizations, schools, police, churches into one comprehensive package to create a different reality for the families of Oakland," Thomas said.
"The assets from the federal and state government are going to be a rough go. We have human assets, and the mayor will be uniquely positioned to capitalize on the extraordinary talents in the city," said Hopkins. "I'd like to see the big picture of budgets change. But there's also pluck, resolve and ingenuity, and I see a lot of that in our community."