Oakland is working to shed its reputation as a mismanaged and crime-ridden city.
New stores, restaurants and entertainment options have been reinvigorating downtown. Unemployment is falling and young professionals are pouring in as the San Francisco Bay Area's technology sector booms. City officials say they are making progress in negotiations to build new facilities for the Raiders and Athletics.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan wants voters to recognize the city's strides as she fights for a second-term. The constant turnover of top city officials and Quan's handling of the 2011 Occupy Oakland protests and high crime have called into question whether she's able to manage the city of 400,000.
Quan, a former activist, calls much of the criticism of her disconnected from reality.
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"Being one of the first women and first Asian-American mayors in the country, I got second-guessed a lot,'' Quan said in an interview with The Associated Press. "If I'm going to be blamed for everything that went wrong, I need to get some credit for things that are going right.''
The race to determine who will lead Oakland is the most high-profile of several mayoral elections on California ballots Nov. 4.
Quan risks being unseated by a unique ranked-choice, instant-runoff voting system that vaulted her into her job despite a second-place finish during the 2010 mayoral election.
In a crowded field of 15 candidates this year, two members of the City Council are rising ahead of the pack: Rebecca Kaplan, who has led in polls; and Libby Schaaf, who has been endorsed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Oakland mayor.
The incumbent's chances for re-election slim as the field narrows and progressive voters abandon Quan, said Corey Cook, a University of San Francisco political scientist who studies Oakland voting.
Crime, affordable housing and development are top issues in the race, with the leading candidates mostly agreeing with each other on their priorities. Critics of ranked-choice voting say the system encourages candidates to focus on name recognition and not alienating rivals' supporters.
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In 2012, Oakland had more robberies per capita than any other large U.S. city and the highest violent crime rate of any large California city, according to data reported to the FBI. Federal officials have been monitoring Oakland's police department for reforms after years of misconduct and corruption allegations.
Leading mayoral candidates share a vision of an expanded, proactive, community-oriented police department staffed with Oakland-raised officers. Schaaf says crime is an "urban tax'' holding back Oakland and blames Quan for understaffed public safety.
Quan said the city has graduated more police cadets during her tenure than any other mayor. She points to dips in homicides and robberies this year compared to last, although those crimes are on par with 2010 levels.
Oakland has seen a transformation of downtown neighborhoods that was initiated during Brown's tenure. The next generation of growth pushed by Quan includes a $1.5 billion waterfront housing development and a $2 billion project for a new Raiders stadium, a potential A's stadium and surrounding housing and hotels.
"Every part of the city should be exploding and booming and sharing in the economic upturn,'' Quan said.
Social activists say longtime and poor residents are threatened by rising housing prices and gentrification as a result of a lopsided focus on downtown investment. Monthly rents in gentrifying neighborhoods have increased about 30 percent from 1990 to 2011, according to a county health department analysis.
"There is the narrative of the rise of Oakland, but that rise has come at a cost,'' said Shawn Ginwright, a professor at San Francisco State University who studies Oakland youth.
Kaplan, who finished behind Quan in the 2010 mayoral race, is looking to win over liberal voters disenchanted with the incumbent by focusing on affordable housing.
Other large California cities voting for mayor on Election Day include Anaheim, Chula Vista and San Jose, where a bruising political battle over public employees' pensions has made its way to the ballot box.
Unions are fighting voter-approved pension cuts in court, which they blame for the departure of hundreds of police officers to other departments. Councilman Sam Liccardo has vowed to continue defending the cuts, while labor-backed County Supervisor Dave Cortese says he would settle the lawsuit.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA all-star and one of California's highest profile mayors, isn't on the ballot, but an initiative to increase his office's power is. Measure L gives the mayor more oversight in running the city with the power to fire and hire the city manager.
Johnson says the shift would make city government more accountable to voters. Opponents of Measure L have called it a power grab, noting Johnson was able to keep the NBA's Sacramento Kings with a taxpayer-funded stadium using the existing system.