Oakland’s Joe Tuman—professor, triathlete, and former mayoral candidate—makes it look easy.
In his Oakland neighborhood, everyone knows Joe Tuman.
“You look just like that guy on CBS,” teases one man he runs into at Peet’s Coffee and Tea near the Claremont Hotel. “You should sign his books for him.”
“You were good last night,” says another, referring to Tuman’s appearance on CBS 5 where he commented on President Obama’s State of the Union address in February. “But I guess you can’t always speak your mind on TV.”
“Oh, I do,” says Tuman, 54, simply.
For 30 years, Joe Tuman has made his home in Oakland’s Crocker Highlands. People in the Bay Area might recognize him as a political analyst who has provided commentary to CBS 5, KGO television, and KQED radio. He’s also a dedicated runner and triathlete who has competed in 13 Ironman races and 40 marathons.
Others may remember him from his 2010 campaign for mayor of Oakland. But some just know him as a neighbor.
Politics is Tuman’s lifeblood. When the talk turns to Obama’s speech, the normally gregarious Tuman becomes even more animated. He can’t help but dissect it—analyzing not just the content but the possible political motivations behind it.
“There’s no doubt he was shaming the GOP when he talked about climate change being undeniable,” says Tuman, “He knows that he has a 52 percent approval rating right now, but he knows that Congress is in worse shape—they have a 72 percent disapproval rating. I can’t ever remember a president before talking about the weather in the State of the Union. No doubt, this was a bitch slap aimed at his opponents.”
Tuman is a slender, balding man with an easy laugh and a genuine smile—assets that would serve any politician well but which Tuman has turned toward another sort of public service: He’s a professor of political and legal communications at San Francisco State University.
Meeting at Peet’s, Tuman is slightly ill at ease in a three-piece suit. (Later today, he’s moderating a discussion with New Yorker Senior Editor Jeffrey Frank on his book, Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.) Tuman is a self-described wonk whose sharp mind and gift for conversation have made him a favorite of students and a highly sought political pundit.
“I knew early on that I liked public speaking,” says Tuman. “I was drawn to politics because of the influence of my father; my parents were active participants in democracy. They came to America because they wanted to participate in the process.”
Tuman’s parents came from a small village in Iran. His father, Vladimir Tuman, received a scholarship to study physics, geology, and petroleum engineering in England. In Europe, the elder Tuman was acutely aware of being an outsider, someone from “the colonies.” But when he returned to Iran, his western ways—and new motorcycle—irked his traditionalist parents.
Eventually, Tuman’s parents moved to the United States, landing in Texas before moving to California and eventually settling in Turlock. Along the way, his father taught at Stanford and the University of Illinois, before helping to found the physics department at California State University Stanislaus in the mid-1960s.
His father’s legacy inspired Tuman to go into academia, but being in the audience at age 10, when presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy delivered a stirring campaign speech, inspired him to start thinking about studying rhetoric and communications.
In 1968, Vladimir Tuman, as a prominent Democrat from the Central Valley, was tapped to accompany the senator as he made his way by train from Sacramento to Los Angeles. The younger Tuman turned up to hear Kennedy speak when he made a stop along the way in Turlock.
Tuman was probably the only person who turned up to cheer Kennedy. Others in the audience were clearly loyal Republicans—Nixon supporters waving signs, and ranchers angered by Kennedy’s vocal support of Cesar Chavez and migrant unionization. Tuman felt the chill in the air when Kennedy took the stage.
“But Kennedy began speaking and in a few minutes managed to completely turn that crowd around,” Tuman says, still marveling at the power of Kennedy’s carefully crafted delivery. “It just blew my mind.”
Kennedy opened with a little anecdote about what he had for breakfast the morning before: turkey sausages. Someone in the crowd chuckled. Turlock was a turkey farming town. For lunch, Kennedy had eaten a turkey sandwich. More chuckles.
The young Tuman’s attention was focused on the audience, and he watched in amazement as the chilly mood thawed with every mention of the word “turkey.” By the time that Kennedy launched into his standard stump speech, the ranchers had put down their Nixon signs. Kennedy had completely won over the crowd.
Tuman was perplexed. How did Kennedy know about the turkeys? His father later told him that during the train ride, Kennedy noticed an ad in a newspaper that simply said “Turkeys from Turlock.”
“What’s this?” Kennedy asked an aide.
“Oh, Turlock is a turkey farming town.”
Kennedy nodded, pulled a pad out of his coat pocket and scribbled a quick note to himself. The young Tuman was fascinated to learn about how politicians tailor their messages to specific audiences.
“I knew you could do that before—obviously, if you’re asking Mom for something, you don’t ask her the same way that you ask Dad,” says Tuman, “But that was what really drove it home.”
Other lessons about the joys and frustrations of politics kept coming his way. In junior high, Tuman led a coalition of fellow students in successfully petitioning the Turlock City Council to create bike lanes on a main thoroughfare through town. A few years later, serving on his high school’s student council, Tuman wanted to create a designated smoking area for students in the parking lot so they wouldn’t smoke in the restrooms. Parents refused to believe the school had a smoking problem, so Tuman invited them to come for a surprise inspection. But when he arrived with parents the next day, they found every restroom immaculately clean—not a cigarette in sight—because the principal, not wanting to be embarrassed, ordered them all cleaned.
“It was a lesson that you can be well-intentioned and still out-maneuvered,” says Tuman. It wasn’t an easy pill to swallow, but it helped Tuman realize that his real passion lay in studying politics and becoming a teacher like his father.
“Every teacher has moments when they see in a student’s eyes that they really get it. You maybe get a handful over your career,” says Tuman, who studied political science and law at U.C. Berkeley. “Those are the moments that you live for.”
Tuman and his wife moved to Oakland more than 30 years ago when he was teaching in Cal’s rhetoric department. The couple ended up staying in Oakland, raising their two children, now 25 and 22, after Tuman joined San Francisco State’s communications studies department in 1987.
As an academic, he’s written and edited numerous books on political communication, including Political Communication in American Campaigns and Communicating Terror: The Rhetorical Dimensions of Terrorism. Tuman was among the first communications experts to study terrorism as a form of rhetoric, examining how a terrorist act itself conveys messages, meanings, and symbols to target audiences.
In the mid-1980s, Tuman started a second career in what was then the relatively new field of TV political punditry. A producer for the fledgling network CNN asked him to provide commentary on the 1984 presidential race. The producer had remembered Tuman’s animated rants from an event where U.C. Berkeley college debaters commented on a debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan during the 1980 presidential race. Tuman and a friend found themselves at the CNN studio at the top of the Transamerica Pyramid building, being interviewed by Bernard Shaw.
Shaw kept pointing out that Tuman was a Democrat while his friend was a Republican; the two men soon picked up on the idea that they were supposed to argue for the cameras. They ended up putting on a show so entertaining that the channel let it go on for seven minutes, an eternity in broadcast news time.
“My writing teacher used to say, ‘Fiction needs friction,’” says Tuman. “You need conflict to be interesting. Nonfiction is the same way. Television traffics in conflict.”
Tuman’s flair for showmanship never overshadows a meticulous devotion to substantive details. In 2010, that powerful combination led a friend to suggest that Tuman enter the heated 2010 Oakland mayor race. The friend also knew Tuman loved his hometown.
“Oakland needed help,” said Tuman, “There wasn’t any leadership, there were demonstrations over [the Oscar Grant shooting], Montclair was talking about seceding from the city.”
Tuman was in a unique position: As a political commentator, he was an outsider but he knew the landscape and the people intimately. At first, Tuman was reluctant.
“People don’t get into politics because who needs the headache? Oakland is a tough city: You serve four years as mayor, you age 10. But if we all take the attitude that someone else should do the tough job, then nothing will ever change. And as a commentator, I felt there was also a moral imperative to try and help my city. There was a greater sense of urgency for me.”
With his name recognition and strong grassroots support, Tuman did well in the polls. News outlets that previously limited their coverage to the major three candidates—Don Perata, Jean Quan, and Rebecca Kaplan—quickly recognized Tuman as a serious contender.
“All my life, my family and my time have been the most important things to me. That’s part of why I’ve chosen the teaching profession. But when you’re a politician, you’re no longer in control of your time. I went from being myself to being a commodity being sold—[like a] box of soap or the tube of toothpaste. All the things I learned as a 10-year-old from RFK’s example were coming to fruition.”
It wasn’t an easy campaign. Tuman lost 17 pounds shuttling between house meetings, staying up late, and skipping meals. Ultimately, Tuman didn’t win but the experience left him with a new respect for politicians.
A few days after the election, Tuman, in T-shirt and sweats, made an early morning stop at his local coffee shop. As usual, he was recognized.
A man approached him: “Hey, I’m sorry you didn’t win. I voted for you.” The man patted Tuman sympathetically on the shoulder. “Have you found another job yet?”
“Thanks, but I already have a job,” said Tuman. “I’m a professor at San Francisco State.”
The man looked at Tuman with obvious skepticism, taking in his sweatpants and shirt. “Sure,” he said.
“Now I have to dress up to get coffee just so people aren’t worried about me,” laughs Tuman.
Campaigning for mayor was exhausting but left him with a renewed sense of wanting to serve his community. He’s now on the board of the grassroots community voter group, Make Oakland Better Now. Also, he participates in Running for a Better Oakland, a nonprofit that reflects another of his passions by helping students train for the Oakland Running Festival.
Tuman is in training himself, for his 14th Ironman race, scheduled for this summer in Canada. It will be the first time he’s competing in a new age category: the 55-59 age bracket.
“Nobody likes getting older but it’s fun to move to a new age group,” said Tuman. “When you’re beginning a new category, you’re the baby of the group. I’ve always enjoyed running because it’s like having a competition with your younger self. You have to keep stoking that fire in your belly.”
Getting older has also made him more reflective about the idea of home and where people choose to live. Growing up, Tuman never understood why his father settled his family in Turlock. (“It’s hot, flat and dry.”) But recently, after his father died, hundreds of local Turlock residents showed up at his funeral. Tuman realized that most of these people came from the same village in Iran where his father was born.
“All his life he just wanted someplace where he could fit in,” says Tuman. “I learned from him that a community isn’t geography, it’s people. He found that in Turlock. For me, it’s in Oakland.”
Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and a longtime contributor to The Monthly.