Mayor-elect Thao vows to unite Oakland

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday November 23, 2022
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Oakland Mayor-elect Sheng Thao spoke to the media and supporters at her first news conference since winning the mayor's race Wednesday, November 22, outside City Hall. Photo: Cynthia Laird
Oakland Mayor-elect Sheng Thao spoke to the media and supporters at her first news conference since winning the mayor's race Wednesday, November 22, outside City Hall. Photo: Cynthia Laird

Walking onto the steps of City Hall Wednesday to Queen's "We are the Champions," Oakland Mayor-elect Sheng Thao thanked those who voted for her and vowed to be a mayor for all residents - even if they supported another candidate during the hotly contested campaign.

Thao, 37, will be the youngest mayor in Oakland's history and its first Hmong mayor. A straight ally, Thao stood with the LGBTQ community during the mayoral campaign when another candidate participated in a transphobic photo shoot with a well-known transphobe, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

Thao, who currently represents District 4 on the Oakland City Council, will take office January 2.

Thao told supporters and the media at her news conference that she thanked her main opponent, outgoing District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor, for his concession phone call to her Tuesday. Taylor also held a news conference that day where he formally conceded the race.

"He ran a strong campaign," Thao said.

For his part, Taylor congratulated Thao. "The results are in, and while we ran an extremely competitive race and received a large share of the vote count, we came up short," Taylor stated in a November 22 release. "I'd like to formally congratulate Sheng Thao on her successful victory in the race to be Oakland's next mayor."

The Oakland mayor's race was one of the last local races to be called when the final votes were released November 21. On election night, November 8, Taylor emerged with the most first place votes and had a 33.07% lead to Thao's 31.79%. But Oakland uses ranked choice voting and, as those results were tabulated, Thao began to cut into Taylor's lead. With the final unofficial results, Thao won with 50.30% of the vote to Taylor's 49.70%, a margin of 682 votes.

Thao has quickly worked to unite the city.

"To all Oaklanders who voted for another candidate, I will do anything I can to earn their trust," she said Wednesday. "I will be a mayor for all of Oakland."

She said she was excited to get to work as mayor in January.

"I am also humble," she added.

Thao briefly recited her campaign stump speech, how she escaped an abusive relationship and was homeless and living in her car with her young son 16 years ago. Today, she lives with her partner, Andre Jones; son, Benedict; and daughter, Brooklyn. "So many people have held our hands and lifted us up," she said.

Thao eventually became an intern and then staff member for lesbian at-large City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. Four years ago, she was elected to the District 4 council seat, which includes the Montclair, Redwood Heights, and Dimond neighborhoods. That council district has produced the city's last three mayors: Jean Quan, Libby Schaaf, and now Thao. Quan was on the steps with Thao's other supporters, as was District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb.

Kaplan, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, will remain in her council seat as she still has two years in her term. Having previously run for Oakland mayor herself, Kaplan endorsed Thao when she kicked off her campaign.

"Sheng Thao was an excellent and effective staff person whom I was honored to hire, promote, and support in her runs for office," stated Kaplan in a congratulatory email she sent out November 22. "She started in my office as an intern and rose to Chief of Staff prior to her run for City Council. Her election is historic, and she will be a ground breaking Mayor for Oakland."

Succeeding Thao in her City Council seat will be social justice attorney Janani Ramachandran, who is queer and lost a bid for state Assembly last year. At age 30, she will be the youngest councilmember in Oakland's history, as well as the council's first LGBTQ woman of color and first South Asian member.

She tweeted Wednesday morning that she looks forward to working with Thao next year "to uplift & empower our Oakland communities."

Thao said that her top priorities would be public safety, homelessness, and cleaning up the city's streets. She wants the city to implement the council's public safety plan and wants to create more jobs for Oaklanders. On the issue of policing, Thao said the Oakland Police Department's vacancies should be filled "with diverse homegrown officers."

Last year, after voting not to add additional police academies, Thao reversed course and did support more academies as violent crime was rising and the number of police officers was decreasing.

Thao also wants to get guns off the streets, she said.

Thao did not take questions from reporters following her remarks. Some LGBTQ residents who were there said that they looked forward to the new administration.

"She's been a very strong" ally, said Port bar co-owner Sean Sullivan, a gay man who owns the LGBTQ nightspot with his partner, Richard Fuentes.

Sullivan noted that Thao put out a statement on Twitter following the mass shooting in Colorado Springs, Colorado November 19 that left five people dead and 18 injured.

"I am shocked and angered by the horrid attack on our LGBTQ community in Colorado," she wrote. "Brazen acts of violence like this have been tolerated for far too long and it is unacceptable Congress has not taken bold action against gun violence and rising hate in our country."

Added Sullivan, "I look forward to creating a safer and more vibrant city for LGBTQ people."

Fuentes told the Bay Area Reporter that he first met Thao when she was interning for Kaplan and he worked for then-city councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente (who also ran for mayor this year but came up short). He said he's looking forward to Thao's support for small businesses.

"With inflation and layoffs, support is critical for small businesses like us," he said.

Schaaf weighs in on race

A progressive, Thao also talked about how she hopes to work with the City Council, which has a progressive majority.

"There will be unity of the mayor's office and council," she said. Schaaf, more of a moderate, often did not have a council majority during her eight years in office.

Outgoing Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf reflected on the mayor's race in remarks with reporters Wednesday, November 22, in her City Hall conference room. Photo: Cynthia Laird  

That was something Schaaf alluded to at her own news conference held shortly before Thao's. There, she announced there will be a special session of the Oakland City Council Tuesday, November 29, to approve two financial grant programs aimed at increasing neighborhood shopping and dining in Oakland and a "Welcome Back Downtown" campaign aimed at encouraging employees to return to working in person at their offices.

The grants for the neighborhood safety program - about $315,000 - will be for the holidays and include more ambassadors and a program for emergency window repairs. The downtown program, at $464,000, is a three-month pilot project. The funds for both, totaling $779,000, will come from the city's surplus, mainly from the police department, Schaaf said.

After those announcements, Schaaf reflected on the mayor's race, in which she had endorsed Taylor.

"Now is the time for us to come together," she said.

"I believe Sheng's political approach does reflect this city," Schaaf said, "and I think Sheng will have a City Council that she'll have a good relationship with."

Schaaf as mayor does not sit on the City Council but can cast a tie-breaking vote under Oakland's strong mayor ordinance. The council has eight members.

Schaaf, a native Oaklander, was asked about public safety.

"Oakland has always struggled with public safety," she said. "Mayor-elect Thao will need everyone's support. I hope she will continue with the Operation Ceasefire strategy."

That strategy has three goals: reduce gang and gang-related shootings and homicides; decrease recidivism and incarceration rates of individuals participating in the intervention; and strengthen police-community relations.

The mayor also praised the city for its progress on police reform, even as it remains under a federal monitor. The police department was mandated to complete reforms 20 years ago following the Riders scandal, in which officers beat people and planted drugs on them. However, Oaklandside recently reported that there are new problems that could derail the department's plan to end the monitoring.

"Oakland has been recognized for its incredible effort at police reform," Schaaf said.

Schaaf said that Thao will inherit a city in better shape than when she took office eight years ago. At that time, Oakland had a low credit rating and infrastructure issues. Today, the debt rating is the best in city history, and the city's efforts at street repair have proved popular. Schaaf also mentioned the debt the city incurred from the Oakland Raiders fiasco, and that is still with the city, to the tune of $189 million, according to reports.

Asked what advice she has for Thao, Schaaf said, "Build big partnerships and don't forget about the politics of basic services."

Schaaf said she remains in favor of ranked choice voting, even though her endorsed candidate came up short. Taylor was critical of the process at his news conference he held Tuesday.

"I'm a fan of ranked choice voting," Schaaf said. "It's no secret I endorsed Loren Taylor but in no way do I blame ranked choice voting. It more accurately reflects voters."

Schaaf said she has texted with Thao but has not yet spoken on the phone with her. She said that she just returned November 22 from the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP27, in Egypt.

As for Schaaf's future plans, she said she likely will have a "small announcement" in the coming weeks. "I will decide next year," she said, adding that she will be fulfilling her mayoral duties until she hands them over to Thao.

"I'm not doing [a] 'check-out' in the last few months," she said.

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