Oakland mayoral candidate calls out rivals over antisemitism, transphobia

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday September 7, 2022
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Oakland City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Sheng Thao, left, joined fellow City Councilmember and Alameda County supervisor candidate Rebecca Kaplan at the September 4 Oakland Pride parade. Photo: Cynthia Laird
Oakland City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Sheng Thao, left, joined fellow City Councilmember and Alameda County supervisor candidate Rebecca Kaplan at the September 4 Oakland Pride parade. Photo: Cynthia Laird

One of the leading candidates for Oakland mayor has called out her rivals and demanded that two minor candidates exit the race after they posted alleged antisemitic comments related to an upcoming forum and one exhibited bias against the transgender community.

Sheng Thao, who is a current city councilmember and running to replace termed out Mayor Libby Schaaf, took to social media Tuesday evening and was critical of long-shot candidates Peter Liu, who has twice before sought the office, and Seneca Scott, a West Oakland resident who posed at a First Friday event in June with well-known transphobe Chris Elston while wearing an anti-trans sandwich board.

Thao said in a Facebook video that she had participated in the Oakland Pride parade September 4 and it was "deeply disheartening and disturbing to see a vicious blatant antisemitic email threat between Peter Liu and Seneca Scott" later that day. Thao was with Rebecca Kaplan, a lesbian city councilmember who's vice mayor and currently running for the District 3 seat on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. Thao used to be Kaplan's chief of staff before being elected to the City Council, and Kaplan has endorsed her mayoral bid.

"The email chain included myself, my fellow mayoral candidates, the Jewish community, and others," Thao said, "and was sent a few days after it was revealed that Seneca Scott has a history of shaming and defaming transgender youth, as well as fat shaming women.

"I fully condemn the hateful rhetoric of Peter Liu and Seneca Scott and I'm calling for them to apologize and suspend their campaigns," Thao added. "They clearly are not fit to serve in elected office anywhere, particularly in Oakland."

Scott was photographed wearing a sandwich board that contained an anti-trans hate message, as Oaklandside reported September 6. Scott agreed to be photographed wearing the sandwich board, and Elston posted the picture on his Twitter feed, the outlet reported.

"He's an independent candidate who knows we shouldn't be blocking puberty in children," Elston wrote in the tweet that accompanied the photo.

The sandwich board that Scott wore stated, "Dad, noun. A human male who protects kids from gender ideology."

Scott told the Oaklandside that he hadn't read the sandwich board before donning it, and that he didn't agree with the statement.

In a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter Wednesday, Scott said he would not wear the sandwich board again. He denied being transphobic. He said he was backstage at last Sunday's Oakland Pride festival and didn't hear anything about it.

He also said he is not dropping out of the mayor's race.

"That's comical," he said of Thao's call to suspend his campaign. "Sheng is scared."

Scott said that he is supportive of gender-affirming care for trans kids, but noted that not everyone agrees on that issue, including those within the medical and trans communities. Pressed, however, about whether a trans kid and their parents should have access to such care if a doctor recommended it, he said, "absolutely." Several states have passed laws prohibiting such care.

Oaklandside reported that the fallout for Scott continued as Oakhella, a company he co-founded in 2016, distanced itself from him over the weekend.

"As a Queer and Trans organization, led by a Black woman who is an Oakland native, we were shocked to see some of the comments and notions of boycotting OAKHELLA. We have worked tirelessly over the last 7 years to build a solid brand and reputation," read a statement from Oakhella posted to Instagram. "Oakhella was founded on the pillars of food justice, community co-creation, inclusion and celebrating everything that is beautiful about Oakland. We especially create space for Queer and Trans people, and have done so since day one.

"We have intentionally remained as neutral as possible in the Oakland Mayoral race, but when we are openly associated with Transphobia, we have to make it clear that WE DO NOT SHARE THOSE SENTIMENTS," the post stated.

Antisemitic rant

As for Liu's rant that apparently started it all, he sent an antisemitic email September 4 to over 60 people, "slandering and threatening the Jewish Community Relations Council, a Bay Area public affairs group, and congregants of Oakland's Temple Sinai synagogue. Liu also accused both organizations of unfairly excluding him and other mayoral candidates from an upcoming forum at the temple," Oaklandside reported.

"I am sick of these corrupt Jews and their media allies deceiving the public," Liu wrote, invoking an antisemitic trope in which Jewish people are accused of nefariously controlling mass media outlets, according to Oaklandside.

Scott was the first to respond to Liu's email, with one word, "Protest?" Oaklandside reported that Scott told the outlet he is not antisemitic, but that he was responding to the fact that he was excluded from the forum as well.

"I am absolutely not antisemitic," Scott told the B.A.R., adding that he has no plans to protest the forum, which is scheduled for September 15. He also challenged Thao's accusation that his "protest?" response was antisemitic.

"That's a stretch," Scott said.

Tye Gregory, a gay man who's executive director of the JCRC, told the B.A.R. that he feels differently.

"It was my interpretation that he was trying to instigate a protest," Gregory said in a phone interview, referring to Scott's comment.

Gregory said that Liu's "hatred is an unfortunate reminder" of the headwinds of antisemitism. "It really underscores why the Jewish community wanted its own forum."

He recalled antisemitic incidents like the shooting that occurred at the Tree of Life Synagogue near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2018 in which 11 people were killed, and the hostage incident in January in which a man held four people at the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. (One hostage was released and the other three escaped.)

"It makes us all very concerned," Gregory said.

Scott said he does have support within the Jewish community. He forwarded the B.A.R. an email written by Jonathan Carey to Gregory asking if Scott could be included in the forum.

"Is it too late to get my favorite candidate into this forum?" Carey wrote in the August 25 email.

In an email response to the B.A.R., Carey wrote that he did not know anything about the recent events.

"However, Mr. Scott never made any derogatory comments toward me nor about my efforts to get him included in the Jewish community's mayoral debate," Carey wrote. "I made no secret of my Jewish background when I met him on multiple occasions and in this email effort."

In addition to Thao mayoral candidates Loren Taylor and Treva Reid - also city councilmembers - are the only three to be invited to the forum.

Carey wrote that Gregory only responded once to his email and "never followed up that only three candidates made some internal measure of campaign viability to be included."

"I asked for clarification of what that measure was since others were obviously still in the race, but he never responded to me," Carey wrote.

In response to a question about that, Gregory said that as a 501(c)3, JCRC is holding the forum for educational purposes. "There's no public polling so we used reported fundraising numbers," he said. "If new numbers or public polling comes out, we may expand the number of candidates on stage."

In her video, Thao credited mayoral candidate Taylor's criticism of Liu's comments.

"But I'm disappointed that he did also not condemn Seneca Scott's participation in it as well," she said. "For women and the LGBTQ community, we see our rights under constant attack and threat. AAPI hate is real, it's rising, and must be addressed."

Taylor did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Gregory added that JCRC recognizes that not every candidate will be participating in the forum. But he also said that Liu was not a serious candidate and acknowledged that this latest dustup was garnering attention for Liu and his campaign.

Liu did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Liu is perhaps best known for his vision of water slides at Lake Merritt. But a postcard-sized flyer from his 2018 mayoral campaign contains questionable language in addition to drawings illustrating the water slides. The flyer contains an image of a horse and buggy with the words "Horsey rides for white people." It also contains the phrases "Bounce houses for Latinos," "Nice grills for Black people," and "Mexican workers, Asian cashiers."

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