by Randy Shaw on November 28, 2022 (BeyondChron.org)
Mayor Sheng Tao and a Progressive Council Majority
Victories by Mayor-elect Sheng Thao and council allies could change the course of Oakland history. Oakland enters 2023 with the most progressive mayor/city council combination in its history. Will the city become a national progressive model for cities promoting racial, ethnic and economic diversity? Or will urban America’s dependence on federal and state funds send Oakland’s rising hopes crashing down?
Here’s our take.
How Oakland Got Here
Libby Schaaf and Jerry Brown are Oakland’s highest regarded Oakland mayors over the past 25-50 years. Both were favored by the city’s corporate establishment. Both primarily drew votes from homeowners and those prioritizing public safety and economic development. Both prioritized attracting and retaining middle and upper-income residents.
Many believe Brown “saved” Oakland. He is extolled for pushing waterfront development and “10,000 new homes.” Yet Brown never supported affordable housing or increasing tenant protections. Fittingly, one of his last acts as mayor was to veto legislation providing for inclusionary housing.
Brown had one great advantage: the media loved him. This insulated him and Oakland from criticisms that have been waged against other mayors.
Libby Schaaf has a complex legacy that requires a separate story. Also supported by corporate and homeowner interests, she has been far more supportive of progressive housing policies.
After taking office in 2015 Schaaf joined the council in passing a “Roadmap toward Equity.” The Roadmap, whose positives and shortcomings I assess in Generation Priced Out, sought to build 17,000 new affordable homes and protect 17,000 households from displacement. It was a bold move. But Oakland falls far short in meeting the affordable housing needs of Oakland residents. Much of Sheng Thao’s support came from Oaklanders who either fear they will be displaced or feel the city must do a lot more to promote affordability.
Brown and Schaaf governed from the premise that financial institutions and investors were skeptical about Oakland’s future. They saw the mayor’s role as building corporate and investor trust in Oakland’s stability. By that measure Schaaf in particular has been a huge success: Oakland real estate values have boomed under Schaaf and housing development exploded.
But if Oakland voters used real estate appreciation as a measuring stick, Loren Taylor would have won.. Taylor was backed by Schaaf and her allies, including landlord and real estate interests.
Instead, Thao gained support from voters alarmed by the city’s demographic trends. From 2010-2020 the white population increased 25% while Oakland’s Black population fell 27%. As Dan Immergluck wrote in his new book about Atlanta, Oakland underwent a “fundamental change in trajectory that can only be characterized as a significant, racialized gentrification.”
Mayor Thao and her allies want to change this trajectory. Not continue it.
A Pragmatic Progressive Majority
Councilmembers Nikki Bas, Dan Kalb, and Rebecca Kaplan have won re-election after serving as progressive problem-solvers. Carol Fife is still in her first term but has kept affordability at the top of her agenda. Two newly elected councilmembers—Kevin Jenkins and Janani Ramachandran—have strong progressive credentials. I endorsed Ramachandran and know she will fight to preserve and expand housing affordability.
I see Mayor Thao working collaboratively with the council majority. She is very different from prior progressive mayors—Jean Quan and Ron Dellums—who had personal deficiencies that prevented success.
Thao and her council allies know they must deliver on homelessness, public safety, affordability, and economic revitalization. Thao highlighted the need for quick action in her victory speech. Making headway will not be easy. Consider:
Homelessness: Republican control of the House likely kills any chance for meaningful federal budget increases to address homelessness. Governor Newsom wants cities to do more but the state budget looks like the state will offer less funding than in the past. Reducing Oakland’s encampments is a huge challenge and one that Thao may not achieve. But most important is that the mayor be honest with Oakland residents about what is being done and why a lack of funding prevents greater action.
On homelessness, transparency is crucial.
Public Safety: Oakland’s corporate and real estate interests have long associated progressives with jeopardizing public safety. But their efforts to scare Oakland voters into believing Thao would “defund the police”—based on false claims that progressives had sought to reduce the police budget when they instead fought to increase spending—failed.
One reason it failed was that the alarming attacks on Asian-Americans, shootings, business break-ins and other violent acts occurred under Mayor Schaaf. Voters concerned about safety were not believers in keeping the status quo (that’s how New York upstate Republicans used the crime issue to unseat incumbent Democrats). Should similar acts occur in 2023 let’s not allow the media or political forces to act like public safety suddenly declined under Mayor Thao.
Thao and the progressive council must deliver on public safety. I look forward to monitoring their approach.
Affordability: Oakland’s affordability steadily worsens. Activists have been on the outside of the Schaaf administration, and now will be on the inside under Mayor Thao. This will provide needed transparency on affordable housing policy decisions.
Oakland faces a challenge to improve affordability in the absence of major new federal or state funding. But cities can do a lot more to improve affordability if this goal becomes the centerpiece of policy making.
Overall, I see Oakland acting much more aggressively to keep working-class and low-income residents in the city.
Economic Revitalization: Mayor Schaaf was seen as “good” for business. Progressives typically aren’t trusted by corporate leaders, which is why the business community went big for Loren Taylor over the heavily-labor backed Sheng Thao.
But Thao can rebuild a more progressive Oakland economy by considering the many alternative proposals to the proposed A’s stadium at Howard Terminal. For example, Thao can move forward on the council’s plan to create Infrastructure Finance Districts to fund affordable housing and other needs.
Thao’s election itself did not kill the ill-conceived Howard Terminal stadium project. But its long been on life support. This council is not going to gift all of the city’s potential economic development money to billionaire owner John Fisher. The A’s stadium quest will either end with a sale of the team followed by a new stadium on the current site or by the A’s leaving Oakland.
Thao’s election removes the city’s mayor as the chief cheerleader behind a bad deal (I get more hostile tweets when criticizing the A’s stadium plan then on any other topic—some “fans” have no problem mortgaging the city’s future to enrich the cheapest owner in Major League Baseball). It makes no sense for Oakland to sacrifice its economic future for John Fisher.
After working in local politics for 45 years, I offer Mayor Thao and her allies three suggestions:
1.Don’t be afraid to go big.
2. Listen to your constituents, not the corporate media.
3. Don’t let the media divert your focus on the core goal of increasing and preserving Oakland’s racial, social and economic diversity. The media will invent one “scandal” after another in hopes of sidetracking the mayor’s affordability agenda .
Cities across America talk about increasing affordability but too few actually do it. Oakland’s political line up gives the city a chance to set a new, positive pattern.
It won”t be easy. Oakland faces a declining state economy and the loss of Democratic Party control of the federal budget. Activists who have fought for a more inclusive Oakland must also stay engaged to give Thao and the council the political support they need.
Can Oakland become a progressive model for other cities? We will soon find out.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw’s latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco