Sheng Thao Breaks Through
The new Oakland city councilmember representing the hills is the first Hmong-American woman elected to that office in the state.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
It is an understatement to say that newly elected Oakland City Councilmember Sheng Thao, the first Hmong-American woman to hold that office in the state of California, does not give up easily.
Thao, 33, seized victory last November in a crowded council race to represent the Oakland hills, even though the mayor and the incumbent vacating the office were backing another candidate and Oakland had no sizable Hmong-American community to back her.
And that triumph came after Thao grew up in poverty to refugee parents from Laos, left home after rejecting a subservient role for women, survived as a homeless and pregnant young adult after escaping domestic violence, graduated from UC Berkeley, and worked her way up to be chief of staff for now-City Council President Rebecca Kaplan, while raising her now 12-year-old son as a single parent.
Yet for all she has overcome, Thao exudes not defiance, but gratitude. “I was just so humbled. Just excited and happy and crying all at the same time,” said Thao of election night Nov. 7, when Mayor Libby Schaaf and outgoing District 4 Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington sent their congratulations. “For one thing, all of these people who voted in District 4 believed in me that I could be a strong voice for them,” said Thao, who now represents the Crestmont, Dimond, Montclair, Piedmont Pines, Redwood Heights, parts of Allendale and Fairfax, and Laurel neighborhoods, the last of which she calls home.
How strong and independent that voice will be the future will tell. The pressures from interest groups, like the labor unions that strongly supported her, will be many. Thao vowed, however, that keeping the city financially healthy is a priority for her.
Even as a girl, Thao had an activist streak and was willing to stand up for what she thought was right. She grew up one of 10 children to parents who fled the wreckage of America’s wars in Southeast Asia. Much like in Laos and Thailand, her family grew vegetables and raised livestock for sustenance on a plot of land east of Stockton. Also much like in Laos, female children were expected to get up early and help cook food for the males. Thao wouldn’t do it, insisting that she would not do anything her brothers were not required to do.
“I was the only daughter who refused,” she said. “I was always fighting at home for women’s rights.”
At age 17, Thao, who has had a job since age 16, moved to Richmond and worked at a Walgreens. “The reason I came out on my own was really to find out who I was,” she said. “Being the daughter of a refugee, it’s really hard to figure out who you are because at home there is this tradition. …”
On her own, however, Thao got into a relationship that proved toxic, and like many domestic violence victims, she fell out of contact with family and friends. Thao was six months pregnant when she finally fled, sleeping in her car for a time both before and after giving birth at a hospital in Martinez. “I am a domestic violence survivor. It’s made me the person that I am today, the woman that I am today,” Thao said.
Ten months after giving birth, Thao enrolled at Oakland’s Merritt College, where she got a job as a research assistant in the Office of Research & Planning working to help black male students succeed. Thao recalls frequently bringing her son, Ben, to class, including one time to a biology final when he was sick and not allowed to attend day care. She recalled with gratitude to her professors for their patience how she would put her boy on the floor with toy trains. As she spoke, her boy was again sprawled on the floor, this time in her new council office, putting together a LEGO toy.
Helped by a welfare-to-work program, Thao went on to graduate from Merritt College as valedictorian and transferred to UC Berkeley, where she subsequently got a degree in legal studies. Again, Thao’s activist streak came to the fore. Though working for the university as a program analyst and events coordinator, Thao’s budget was stretched. Realizing that student parents like herself were struggling to feed their families, she helped organized the Bear Pantry, an informal program in which she and others living at University Village in Albany collected food donations from restaurants, like the Cheese Board Collective, and grocery stores, like Whole Foods, and left them on a back porch for pickup by those in need. Today, the Bear Pantry is administered by Cal, which has greatly expanded its food offerings for those in need.
In 2012, Thao was accepted to the Asian Pacific Islander Public Affairs summer internship program and got paired with the office of At-Large Councilmember Kaplan. There, Thao recognized that she, like many other children of Hmong-American refugees, had learned to advocate for the needs of others as a child when she had to interpret for her non-English speaking mother in routine situations like grocery shopping.
“I realized I wanted to help people who have a lesser voice get through bureaucracies,” Thao said.
In 2014, Thao got a job offer from Kaplan’s office, where she started as a scheduler/community liaison and was promoted to policy and communications director and then chief of staff in less than three years. Thao was thus a key behind-the-scenes player in numerous weighty and often controversial policy issues, though she never took public positions, leaving that to Kaplan.
As to nuts and bolts government, Kathy Chao Rothberg, executive director of Lao Family Community Development, an Oakland-funded agency that offers employment training and social services to the general public, said Thao was very responsive helping with permitting, contracting, and quality of life issues, like illegal dumping.
Chao Rothberg, herself a refugee from Laos who is of Iu Mien descent, predicted that Thao’s experience working in an at-large council office will benefit the entire city. “Sheng is going to be a leader who is going to think about the city as a whole,” said Chao Rothberg, who previously was a San Pablo city councilmember and mayor.
Thao said the idea of running for council to replace Campbell Washington came only after her name was bandied about by others. She said she always knew she would run one day, but that day came sooner rather than she expected.
Thao’s mother counseled her daughter to not be surprised when she lost. After all, there is no sizable Hmong-American community in Oakland, unlike some cities in the Central Valley, or in Minnesota where Hmong-Americans have been elected. Thao’s young son saw no Asian councilmembers and asked his mother if she would be a “good fit” for the job. “That broke my heart,” she said. “Now that he sees me as a councilmember, I know that not just for him but for other people who look like me, they can now see that they can be in positions like this.”
Today, Thao said her mother and father, who still live in Stockton with one of their sons, are “over the moon proud of me and tell everybody” about her election. Other Hmong-Americans are also excited, and extended members of the vast Thao clan threw a celebration for Thao in late January in Merced that was attended by 500 people from across the country.
“She is a determined, bright young lady,” said Brandon Vang, a school board member in Fresno County who did not know Thao but volunteered to walk door-to-door for her campaign. “Her story is even to me inspirational,” said Vang, whose family also fled Laos and had to overcome many obstacles.
Many Hmong-Americans have quizzed Thao about how she managed to win office without a Hmong-American base. Thao got 34.6 percent of first-place votes out of seven candidates in ranked voting. And after ranked-choice tabulations, she defeated second-place finisher, Pamela Harris, 54.1 percent to 45.9 percent.
“My response is we need to step outside just the Hmong community. When we talk about making our voices heard, we need to show up when there is a Black Lives Matter event, we need to show up when people are fighting for immigration rights, because we fall under all those categories,” Thao said. “Only through partnership can you create a stronger voice.”
Once Thao had decided to run, she did so with vigor, cobbling together what she described as an “in house” campaign run by herself and a few others. Halfway through the campaign, however, Thao started to get significant support from local, regional, and even national labor entities, including unions representing thousands of city employees. Unions ultimately donated $39,300, starting on Aug. 17, when the Construction & General Laborers Local Union 304, which is based in Hayward and has an office in Oakland, jumped aboard with a $1,600 donation, the maximum allowed under city law by a broad based political committee. (Calls to that union and numerous others seeking comment for this report were not returned.) Thao raised almost $75,000 total, second only to Charlie Michelson, who raised more than $95,000 before dropping out of the race.
Thao said she holds no ill feelings toward the mayor or Campbell Washington for not endorsing her, and although she did get Kaplan’s endorsement, Thao’s campaign information did not play up her affiliation with the councilmember by name, at times simply citing her role as a chief of staff. Thao said she wasn’t avoiding being affiliated with Kaplan, which wasn’t a secret, but just wanted to keep the focus on herself.
Thao ran on a platform of knowing how government operates, particularly the budget process, and her readiness “to hit the ground running.” She said her top priority for District 4 was to improve vegetation management in the hills and to put back in place a special wildfire assessment district in order to prevent a catastrophic fire, which she said would create a financial crisis for the entire city.
Daniel Swafford, executive director of the Montclair Village and Laurel Village commercial district associations, said he threw his weight behind Thao because he thinks she gets that small business owners don’t have time to battle City Hall to get services. “I think she gets that really well,” he said.
On a citywide and regional basis, Thao is also concerned with homelessness, the rising cost of living in Oakland, particularly related to housing, as well as public safety, illegal dumping, and Oakland’s infrastructure.
In tackling such issues, Thao vowed to improve the tenor of relations on the council, which have frequently been acrimonious in the past.
“It is a new day on the council, and we’re working together to try to uplift the whole city and not have these nasty back and forths that were not productive,” Thao said.