Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf Is Our East Bay Person of the Year
She inspired us like no other for this inaugural achievement.
Libby with fire-breathing snail car
Photo by Chris Duffey
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Perhaps no event had more potential to derail Libby Schaaf’s young mayoral administration than the May 1 mayhem in which protesters swarmed Oakland Auto Row, breaking windows and setting cars ablaze.
The police response was torpid. Police Chief Sean Whent later conceded that his department was ill-prepared for the all-too predictable May Day protest, which targeted law enforcement following a nationwide epidemic of suspicious police killings of young black men and women. The spasm of vandalism destroyed hundreds of thousand of dollars in property.
Oakland businessman Erich Horat sprayed his disillusionment in big block letters on the plywood covering his auto shop’s shattered windows. “Oakland Police, you failed your city again.” Horat later replaced that message with an angrier one that seemed like it could permanently shape the reputation of Oakland’s new mayor: “Riot Tourism—Visit Oakland—Schaaf and Whent will show you which block to trash.”
Such challenges often afflicted Oakland during the four-year term of Schaaf’s predecessor, Jean Quan. But from Quan’s early mishandling of Occupy Oakland all the way to her eventual assurance that a Middle Eastern prince would help save Oakland’s Raiders, the former mayor’s demeanor, hesitation, and missteps frequently trumped the many positive things happening in Oakland. It didn’t take long for the media to start ravaging the prior mayor, and anti-Quan rhetoric quickly morphed into an all-too-familiar strain of Oakland-bashing. Quan never recovered from this avalanche of criticism, ultimately losing to Schaaf in a landslide.
Oakland’s new mayor has confronted many similar challenges. But over the past year, Schaaf has demonstrated an ability to frame Oakland’s narrative on her own terms. Her navigation is usually deft, but she has shown that she can change course when necessary. Grave issues still confront Oakland—some more seriously than a year ago. Yet Schaaf has made a good show of grappling with The Town’s historic challenges, and evidence of action—if not yet actual accomplishment—is about the best that one can hope for during any new mayor’s first year in office.
After the presidency, being a big city mayor is perhaps the second-toughest job in American politics. Mayoral candidates run on their own agenda, but they must govern based on the agenda of their constituents. As a candidate, Schaaf promised a larger police force; as a mayor she has encountered a nationwide backlash against the police, which has been exacerbated by seven officer-involved shootings in Oakland in recent months. As a candidate, she promised to usher in a wave of dense new residential construction; as a mayor, she has seen the housing affordability crisis spawn hostility to such development as the supposed agent of gentrification. As a candidate, she pledged to offer reasoned, disciplined governance; as mayor she has had to concede that the city’s initial reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests was halting, often ineffective, and hella expensive. And as a candidate, the effervescent Schaaf led cheers for Oakland; but as mayor she has been forced to weigh in on evictions, senseless slayings, budgetary shortfalls, police shootings, and the distinct possibility that all three of Oakland’s pro sports teams might leave town on her watch. Such is the life of a big-city mayor.
While Schaaf’s first year in office was not error-free, the mayor is stronger on her anniversary than she was one year ago. Crime is down, investment is up, downtown is alive, construction is about to boom, and most Oaklanders feel better about the city than they did one year ago. And the surprisingly resilient mayor has emerged with her priorities and her buoyant optimism intact. Not that the old Oakland storyline doesn’t still pop up from time to time: The city is crime-ridden, its police are corrupt, its schools are wretched, its bureaucracy is inept, and the city council’s circus act just illustrates Oakland’s inability to evolve. Still, on the balance, the East Bay’s largest city hasn’t had a better reputation in generations. Not surprisingly, a recent Oakland Chamber of Commerce poll found that Schaaf had a 68 percent approval rating among registered voters.
For these and other reasons, we’re naming Libby Schaaf Oakland and Alameda magazine’s inaugural Person of the Year. Schaaf is adapting to some of the notable changes that have occurred in Oakland even since her election, and yet she displays a courageous willingness to push her priorities and the apparent ability to bring them to life. Perhaps no East Bay citizen unaffiliated with the Golden State Warriors has dominated the news more than Schaaf, and no one else presided over more feel-good moments.
Perhaps the most notable of those moments occurred barely a month after the riot on Broadway. Optimism about Oakland’s pro basketball team had been on the upswing for some time. But few could have anticipated the dreaminess of the sun-swept day of the Warriors’ June victory parade, and the hundreds of thousands of people believed to have huddled near Lake Merritt to hear their heroes bask in the glow of victory.
Schaaf had ridden to the podium with M.C. Hammer in tow atop a flame-spewing snail car. After welcoming the delirious throng and turning toward her seat, she twisted her torso and flung her head back toward the crowd. Then she flashed a gigantic smile just like the high school cheerleader she once was, as if to rah-rah the team and its city to victory. It might have been Oakland’s best day in decades.
Spend any time with Schaaf and it doesn’t take long to hear her say she’s Oakland born and raised. It’s a brag, a source of pride, an affirmation. Schaaf grew up in Montclair in a hillside neighborhood of nice homes, attending Montclair Elementary School, where her two kids would later go.
Her father was a traveling shoe salesman who eventually owned a couple of stores including Huston’s in Berkeley. Her mother, a former United Airlines airline stewardess who met her dad while working a flight from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, was and still is a prolific civic booster—for the arts, children, music, health. Her parents divorced when she was 20.
Her childhood was packed with family-centered, community-oriented activities. She attended Head-Royce private school for the middle grades, transferring to the public Skyline High, from which she graduated in 1983. “I was one of those kids who felt poor at private schools and wealthy at public schools,” she said.