Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf Is Our East Bay Person of the Year
She inspired us like no other for this inaugural achievement.
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There is at least one more realm in which Schaaf can’t make everyone happy.
Building downtown housing was the No. 1 priority of her old boss, Jerry Brown, the last former mayor of Oakland about whom voters seem to feel good. Brown’s signal accomplishment was making downtown housing cool, and the city is just now reaping the benefits of that growth. Schaaf campaigned for a continuation and extension of those policies, with an emphasis on constructing more housing along major transit corridors.
But in the early days of Schaaf’s administration, attitudes toward housing began to change all across the Bay Area. Not a day went by without news coverage of some Bay Area eviction, relocation, or change related to the high cost of living. Gentrification became a huge issue on both sides of the bay due to the collective housing-construction failures of virtually every Bay Area city. By the time that the Oakland City Council was considering a proposed 24-story apartment building near Lake Merritt, the proposed edifice had become a symbol of Oakland losing its revered identity.
Vanessa Riles is the daughter of former Oakland City Councilmember Wilson Riles Jr. In a scathing June denunciation of that East 12th Street development proposal, framed within the palpable unease that many in Oakland have over gentrification and the lack of affordable housing, Riles tore like wildfire through the arguments offered by Schaaf and the city for more market-rate housing. “We black people are being targeted and displaced in Oakland,” she said. “You listen when people get their windows broken. You don’t listen when we say we need a home.”
In fact, Schaaf has often pledged to fight against gentrification in Oakland, and to replenish the city’s affordable housing stock. Schaaf even offered last February to take on San Francisco’s own affordable housing deficiency by urging developers to build more below-market-rate housing in Oakland. Schaaf later said it was just one of many ideas for solving the housing crunch and slowing the rates of gentrification pricing out Oaklanders.
Schaaf also is backing a proposal to extract impact fees from developers of market-rate housing to help pay for the construction of more affordable housing. In going down that road, she is butting heads with her mayoral campaign’s finance manager, developer John Protopappas. The longtime friends are also at odds over rent control.
“She doesn’t shy away from controversy and she’s not afraid from disagreeing with even her dear friends and closest supporters,” Protopappas said. “She doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time. She just says ‘here’s where I’m at.’”
Protopappas cited this as proof of Schaff’s willingness to make tough decisions. “When she knows you’re on the other side of that decision, she will call and explain her point of view,” he said. “I respect that.”
As Schaaf pushes for funding to create affordable housing, she still remains committed to adding market-rate units. Harkening back to Brown’s lauded Uptown development, she said her priorities are bit different than those of the former mayor and current governor. “People were screaming about gentrification back then, and he didn’t let that distract him from his goal,” Schaaf said. “My goals are probably a little different. I think Oakland will build itself. I think the construction is coming. My goals are going to be around how can we ensure the investment that is coming to Oakland lifts up the people who have been left behind in the past? How can we ensure that the changes lift up what makes Oakland Oakland and doesn’t push it out? How do we protect what we want to protect and how do we change what must be changed?” Those questions remain to be answered over the next three years of her administration.
On a mild Saturday morning last March near Clinton Park, east of Lake Merritt, Schaaf smeared gray paint on the outside wall of small Vietnamese café. Her focus was serious. She dipped and brushed, stepping back to scrutinize her work.
“Thank God I’m the mayor and not a painter,” she said with an easy smile, droplets of gray paint on her nose and cheeks, her now trademark Oakland tree earrings dangling under her Oakland cap. “This is not my skill set.”
At quick glance, her participation in this community cleanup could appear as a kind of campaign style whistle-stop, complete with TV crews and handshakes. But even with the distractions of the media, inquisitive onlookers, fellow workers, and a staff trying to keep her on schedule, Schaaf didn’t want to quit until she had smothered the graffiti on her section of wall with glossy new paint. Painter and mayor, she was at work.
When Schaaf took office in January, she informally set a few goals for her first 100 days in office, including joining community cleanups in all of the city’s seven city council districts. It was good politics for a former councilwoman eager to show that she now represented all of Oakland, and not just her former council District 4, largely in the hills.
Even during her four years on the council, progressive skepticism of Schaaf has percolated under the radar of widespread conversation. For instance, Schaaf had agreed with those who worried that the proposed citywide surveillance apparatus called the Domain Awareness Center would greatly infringe on the privacy of residents and visitors to Oakland. Nonetheless, some activists questioned her earnestness. During a late-night council meeting on the subject, one young woman interrupted the council with this hostile cry: “I hope you die in your mansion, Libby!”
Ongoing confusion over Schaaf’s progressive ideology is one of the most fascinating aspects of her rise as a political figure. In almost any American city except Oakland, Schaaf’s progressive credentials would be unquestioned. Keeping with her brave and early support for raising the minimum wage in Oakland to $12.25 an hour last year, Schaaf publicly stood at a Washington, D.C., press conference with a who’s who of national progressive leaders like Congresswoman Barbara Lee, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and other progressive U.S. mayors urging to further raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Yet there is a disconnect among some progressive Oaklanders in putting their collective arms around Schaaf, let alone the vitriol she attracts from some activists.
“You just have to respect that you’ve chosen to be a public official,” she said. “You’ve chosen to be the embodiment of government. There is no clearer embodiment than your local mayor. So, I just have to be tough around people assuming certain things about me as that embodiment of government which may have nothing to do with me as a person. They may be misaligned with my personal beliefs, my personal likes and frankly my track record as an activist in Oakland all my life. It is upsetting when it is so blatantly counter to everything I stand for and everything I’ve done in my life. But that’s part of the job and you have to have tough skin. You have to stay focused and not get distracted and then with time hopefully enough people have an opportunity to look you in the eye and see where you come from and that you can win people over with time.”
One scenario likely to win Schaaf some new progressive friends emerged via KQED’s reporting about an email that the mayor sent to Oakland developer Phil Tagami. Regarding the possibility of coal trains passing through the city, Schaaf showed that she was bold in her convictions against an issue notorious in West Oakland for its likely effects on the health of residents in Oakland.
“You have been awarded the privilege and opportunity of a lifetime to develop this unique piece of land,” Schaaf wrote Tagami. “You must respect the owner and public’s decree that we will not have coal shipped through our city.”
In a subsequent interview, the mayor joked, “The city attorney was not happy about me writing that email. The city is in a legally-constrained position with regard to the developer, but that email was a very honest communication that I wrote when I first learned of the possibility of coal being handled on city land. It did capture my feeling. … You’ll notice I never sent anything out after that. I think my feelings on the matter are clear and I’m looking for a win-win situation.”
But not all issues are win-win, most notoriously in the world of pro sports. The very realm that last summer bestowed such an unexpected political gift to the Schaaf administration could also become the first to deliver a permanent setback. While the historic success of the Golden State Warriors has managed to take the edge off that team’s probable departure for a new home across the bay, NFL owners could decide in early January to allow the Oakland Raiders to again abandon the city for Southern California. Team supporters have long opined that such an event would deliver quite a hit to the legacy of whatever mayor was then in office. Some of those same people infer that Schaaf’s hard line against using public funds for construction of a football stadium really means she has no desire to keep the Raiders in Oakland.
In fact, like almost every 2014 mayoral candidate, Schaaf opposed using public money on new stadiums. For the record, she supports spending up to $120 million on infrastructure related to new privately funded stadiums. Then again, the same poll that found her popularity on the rise also showed sports stadiums very low on her constituents’ list of priorities.
Still, one Oakland Coliseum Joint Powers Authority commissioner, who chose not to be identified, lamented that if the Raiders were to leave all scorn would be heaped on Schaaf. Such is the nature of the beast in politics. Someone must be blamed.
“I cannot let drama or a few very loud voices or this threat of moving to Los Angeles cloud my judgment,” Schaaf said. “I need to stay very focused on what is the best long-term interest of this city. I was born and raised in this city. I’m dying here. My parents are here. My children are here. This is my town. My job is to put this city in a good long-term trajectory and not just deal with the crisis of the moment.”
Catherine Rauch contributed to this story.