Libby Schaaf Let Down Her Hair, and Then Rolled to Victory

Oakland’s mayor-elect won by connecting the hills to the flatlands.


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Libby Schaaf from a campaign video

Sometime in August, Libby Schaaf found her groove. With less than three months before Election Day, Schaaf’s hardworking, technically advanced campaign had not yet found its voice. Late in the summer, The New York Times had a delivered a blow to Schaaf’s populist rhetoric when it described her as the candidate who “speaks to the city’s wealthy old guard, in leafy Oakland Hills.”

Sure, Schaaf’s “Made in Oakland” tagline was there from the start, but for some voters the real question was, which Oakland? The more affluent hills, or the rugged, overachieving flatlands?

The answer, ultimately, was both.

One August afternoon, following an outdoor luncheon in East Oakland, the infectious beat of the popular line-dancing track, “Cupid Shuffle” blared, “To the right. To the right. To the left.” Schaaf had been schooled on the dance’s intricate moves by her campaign manager Peggy Moore. “She picked it up real quick,” Moore said. Video of the dance showing that Schaaf had, indeed, mastered its moves, was uploaded to social media. Weeks later, the campaign released a campaign commercial with Schaaf interacting with Oakland residents and business owners—standard for most political ads—but with the off-beat ending of the narrator saying, “Because it’s hella time for leadership in Oakland.” It was also around this time that Schaaf began letting her hair down in public appearances and photos.

Then in early October, at a candidate forum at Merritt College hosted by the Black Women Organized for Political Action, Schaaf appeared in her element. Where the early months of her campaign found Schaaf downloading for voters a verbal list of her accomplishments and legislation while on the council, she was now reading the audience and connecting with it. When a question about the state of Oakland’s roads was asked, Schaaf rose from her seat and detailed her solutions for the vexing problem, but not before, placing a hand on her hip and saying with a fair amount of sassiness, “Let me tell you, these roads sure are raggedy.”

For a time, Schaaf consistently described herself to voters as “scrappy.” So often in fact that some of her opponents, like civil rights attorney Dan Siegel and others, routinely rolled their eyes at the label or privately mocked Schaaf. Regardless, it was clear to many observers over the final six weeks of the race that it was Schaaf who had more fight, or scrappiness, than any of her opponents.

“She got a little more comfortable and started connecting with people,” said Moore, who served as a state field director for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and state political director for Organizing for Action until 2012. “What happened is we trusted the truth of what we were offering.”

Schaaf’s ability to connect with all parts of Oakland was a big reason for her dominating win in November, said Jason Anderson, who finished eighth in the voting and watched Schaaf’s campaign gain momentum throughout the year. “I respect Libby for trying to connect with black voters,” he said. “To me, that’s very promising for her to move the city forward. You can win in the hills, but the streets will take it back.”

Anderson didn’t believe Schaaf even needed to reach out to flatlands voters to win the election. “I knew she had the hills,” he said. “She had them locked up, but what impressed me is she went to the hood. I give all the credit to Libby and her campaign manager for trying. I don’t know if it worked in the end, but it’s an attempt she didn’t have to make.”

Unifying a city historically divided between race and prosperity will continue to be an issue for the mayor-elect and three new members of the City Council. Forgotten in the midst of the mayoral election that received all of the attention in Oakland is that the City Council became more progressive. The overhaul began during the previous election continued this fall. Starting in January, five of the seven council members will have only served since 2012 or later. Only council members Desley Brooks, who won reelection last month, and Larry Reid remain from the often-fractious councils of the past. And Reid’s future is in question after he made rumblings last summer about his potential retirement. In addition to the progressive Brooks, the council adds Abel Guillen and Anne Campbell Washington. The latter two represent new voices more progressive than their predecessors’—Pat Kernighan, who is retiring at the end of the year—and Schaaf, who leaves her District 4 seat to become mayor. The progressive thread also extended to the passage of a citywide minimum wage increase to $12.25 an hour. The measure was easily approved by voters and may inspire other East Bay cities to follow Oakland’s lead.

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