By Joe Garofoli
March 29, 2017
Give it up for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, the first-term mayor who told the millionaire sports team owner and his iconic, $2.1 billion business to stop begging for more taxpayer money to stay in town. So the Oakland Raiders are leaving.
The political question that remains: Will voters think that was a good move?
Few politicians would have done what Schaaf did. For decades now, the politically easy thing for a mayor to do when a professional sports team threatened to exit was cut the wealthy owner a taxpayer-underwritten check that he or she wouldn’t be in office to pay off.
But Oakland residents still will be around when someone else occupies the mayor’s office. They’re still paying off $83 million from rehabbing the Coliseum to lure the Raiders back from Los Angeles in 1995, when Elihu Harris was mayor.
Staring down the NFL is a gutsy call for a first-term mayor whose approval rating was 53 percent as of last fall. One whose city — where I live — has a lot tougher challenges than underwriting billion-dollar stadiums.
Less than a year ago, three police chiefs either resigned, were fired or quit within nine days. Oakland’s Fire Department is under scrutiny for its handling of inspections before the fatal Ghost Ship warehouse fire. Homeless encampments are exploding around the city. The city could be facing a budget deficit this year. Uber isn’t bringing as many employees to town as it had promised. And we’re trying to figure out what happened with the fire that killed four people in a West Oakland halfway house this week.
Those are among the issues Schaaf was dealing with long before — and will be long after — the Raiders are in their new, taxpayer-funded stadium in Las Vegas.
But on the world stage, those local concerns were dwarfed when the team owners of the National Football League, the wealthiest professional league in the world, voted Monday to uproot one of its most well-known franchises. That was international news.
“I was not sure how the public would respond to the approach that we took when the decision did not go our way,” Schaaf told me Wednesday. “I have really appreciated the vast majority of feedback I’ve gotten” — most of it positive.
Among the people Schaaf said called to say they appreciated her stand: Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, who reiterated his pledge to help the A’s secure a permanent home in Oakland.
Whatever you think of Schaaf as mayor, deciding whether she was right on this issue should be an easy call for Oaklanders to make. It’s not the popular call on ESPN, but the cold hard data are on Oakland’s side. And Schaaf followed the data.
Although one of the Raiders’ many mottos is “Pride and Poise,” as a business venture, the Raiders brought more pride than cash to Oakland. Love those jerseys. They sell like crazy, but the city didn’t get a cut so it could pay for more cops. Or for fire inspectors.
“Unlike a decade or two ago, local political leaders and voters are starting to pay attention to the volumes of research produced by economists showing that using tax dollars to build stadiums/arenas is generally a poor use of resources,” Leo H. Kahane, a professor of economics at Providence College in Rhode Island (and longtime East Bay resident and professor) who co-founded the Journal of Sports Economics, wrote in an email.
“The vast gains touted by proponents (i.e., owners, leagues and construction companies) are very rarely ever realized,” Kahane said.
So when you see TV news crews talking to weepy Raiders fans at Ricky’s Sports Theatre and Grill, keep in mind that Ricky’s is in San Leandro, a city that at last check wasn’t offering to pony up money to help Oakland keep the team in The Town. Neither has Fremont. Or Hayward. Or Livermore. Or Alameda.
And despite the dark carnival TV viewers see in the Black Hole on game days, most Oaklanders didn’t have the Raiders on the top of their civic priority list.
Last year, in a poll done for the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, respondents were asked how important it was to keep the Raiders in town. It wasn’t: 60 percent said “not at all” or were “neutral.”
And the city’s business community is backing Schaaf’s call, too.
“While the Oakland Chamber of Commerce is disappointed that the Raiders are leaving Oakland, as they truly are part of our city’s DNA, we are steadfast in agreement with many Oakland residents, as well as Mayor Schaaf, that no public funds would be used to subsidize stadium construction; believing it is the most responsible decision given the needs of our community vs. those of an NFL franchise,” chamber President Barbara Leslie wrote in an email.
It has been a jarring couple of years for Schaaf. She would pitch “the NFL organization and ownership — and then to walk back into my city and feel the deluge of the impact of poverty and the lack of opportunity. And that’s where I’ve prioritized my time,” she said.
But what if voters don’t see it that way? What if she hasn’t built up the political capital in her one term to survive losing the Raiders? Schaaf points out that she was a one-term City Council member who was willing to give up her seat to run for mayor.
“If I were so in love with being a politician,” Schaaf said, “I wouldn’t have done that.”