March 19, 2018
When Mayor Libby Schaaf delivered her most recent State of the City address, she moved the event from Oakland’s City Hall to a location rife with symbolism, the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California. It was a way of sending a message, about openness and inclusion, that was characteristic of a mayor known more for the quiet details of policy planning than the clenched-fist politics of this urban liberal hotbed.
What followed a few weeks later, tipping off the community to an impending federal immigration raid, was an even more emphatic statement.
The results were swift: condemnation by the nation’s attorney general and its chief immigration enforcement officer, a dressing-down from President Trump and Schaaf’s overnight transformation — depending how one views it — into a left-wing heroine and brave face of resistance, or the law-breaking, mollycoddling embodiment of left coast lunacy.
Schaaf sees it more simply: “I would describe myself as a mayor.”
“Mayors are connected to their communities,” she said. “They do what they believe is in the best interest of their communities, irregardless of political ideology, and they do what’s best in the interest of their communities, sometimes, without regard to what might feel popular.”
Actually, there is zero danger of seeming too anti-Trump in a city where he received less than 5% of the vote, or in much of the rest of the state, for that matter; if anything, Schaaf had been viewed as too passive by the president’s more combustible critics.
Now, she has not only cemented her prospects for a second term in November — Schaaf faces just token opposition — but positioned herself for even grander designs, if so inclined.
“In California, being the mayor that stood up to Donald Trump is as good as it gets,” said Jim Ross, a Democratic campaign consultant who lives in Oakland and has both supported Schaaf but also worked in political opposition.
“When you get called out by the president of the United States, that is a badge of honor that every other statewide Democrat would sell their fundraising list to have,” agreed Sonoma State’s David McCuan, who has tracked Oakland politics since growing up decades ago in nearby Richmond.
Even so, there are some here who both loathe Trump and his immigration policies and criticize Schaaf for her brazen act, fearing retribution from a president with a lavish history of payback.
“I wish she’d simply made that notification quietly,” said Joe Tuman, one of more than a dozen candidates who ran against Schaaf for mayor. “Because she’s in [Trump’s] gun sights, rhetorically speaking, Oakland is in his gun sights.”
Noel Gallo, a councilman who represents a large immigrant population in the city’s Fruitvale district, fears his constituents — many of whom are in the country illegally — will be the ones who pay a price. “The city of Oakland does need federal support for many services,” Gallo said. “I don’t want to get into a fight with Trump at that level.”
Nor, Schaaf responded, does she. She sat at a corner table in her City Hall office, the rainy morning brightened by a cheerful bouquet from a well-wisher, and made her case with lawyerly precision.
The immigration raid, she asserted, was aimed not at hardened criminals but at residents who, save for their undocumented status, were upstanding residents. Quiet warnings issued through community leaders hadn’t worked, Schaaf said — “I had tried going through those informal channels” — so she issued a public alarm to ensure “the information about rights, responsibilities and resources was spread widely.”
Not, as critics have charged, to act as “a gang lookout,” but to avoid panic.
Instead, political bedlam ensued.
Schaaf, 52, is about as thoroughly Oakland as they come; “a scrappy localist,” she calls herself.
She was born here and began her civic engagement at age 5, wearing a sandwich board to help her mother raise money for the Oakland Symphony. She played Cinderella and Raggedy Ann at Children’s Fairyland, an amusement park on the shore of downtown Lake Merritt, interned at the zoo and has lived in the city her whole life, save for attending college in Florida and law school in Los Angeles.
As a young attorney, she served on three commissions and the boards of several nonprofits before being hired at City Hall, first as chief of staff to the council president, then as a top aide to then-Mayor Jerry Brown. In 2010, she was elected to the City Council and four years later, with Brown’s blessing, emerged from the field of 14 candidates to become mayor.
The job is a tough one, historically more akin to a minefield than a pathway to higher office. Brown used eight years hunkering down to reinvent himself and help shed his flaky image. But for most recent mayors, their time in City Hall ended badly.
That is because for all of its advantages — a vibrant cultural scene, strong sense of community, lovely climate and abundant natural beauty — Oakland has long suffered.
It is a highly segregated city, and has been for generations, with a vast disparity between life in the mostly white, affluent hills and the disadvantaged “flats,” where black and brown residents have faced some of the worst ravages of urban America: drugs, crime, a dearth of jobs and opportunity, toxic relations between police and minorities.
Recent years have seen a considerably lower crime rate, a building boom and greater prosperity, as a flood of tech wealth has washed over the Bay Area.
But the uneven spread of that abundance has produced its own set of issues. Soaring rents have contributed to a growing homeless problem and complaints that Oakland, historically an affordable alternative to San Francisco, is pricing out its middle class, just as that city has done.
“You have the juxtaposition of Google zillionaires and the hipster-tech types opposite communities that have faced decades of flight, systematic unemployment and a lack of investment,” said McCuan, who heads the political science department at Sonoma State.
On top of those challenges, Schaaf has faced a police sex abuse scandal and the deadliest fire in city history, in which 36 young people crammed into the Ghost Ship, a warehouse-turned-artist-collective and party site, were killed.
Compared to those awful episodes, Schaaf suggested, a verbal lashing from Trump is nothing. “A little surreal,” she said of her newfound celebrity, “but I’ve tried very hard not to let it distract me.”
She has avoided social media and its vitriol, left the front office to deal with the public outcry — more than 1,000 phone calls, almost all critical and most from outside the Bay Area — and refused invitations to go on national television and mud-wrestle with the president. (Not that she seems particularly suited to the endeavor.)
She predictably waved aside talk of higher office, saying she was “1,000% focused” on being reelected mayor, and professed not to worry about any personal consequences, even though the White House ominously warned the Justice Department was looking into the matter.
She has, however, retained outside counsel — a pro bono attorney, Schaaf emphasized, at no cost to the city.
And yes, the mayor allowed, she has some concern that Oakland may be made an example and punished by Trump and his administration, so others won’t follow her defiant lead.
But she’s undeterred. “At the end of the day,” she said, “I believe that I’m speaking for the values of the people that I represent and that we would not be cowed by a bully.”
This story was originally published for the LA Times on March 19, 2018 here.