From left to right: mayoral candidates Sheng Thao, Loren Taylor, and Treva Reid spoke about their experiences and policy ideas at a forum hosted by Visit Oakland and the Jack London Improvement District. Taj Tashombe moderated the event. Credit: Amir Aziz

The race to become the next mayor of Oakland tends to attract a large number of contenders. This year, with Mayor Libby Schaaf leaving office after leading the city for the maximum number of years allowed under the city charter, is no exception. 

Five candidates have now qualified to run, meaning they gathered enough signatures in support of their candidacy by last Friday to make it onto the ballot. Six other candidates are still waiting for their submission to be approved by the city clerk.

On Monday night, the tourism-focused business group Visit Oakland and the Jack London Improvement District co-hosted a forum with the three candidates who currently hold seats on Oakland’s City Council: Treva Reid, Loren Taylor, and Sheng Thao.

Moderated by Taj Tashombe, a Visit Oakland board member who until recently was a lobbyist for the Athletics, the discussion focused on public safety, homelessness, and the dysfunctions of City Hall. Framed largely from the point of view of businesses, questions included things like: how can the next mayor clean up the city’s trash and dumping problems so it’s more welcoming for tourists or companies looking to set up shop here? What can be done about the hundreds of homeless camps where several thousand unsheltered residents currently live? How can we fix Oakland’s executive branch, making the city administration more responsive and nimble?

Reid, Taylor, and Thao struck similar chords throughout the evening by describing a city at a “crossroads” or a “pivotal point,” sympathetically lamenting illegal dumping and gun violence and underscoring the need for bold leadership if Oakland is going to make a dent in its most chronic problems.

These three candidates are considered frontrunners by many thanks to their current positions on the City Council, which give them an existing base of support and some name recognition. Their campaign fundraising has also given them a leg up at this early stage—Taylor leads the pack, having raised just over $328,000, followed by Thao and Reid, who have raised $303,000 and $188,000.

That being said, these three are not the only people running to be Oakland’s next mayor, and this isn’t the only mayoral forum The Oaklandside will cover this election season. In the weeks ahead, you’ll learn more from us about all candidates who qualify. Candidates who aren’t invited to participate in high-profile forums (or choose not to) will have an opportunity to share their qualifications and perspectives with you through our reporting.

Defining themselves through experience, identity, and passion

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District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor is giving up his seat to run for mayor. Credit: Amir Aziz

Asked why they’re ready to become mayor, the candidates gave abbreviated versions of their much-practiced stump speeches, highlighting the parts of their biographies they believe have given them the right combination of know-how and dedication.

Thao positioned herself as a bridge-builder between the city’s normally “siloed groups.” Case in point: she said she helped bring city labor unions and business groups together to support the progressive business tax on the Nov. 8 ballot. 

She noted her experience in government, including her four years as the council’s District 4 representative and her years as chief of staff and policy aide to at-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan.

“I have a decade of experience at Oakland City Hall,” Thao said.

She added that being a single mother and domestic violence survivor informs her approach to many issues, from public safety to homelessness and affordable housing.

Taylor invoked his Oakland roots by noting that his grandparents came to Oakland in the 1940s. He chose to run for council in 2018, he said, because his grandparents’ dream to build a better life here—the California dream—has vanished or is threatened for many current residents.

A biomedical engineer, Taylor said his experiences in private industry give him the know-how to lead just as much as his four years on City Council. He said he brought those project management skills to bear on the city’s reimagining public safety process.

“Outside of City Hall, I was able to lead corporations in addressing their toughest challenges,” he said. He now wants to do the same for city government.

Reid defined herself as a “resilient single mother” from a large family of civil servants, faith leaders, and business people who have always centered “taking care of the community.”

Although Reid has been on the council for just two years, representing District 7, she said she’s been in government “long enough to see what’s broken,” and, like Taylor, she said her time in private industry has given her the skills to manage large organizations. 

Reid previously worked as a public affairs manager for California Waste Solutions, Oakland’s recycling contractor, as a public affairs and government relations representative for PG&E, and before that as a field representative for State Senator Nancy Skinner.

“I’ve been serving for over three decades in the community,” she said. “I’ve been fighting for families like mine a long time.”

Homelessness and housing

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District 4 Councilmember Sheng Thao has been on City Council since 2019. Credit: Amir Aziz

Taylor said that much of his family has been displaced from Oakland due to the high cost of housing and that some have experienced homelessness. When he joined the council three years ago, he found that the city lacked a “unified strategy” regarding how it deals with the homelessness crisis. Since then, while he was chair of the council’s life enrichment committee, the city adopted the Permanent Access to Housing Strategy, which guides millions of dollars of investments into programs designed to help unsheltered people obtain housing.

“At the same time, we did not have a strategy in terms of how we would ensure health, safety, and dignity around encampments,” Taylor said. “So the second year, I worked with community members from our homelessness community, business community, and staff and advocates to come up with the Encampment Management Policy.”

The Encampment Management Policy is the city’s rulebook for when and how homeless camps are cleaned, serviced, and closed.

Reid criticized the city’s efforts in this area, saying it does not have a robust housing strategy and the burden of that falls disproportionately on Black Oaklanders.

“As mayor, one of the first things we’re going to do is audit what we’re spending our money on and how we’re spending our money because it’s not serving us right now.”

She said the city has only four staffers managing the city’s homeless camps and that this isn’t enough to deal with the over 800 camps spread across Oakland. “As mayor, I can deliver on how we budget and resource and have staff show up to enforce, passionately, our policies, and actually not manage the crisis but lead people out of the crisis into housing.”

Reid added she wants to seek more state funds for housing programs like mortgage assistance.

Thao criticized one of outgoing Mayor Libby Schaaf’s major programs: housing homeless individuals in Tuff Shed shelters. “That is a Band-Aid solution,” she said.

Thao wants to create an enhanced infrastructure financing district that could potentially raise hundreds of millions of dollars over several decades to help fund affordable housing projects. “This is how we’re going to encourage developers. Let’s be clear: developers will build affordable, deeply affordable, and moderate rate housing if it pencils out.”

She noted her vote in favor of a recent rule capping rent increases for rent-controlled apartments at three percent, and pointed to the 197-unit workforce housing project that’s being built in the Laurel District, a project she supported. “I’ve always believed that you should be able to live anywhere in the city that you want to, no matter your income,” said Thao. 

“That’s teacher housing. That’s housing for our cadets. That is housing for those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to live above I-580.”

Public safety

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District 7 Councilmember Treva Reid has served two years on council. Credit: Amir Aziz

Changes to police spending the council implemented last year during the budget process have already become a major point of debate among mayoral candidates.

Reid said that when it comes to public safety, residents who live in the parts of the city where most shootings happen, like District 7’s flatlands, have been asking for “more resources”—like police officers—“not less.” 

Last year, Mayor Libby Schaaf put forward a budget proposal calling for six police academies over two years, two more than were normally accounted for in previous budgets. Reid and Taylor supported this kind of bigger investment in OPD. 

However, most of the council chose to stick with the four academies included in most prior budget cycles. The money saved helped the city to invest more in its Department of Violence Prevention, a department that sometimes works alongside OPD but also has its own programs aimed at interrupting cycles of violence through investments in social programs and more.

Reid called that a bad decision. She said her personal experiences with violence would guide her toward investing more resources for OPD along with the non-police violence prevention programs.

“As a mother who has lost her own son to gun violence, the pain that I feel at the loss of what we’re faced with, the crippling weight of grief and trauma and pain and lawlessness that’s been unchecked, it’s frustrating. And I’ve had enough, just like you.”

Thao said she chose at the time not to pay for more police academies due to, among other reasons, the low graduation rates and high costs associated with these programs in the past. “Each academy costs $4 million,” she noted.

In September 2021, Thao authored a plan approved by the City Council to add another police academy and explore adding a sixth. She said additional academies became possible because new savings were found in the city budget. Thao also authored a financial incentives program to try to retain officers who might otherwise take policing jobs in other cities.

“I know firsthand the impact of violence on the street and also the impact of unconstitutional policing,” Taylor said in response to a question about public safety. Guided by this dual perspective, he said, he “didn’t just go along” with calls to defund OPD. Rather, he co-led the reimagining public safety task force with Councilmember Nikki Bas, who came up with several ideas to change the city’s public safety system.

As mayor, said Taylor, he’d focus on finding ways to double the solve rate for violent crimes, reduce by half the number of outstanding 911 calls, and double investment in crime prevention and deterrence programs.

Visit Oakland’s leaders said they received some criticism due to their decision to invite only the three councilmember candidates for mayor. In response, the group said they planned to host another forum in September, including other candidates.

Other groups have hosted forums featuring select candidates, including the Working Families Party and Oakland Rising Action, which held a forum last Thursday with Thao and Greg Hodge and Alyssa Victory. The Center for Elders’ Independence, KQED and others are hosting a mayoral candidates’ forum on August 30, to which all qualified candidates have been invited to participate in.

Correction: we misstated the total campaign contributions raised by each candidate. The correct figures have been added to this story.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.