We invited nine of the 10 people running to be the next mayor of Oakland to sit down with us for in-depth interviews, asking them mostly the same questions. Such as, how many police officers does the Oakland Police Department need? How would they help the City Council and the city administration work together better? How would they fix Oakland’s potholes? We developed these questions with help from hundreds of Oakland residents who answered our election survey this summer; thank you to everyone who weighed in.
Settle in for a long read; these conversations are weighty, befitting the office these candidates seek. They’ve been edited for length, relevance, and clarity, with some added fact-checking and background reading from us. We’re publishing them over the next week or so; note that we decided not to interview candidate Peter Liu and provide another platform for his dangerous and hateful rhetoric.)
This interview is with Loren Taylor, who was elected to City Council in 2018 to represent District 6. Taylor grew up in Oakland and can trace his family’s roots here back to his grandparents. Before entering politics, he was a biomedical engineering consultant who’s worked with corporations and nonprofits. He earned an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
We’ve seen several recent examples of tension between the City Council and the city administrator. The City Council has felt like the city administrator isn’t enacting policies and laws they’ve approved. Meanwhile, the city administration’s staff often feels like the council is overstepping or loading their plate with too much work. If you were elected mayor, how would you repair this relationship?
We have to maintain open lines of communication. Unfortunately, we’ve seen an unwillingness to even meet and discuss differences. That is a huge obstacle. I will encourage and even require that the city administrator and the department heads not hold back and communicate as fully as possible.
Another way to accomplish this has to do with council directives, policies, and legislation. We are not doing as good a job as we could preparing [written summaries of] the impacts of different policies.
For example, when we have the financial analysis section of the agenda report, there is a paragraph that simply says, “It’s up or down,” instead of saying more definitively, “This is the cost. Here’s where those additional bodies, resources, and staff, will need to come from.”
[Editor’s note: for every item of legislation that the City Council votes on, city staff provide a report that is supposed to include an analysis of the law’s fiscal impact on the city.]
Regarding the last budget written by the mayor and approved by the City Council with amendments, was there anything you objected to or would have cut as mayor? Did they leave anything out that you feel should have been included?
We have an issue when it comes to the transparency of earmarks. [Councilmembers] are closely aligned with different organizations, but there’s not a structured vetting process for how we allocate freed-up general fund dollars toward different organizations and how those organizations are evaluated based on their performance. That’s an area that can certainly be tightened up.
[Editor’s note: councilmembers can make amendments to the mayor’s budget, and these often direct funding toward projects and programs that employ local nonprofits and other outside organizations as contractors.]
You’re likely aware that as we went through the [most recent budget] amendment process, there were a number of things that were positive in terms of what was added relative to trying to balance the breadth of needs from housing and homeless to public safety investments. Broadly speaking, we got support in the budget [for these things] because it was a compromise.
As budgets are brought forward and we work with representatives from each district and representatives who are also looking out for the broader city, you’re not always going to get everything that you want.
Could you name one big thing that would be in a Mayor Loren Taylor budget?
I will set aside dollars to reimagine public safety phase two. That didn’t make it in the last budget.
[Editor’s note: A new Reimagining Public Safety Task Force was funded in the last budget. Taylor co-chaired the task force with Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas. It came up with numerous recommendations for transforming the way Oakland provides public safety services. Its mandate was to reduce police spending and lessen the racially disparate impacts of policing.]
As the architect and co-chair of the reimagining public safety process, I think it’s important that we commit financially and in terms of real action to the next phase of moving the additional recommendations forward. One example is taking the Internal Affairs Division out of OPD and moving that into CPRA.
[Editor’s note: Internal Affairs is an OPD office investigating allegations of police misconduct. The CPRA is a civilian office under the Police Commission that does the same thing. Eliminating OPD’s internal affairs could save money and place this job in the hands of civilians rather than allowing OPD to investigate itself.]
The other example [of something that wasn’t in the last city budget] that I pushed for is “City Hall East.” I think it’s critical that we establish a version of City Hall that can be accessed quickly and cost-effectively by residents in East Oakland as opposed to residents having to take two bus transfers to get downtown.
Mayor Libby Schaaf has done an exceptional job of essentially circumventing City Council to meet some of her goals by raising big amounts of money from private sources rather than going through the city budget. What do you think of this approach? Is it good for Oakland? Is it something you would also do as mayor?
I think it’s important that we bring as many resources as possible to the city. You used the term “circumvent.” As you’re pulling together outside funding, I wouldn’t necessarily see that as circumventing but rather as augmenting what the city as a whole is able to do.
So yes, I would seek out outside funding to support the initiatives that are prioritized by Oakland residents. It’s critical when you can bring in tens of millions of dollars [in private funding] to address homelessness, teacher residencies, or even college scholarships.
There has to be coordination [between the mayor and council], which is one way we approved the Oakland Fund for Public Innovation. In the memorandum of understanding between that organization and the city, we ensure that we align our broader objectives and that they’re not operating separately.
Oakland is thousands of units short of meeting the affordable housing goals set by the region and state, the so-called RHNA goals. Would expanding affordable housing in Oakland be a goal of yours? If so, what concrete steps would you take? How would market-rate development and social housing fit into this plan?
Affordable housing has to be a part of [any mayor’s plan]. I would be shocked if anyone said it wasn’t a high priority. The question is how speed up the delivery of those units and leverage outside dollars to maximize what we can produce.
We need to reimagine the building and planning department to reduce unnecessary costs on affordable units [and] speed up the approval process. We know that time delays add costs that ultimately trickle down to renters.
I think it’s also important that we partner with community organizations. I’ve worked with nonprofit housing developers in my district, primarily Black and brown-led development companies based in Oakland. You see a different level of engagement or inclusion in those developments and how they integrate into the fabric of the city and neighborhoods.
I am a proponent of developing a social impact fund where Oaklanders could contribute to an affordable housing fund for meager returns—I’m talking about just keeping up with inflation. I’ve talked to a number of residents who’re interested in this because of the [potential for] social impact.
There’s lots of talk about creating an enhanced infrastructure financing district. [Editor’s note: Councilmember Sheng Thao has proposed creating an infrastructure district that could use future increases in property tax revenue to fund affordable housing projects throughout Oakland. The district would be similar to what the Athletics want to create to help fund their proposed Howard Terminal ballpark and complex.]
I am supportive of exploring that. I do have questions, like, how would it involve future increases in [property tax] revenue being applied toward current projects? It’s easy to see future increases in [property tax] revenue when you have commercial buildings or a baseball stadium where you’re going to have increased taxes coming in the future. But I’m still trying to figure out where the increase in revenue is coming from when you’re subsidizing housing.
Also, we can’t just focus on keeping prices low when it comes to affordable housing. We’ve also got to work on increasing people’s incomes. That means focusing on workforce development to increase what people can afford and using [housing] projects as an economic engine for development, creating a pipeline for jobs in the construction trades or other [related] businesses.
Can you clarify the social impact fund idea? Is that a private investment fund for residents to support affordable housing development?
Exactly. Similar to how we have housing developers that add to the capital stack to make a project pencil out, this would be another vehicle added into that formula.
The other side of this coin is homelessness. You were part of the unanimous City Council vote for the Encampment Management Policy. As mayor, what programs and policies would you pursue to get Oakland’s 5,000 unhoused residents off the street, and how would you do that while balancing safety concerns about fires at homeless camps with pleas from the community not to criminalize people trying to survive?
We cannot criminalize homelessness. We have to be able to support our unhoused residents with the safety, health, and dignity that they deserve. This, frankly should be our priority as a government.
I believe in the framing of the PATH plan—the permanent access to housing framework—that says we should be formulaically investing in prevention, immediate crisis response, transitional housing, and long-term housing and investing different ratios of funds along that continuum to stem the flow of folks into homelessness and accelerate folks out of homelessness.
The encampment management policy is focused on immediate crisis response, addressing the needs on the streets. I did support it. I helped to pull folks together, evaluate, and get feedback from multiple stakeholders, which was critical. I believe the Encampment Management Policy is a good compromise relative to the needs.
As far as what to do to better implement that policy, I think we need more adequate resources to support and engage people in encampments. [We need] outreach services that can more effectively help folks transition from being unhoused. With respect to violations of the policy, [we need to help people] to correct those, with enforcement as the ultimate last resort. That means we keep fires from happening by keeping minimum distances between structures in encampments and establishing the maximum footprint element.
As we deploy all these resources and support nonprofits that are providing the work, we’ve got to do better with contract management and evaluating outcomes and performance. We’ve been measuring in terms of “How many people do you have out there? How many times have you had a touchpoint with someone in an encampment?” This is as opposed to being focused on the outcomes—how much has each person moved from stage one to two to three toward being housed? That’s something I’ll shift.
One of the biggest challenges business owners say they are dealing with is the rising cost of goods due to global supply chain issues. Have you thought about any local solutions to remedying this national problem?
The ultimate local solution to a global issue is ensuring we’ve got some resilience and sustainability in the local products we produce. We should be creating and welcoming manufacturers who want to come to Oakland to produce products locally.
We should work on our own innovative capacity and potential, including with small businesses that can use their ingenuity to outpace and provide an alternative to the global supply chain.
This is similar to the work I did to start ESO Ventures, which focused on how we actually tap into the innovative potential in East Oakland by bringing the capital that most Black and brown entrepreneurs from the flatlands don’t have access to.
Residents have noted the lack of large grocery stores with fresh produce in Oakland, particularly in West and East Oakland. How will you work with those areas’ councilmembers to create more grocery stores with better, healthier options?
This was a pain point when I first came in [to office in 2019] and I was hoping to be able to move the needle more significantly.
One thing I was able to do in four years was to lay the groundwork for what became the Saba Grocers Initiative. When I came into office, organizations like Mandela Partners were bringing healthy produce to some corner stores, but when you looked at the map of where they were distributing, there were no businesses in District 6.
I worked with the sugar-sweetened beverage board to try to allocate dollars to that, and the conversations led to working with this group. That expanded to where we were able [during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic] to help expand refrigeration capacity for produce at different corner stores and also bring food gift cards that go to residents to purchase from these participating corner stores.
We could partner with the county when it comes to the All-In program in building a circular food economy across the county. You may be aware that at Arroyo Viejo, I’ve been working with formerly Wilma Chan’s office, now Dave Brown’s office, to create the hub at the park. It’s a commercial kitchen and food distribution center that practices food recovery to address those needs.
When it comes to grocery stores, we have to be more proactive in engaging, recruiting, and laying the groundwork for some of these grocers to come in when they don’t see the value and they see more risk in East Oakland. Knowing that you’ve got a partner in City Hall helps.
With Councilmember Treva Reid, you co-sponsored legislation meant to strengthen the city contracting process and address racial disparities in contracting. How effective has this legislation been, given that Oakland’s Black contractors are continuing to call out the city’s waiving of the bidding process to favor certain companies?
I’m grateful that two weeks after coming into office Councilmember Reid agreed to sign her name to the bill I’d been working on with community leaders. Moving that forward was a critical step—not just calling for the disparities study to be released, but working with the Black contractors and engaging others like the building trades as we came up with those solutions.
[The legislation has] been incredibly successful. More than a million dollars have been invested into contractor development programs. Contractors who have been a part of those programs will tell you it has strengthened their ability to bid on projects and increased their overall revenues.
We also added positions for contract-compliance monitoring and bringing on certified small businesses. That had been a bottleneck.
As for concerns and complaints about city departments that are still trying to waive contract requirements, those requirements would not have needed to be waived had we not changed the legislation. We raised the bar on what is required to satisfy and be in compliance with city standards. Contracts that would otherwise not have triggered these requirements ended up needing waivers. That’s exactly why we wrote the legislation.
At a time of rampant inflation and economic uncertainty for working families, we couldn’t help but notice that you don’t have a lot of support for your campaign from organized labor. Labor unions are mostly lining up behind some of your opponents. Why do you think this is? What can you say to working families in Oakland looking for a candidate they can trust to look out for their economic interests?
We can be transparent here. Everyone’s organizing around Sheng [Thao]; it’s not the rest of the candidates. That is where organized labor leaders have aligned.
I’ve got a lot of support from union members and even from some labor leaders who felt that they had to do that because of a sense of solidarity with other unions, even though they know we’ve worked well together and I have represented their interest well and consistently in those dialogues.
To be blunt, when you’re a labor organization with a particular agenda, you’re going to want to support somebody who is a guarantee every time to vote for you. I have not given anybody a guarantee that I will be aligned with them 100% of the time, which limits the support I get from those looking for more transactional support.
I have strong working relationships and an open-door policy with all those organizations. If you were to ask the leaders individually, they would absolutely tell you I’ve been a strong ally and a partner. Those who I serve know where my heart is and what my conviction is because I’m on the ground consistently serving the community.
Some voters view you as more like outgoing mayor Libby Schaaf than some of the other candidates in this race. Schaaf is known for having bargained pretty hard with city workers. Their critique of Schaaf would be that they would have lost wages over time, and it’s gotten harder for them to live in Oakland. How would you approach union contracts when you’re negotiating with them as mayor?
My job is not to defend Mayor Schaaf. That’s a whole separate piece.
In terms of working with labor unions moving forward, there’s got to be constant communication and dialogue. You can’t be walled off and engage only at the tail-end of a negotiation when everyone’s dug in. There’s got to be a trustful relationship built up. There’s also got to be a shared goal and alignment.
The other piece that’s been damaging, or limited the ability to proceed toward a win-win with our labor partners, is distrust with respect to dollars and numbers. Some folks [on the labor side] have said, “The city administration is hiding the ball here.” The City Administrator has said, “They’re not paying attention to fiscal solvency and they’re making up numbers that would put us at risk.”
I support SPUR’s recommendation to create an office of the controller and have a neutral third-party adjudicator who can say, “Here are the facts.” Then we can discuss how to align on a win-win based on the facts.
Our labor partners don’t want the city to go bankrupt, just like we don’t want the city to go bankrupt.
Public schools in Oakland are run by OUSD and charter management organizations. But that hasn’t stopped Mayor Schaaf from including education as one of her platforms with programs like Oakland Undivided, Oakland Promise, and the Teacher Residency Program. What do you think the mayor’s role should be in getting involved in public education issues in Oakland?
My mom is a retired OUSD teacher. I’m a product of Oakland Unified and my kids are, too. As a result, I care deeply about the public school system.
When we look at the school district and city operations, we have to acknowledge interconnectivity. It’s critical that we not take a completely hands-off view of the education system when it comes to operating the city. There are things we can work on in partnership.
That said, I don’t plan to have an office of education within my administration. My vision is something more akin to an office of innovation where we are bringing new transformative things, helping to lead on new opportunities for the city as a whole, and there may be some educational components.
I appreciate the work Mayor Schaaf has done [in] getting more than $50 million dedicated toward Oakland Promise. That is amazing.
A lot of families my kids have gone to school with end up leaving the city because their kids are going from fifth grade to sixth grade, and they don’t trust OUSD with middle school. Knowing that’s a number one reason why families end up leaving Oakland, we should do what we can to help support the school district. One area where we can collaborate is teacher housing.
Also, wrap-around support through after-school programs. Thirty percent of the [city’s contribution to] the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth goes to supporting education. We should have more rigor when it comes to how those dollars are spent to help augment learning in schools.
Regarding the conditions of streets in Oakland, there are many potholes and lots of needed paving. There are many poorly designed streets, and crosswalks need to be improved. What do you think the department of transportation’s focus should be?
I think we need to treat the situation with the urgency it deserves. I think [one of your reporters] was there after the recent fatality in my district at 61st and Bancroft, an area with three fatalities within just two blocks just this year.
We’ve got to be able to stand up faster solutions when we see issues arising, whether it’s lighting, striping, or putting some temporary bollards or cones in place that reduce the width of these lanes to help minimize speeds.
We need to stand up and strengthen our traffic enforcement division. Chief Armstrong announced [recently] that they are now reinstating one of what used to be three traffic units in the city. That’s important because there has been a general sense of lawlessness and reckless driving across our city.
Being able to have that sort of [police] visibility is important. As I was learning to drive, one of the jokes among my friends was, “No cop, no stop.” If people don’t see any repercussions, they push the limits more and more.
As we’re propping up these solutions faster, we’ve got to improve the process. That means better templating [roadway redesigns] so we don’t need a whole design review process with a traffic engineer in every instance. Instead, standardize it so we can do things faster for similarly sized and spaced intersections.
There’s been a reticence by our department of transportation to really engage thoroughly with communities. Part of it may be a bandwidth thing; part of it may be, “We know what’s best because we’re engineers.” I think we’ve fallen woefully short. We’ve got to better engage communities to understand problems and come up with solutions that will work best in one area or another because East Oakland is completely different from West or North Oakland in that respect.
Readers who took our election survey asked us to ask candidates about police staffing. Oakland has 681 officers right now. Is that too few or too many? Can you explain your thinking?
I believe 680 is too few. We are understaffed and underresourced when it comes to police officers who can respond and do the necessary work. We had less than 400,000 residents in 2014 when we established the minimum staffing level of 678.
[Editor’s note: Taylor is referring to Measure Z, a 2014 parcel and parking tax that funded police officer positions and non-police violence prevention services. Measure Z required Oakland to maintain at least 678 officers in order to collect the tax.]
We now have about 10% more population—440,000. If you were to just increase the minimum staffing level, that would put us at 745. I think that is an appropriate minimum staffing level.
I would put our target at 800, looking at a couple of things. First, other cities that are similarly sized in California, and their staffing levels per capita and per violent crime. At 800 officers we would still be at the low end of the spectrum but it would give us a better shot at responding.
[Editor’s note: Oakland has fewer officers per capita relative to rates of violent crime than most other cities.]
I think it’s also important to staff up our civilian responders, the MACRO program, and our community ambassadors. They complement [OPD] services and can offload a lot of the work so that we don’t need to go as high on total police staffing.
The last thing is that, while we’re talking about numbers, ultimately, the thing that residents are focused on is service levels. “Can someone show up when I need them with the effective skills to solve the challenge?” That’s how we should measure whether we’re staffed adequately.
Gun violence is one of our city’s biggest problems. What’s your plan as mayor to address gun violence? Be specific. Do you think that Ceasefire is working? Did it go wrong somewhere? Does it need a reboot? The Department of Violence Prevention, is it working? Is there some other thing we’re not doing?
I think Ceasefire can and did work. We’ve gone through a period where it was not working effectively. We’ve got to go back to how we were implementing Ceasefire before that.
[Editor’s note: Ceasefire began in 2013 and saw seven years of declines in homicides and shootings. The program identifies the small number of people at risk of engaging in gun violence and offers them resources to change their lives. Police focus their attention on those who continue using guns with the goal of arresting them. In 2020, the pandemic disrupted the Ceasefire program by preventing outreach workers and police from making contact with at-risk people, and homicides spiked.]
Ceasefire is not as integrated [as it could be] into the other departments and divisions, for example with the Violent Crimes Operations Center and others. It’s important to ensure we’re transferring knowledge and insights about individuals [at risk of gun violence] that we’re working with and how we support them [across city departments].
As for the Department of Violence Prevention, there’s a lot of potential there, but it’s also pretty loose. I think we have to more quickly measure the effectiveness of different programs and services concerning violence prevention. While we may not have absolute data, there are things we can review to see which programs are performing better than others.
For example, our violence interrupters, like Youth Alive!, meet with victims of violent crime at hospital bedsides. We can [later track] whether or not that victim gets involved in retaliatory gun violence. That’s measurable.
Our OK Program works with young boys, primarily Black boys who are more likely to be engaged in the criminal justice system. Are we reducing the number of school suspensions they have? Are we helping improve their overall grades and engagement in the school system? Are we tracking the indicators that show this person is more likely to be on a positive path than a negative one?
Evaluation is especially important for the Department of Violence Prevention because it’s a newer organization. I would make sure the department is working with our community colleges to establish a curriculum for violence interrupters and use this as a model to train young people, who are connected to the community, to be trusted messengers.
When it comes to gun violence we also have to focus on mental health challenges. Frankly, getting better mental health resources across the city will help with public safety and gun violence, homelessness, you name it.
The solve rate for violent crimes needs to be increased. We’ve got to be squarely focused on that. When violent crimes are solved, that lets folks know they don’t have to take things into their own hands because there’s a system to hold folks accountable. When there’s no accountability, that’s when people think they need to get revenge on the streets.
[Editor’s note: OPD’s homicide clearance rate—the percentage of cases in which a suspect was identified and a case was presented to the district attorney for prosecution—was 64% in 2019. This fell to 43% in 2021, according to a recent city staff report.]
We spend a few million dollars each year on the arts through our city budget. Is that something Oakland should be doing? Are there bigger priorities?
The city should absolutely fund the arts. When we look at what makes Oakland Oakland, it’s the arts. It’s our culture. All of that is a huge part of our brand. If we were to allow that to be defunded, or we minimized that investment, we would lose part of our soul, figuratively and literally.
When it comes to arts, that’s not the way my brain works. I’m an engineer. I’m much more analytical with numbers and that kind of thing. But my daughter is flourishing in a dance company based in East Oakland at Foothill Square. Having those opportunities for our young people has to be a priority. It not only hones people’s artistic abilities, but it’s also a vehicle to help young people get life skills to develop into productive adults.
We need to figure out ways to get arts back into schools. When I was growing up we had music and arts programs that were much more robust and better supported. That’s absolutely another potential partnership between the city and the school district.