Oakland City Councilmember Sheng Thao. Credit: Amir Aziz

We’ve 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. (And note that we decided not to interview candidate Peter Liu and provide another platform for his dangerous and hateful rhetoric.

This interview is with Sheng Thao, the District 4 councilmember. Before serving on City Council, Thao was chief of staff to at-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. The daughter of Hmong refugees from Laos, Thao was born and raised in Stockton. She attended college while a single mother, first at Merritt College before transferring to UC Berkeley, where she graduated with a degree in legal studies.

The City Council often feels like the city administrator isn’t enacting the policies and laws they’ve approved. On the other hand, the city administration’s staff often feels like the City Council is overstepping or loading their plate with too much work. If you were elected mayor, how would you repair this relationship?

Right now, the mayor appoints the city administrator. That’s the executive branch, and the executive branch has a lot of mistrust with the council and vice versa. I feel that it is because of the lack of communication and, I’ll be frank, favoritism. 

I’m really proud to have the majority of councilmembers endorse my campaign. I come with collaborative leadership. They’ve endorsed me and not my opponents. With that said, I first want to connect with every council member and ask them, “What are your top two or three priorities in your district? Let’s roll up our sleeves and get it done.” 

Like I always say, it’s not about the councilmember. It’s not about the mayor’s office. It’s about creating a better quality of life for residents. The north star for all elected officials is taking care of Oakland. If we can use that north star to guide us, we can create trust with each other and work together in a more collaborative way.

Regarding the last budget written by the mayor and approved by the City Council with amendments, was there anything in there that you would have cut as mayor? Did they leave anything out that you feel should have been included?

I’ve been [working] at City Hall for a decade so I know that in the budget process, we vote on a budget but you can always come back to amend it. 

There were many good things in [the last budget council approved], including violence prevention and violence interrupter funding. It had new positions for departments like permitting. Based on my experience, I was able to vote yes [even though it could have included more] and then come back later and make amendments. So I’m proud of voting on that budget in its entirety.

It had mostly everything you wanted?

At the end of the day, we don’t have unlimited resources. Regarding how we were utilizing our funds, I believe we did a pretty good job. 

I did come back and put in a fifth, sixth, and seventh police academy after that budget process, and we came back with some incentives too. As a legislator, you have to understand that your job is to be a steward of taxpayer dollars. If you see that something isn’t working and it’s costing us a lot of money, we have to fix it before we go and throw money at a sinking ship

[Editor’s note: In June 2021, when the council was debating the 2021-2023 budget, OPD was having trouble graduating enough trainees from police academies to actually grow the ranks of officers and offset the number of cops who are leaving Oakland for a variety of reasons. Thao advocated for not approving the extra police academies Mayor Libby Schaaf wanted in her budget proposal. Then in September, Thao returned with amendments to add more police academies, which the council approved.]

I believe it was a good budget. I didn’t have everything because we have limited resources, but I’m proud of the budget I voted for.

Mayor Libby Schaaf has done an exceptional job of raising private money from philanthropic sources to meet some of her big goals 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?

Absolutely. There’s an ecosystem here in the city of Oakland. There are a lot of people who would like to invest in the city and invest directly in communities. We need a leader who is able to go out and find those resources and bring them back. 

In regards to how this funding is utilized [if I become mayor], that may look different. 

I recently went out and fought for and won $2 million from the state. The $2 million was line item money for deep East Oakland parks. That’s Verdese Carter, Tassafaronga, and Arroyo Viejo, because these parks are under-resourced. That was work I did with other elected officials across the state. That’s how outside resources come into the city. But it’s about prioritizing who to fund and how to fund.

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?

Under the current leadership, I believe we are failing to build moderate-rate, affordable, and deeply affordable housing stock. I believe we’re at 130% of our market rate [goals]. So that would be one of my priorities; building what we are lacking now.

A city-side enhanced infrastructure finance district [is something I support.] I was able to get another organization to pay for the feasibility study. [Editor’s note: an infrastructure district or EIFD would use future growth in property tax revenue to pay for big projects like affordable housing developments. Thao and councilmembers Carroll Fife and Nikki Fortunato Bas recruited Kosmont Companies to complete a feasibility study of the idea. The study was funded by developer TODCO.]

Right now, we will be bringing a resolution to move forward with the EIFD in October. The feasibility study shows that it works. And Oakland isn’t a guinea pig. I didn’t come up with this idea overnight. Other cities have already done this and it has been shown to be successful, including in Fresno. This is like redevelopment but better because it will have an oversight body. 

[Editor’s note: Redevelopment was a state program that allowed cities to dedicate the growth in future property tax revenues to projects like commercial and housing development. Oakland used redevelopment to make land available to developers to build commercial complexes and affordable housing, but the program was ended in 2012 by then-Governor Jerry Brown.]

The idea is that because we don’t have enough seed funding right now—matching funds for developers to make it so that their projects pencil out—with an EIFD, we can support these projects so they can get their tax breaks and be more competitive at the state level.

Other than that, we should focus on preserving affordable housing stock and then building deeply affordable, affordable, and moderate-rate housing. I do believe in mixed-used housing development as well. It does a couple of things. When you’re putting people of different socioeconomic backgrounds together and living in the same environment, those on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder can connect with others, increasing their social networks and net worth. As a daughter of refugees, I understand that you only know what you know. If you don’t know that certain different careers exist, you wouldn’t know that you can do that.

I’ve been trying to build affordable housing above 580 because I believe that if you want to live there, you should be able to. I’m a renter myself. I’m really proud to say that in the next couple of months, we will be breaking ground on a private parcel of land to build 197 affordable workforce units. When we talk about mixed-use, let’s be clear that it’s also the workforce units for teachers. Our teachers are not making enough to sustain a life here in Oakland and they’re not low enough income to qualify for subsidies. For example, my son doesn’t have a physics teacher right now. A lot of that teacher shortage—and I understand we have a teacher shortage nationwide—is because teachers can’t sustain a family or just rent here in Oakland. 

So we have to be very intentional about the kind of housing we’re building. Again, we already have the market rate. We have to really focus on moderate, affordable, and deeply affordable and also mixed-use and workforce housing as well.

You were part of the unanimous vote for the Encampment Management Policy. As mayor, what policies and programs would you pursue to help get the 5,000 unhoused people into shelters and off our streets? How would you balance pressing safety concerns like fires at camps with pleas from the community not to criminalize people trying to survive?

First and foremost, we have to protect those who are housing insecure. The rough estimate is 5,000 people on the streets but we’re not accounting for those who are couch surfing or sleeping under vehicles. I have been unhoused before. I lived in my car with my son. And so we have to ensure that folks have housing security. That’s going to save us a lot more money in the long run.

Number two, in regard to dignified housing, something wasn’t right in terms of how much money we were spending and then seeing that there has been a 24% increase in our unhoused population in the last three years. When we, as councilmembers—because we can only ask questions—asked for an audit of the services being given, the audit came back and showed that the nonprofits receiving funding weren’t auditing themselves. 

[Editor’s note: Councilmembers legally can’t direct city staff to do anything. That’s the job of the city administrator who works for the mayor.]

Now with the auditor’s report that is out, we see that nearly $70 million left City Hall under this administration, and there was no management accounting for any of that money.

So how would you change that?

I would account for all the dollars that are going out. But the first thing I would do is bring in someone to audit all the [nonprofit] organizations to see what they have been doing, what they’re good at, and then bring in nonprofits that are actually doing great work. Homelessness is not a new thing. It has just exploded for different reasons. There are organizations out there that can do this work well. If an organization is really good at treating substance abuse, that’s what we should have them focus on. Let’s not dilute services and have every organization try to do everything. If another organization is good at providing mental health services and has a great partnership with the county, they should focus on that. I would be a hands-on mayor and meet with these different groups every other week to make sure our money is being spent effectively and that we can truly get people off the street.

There are organizations we can work with that can help people who are able to work get off the street, like the Motel 6 in deep East Oakland, the care community center. They help get people jobs, and then the next day, they open up a secure credit card account because we all know your credit score is so important in life, whether it’s leasing a house or a car. And then, they let the person live there and pay for their rent, transportation, and laundry for six months. Then they go and negotiate an apartment lease for their client and once the person is in permanent housing, they check up on them for the next 4 months to make sure they’re paying their bills and going to work. It’s a whole cultural shift. 

We need a mayor to be hands-on, roll up their sleeves, and be part of the solution. That’s the difference that I would bring.

You said people who want to live above 580 should be able to regardless of their income. We don’t know if you saw the recent news about what the state is saying about Rockridge and Oakland officials needing to rezone that neighborhood and make it denser to allow more people to live there. Do you agree with that?

Yes.

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?

A lot of people will tell you—and I don’t approve of this—but they’ll say it’s very difficult for [businesses] to be here in Oakland. I believe we can create a green hub where we can bring back industrial jobs in a green, climate-friendly way.

For example, in the city of Alameda, a company headquartered there is looking to build stronger batteries for corporations like Tesla. Oakland can be a hub for that, but we must be intentional about it. I spoke with this company’s owner and they said [they didn’t locate it here] because Oakland’s permitting process is too daunting. It takes too long and they couldn’t afford to wait a whole year before getting started so they went to Alameda. So that’s the first thing we need to do. We need to ensure that our permitting process is efficient and effective. 

And just like with the issue of homelessness, we want department heads to communicate with each other. Right now, everyone inside the city is siloed. Department heads aren’t talking to each other. I’ll meet every week with department heads. Any of these big concerns—let’s just say, for example, we have a green company moving here and they need permits—if there is a hangup, then [department heads] will bring their issues to the table with all the other directors and myself and the city administrator and we’ll work it out right there so we can start moving on these projects. We know that time costs money for businesses. But time also costs money for the city.

This will also bring up the morale of city workers. Right now, city workers are doing way too much, like three to four jobs. If we can get to a place where they’re just doing their one job again and we fill in all the vacancies and everything else [that’s a solution].

I don’t think the current administration has a strong economic development team to go out and get businesses to come into Oakland. That’s a thing that I want to prioritize: build a strong team and actively go out and figure out how we’ll bring new green businesses into the city. If we’re going to build deeply affordable, affordable, moderate-rate housing, we have to fund the services for that. For me, it’s not about going out and taxing the same businesses and property owners. It’s the mayor’s job to figure out how to increase the pie we’re working with.

Sheng Thao speaking at a mayoral candidates forum in August. Credit: Amir Aziz

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? 

It’s really sad in West Oakland, where we saw the co-op go out of business. I truly believe the city administration could have stepped in to save it but it was too late when [the City Council] found out they were closing.

You’re talking about Community Foods? If you were mayor, would you have intervened to try to save that?

Absolutely. The infrastructure is there. They were having issues with funding. As leaders, this is what we do. Your duty is to make sure that City Hall works for its residents. I would definitely have intervened. It’s just like housing insecurity; preventing a grocery store from being closed will save us and the grocery store owners a lot more money. And not just that, we’ll be continuing to invest in the community to give them healthy food options. 

I would actively work with the councilmembers using the city’s economic and workforce development team to ensure that we have sufficient grocery stores and banks in areas lacking them for so many decades. We all know it’s in the Black and brown low-income communities where there are no banks and grocery stores, but there are a million liquor stores. You have to be intentional about the quality of life. If you don’t have good health, housing, or access to good opportunities, then the government isn’t actually working for you.

You are a supporter of the progressive business tax, which is on the ballot. One of the arguments against the measure is it’ll be a disincentive for grocery chains to open new locations in Oakland because they’ve got to pay more in taxes now. Why would Safeway, for example, open a store in deep East Oakland if they feel like they’re going to have to pay more in taxes?

To give a little context, the progressive business tax was actually three competing ballot measures. The big chamber [of commerce] had their own version, Council President Bas and Kaplan had their own version, and the labor unions had their version. I was able to bring business, small business, and labor unions to one table, and then we worked it out and had a hard conversation. But we walked out of that room after two months of hard conversations— which I led because I have the trust of big business, small business, and labor unions—and we agreed on one version [of the progressive business tax]. 

This version will bring in $21 million dollars [in additional tax revenue each year]. So that argument about “If they have to pay higher taxes, why would they come here?” at the end of the day it’s about services. As I said in those meetings, yes, it shouldn’t be a crazy amount of money, like $44 million, because that’s what one of the versions called for. 

But $21 million will be able to deliver basic services like illegal dumping, trash pickup, and parks. We know that our businesses need those services as well. Everybody wins. So I believe that’s a weak argument, and I don’t think it will discourage grocery stores from coming here.

Both the Coliseum and Arena are huge entertainment hubs for the city. Regardless of what the A’s end up doing, going to Howard Terminal or leaving the city altogether, what do you envision for the future of the Coliseum and Arena site?

It gets a little tricky because we only own half of it. The other half, arguably the A’s own that, or the county owns it—we’ll figure that out. 

[Editor’s note: in 2019, the county Board of Supervisors voted to sell their half-stake in the Coliseum to the Athletics. Last year the state Department of Housing and Community Development announced it was investigating whether the county complied with a law that requires the land be offered to affordable housing developers and other governments before selling it to private developers.

We have to be able to work with community residents in that area to create a thriving space. There was a plan where it’s just a park but I think that’s underutilizing that space. I envision it being something that will invest directly into the community, including shops and stores, and open space.

Through the enhanced infrastructure finance district, we could fund affordable housing. The EIFD itself can also fund cultural hub projects. We talk about the Black Arts District, but there is no real finding. So using a portion of funds [from the EIFD], we could ensure that we have a true Black Arts District, a real Little Saigon, and multiple others. 

The city has rich art and culture but there’s not a system to [support] it like how San Jose or San Francisco has. It’s haphazard. [Editor’s note: Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Commission was cut after the Great Recession and only re-established in 2020.]

We have great artists who actually live here but no one knows about them. People want to visit San Francisco for their MOMA or whatever, but let’s make sure people stop in Oakland for a tour of the Black Panther mural projects and make that a real scene with Visit Oakland.

Sorry to interrupt. Those are all great ideas but the question really is about the Coliseum and Arena.

I’d work with the community first. I envision that space could be a multitude of different things. It’s a large space. We definitely want to keep some version of the Arena there. It really just depends on the partnership between whoever owns it, either the A’s or the county.

Oakland spends millions each year through the city budget on the arts. Is this something the city should do, or are there bigger priorities?

I believe we need to fund the arts. An example of why is my son has extreme anxiety and it’s through the arts that he found healing. Now he’s doing a lot better. So I would invest a lot more in the arts.

We couldn’t help but notice that labor unions are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to support you—this is through independent expenditures so it’s not coordinated with your campaign. They’ve given little or nothing to your opponents. Why do you think this is?

My lens is unapologetically working families. I believe that if we lift from the bottom, then we lift everyone up. Labor unions aren’t special interests like what some folks believe. They are workers, [including] city workers. These are working families that may not have a lot but they put their money together to ensure they have a voice at the table. 

I’m proud of my labor union endorsements because those are my values. My values align with them 1000% and that’s because when we talk about school closures or parks and accessibility or what it means to be safe, I come at that through the lens of working families. I don’t know what they’re spending all that money on, but that’s why I’m proud of their support.

Some people would say that while unions do represent working families, they don’t represent all working people. In Oakland, the major labor unions have a vested interest in contract negotiations with the city, and some people might fear if you’re too indebted to unions, then you won’t bargain hard with them around contract time to make sure the city’s fiscal interests are looked after and all the city programs are funded fully because we’re paying unions too much in their contracts.

I think that’s ridiculous in the sense that in order for the city to move forward, we need services. Not just that, I understand the budget forwards and backward. I’ve been working on it for a decade and am supportive of all the mechanisms and policies we’ve put in place to ensure that we’re paying down our unfunded liabilities. I’m the most knowledgeable mayoral candidate when it comes to the budget. 

I would not just give labor unions exactly what they ask for. Mind you, I’m the person who brought labor unions to the table when they wanted $44 million versus $21 million and had them [compromise] all the way down to $21 million. 

[Editor’s note: What Thao means here is that she brokered talks between labor unions that wanted much higher tax rates for the progressive business tax ballot measure, and business groups that wanted lower rates. She talked the unions into accepting somewhat lower rates that will raise $21 million in estimated new revenue rather than $44 million.]

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?

I want to be even more intentional about how we work with OUSD. These are our families and our babies. It’s the same constituency. If we do not invest in our young people on the front end, we are just responding to what happens in the aftermath. 

So I would be hands-on in regards to working with OUSD to ensure all our kids have access to resources. And I want to expand those resources. We went from 2,000 youth summer jobs under the Quan administration to just 200 under Schaaf. I want to expand that back up to have year-round paid internships for high schoolers all the way to 30-year-olds to get money in their pockets and ensure they have the ability to not just be interns with the city but to work with businesses like Pandora or Ask or Clorox. That’s investing in public safety.

I’m a proud Merritt College graduate. I’ve already been talking to the president there to create more vocational programming for our young people. Yes, some people will be fortunate enough to attend college, but what about students like me? I didn’t go straight to college. Some people have to start providing for their brothers and sisters immediately and they get into the workforce. We have to be more intentional about getting vocational training into every single high school so that kids can have options.

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 agree with how [OakDOT] has been improving the streets but there have been some growing pains. They are learning from their mistakes. But I do agree with the trajectory in which they’re headed. 

Regarding what we can do more, the main thing for me is to ensure that pedestrians and bicyclists are kept safe. We have to prioritize them over vehicles. There is a way we can all live in this world together.

We need to make sure we continue having infrastructure funds to do this work—that will be possible under Measure U. If we can continue receiving funding, I would ensure we tackle road problems first in areas where we see large numbers of pedestrians and also bicyclists. We know that it’s really dangerous in Fruitvale, and some mitigations have been put in, but what I’ve always disagreed with the past OakDOT director, Ryan Russo, about is waiting on data before we do anything. 

[We shouldn’t be] waiting for someone to get hit or killed before we do something to what we know is a dangerous intersection. That’s not the way to go. I would work directly with the councilmembers and the schools to ensure that it’s safe for pedestrians and bicyclists, especially around schools and parks. 

I’ll start by creating a metric, like how I did in District 4. If there’s a park or a school, then we focus on those streets with mitigation measures and make them safer first, especially in areas with high volumes of pedestrian traffic, using an equity lens to make sure they get resources first.

Do you think OPD’s traffic unit should be expanded? Should there be more enforcement in Oakland around hazardous driving?

Yes. Right now, we don’t have a traffic division. [Editor’s note: OPD Chief LeRonne Armstrong recently announced he is reestablishing an OPD traffic unit.] I would bring back the traffic division. The focus should be on the same metrics I stated earlier. 

I also want to talk a little about sideshows. When I worked with OakDOT on it, they said it was an OPD issue, which I totally disagree with. I’m not willing to wait until sideshows with guns go off before I do something. The Botts Dots are working. That initiative was started by my office and we got funding for it. It’s a cheap intervention. People asked why it happened in District 4. Well, it’s because that was my program.

We really need to think outside the box to come up with environmental designs, whether Botts Dots or roundabouts or whatever, to deter [hazardous driving].

Readers who took our election survey wanted us to ask about police staffing. Oakland has 681 officers right now. Is that too few or too many? Can you explain your thinking?

With the updated budget for the second year, we’re funded at 752 officers, and 681 is what we have right now. We promised voters 752, so I want to fill those vacancies. No matter what my opponents say, I’m the only mayoral candidate to have funded the most for public safety—both violence prevention and OPD. 

I have worked on incentives to ensure we keep officers because it saves us money because we won’t have to run so many police academies. And for the first time ever, we’re seeing officers who have left, who were trained in Oakland and left to a different jurisdiction, that they are coming back because of the policy I implemented.

752 is what the council promised. Is it actually enough to provide the police resources Oakland truly needs? We’ve heard other candidates say we need 800, 900, or 1,100. Some say we need less.

My question to those people who are making up those numbers is, “what are the metrics you’re using?” Right now, I know that we’re having a hard time filling the 752 funded police officer positions. So they can politicize it and say 800 or 900, but let’s look at what 752 can do and then address the rest as we go.

At the end of the day, I believe that chief LeRonne Armstrong is doing a good job. This is the first time ever that OPD has come under budget. We’re seeing they do have what they need, but we need to fill in the vacancies so that officers are not doing multiple jobs.

Regardless of the 752, what do you think is the actual optimum number? Some people say Oakland’s violent crime-to-officer ratio is one of the most out of whack in the nation. There are too few officers, given how many violent crimes occur here. Do you think more cops would help address that?

Again, I think it’s about how we deploy these officers and how they’re being managed. I can’t answer you about what the number should be because we don’t even have 752. We do need more than 681 because I know what that looks like. 752 is what’s funded. That’s my goal.

When you look at public safety, there’s more we have to do, including working with the county and different cities. Crime is fluid. It’s not something that’s only happening in Oakland that Oaklanders are dealing with. We have to create regional task forces and talk to each other, whether it’s around property crime or gun violence.

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?

It’s a small group of people pulling the trigger and we need to get them off our streets immediately. We can’t do that on our own. They’re coming in from San Francisco and other cities. So we need a regional task force with district attorneys talking to each other and different department heads meeting to figure out how to get this small population of people off the street immediately.

Ceasefire is working. I want to invest more in Ceasefire. Part of my platform is doubling the Department of Violence Prevention’s budget, including staffing.

My opponents on the council are running against me and have flip-flopped on the Department of Violence Prevention portion of public safety. They didn’t vote for that. Now because they know people are interested in the Department of Violence Prevention they’re echoing they’ll invest double into that department.

In regards to MACRO, I was an early champion even while my opponents were working in the background to try to dismantle it. We are seeing that it’s working. We have to make sure MACRO is citywide. Right now, it’s only piloted in East Oakland and a little of central Oakland. I will make MACRO citywide. That will also alleviate stress from OPD because they’re not trained to do [what MACRO does].

All these different arms need to be working together. We need a hands-on mayor at the end of the day. I do not believe our current mayor is hands-on. That’s the only way we get ourselves out of these crises.