Oakland’s New Champion
How Oakland native and mother of two Libby Schaaf plans to transform one of the country’s most misunderstood cities.
Oakland’s new mayor, Libby Schaaf, 49, has never been one to retreat into her shell, despite her preference for showing up to events—including her inauguration—in a car modified to look like a giant mollusk.
Schaaf grew up in the piney part of Oakland and later served as a city councilmember for her old neighborhood in the Oakland hills, as well as sections of the city’s flatlands hit hard by crime and violence. A lawyer by training, Schaaf now runs the whole city. She is wonkish, a protégée of Jerry Brown, who made her his special projects assistant at City Hall years ago. But unlike her often sour-seeming mentor, Schaaf has an easy laugh.
An unabashed cheerleader for her city, Schaaf dreams of a wired Oakland, an Oakland that’s “open for business, with the least annoying government in America”—a city no longer on anyone’s list of the country’s 10 most dangerous places. She seeks an Oakland that is prosperous but protective of its hard-won soul.
Schaaf takes over a city that could go in many directions in the next four years. It’s a city that threatens or promises—depending on whom you ask—to soon be home to more wealthy tech workers but fewer of the laborers, artists, and Oakland natives who give the city its earnestness and sturdy backbone.
Now, early in her administration, the mayor talks with Diablo about tech, safety, changing neighborhoods, that fire-breathing snail car, and how to keep the Oakland sports teams where they belong: in Oakland.
Q: What power does the mayor really have to get things done?
A: What a mayor gets done is only limited by his or her energy level. Much of what I hope to do is engage others to work to give resources to Oakland. [A big part of that is] convincing businesses that moving here will be good for them. I signed up for a hard job, and if I can’t be tough for my city, who can?
Q: I thought the best line in your inauguration speech was addressed to Google: “Move here, and you won’t need those buses anymore.”
A: I’ve already had two executives from Google contact me. They heard they were called out in my speech, and they want to get together to talk.
Q: You once said you didn’t think Oakland needed big retail businesses to become a commercial destination. How do you keep small-business momentum going while also appealing to large tech companies?
A: People want to be where other interesting people, businesses, and ideas are happening. We’re seeing these great coworking spaces opening up in Oakland, where the small entrepreneur, the starting idea, can get planted and grow. I’m very interested in the Maker Movement [small, DIY manufacturing]. It’s so perfect for Oakland. It resonates with our DNA. We are a city that has always had this kind of blue-collar, make-things-with-your-hands way. We are doers; we are workers; we have always been artists; and we have always been innovators.
Q: When Jerry Brown was mayor, he had a plan to develop 10,000 housing units to draw residents and businesses to downtown. Would you try a similar plan for another neighborhood?
A: Absolutely. We need more housing at all income levels. I think we can easily add another 10,000 units of housing in Oakland in eight years. Maybe in six.
Q: So you want to see the cranes up there.
A: Yes. We need more market-rate housing for the new, wealthier residents who are discovering how cool this city is. They’re going to move into Oakland; we cannot stop them; we don’t want to stop them. But let’s build housing for them so they don’t push people out of existing housing.
Q: You grew up and live in a relatively affluent part of Oakland. When and how did you become aware of the suffering side of the city?
A: I remember going to start a volunteer program for the Oakland public schools, and people said, “Oh, the first place you should go is to the parents, to the PTAs.” I started asking around and discovered almost no schools in Oakland had PTAs and that there were some schools where a majority of the children lived with neither parent. This idea that a majority of the school population did not live with either one of their parents was a rude awakening to the predominance of stress and hardship.
Q: Violent crime was down in Oakland in 2014 and 2013, but it could go back up. What can the city and you do to keep that from happening?
A: We need to do everything within our power to prevent violence from happening in the first place. That includes trying to ensure that children have a caring adult in their lives, and providing places where children feel talented and good and productive and smart, so they can see there is some bright future for them.
Q: What is one of the biggest misconceptions about Oakland?
A: That downtown is dangerous. I know the Chamber of Commerce did a study and documented that there actually is more crime in downtown San Francisco than there is in downtown Oakland. I don’t want to make excuses about my city. I don’t want to whine that we are treated unfairly by the media, even if I may believe we are, from time to time. I want to focus on fixing the problem. We need to do better, and we need a safer city. And the city needs to be cleaner: Sometimes, you feel a lack of safety just because you see cues in the physical environment. This city’s got gorgeous architecture, incredible nature, and some beautiful people in it. It deserves to be showcased.
Q: You want to preserve the city’s soul and identity, and for many, that identity is tied up with the Raiders, Warriors, and A’s. What can you do to keep them in Oakland? Isn’t it a business decision that’s up to the owners of those teams?
A: Yes, but they make these decisions based on whether they feel their landlord is good to work with. So I am proactively reaching out and saying, “I want you to stay in my city, and I’m going to work to make it happen. I’m here to listen to your concerns and what you need to make that decision to build your new home here.” Already, I feel like that has made a difference.
Q: Now that you’re the mayor, you’re not going to be able to please everyone.
A: This is the wrong career choice if you want to make everyone happy. I try and work well with others, but I have to follow my conscience.
Q: Who do you think you’ll piss off first?
A: The first person I catch not doing his or her job. I have high expectations for this organization. I want to see change quickly. I don’t have a lot of patience for things I think are silly.
Q: You did a victory lap after the election in an art car that looks like a giant fire-shooting snail. Do you worry that snails, like some politicians, bring to mind sliminess and inertia?
A: A lot of people think that government moves at the pace of a snail, but that car is turbo-charged and breathes fire. So it is a great symbol of the new government, the city employee who goes beyond the call of duty and tries new things. It’s also a great symbol of Oakland—our vitality, our creativity, our secret sauce.