At the steps of city hall, surrounded by supporters and a gaggle of press, Oakland’s new mayor-elect Sheng Thao exhaled.
“It’s been a long journey,” she began. “We’ve been through a lot to get to this moment right here.”
Just 15 years ago, Thao was living in her car with her infant son. She had just escaped an abusive relationship and had nowhere to go. This week Thao, 37, became the first Hmong American woman to lead a major US city, the youngest Oakland mayor in 75 years and the first renter to hold the position.
“There have been so many people in this beautiful city that have held our hands and lifted us up,” she said on Wednesday, in her first press conference since her history-making victory.
The daughter of of refugees who fled Laos during a genocide, Thao was born and raised in Stockton, California, the seventh of 10 children. She left home at 17, and in her early 20s fled an abusive partner while pregnant with her son Ben. She spent months sleeping in her car or on stranger’s couches before she was able to secure a shelter.
Now, as she steps into the role of mayor, Thao said her experiences with poverty and homelessness will help her lead the city through its own severe housing and homelessness crisis, and increasing gun violence. Over the past five years, Oakland saw a steeper rise in homelessness than any other city in the Bay Area.
While many other Democratic midterm candidates across the state and country have responded to voters’ worries about homelessness and community violence with harsh, tough-on-crime rhetoric, Thao has promised policies that will treat unhoused people with dignity and investment in public health and violence prevention programs.
Thao’s victory is a sign that voters “don’t want to vilify and punish poor people”, said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a national network elevating the political power of women of color.
Allison, who lives in Oakland, said she has known Thao since she was an intern for Oakland vice-mayor Rebeecca Kaplan. Thao eventually became Kaplan’s chief of staff, before successfully running for city council herself. “Her values are clear,” said Allison. “It makes her very popular amongst lots of different people, because they feel seen and heard with her.”
And Thao has built a long reputation of community involvement and action. At UC Berkeley, she organized the Bear Pantry – named after the university’s mascot – which collected food donations from local restaurants and grocers to help feed students in need. While working for Kaplan, she created a food delivery program for seniors and homebound residents. And amid the pandemic, she helped establish a mutual aid collective to distribute masks, hand sanitizer and public health information to underserved communities.
“Sheng is a down to earth candidate who actually knows what it’s like for people who are marginalized in this city,” said Pamela Drake, a local activist who advised Thao’s campaign. “She’s not as progressive as I am,” Drake said. “I won’t always agree with her. But I do think what she’ll do is listen. And she won’t just ignore the people that are really in need.”
Thao has hopes to see at least 30,000 new housing units built over the next eight years, provide safe RV parking sites for those who live in their vehicles and trash and sanitation services for encampments. Ultimately, Thao said, she wants the city to offer “adequate housing and shelter to all 3,300 unhoused residents in Oakland” over two four-year terms. She has also suggested stronger protections for renters, including rent controls, to keep people from ending up unhoused in the first place.
The proposals had earned her the support of social justice group Oakland Rising, as well as a coalition of unhoused Oaklanders and homelessness advocates.
To address public safety issues, Thao said she would like to fill vacancies in Oakland’s police force, which has been under federal oversight for nearly two decades following a corruption scandal. But she said she would also like to see more investment in education and violence prevention programs.
In a ranked-choice election, she narrowly secured a victory by just 682 votes over the more moderate Democratic frontrunner Loren Taylor after nearly two weeks of ballot counting. Thao’s victory is considered something of an upset; while she had the backing of the local Democratic party, labor unions and progressive figures including California congressman Ro Khanna, her opponent Taylor was endorsed by key figures in Bay Area politics including Oakland’s outgoing mayor Libby Schaaf and San Francisco mayor London Breed.
She is one of several newly elected progressive officials in Oakland, which will have a progressive majority in city council starting next year. And progressive civil rights attorney Pamela Price became the first Black district attorney of Alameda county, with encompasses Oakland.
“We finally have the opportunity for progressive policies and changes to actually happen for the city,” Allison said.