OAKLAND — As Sheng Thao prepares to lead the city into a post-pandemic future, her hard-fought victory in the race to be Oakland’s next mayor might end up being the easy part, with far tougher times ahead.
But Thao, a 37-year-old one-term city council member and the first Hmong-American to serve in the city’s top political office, was all smiles at her first press conference Wednesday as the mayor-elect.
She reiterated the top priorities listed in a post-election statement — safety, homelessness and “cleaning up our streets” — and promised to both reopen City Hall and restore unity between the mayor’s office and council.
“Oakland is who we are,” she said. “We love our diversity, and that’s what we’re fighting for.”
Thao wrapped up her press conference quickly and left without taking questions from the media present. But upon taking office in January, Thao will be called upon to tackle some of the most urgent issues facing the city and to show that she is a mayor for all the people of Oakland.
Here’s a brief rundown on four of the most pressing topics that Thao will need to address:
The pandemic brought a surge in crime to the city, with shootings and homicides ravaging Oakland communities, and a swell of violent assaults and robberies in Chinatown prompted activism against anti-Asian hate.
Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong has tried to roll out concerted strategies for bringing down gun-related deaths and recovering illegal firearms in high-crime neighborhoods. Thao, who will be in charge of holding Armstrong accountable, hasn’t said much about how well she believes the department is doing.
Instead, she has tried to walk a tightrope of pushing to hire more police officers and advocating for non-police violence prevention. That includes a campaign talking point that she reiterated Wednesday — that the department needs to fill vacancies with “experienced and diverse homegrown officers.”
She was criticized by opponents during election season for reversing course on funding the number of police academies that outgoing Mayor Libby Schaaf had proposed last year in her budget.
Councilman Dan Kalb, however, came to Thao’s defense, saying in an interview both he and Thao were simply waiting for clearer projections of enrollment and costs before they felt comfortable approving the academy funding.
“We added more academies less than six months later, because the ones in the approved budget were not meeting projections (of enrollment),” Kalb said. “There’s nothing inconsistent about that — that’s logical.”
Oakland city officials ran into problems this year in trying to re-house hundreds of people who were displaced when Caltrans evicted them from its property on Wood Street — the largest homeless encampment in the city.
The process of finding new living spaces for the residents there proved to be a messy one with many just setting up camp elsewhere. City Attorney Barbara Parker initially tried to shift responsibility of rehousing residents to other agencies, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to threaten to withdraw state funds.
And Wood Street is not the only problem. The Oakland Fire Department spent more than $1 million fighting 816 fires at Oakland’s encampments this year, including 63 at the Wood Street property alone.
Councilwoman Carroll Fife, who has urged the rest of council to treat the Wood Street situation with urgency, said Thao will “follow my lead and we’re going to get some s– done.”
“I’m excited for a direct and real partnership with the mayor to exercise what I’ve been pushing for years,” Fife said.
Time is ticking for the city to either finalize a deal with the Oakland A’s for a new ballpark and housing development at the city’s harbor or lose its last major professional sports franchise.
Thao has pledged to “get to a deal” done with the A’s, as long as the team meets criteria that includes local vendors selling to game attendees at the new stadium.
The team hasn’t said anything about Thao’s victory or the state of the deal in recent months.
Schaaf has been one of the development’s most vocal champions — even intervening last month after the Major League Baseball commissioner expressed pessimism that the team would stay in Oakland.
Will Thao follow suit? It’s unclear, but the first months of her term might give an impression of how involved she wants to be in the city and team’s negotiations.
Perhaps the biggest job Thao will be tasked with first is coming up with a balanced budget to send the City Council by the end of April.
Her proposal will likely need to account for a $25 billion shortfall in the California budget, which could hamper the city’s ability to rely on state money to buoy its spending.
Thao has spoken often — and did so again on Wednesday — about needing to boost Oakland’s small businesses and encourage new ones to open up. A possible recession could ratchet up the urgency to do so.
Popular restaurants in town have shut down in the past couple months, including Well Organic Kitchen and Aunt Mary’s Cafe in the Temescal neighborhood.
Bars such as CommonWealth Pub on Telegraph Avenue and Elbo Room in Jack London Square, are also closing their doors.
Thao promises to be a mayor who creates jobs and keeps businesses in Oakland. It remains to be seen in 2023 how challenging such a task might turn out to be.
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