Trial by Fire

Libby Schaaf's term as Oakland Mayor has been marred by the Ghost Ship fire, police scandals and a municipal strike. Still, she's likely to be re-elected.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf remains popular despite a tragic fire, a police scandal, the pending departure of the Raiders and Warriors and a municipal strike.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf remains popular despite a tragic fire, a police scandal, the pending departure of the Raiders and Warriors and a municipal strike.

On a sunny afternoon in San Francisco’s trendy warehouse district, Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf was speaking to a roomful of young tech workers at an industry conference.

“It’s been a long week,” she said, half-smiling. It was only Tuesday.

On that day this past winter, Oakland’s municipal workers were a week into a strike that brought city work to a standstill and closed City Hall, and Schaaf’s new police chief was under fire for assigning officers to direct traffic during a raid by federal immigration officials. To top it off, just that morning Schaaf had learned of the sudden death of her friend and mentor, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

It was just the beginning of a week that looked like most weeks in the life of Libby Schaaf. In the three years since she took office as Oakland’s 50th mayor, it seems that just about everything that could have gone wrong has done so. As she begins the final lap of her campaign to win re-election this November, Schaaf has spent the past three years responding to one calamity after another.

The worst came in December 2016, two years into her term, when a late-night fire swept through an illegal warehouse-turned-artist-collective nicknamed the Ghost Ship, in the city’s storied Fruitvale District. The fire killed 36 people, almost all of them artists and musicians in their 20s and 30s who were in the building for a concert. The tragedy surpassed even the legendary Oakland Hills firestorm that killed 25 in 1991.

Despite Oakland’s economic revival in the past few years, in part a benefit of overflow from the boom in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, Schaaf’s tenure has been bumpy, to say the least. In addition to the Ghost Ship fire and the municipal strike that shut down city services for seven days this past December, Schaaf has presided over a police scandal and the NFL Oakland Raiders’ decision to leave for Las Vegas, and found herself in disputes with the business community and local activists.

Still, polling shows that Schaaf remains well-liked and appears headed to a victory this November in her bid for a second term — benefitting from a fractured local political scene and, you might say, a shared disdain for Donald Trump.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf mingles with participants at an event called Running for a Better Oakland, which encourages students, parents and volunteers to participate in a structured running program designed to build self esteem.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf mingles with participants at an event called Running for a Better Oakland, which encourages students, parents and volunteers to participate in a structured running program designed to build self esteem.


In sharp contrast to Kamala Harris and other powerful California women who seemingly set their sights on Washington from the start of their political careers, Schaaf, 52, seems content to mother over her brood of 400,000 Oakland residents. She is fiercely loyal to her city.

“I grew up in Oakland,” Schaaf told the audience in San Francisco. “I bleed oak trees.” Knock her hometown and the gloves come off. When candidate Donald Trump described Oakland as one of the most dangerous places in the world, even comparing it to Iraq, Schaaf shot back in a tweet: “Let me be clear…the most dangerous place in America is Donald Trump’s mouth.” In February, she took on Trump again when she warned Oakland residents that federal immigration officials were planning sweeping raids throughout the region.

Schaaf’s obsession with Oakland is no act. She smiles often and exudes a warm honesty that belies the toughness that helps her survive under such intense scrutiny. On any given weekend, she can be seen out in the community. She and her husband, physicist and software developer Salvatore Fahey, live with their two young children just a few miles from where Schaaf grew up. As a kid, Schaaf was an enthusiastic Girl Scout, an activity she credits with teaching her leadership and “how empowering it can feel to help others.” She frequently volunteered in the community with her mother.

The only time Schaaf hasn’t lived in Oakland was when she went to college in Florida and then to Los Angeles to attend Loyola Law School. Almost immediately after that, she returned to Oakland, landing a job at what was then the largest law firm in town, Reed Smith LLP. But she felt drawn back to community service. She quit her law job and built and ran a citywide volunteer program for the Oakland public schools.

As she mulled her next move, a career counselor suggested she prepare a profile of the ideal job. The unlikely result: “city council aide.” Coincidently, there were two openings. She became legislative assistant to Ignacio De La Fuente, then Oakland City Council president, a post she held for five years.

But it was later, as special assistant to Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown during his second term, that Schaaf began to see herself in political office. The decision came to her at her godmother’s funeral in 2009. Mary Morris Lawrence had been one of the first female photojournalists hired by the Associated Press and an inspiration to Schaaf, she says. Sitting in the church that day, she decided to go into public service, in part to forge a path for other women. In 2010, she won a seat on the Oakland City Council and began building a reputation for toughness and independence.

As she served on the Council, mayors ticked by. Brown was succeeded by former U.S. Congressman Ron Dellums, a civil rights leader of almost mythic proportions in the region who had spent 27 years in Congress. But Dellums’ tenure as mayor was something of a disaster. He was widely criticized for appearing disengaged when it came to the details of running a city, and he served only one term. Jean Quan, his successor, lost her bid for a second term when her aggressive handling of the Occupy Oakland protesters made national headlines.

When the tide turned against Quan and no other strong candidates emerged, Schaaf made the decision to enter the race. At the last minute, Schaaf got the endorsement of her former boss, Brown, now California’s governor, and Sen. Barbara Boxer. Her victory was sealed.

City workers picketed outside of Oakland City Hall during a weeklong strike last December that crippled city services.
City workers picketed outside of Oakland City Hall during a weeklong strike last December that crippled city services.


Getting the job was the easy part. Almost from the start, Schaaf was buffeted by challenges. Just two weeks after her inauguration in January 2015, protesters gathered before dawn outside her house in the Oakland Hills on Martin Luther King Day to express frustration with her record on the City Council, claiming she contributed to the gentrification of Oakland. They also complained that on her first day as mayor she chose to meet with Oakland police, a force that activists have long accused of terrorizing the city’s black community.

The protests continued during Schaaf’s first months in office. To the relief of many local business owners, Schaaf issued a ban on nighttime demonstrations — but that move further tarnished her relationship with activists. Schaaf has often been accused of being out of touch with certain sectors of her community, particularly workers, a description that Schaaf shrugs off. She knows her background as a middle-class, highly educated white woman from the Oakland Hills leads people to make certain assumptions. But Dan Siegel, a civil rights attorney who ran against Schaaf in the 2014 mayoral election, says, “My feeling is Libby Schaaf is a very disengaged leader on the stuff Oakland residents care about.”

This past December, 3,000 city workers, represented by two unions, went on strike for a week, forcing the closure of City Hall as well as senior centers, libraries and critical local government services, such as inspections and some garbage collections. Schaaf held her ground, repeating the mantra, “We cannot spend what we do not have.” But speaking to the audience in San Francisco, she called the strikers’ anger “righteous,” the result of the widening income gap in the U.S. that clearly infuriates her. “It’s not American of us to put up with this,” Schaaf said. She understands that her job is to walk a fine line between the practical elements of her job — like maintaining the city’s budget — and her own frustrations with Washington.

Against this backdrop, Oakland is facing a blow to its civic pride with the pending departure to Las Vegas of the Raiders, a franchise known for its passionate, working-class fan base. The team demanded a publicly funded stadium to replace the aging Oakland Coliseum, but Schaaf stood firm against that idea, particularly given that the city and county are still paying off debt from when the Raiders were lured back to the area from Los Angeles in 1995.

So, the Raiders are headed for Las Vegas in 2020. Schaaf has said that losing the team she loved as a child “breaks her heart,” but die-hard fans blame her for not trying harder to keep them. Worse, the football team’s relocation comes just as the champion Golden State Warriors basketball team is preparing for a move to San Francisco from Oakland’s Oracle Arena.

The tragic December 2016 fire at a warehouse converted to makeshift residential use killed 36 people.
The tragic December 2016 fire at a warehouse converted to makeshift residential use killed 36 people.


Of all of Schaaf’s trials and tribulations, the Ghost Ship tragedy was particularly significant, not only for its sheer horror but also because it revealed the human cost of the housing crisis crippling much of the Bay Area. It uncovered an alternative rental market that many Oakland residents have come to rely on as rents have soared. Tenants of the Ghost Ship were paying way below market prices — in some cases as little as about $600 a month — for tiny ramshackle apartments inside the warehouse.

During Schaaf’s first year in office, the price of a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland rose 20 percent, the biggest jump among Bay Area cities. And while San Francisco remains more expensive, Oakland is gaining. The median monthly rental in Oakland now is $3,000, compared to $3,200 in metro San Francisco (within the city of San Francisco itself, the median rent is $4,400), according to real estate website Zillow. For would-be homeowners, real estate prices tell an even scarier tale: The median home price in Oakland in November 2017 was $712,700, more than double just five years earlier.

Schaaf blames the unprecedented housing crisis in part on external forces, among them the staggering growth of the tech industry that now employs one of five workers in the Bay Area. The industry has attracted so many newcomers to the Bay Area that longtime residents of San Francisco and Oakland are being forced to pay exorbitant housing prices or leave the city for the outer limits of acceptable commuting — or move to firetraps like the Ghost Ship.

At the same time, homeless encampments are overflowing along the streets of West Oakland, tucked under the overpasses of the Bayshore Freeway connecting Oakland to Silicon Valley. Oakland’s homeless population has risen 25 percent in the past two years, bringing the official number of homeless to around 2,800 at the end of 2017. Housing experts say the actual number is probably much higher, and it continues to climb.

Siegel, her former election opponent, accuses her of catering to high-end developers while not effectively addressing the rising cost of housing for working residents. The resulting gentrification — which began nearly 20 years ago — is causing Oakland to lose the diversity on which it has always prided itself. Back in 1980, 46 percent of Oakland’s residents were black; today that number is only 27 percent.

Former Chief Sean Whent was the first of a succession of police leaders forced to step down in the wake of a sex scandal.
Former Chief Sean Whent was the first of a succession of police leaders forced to step down in the wake of a sex scandal.


The Ghost Ship disaster uncovered more than illegal housing. It brought attention to an understaffed city Fire Department that by all appearances had gotten lax on fire code enforcement. The Ghost Ship housed dozens of people in makeshift living spaces using improvised and illegal wiring and without adequate fire exits. Investigators could find no records showing the building had been inspected, and an investigation revealed that hundreds of other Oakland buildings had not been inspected either. In March 2017, the nearly unthinkable happened: Another building fire claimed the lives of four people, this time in a dilapidated structure that offered transitional housing.

And those were just the Fire Department’s problems. The Oakland Police Department, a force long known for corruption and bigotry, became embroiled in the mother of all police sex scandals shortly after Schaaf’s inauguration. A group of Oakland police officers was accused of soliciting a prostitute who was a minor — and who happened to be the daughter of a dispatcher. The scandal rocked the department, eventually implicating dozens of officers across four Bay Area cities.

“As the mayor of Oakland, I am here to run a police department, not a frat house,” Schaaf said at the time. She fired the head of police and promoted the assistant police chief, only to fire him a few days later, saying she didn’t have confidence in him but without offering specifics. The next chief lasted just two days. Finally, many months later, Schaaf announced the selection of Anne Kirkpatrick, who had been guiding reforms in the Chicago Police Department.

But it wasn’t long before the new chief came under attack for permitting officers to direct traffic while immigration officers raided a house in West Oakland, taboo in a region that proudly defends immigrants. In February, Schaaf vowed to resist the Trump administration’s attempts to seek citizenship information on residents, even saying she would go to jail to defend Oakland’s stance as a sanctuary city.

The Oakland Raiders’ planned move to Las Vegas will leave behind legions of devoted fans.
The Oakland Raiders’ planned move to Las Vegas will leave behind legions of devoted fans.


In spite of the turbulence of her term as mayor, Schaaf seems to have a good chance of being re-elected in November. Her poll numbers remain comfortably high. A survey by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce released last December showed Schaaf has a 61 percent approval rating with Oakland voters, up from 53 percent a year earlier — even though less than half of those surveyed think the city is headed in the right direction. Her popularity apparently reflects residents’ willingness to see her programs through.

Concern about housing and homelessness has increased dramatically, according to the Chamber of Commerce poll. Just over 90 percent of Oaklanders surveyed now cite homelessness as the city’s biggest problem, with the next-biggest concerns being lack of housing for middle class families and rising rents.

Among those challenging Schaaf could be De La Fuente, Schaaf’s colorful former boss on the City Council, who has lost the mayor’s race twice already. It was De La Fuente who, back in 1995, helped orchestrate the Raiders’ return to Oakland from L.A., a major coup for the city but a deal that saddled the city and county with millions of dollars in debt.

Another possible opponent is Rebecca Kaplan, the City Council’s at-large member, who also ran against Schaaf in 2014. Kaplan, an LGBTQ activist and farther-left candidate, is well regarded in the city and on the Council, but she may not have the broad support she needs to beat Schaaf. Given that there were 15 candidates in the first round in the 2014 election, it’s anybody’s guess just who else will jump into the race between now and November.

As she positions herself for the race in November, Schaaf is forging ahead with the programs she already has launched. Ask her what she has accomplished that she is most proud of and she’ll tell you about Oakland Promise, an educational program intended to triple the number of Oakland public school students who graduate from college. But like a lot of improvements in Oakland, it will take some time to see results.

“My mantra is that everything I do has to be in the long-term interest of the city,” Schaaf said. “It just may take a while.”

Keep reading: For Democrats in desperate search of new national stars, Kamala Harris is a potential contender for the 2020 presidential nomination.

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