By Kit Rachlis, Senior Editor, The California Sunday Magazine.
Since her election as mayor of Oakland in 2014, Libby Schaaf has tried to steer a city that embodies almost all the challenges confronting urban America: rapid gentrification, a shrinking black community that feels increasingly marginalized, a historically racist police force, and a growing homeless population. She is the subject of Jennifer Kahn’s in-depth profile in the current issue of California Sunday Magazine. A resident of Oakland, Kahn is contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, has been a regular feature writer for The New Yorker, and teaches in the Magazine Program at the University of California, Berkeley.
On a cold day in an unusually rainy winter, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf took the stage in an underheated school auditorium high in the Oakland hills. The event was the annual community meeting for a neighborhood known as Piedmont Pines, a woodsy enclave bordered by parkland and hiking trails. Despite the weather, the room was full. Onstage, Schaaf, wearing a dark brocade jacket and black slacks, stood very straight.
Schaaf’s election in 2014 had surprised some who assumed that a mayoral campaign by a wealthy, middle-aged white woman was unlikely to play well in a city with an active protest culture and a long history of racial tension. Tonight was something of a victory lap for Schaaf, who had grown up in the neighborhood and attended the high school where she was now speaking.
Gazing out at the crowd, Schaaf beamed. “It’s hard not to break into a Guys and Dolls routine, which is the last thing I performed on this very stage,” she began, “and it’s hard to stay mayoral in front of so many old friends.” Then Schaaf proceeded to stay quite mayoral, indeed. She highlighted a new infrastructure bond, emphasized dropping crime rates, and reflected on the city’s startling growth. “Around the office, we’re calling this halftime,” Schaaf said. “We’re having locker room talks.”
Still, for all the optimism, it was hard not to be aware of Oakland’s troubles. Eight months earlier, a group of police officers were accused of soliciting an underage teenage sex worker — who happened to be the daughter of a dispatcher — while providing her with information about undercover prostitution stings. (In May, the city settled the claim for $989,000.) In the wake of the scandal, Schaaf replaced the existing police chief, only to have her two subsequent appointments step down within days. The episode made national headlines — Fox News: “Three chiefs in nine days!” — but the turnover wasn’t even a city record. In 2013, Mayor Jean Quan was forced to appoint three chiefs in three days.
Then, in December, a fire at the two-story warehouse and artist collective known as the Ghost Ship killed 36 people who had gone to hear an electronic music show. After it was reported that the fire department had not inspected the building in more than a decade, Schaaf was criticized for negligence while being berated by residents who worried that she would use the fire as an excuse to evict them and shut down unpermitted units. When Schaaf appeared to defend the fire department, she was perceived as being conciliatory and clueless. Politico called her “a deer in the headlights.” Speaking at the Ghost Ship memorial a few days later, she was booed so loudly that an organizer had to intervene.
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