On the steps of City Hall, surrounded by supporters and a group of press, newly elected Auckland Mayor Sheng Thao exhaled.
“It’s been a long journey,” she began. “We’ve been through a lot to get to this moment 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, Oakland’s youngest mayor in 75 years and the first tenant to hold the position.
“There were so many people in this beautiful city who raised our hands and lifted us up,” she said Wednesday, in her first press conference since her historic victory.
Thao is the daughter of refugees who fled Laos during the genocide, was born and raised in Stockton, California, and is the seventh of 10 children. She left home at the age of 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 a stranger’s couch before she could secure a shelter.
Now, as she takes office as mayor, Thao said her experience with poverty and homelessness will help her lead the city through its severe housing and homelessness crisis, and increased gun violence. Over the past five years, Oakland has experienced 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 voter concerns about homelessness and community violence with tough, tough rhetoric on crime, Thao has promised policies that treat homeless people with dignity and invest in public health and violence prevention programs.
Amy Allison, founder of She the People, a national network that works to raise political power for women of color, said Thao’s victory is a sign that voters “don’t want to denigrate and punish the poor.”
Alison, who lives in Auckland, said she has known Thao since she was an intern with Auckland Deputy Mayor Rebecca Kaplan. Thao eventually becomes Kaplan’s chief of staff, before successfully running for city council. “Her values are clear,” Alison said. “This makes her very popular with so many different people, because they feel seen and heard with her.”
Thao has built a long reputation for community engagement and action. At UC Berkeley, she organized the Bear Pantry—named after the university’s mascot—which collects food donations from local restaurants and grocery stores to help feed students in need. While working at Kaplan, she created a food delivery program for seniors and home residents. And in the midst of the pandemic, I helped create a mutual aid group to distribute masks, hand sanitizer, and public health information to disadvantaged communities.
“Cheng is a realist candidate who actually knows what it’s like for marginalized people 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’m not always going to agree with her. But I think what she’ll do is listen. And she won’t just ignore people who really need it.”
Thao hopes to see at least 30,000 new housing units built over the next eight years, providing safe RV parking sites for those who live in their cars and garbage and sanitation services for campers. Thao said she ultimately wants the city to provide “adequate housing and shelter for all 3,300 unsettled residents of Oakland” over two four-year periods. It also proposed stronger protections for renters, including rent controls, to prevent people from ending up without a home in the first place.
The proposals have earned her the support of the social justice group Oakland Rising, as well as a coalition of Oakland non-housing and homelessness advocates.
To address public safety issues, Thao said she would like to fill vacancies in the Oakland police force, which has been under federal oversight for nearly two decades in the wake of a corruption scandal. But she said she would also like to see more investment in education and violence prevention programs.
In the ranked choice election, she pulled off a victory by just 682 votes over more moderate Democratic nominee Lauren Taylor after nearly two weeks of ballots being counted. Thao’s victory is considered an upset; While she had the support 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 outgoing Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff and San Francisco Mayor London Breed.
She is one of several newly elected progressive officials in Oakland, which will have a progressive majority on the city council from next year. And progressive civil rights attorney Pamela Price became the first female district attorney for Black County in Alameda County, including Oakland.
“We finally have an opportunity for progressive politics and changes that are actually happening in the city,” Allison said.