Oakland mayor-elect Libby Schaaf’s background as a cheerleader and Girl Scout is evident when she smiles broadly and says:
“I feel like it’s Oakland’s time to be safe and to be successful.”
Schaaf’s enthusiasm might seem like boosterism to some, but it rings genuine because she was born and raised in Oakland, has lived in the city for most of her life and appears to truly want to make the city a better place for all of its residents.
Speaking about her goals after she takes office on Jan. 5, Schaaf said:
“I think the rest of the world should see our sizzle and pop, our secret sauce, our diversity, our artists and our architectural beauty.”
In an interview in her City Council office as she and her staff were clearing it out in preparation for the move into the mayor’s office, Schaaf said:
“Those things are all mixed together in a unique way that is only Oakland and I’m really excited about promoting that.”
In talking about her plans to improve the city’s economy and address its crime problem, Schaaf is quick to say that she wants to make the city better:
“… in a way that benefits not just new residents but longtime residents as well. … I want to invite new investment, new businesses and new energy but don’t want to push out the old. I don’t want to price people out of their city.”
Schaaf joined the Girl Scouts when she was in first grade and continued all the way through her years at Skyline High School, where she was a cheerleader.
Schaaf said she earned a First Class award, the highest honor in the Girl Scouts, but laughingly remembers that her high school classmates teased her for selling Girl Scout cookies.
After law school, Schaaf joined Cosby, Heafey, Roach and May, one of Oakland’s most prominent law firms, which later merged with Reed Smith, an international firm.
But she said her life changed when she and her mother started a nonprofit called Oakland Cares, which organizes volunteer community improvement projects in the city. Schaaf said she particularly remembers a day when a 9-year-old boy in West Oakland hugged her after she helped him with his homework and changed his perspective on his prospects for the future:
“I thought this is where my heart is. … My day job was getting in the way of my volunteering.”
She said she went through informational interviews at various community organizations and eventually took a job running the volunteer program for Oakland public schools at the Marcus Foster Institute:
“I was at a crossroads and made only half of my previous salary but I’ve never regretted it.”
She later served as chief of staff to City Council president Ignacio De La Fuente and then as a top aide to former Oakland mayor and current California Gov. Jerry Brown, who endorsed her when she ran for mayor. Schaaf next served as public affairs chief for the Port of Oakland for two years before she was elected to the District 4 seat on the City Council in 2010.
Some critics have suggested that Schaaf won’t be able to adequately represent the entire city because she was born and raised in District 4, much of which is located in the Oakland hills, and lives there now with her husband and their two children, ages 7 and 9.
But Schaaf said her district also includes part of crime-plagued East Oakland and that she has lived in other parts of the city, vowing that she can represent everyone:
“I’ve done work in all parts of my city and I have long-term friends in all parts.”
The mayor-elect, who will be replacing one-term mayor Jean Quan, said it’s “very critical” for her to install a new city manager and other top city officials as soon as possible.
Referring to the heavy turnover of top officials in the city administrator’s office and Police Department during Quan’s tenure, Schaaf said:
“Putting in talented and stable leadership is essential to success in the next four years. … I’m working on it very diligently.”
Applications for the city administrator’s post will close on Jan. 9, after which she hopes to fill the post, which is currently held by interim city administrator Henry Gardner.
Schaaf said another way she plans to make Oakland better is to have “a relentless focus on some of the basics,” such as fixing potholes and cleaning up trash, instituting effective policing and improving educational outcomes for students in its public schools.
Oakland has been rocked in the past month by protests following the decisions by grand juries not to indict police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York. Vandalism, looting and freeway closures have occurred during some of the protests.
“Protests and social movements are part of Oakland’s DNA but breaking windows of small businesses is not. There’s a clear line.”
“I welcome a passionate debate about the performance of governmental institutions and I know we have a long way to go to overcome our roots as a racist society but I also need to make residents safe in their persons and property. … I want to help facilitate the protests and the demand for change but I want to diminish the damage and the fear.”