Saturday, November 26, 2022

Oakland elects Sheng Thao, first Hmong American mayor of a major US city

California is a frontier in progressive politics, and the City of Oakland contributes to that legacy with their election of Ms. Sheng Thao. Mayor-elect Thao will be the first Hmong American woman to lead a major US city (with 430,000 residents) and the youngest Oakland mayor in 75 years. She is the daughter of Hmong refugees, an ethnic minority that fled Laos during a genocide, and settled in the US through the US refugee resettlement program.

Mayor-elect Thao has first-hand experience with some of the leading issues in her district, including poverty and homelessness. Amid a Bay Area housing crisis, she is the first mayor to be a renter while in office and probably among a small number who have experienced homelessness. She left her impoverished home in Stockton, California at age 17. Three years later, she was pregnant when she chose to leave an abusive relationship and slept on couches and in her car with an infant son before finding secure shelter. She focused on homelessness during her campaign, noting that Oakland experienced a steeper rise in homelessness than any other city in the Bay Area region that leads the nation in housing costs. The mayor-elect distinguished herself from other mayoral candidates by laying out housing policies that invest in public health and violence prevention as its public safety approach, rather than taking a tough on crime approach or defunding police altogether as the city struggles with urban crime.  She also wants to create more jobs and educational opportunities.

Formerly a UC Berkeley and community college transfer student, Ms. Thao's prior community advocacy focused on food insecurity in and around campus. At UC Berkeley, she collected food donations from local restaurants and grocers to feed her fellow students. She became involved with Oakland policies as an intern and staff member in the Vice Mayor's and City Council's offices and expanded food delivery to senior citizens; on the city council, she voted to support state legislation to build housing in commerical corridors and expand zoning limits to multi-unit, multi-story housing in formerly single-family home lots. Now she'll be in a position to do even more, aspiring to add 30,000 new housing units over the next eight years, enhance safety at RV parking sites, trash and sanitation services to homeless encampments. She also supports rent control to stem homelessness up-front.

Sheng [Thao] is a down to earth candidate who actually knows what it’s like for people who are marginalized in this city

said Pamela Drake, a local activist who advised Thao’s campaign, in a feature story in The Guardian. Drake noted that Thao is more moderate than some community activists -- winning by a slim margin over another moderate Democratic front runner Councilmember Loren Taylor in a ranked choice election -- but said she believes Thao will not ignore people in need. Thao also had the backing of labor unions and progressive politicians. She will serve in a city council with a progressive majority and the first Black district attorney of Alameda County (Vice-President Kamala Harris began her career in the same office, before joining the San Francisco District Attorney and becoming the DA for San Francisco). 

Her acceptance speech and a profile on her history-making election appears here.



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