New Oakland Mayor Is One Tough Cheerleader

Libby Schaaf ’87 has cultivated a rah-rah image, but colleagues say she’s plenty tough.

Newly elected Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf speaks at a news conference at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, Wednesday, November 5, 2014. (ANDA CHU) Newly elected Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf speaks at a news conference at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, Wednesday, November 5, 2014. (ANDA CHU)

Sometimes it seems that Libby Schaaf ’87 might “hella” love Oakland a little too much.

After a childhood spent tagging around with her mother from one volunteer activity to another and a career spent mostly working behind the scenes at City Hall, Oakland’s next mayor can’t seem to get enough of her hometown, whether she’s sporting Oakland-themed earrings, wearing dresses by Oakland designers, or extolling the city’s gritty independent artists as its “secret sauce.”

Schaaf said she often thinks of the city as a person. “She’s a character,” Schaaf said. “Some nights she breaks my heart and the next morning she makes me fall back in love with her.”

Several of Schaaf’s colleagues see her Oakland crush as a little over-the-top. It’s not that it’s inauthentic, they say, but the rah-rah cheerleader persona Schaaf has cultivated since handily defeating Jean Quan in November doesn’t always jibe with the woman inside City Hall who is never afraid to put down the pom-poms and roll up her sleeves.

“Her mannerism is this nice little goody two-shoes person, but when she bites, she doesn’t let go,” said former Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, who gave Schaaf her start in city politics 16 years ago.

Councilwoman Pat Kernighan compared Schaaf to Rahm Emanuel, the assertive, f-bomb dropping mayor of Chicago.

“She is a very strong-willed, stubborn, determined person,” Kernighan said. “That is a good thing for a mayor who is presiding over a relatively inflexible institution.”

Upon winning her council seat in 2011, Schaaf appeared determined to assert her independence. She broke with De La Fuente on several issues and voted against a contract extension negotiated by the police union, which had endorsed her for council. Later in her term, she was the lone council member who refused to approve a raise for the city’s largest union and then angered business leaders by endorsing a labor-backed minimum wage hike.

As mayor, Schaaf might have to assert her independence from another former boss, Governor Jerry Brown. She started surging in the polls last year after receiving the backing of Brown, who hired her as a staffer when he was mayor and continues to have business interests and ties to important developers in the city.

“There is so much muscle there,” said Ralph Kanz, a former member of Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission. “The question is whether she is strong enough to stand up to that kind of thing if she really thinks it’s the right thing to do.”

And perhaps most importantly, she’ll have to prove she can solve some of the problems her predecessor couldn’t.

Schaaf, 49, lives in the Dimond District with her husband, Sal Fahey, a physicist, 9-year-old son Dominic and 7-year-old daughter Lena. She grew up 3 miles away, higher up in the Oakland hills, the younger daughter of a traveling salesman who had no great love for the city and a stewardess-turned homemaker mother from a Midwestern farm town who embraced Oakland with gusto.

Wherever Barbara Schaaf volunteered, young Libby did, too. She cleaned animal poop at the zoo, played Cinderella for kids at Children’s Fairyland, hiked and camped in the local parks as a Girl Scout, and worked the T-shirt booth at the former Festival of the Lake.

A picture that Schaaf drew on construction paper as a 7-year-old still hangs backstage at the Paramount Theatre, where she will be inaugurated Monday, and where her mother served as president of the Oakland Symphony Guild.

“A lot of us love Oakland,” Kernighan said. “But (Libby’s) love is a little more intense and personal because it is always what she has cared about.”

Schaaf left Oakland to attend Rollins College, where she majored in political science, and law school at Loyola Marymount University. She returned to practice corporate law at Oakland’s largest firm at the time, Reed Smith, but left after less than three years.

“It was boring,” she said. “I’m a people person. It’s hard to volunteer and do all those billable hours.”

At 33, Schaaf was doing nonprofit work when she landed a job working for De La Fuente, the council’s president and most powerful figure.

On the surface it was an odd match. Schaaf, the high school cheerleader and Girl Scout from the hills, paired with the outwardly gruff trade union leader from the flatlands. But De La Fuente proved to be a nurturing boss, and Schaaf a fierce employee who was never afraid to speak her mind.

“There were times when after an hour of debating the issue I would say, ‘You know what, Libby, I respect your position, but I’m the City Council member, and you’re going to do it the way I say to do it,’ ” De La Fuente recalled.

As a council member, Schaaf showed her tenacity by pushing through her favored initiatives, including the creation of a rainy day budget reserve and an independent committee to redraw council districts. The budget reserve fight lasted her entire term in office, Kernighan said.

“People kept rejecting it, and she kept bringing it back. It took her four years, but it finally passed,” she said.

Schaaf was considered a policy wonk on the council, but on the campaign trail she emphasized her hometown roots and embraced the local slang “hella,” while declining to unveil any grand plans for solving entrenched problems such as crime and the lack of affordable housing.

“I’m not going to roll out some shiny initiative with a cute title,” Schaaf said. “That is not what the city needs. The city needs to actually buckle down and implement the strategies that we know work.”

Schaaf does support using development fees to help pay for more affordable housing. And when it comes to public safety, she says the department must complete court-mandated reforms, focus on successful crime-prevention programs, and improve relations with residents. On the recent protests, she said officers must find a way to both protect property and civil-minded protesters, while arresting vandals.

De La Fuente, who didn’t endorse Schaaf for mayor, said her independence puts her in a strong position to succeed, but she will have to delegate more, give up some of her pet issues and act more decisively than she did on the council.

“When you’re the mayor, it’s how fast you can get things done,” he said.

Another factor working in Schaaf’s favor, said Oakland-based political consultant Larry Tramutola, is that most voters hadn’t heard of her until the campaign got underway.

“She has a chance to craft her own legacy,” he said. “Right now, the worst thing you can say about Libby is that she hella likes Oakland.”

Originally posted on Contra Costa Times.