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Showdown in Oaktown: Activists Want to Recall Mayor Schaaf—Libby Says Bring It On

Can an army of activists turn the tide against a popular mayor?

Schaaf at SF Pride in 2015.


On the heels of a grassroots campaign to recall Mayor Ed Lee, a coalition of activists in Oakland this week took the first step in a parallel effort to recall Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf. This new campaign—backed by groups including the Anti Police Terror Project, Black Lives Matter Bay Area, and Causa Justa—suggests a deepening fissure between Oakland’s minority communities and the city’s richer, whiter newcomers, whose interests the mayor has, for some, come to symbolize. “There’s a very real fear that if we don’t intervene with what’s happening with our city now, there’ll be none of us left to fight, because we can’t afford to live here anymore,” says Cat Brooks, cofounder of the Anti Police-Terror Project. 

Recall campaigns are notoriously difficult to get started—and even more difficult to win. But groups like Black Lives Matter Bay Area have been steadily growing their organizing chops. And like Ed Lee’s, Schaaf’s tenure is far from scandal free: The Oakland Police Department currently lacks a chief, after an embarrasing week in which the city went through three chiefs in succession, and there’s that whole teen prostitute scandal that has ensnared several OPD officers. Could Schaaf’s critics seize this moment, when the entire nation is paying attention to the power dynamic between police and black and brown lives, and graduate from closing down freeways to ousting a mayor? 

Brooks thinks so. “The blood of seven dead black men are on her hands, seven murdered at the hands of the OPD,” she says, referring to police shootings that took place in 2015, after the mayor took office. “Each time Libby Schaaf justified the killings, even Demouria Hogg, who was sleeping in his car” when he was shot. (Hogg was unconscious in a car idling in the road, according to reports.) Erica Derryck, Schaaf's communications director, counters: “On the mayor’s feelings about the loss of life in Oakland, she has been really clear that any life lost in Oakland is one life too many.” 

For a recall to go ahead, here’s what would have to happen: Once the campaign gets its petition validated by election officials, the petitioners will have 160 days to collect 23,182 signatures, or 10 percent of registered voters in Oakland. The group is aiming for 29,000, says organizer and 2014 mayoral ex-hopeful Ken Houston, because not all signatures will be ruled valid. Brooks says the effort has no money raised and will be an all-volunteer campaign. Even if they do collect that many valid signatures, there isn’t time to get a recall on the November ballot, so Oaklanders would be looking at a special election that would happen in mid-2017, at the earliest.

The odds are, however, virtually insurmountable, says political strategist Larry Tramutola. Schaaf, who took office in January 2015, is currently enjoying an approval rating of 61 percent, according to recent polling by Tramutola’s firm. Numbers like that, he says, suggest that Schaaf “is the most popular mayor since Jerry Brown.” Despite the ongoing embarrassments at the OPD, overall trends are still good. Homicides in Oakland are down 23 percent from this time last year. There have been no officer-involved shootings at all in 2016, after the alarming cluster in 2015—a year that proved the exception in what has been a downward trend. 

So far, Schaaf’s reaction has been muted. “I welcome the opportunity to have my record examined and what I've accomplished in Oakland in the past year and a half," she said when the campaign launched. But it’s hard to imagine, if recall momentum grows, that she and her supporters wouldn’t mount a fierce defense. If it comes to that, money would be on her side, Tramutola points out. “The person being recalled can raise unlimited dollars,” he says. “There’s no campaign limits on a recall.” 

As for the petitioners’ finances, Tramutola estimates that even an all-volunteer outfit run on sweat and grit would typically spend between $25,000 and $30,000 just to collect signatures, because of details like printing costs, signs, legal advice, and refreshments for the clipboard mafia. If the recall is certified and the campaign then needs to win an election, says Tramutola, “in Oakland you’d probably need a couple hundred thousand dollars as a minimum.”

Even when they do go forward, recall campaigns have a way of backfiring (the Governator's election excepted). In San Francisco, we’re already seeing signs of a recall backlash effect with Mayor Lee, now that political frenemy Rose Pak has rushed to his side. A prime example, for Tramutola, is San Francisco’s unsuccessful recall of Mayor Dianne Feinstein in 1983. “She came out of that recall stronger, more popular, more able, and kind of parlayed that into running for U.S. Senate—clearly not the intent of the people who wanted to do the recall,” he says.  


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