OAKLAND — Sheng Thao, 37, was elected mayor of Oakland in November, finishing first in a field of 10 candidates under the ranked-choice voting system.

Sheng Thao

She is the city’s first Hmong American mayor.

Both Thao, who was declared the winner after nearly two weeks of ballot-counting, and her closest competitor, Loren Manuel Taylor, are members of the City Council.

Thao’s campaign website provides the following biography: “Sheng grew up in poverty, the seventh of 10 kids. Her parents met in a refugee camp in Thailand after each fled their home country of Laos and the genocide against the Hmong people. Sheng’s mom, widowed and eight months pregnant, had been shot in the arm during her escape. Sheng’s dad had helped many other refugees flee across the Mekong River during his journey.

“Sheng’s parents immigrated to America, settling in Stockton, where they would make a living farming vegetables. It was here Sheng was born.

“As a kid, Sheng’s family was always on social services. For a time, they lived in public housing. Sheng grew up with the very real fear of not having a stable home, so she understands what so many families worry about every day. Sheng got her first job at 16, and left home at 17.

“In her early 20s, she found herself in an abusive relationship, isolated from family — and pregnant. Sheng was able to escape this domestic violence, but soon had a baby and nowhere to go. For months, Sheng and her son, Ben, slept on strangers’ couches, and sometimes in her car.

“When Ben was 10 months old, Sheng got a job at Merritt College, and also started taking classes. And, with the help of welfare, and a Head Start program for Ben, she put herself through school. She became class valedictorian, then transferred to UC Berkeley, where she co-founded a food access program for low-income students and graduated with a degree in legal studies.

“Finding her calling in public service, Sheng joined the office of Oakland’s councilmember at-large, which represents the entire city, and worked her way up to chief of staff. In that role, Sheng helped manage multiple city budgets, fought for affordable housing, helped small businesses open, worked to get guns off our streets, and fought for cleaner air and water.

“Sheng knew she could do even more as an elected official herself. So she ran for City Council District 4 and won, becoming the first Hmong American woman councilmember in California history.

“As a councilmember, Sheng helped bring the council together, change the tone at City Hall, finally break through years of gridlock, and make progress on critical issues. At City Hall, Sheng has passed over 100 laws …

Sheng Thao (center) celebrates Hmong New Year in Fresno.

“In each role she takes on, Sheng’s colleagues elevate her into leadership positions. She’s currently council president pro tem and chairs the Rules and Legislation Committee.

“Sheng received the 2021 Powerful Women of the Bay Award for her work on behalf of Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods, and has been honored by the Alameda Labor Council for her record of delivering for working families. Sheng is also the past president of the League of California Cities API Caucus, and has served on boards for the Redwood Heights Association and Oakland Asian Cultural Center.

“Sheng lives near Joaquin Miller Park with her partner, Andre, their 15-year old son, Ben, and 8-year old daughter, Brooklyn. Sheng is one of only three renters on the Oakland City Council.”

Thao’s endorsers included State Attorney General Rob Bonta, labor leader Dolores Huerta, State Treasurer Fiona Ma, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gomez Reyes, U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, Assemblymember Mia Bonta, Alameda County Supervisors Nate Miley and Richard Valle, and County Superintendent of Schools-Elect Alysse Castro.

Upon winning the election, Thao issued the following statement: “It’s been a long journey, and I’m incredibly honored by the trust the voters have placed in me. This was a very close election. I want to congratulate Loren Taylor on the strong campaign he ran. Councilmember Taylor and his family have been making a difference for this city for generations and we owe him a real debt of gratitude. I hope to speak with Councilmember Taylor in the days ahead to find ways to work together for the good of our city.

“I also want all Oaklanders who voted for another candidate to know I will do everything I can to earn your trust. I will be a mayor for all of Oakland.

“I want to thank everyone who made this campaign possible. From my loving partner Andre and our children, Ben and Brooklyn, to my campaign team, volunteers, and everyone who endorsed us.

“I’m very excited to get to work as mayor in January, but I’m also very humbled to be here. 15 years ago, I was living in my car with my baby. I’ve been through a lot to get to this moment, and have had so many people lift me up in order to get here.

“As we get to work, I’m going to focus on the top priorities which we spelled out in the campaign, which I know are also the priorities of Oaklanders.

“On Day One, we will begin putting in place the comprehensive public safety plan we laid out during the campaign. That involves doubling down on the violence prevention programs that we know reduce violent crime, addressing root causes of crime by working to create more jobs and educational opportunities, filling vacancies in our police department with experienced and diverse officers, providing real support for victims, and redoubling our efforts to get guns off our streets.

“Moving forward, we are going to work to make Oakland the most proactive city in California on housing and homelessness. We’re going to have an aggressive housing policy that protects renters, fights displacement, and treats our unhoused with the dignity they deserve. And I’m a renter myself. So our tenants should know that I’m going to be a mayor who has their back. 

“We are going to make sure we support our small businesses, to make it easier for them to open, to thrive, and to contribute to our city. We will begin the work of bringing a Green New Deal to Oakland, to put our people to work and protect our environment. And we’ll build a more responsive city government, one that returns our calls in a timely manner and focuses like a laser on keeping our streets clean, safe, and vibrant.

“I have never felt more hopeful about Oakland’s future, or more determined to lead the fight for it. I’m excited to get to work building the safer, more affordable, more just Oakland we know is possible in the months and years ahead.”

In an interview with WBUR’s “Here and Now,” Thao addressed anti-Asian hate crimes, which have been an ongoing problem in the Bay Area: “With my parents, my mom, she doesn’t know how to drive. And I can tell you that the fear is real. I wouldn’t want my mom walking the street thinking that she could be punched in the face. So for me, I truly believe that when we have activation of spaces and bring in ambassadors, ambassadors to have direct connection to our officers walking around the business corridor, and this is what I fought for for many years, is that we can actually prevent those crimes from happening.”

In commemoration of Hmong New Year this week, Thao said via Facebook, “I am eternally grateful to my family, my clan, and the Hmong people all across the United States for their support and love. We have come so far and that is because we stayed strong and worked together to uplift one another. Nyob zoo Xyoo Tshiab!

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