Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf Eric Risberg/AP

Oakland's outspoken mayor talks about standing up for racial equity, and staring down the federal government on cannabis and immigration.

Under a sign that read “FUTURE CITY,” three mayors pondered whether titan tech companies such as Amazon could be models of equity and prosperity in cities. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf brought up a concept called “tech-quity,” which she explained meant that companies should be expected to conduct themselves in ways that contribute to local diversity and inclusion goals.

The forum was part of a conference Pittsburgh hosted last week on prioritizing “people, planet, place, and performance,” or what the city calls “p4,” in urban planning and development. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who moderated the conversation between Schaaf and Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania Mayor Marita Garrett, responded by bringing up the possible consequences of cities placing restrictions on companies they are recruiting or trying to keep. He pointed to the NFL team, the Raiders, leaving Oakland, in part because they couldn’t get better public financing deals.

“Sometimes you lose well, but I felt like we didn't need to be subsidizing billionaires,” said Schaaf drawing applause. “I really think that we have got to stop this race to the bottom. We’re not going to prostitute ourselves to companies either.”

Schaaf apologized to Peduto at one point saying she knew this was “a sensitive subject” for Pittsburgh right now, and indeed it is. A group of people had gathered outside the p4 conference to protest the city’s wooing of Amazon’s coveted HQ2 operations. The protesters said they targeted the conference, in part, because the “p4” values are in conflict with the kind of living cost hikes that could come with a new Amazon headquarters.

This is the conundrum facing many mayors today: If you believe that the affordable housing problem is the result of wages not keeping pace with rising living costs, as many studies suggest, then you want to bring an Amazon headquarters in because it will bring higher-paying jobs with it. However, Amazon can’t employ everybody, so low-income households could get stuck paying higher rents because of the company’s effect on the housing market.  

To address such equity concerns, Schaaf has been steering Oakland towards policies that prioritize the needs of historically marginalized populations—and she’s been getting in some trouble for it. When she sent a letter to Uber, as it considered Oakland for a new office, telling them to kick in on the equity front, or else, Uber chose or else. This stands in contrast to Pittsburgh, which has enjoyed a perhaps too-welcoming relationship with Uber.

Schaaf has also not been afraid to stare down the federal government when it has threatened to tread on city ordinances. Oakland proceeded with legalizing cannabis despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ desire to resurrect the war on weed. And for her policies around providing sanctuary for immigrants, she’s drawn the wrath of both Sessions and President Donald Trump, who are threatening to pull federal funding from Oakland for not abiding by their strict immigration enforcement agenda.

At the p4 conference, Schaaf was adamant that she wasn’t going to make nice with anyone in the federal government who wants to dictate how she deals with her residents, whether they are documented or not. The following is her conversation with CityLab, edited for length and clarity, about changing the power dynamic between tech companies and cities; how Oakland is pioneering racial equity policy through its legalized cannabis program; and what to do about Trump’s policies on immigration.

You say cities should not prostitute themselves to land companies like Amazon, but what about cities that have been suffering economically—ones that could really use that kind of stimulus?

I don't want to pass judgment on cities that are in very different positions than Oakland. Part of your job as a mayor is to recognize where you are, where you've been, and where you're going. Certainly when I became mayor, I could feel that Oakland was on the verge of a boom—that we didn't need to entice people to come to our city. They were getting prepared to come anyway. So I don't want to pass judgment on cities that do look at ways to spark growth. At the same time, I do think that we hurt each other when we enter into bidding wars.

A lot of cities saw that when trying to get Walmarts to come to their cities, giving away huge tax breaks only to later be abandoned. We have a giant empty Walmart in Oakland that’s been empty for two years now. You have to recognize the worth of your city and recognize our interdependence as cities. We as mayors have to stop being competitive and be more cooperative.

But Oakland did submit an HQ2 proposal to Amazon along with neighboring cities, right?

It was a regional proposal and it did not offer any local incentives. It also recognized that Amazon would be expected to address the transportation and housing challenges that level of employment growth would cause. Now we're very proud of what we had to offer. We have world-class universities. We are in the middle of Silicon Valley, which is the most innovative region arguably in the world. We have an incredible public transit system. We have a talent pool to rival any. So it's not like we didn't think about why any company would want to come to our region. But we were clear that we weren't going to pay them for the privilege, and we were clear about the responsibilities that we expected them to undertake. I guess that wasn't a very effective plan—we didn't make the shortlist, right?

In Oakland this “tech-quity” movement is also about creating a tech ecosystem done right—to be intentional and say that technology can be led by women and people of color. It can have a workforce that is not just diverse but inclusive, and tech companies can and should be more mission driven. As Freada Kapor [Freada Kapor Klein of the Oakland-based Kapor Capital] says, we don't need more photo-sharing apps, but we do need to disrupt poverty.

What are the other ways that Oakland is working to address equity issues, and racial equity specifically?

One good example in Oakland is our Kiva loans—crowd-sourced, zero-interest loans. Part of why they've been so successful is we got several local companies to provide matches. PG & E and Kaiser are examples of companies that would match dollar for dollar any Oakland business that was seeking loans. We've closed more than 530 zero-interest loans for very small businesses, 70 percent of them owned by women of color, and 90 percent owned by people of color. That has been intentional because we’re talking about trying to disrupt institutionalized racism. The fact that traditional commercial lending requires you to already have money, to have a certain credit score, to have collateral, to show a cashflow—that really doesn't help groups that have been historically excluded from business ownership.  

Why was it so important to make sure the new legalized cannabis program was based on racial equity in Oakland?

When we looked at the data of marijuana enforcement, when it was still illegal, there is clearly a race disparity in our enforcement patterns. We saw nearly all marijuana-related charges were brought against African-American and Latino men. We needed to make up for what was obviously a racially disparate system of enforcement so we created an equity candidate program for someone who either had been charged with a marijuana-related crime or who lives or has lived for a certain number of years in a part of the city that had a disproportionate number of marijuana-related arrests. And those are all low-income communities of color.

This is interesting because legally it is very difficult to target a program explicitly based on race, right?

Unless you can prove past racial bias. In California, we have Prop 209 that prevents governments from doing race-based contracting or preferences. But the exception to that is if you can actually demonstrate actual discrimination that needs to be rectified. We collected the data and demonstrated that bias. I'm not proud of it, but I am proud that we're willing to collect and publicize the uncomfortable truths even in a progressive place like Oakland.

When we looked at the group that we felt had been unfairly targeted for marijuana enforcement and asked what their barriers are for getting into this new business, [they said] the upfront capital, particularly for real estate, because real estate is expensive in Oakland.

Ideally we wanted to have a revolving loan fund to help these companies get started, but our challenge is we don't have enough money to fund the initial capital for that. So we allowed companies that do have the money to go to the front of the line [for obtaining business permits], if they would sponsor an equity candidate, either by providing them with the cash for rent or providing them with the actual real estate for operations.  

Are you getting a lot of interest from other cities about this program?

Absolutely. Everybody and their mama is coming to Oakland to see what we’re doing.

Besides providing sanctuary for cannabis, you are also doing this for immigrants. Are you concerned about the legal precedent that courts could set if they rule against your sanctuary policies?

It's worth taking those risks for justice. We have a broken immigration system. California's economy would fall apart tomorrow if you deport all of the undocumented workers. It's also an inhumane system that rips families apart. But this administration is particularly disturbing, not just in their enforcement policies—which at least according to one report that I saw has more than tripled the number of deportations of people who have committed no crimes at all—but the rhetoric, the ugly lie that immigrants are dangerous criminals, is offensive, false and racist. All the data clearly shows that this is a lie and what is so disturbing is that it’s just fanning the flames of racism and hate by deceiving the American people.

What about the federal government’s threats to withhold funding from your city over this?

A number of cities got letters demanding proof of compliance with the federal law. The press release that they put out about it listed the cities [that got these letters] and specifically said that one was sent to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf—calling us out by name, and I'm sure that was not by accident. My understanding is that the law requires that you provide [immigration] information to the federal government. We have a policy that we don't collect that information. That is part of our argument about why we are in compliance. It is not our job to do immigration enforcement. Oakland is roughly one-third immigrants and that includes our undocumented immigrant community. They need to feel safe to call the police, to report crimes, and to serve as a witness when a crime is committed. That is key for everyone's public safety. The courts so far have ruled in our favor with just about every case finding that this president has overreached his authority.

Putting your title and the politics to the side for a moment, how are you coping as a woman being threatened by name by men in high seats of power, in this particular moment?

I'm very clear about what my purpose in this life is. And of course I have concerns, but no one elected me to be fearful. No one elected me to not try to make my community a better place. No one elected me to not stand up for every member of my community that I represent. And I have felt incredibly supported by my community. I've felt very threatened by a lot of very angry people outside of my community, but I do not regret standing up. While it has been strange to see the level of energy and offense that the attorney general and even the president has paid to me personally—and certainly I would suspect that the fact that I'm a woman contributes to that—I do not regret it. I think it's important that we continue to shine light on racism and bias and that we continue to push for a more humane and just government. I feel like my act was in its own strange way, very democratic. America is a country of immigrants, and we purport that we stand for these values of liberty and justice for all. So I think what I did was quite patriotic.

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