By Joyce Xi. Posted October 24, 2022
If Oakland voters elect Sheng Thao this November, she will be the first Hmong American woman to be mayor in the country.
Identity is not an end all be all in politics, especially in a mayoral election with critical issues at stake. However, it is meaningful that Thao is breaking barriers for her community. She has already made history as the first Hmong American city councilwoman in California, and after entering politics from humble beginnings, is looking to make an even larger impact as mayor.
Oakland City Councilmember Sheng Thao, who is running for Mayor of Oakland. Photo by Joyce Xi.
Thao is running on a progressive platform in a crowded race that is turning out to be a contest between so-called moderate vs progressive ideas on key issues from public safety to housing and homelessness. Thao says she is unapologetic about lifting up working families in her policymaking, a core value informed by her personal experiences.
Born and raised in Stockton, CA, Thao is the seventh of ten children of Hmong refugees. Her parents fled Laos due to the “Secret War” when Hmong people were recruited by the CIA to help US soldiers during the Vietnam War.
Growing up, like many other Southeast Asian refugees who escaped war, Thao’s family experienced poverty and difficulties adjusting to a new world. Her parents were farmers and relied on public housing, food stamps, and social services to survive. They didn’t speak English and lacked mental health care for PTSD, having fled war, traversed through the jungles of Laos by foot and crossed the Mekong river to Thai refugee camps before arriving in the US. Their journey was perilous– there was a lot of death of loved ones and others. During her escape, Thao’s mom survived being shot, and still has bullet lodged in her arm.
Photo of Thao’s family in Stockton, CA. Courtesy of Sheng Thao.
Hmong people helped US soldiers in Laos, yet when they came here, they didn’t get much support in return. Growing up in an environment with lack of support and resources was difficult. “The system failed my parents,” Thao says, and though they tried their best, their challenges translated to emotional and physical abuse at home. Patriarchy within the community was difficult for Thao too, who rebelled at a young age, as women and girls were taught to be good wives, to cook and clean. Thao refused to do so. “It was emotionally exhausting,” Thao says.
Eventually she wanted a break and left home, ending up in Oakland, where she has spent her adult life. Soon after, she entered a romantic relationship that ended up being abusive. While six months pregnant and after a particularly violent incident, she realized she needed to leave, not just for herself but for the safety of her unborn child. Thao speaks openly about her experience with domestic violence and says it shaped who she is today. “Anybody can end up in that kind of situation…you literally feel like you have nowhere to go.”
At 20 years old and with a baby about to be born, she had no stable place to live and spent time living out of her car and couch surfing. She gave birth to her son on her own, learning how to care for him with the help of the nurses at the hospital. Thao says this was a dark period where she was “headed down a dangerous path” in life. But she decided to enroll back in school at Merritt College, as she had been in honors classes and numerous leadership roles in high school. Though she was still in survival mode going to school and working as a single mom, college helped with feeling hopeful again.
Thao speaking with Rudy Besikof, President of Laney College. Laney is a sister college to Merritt College, where Sheng Thao attended community college. Photo by Joyce Xi.
At graduation, she was named valedictorian. It was a pivotal moment. Standing on stage at the ceremony and looking at her son, Thao felt a weight had been lifted. “I felt like I could breathe. I didn’t need to survive anymore… I just had a sense of all this heaviness lifted off my shoulders.” Thao says that up until that point, she was focused on surviving, figuring out how to put food on the table and pay for rent, and life was filled with anxiety. She now felt ready for a new chapter. After Merritt College, she enrolled at UC Berkeley. There, she graduated with a degree in legal studies.
Getting into politics wasn’t part of a carefully crafted plan, but opportunities and doors opened. After UC Berkeley, Thao found a program run by the organization Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs (APAPA) that helped APIs get involved in local government and that provided some funding. She applied and was accepted. The program provided mentorship and paired her with Oakland Councilmember-At-Large Rebecca Kaplan’s office as an intern, which started her path in Oakland politics. Kaplan’s office then hired her, and she worked her way up as a staffer for several years, eventually becoming Chief of Staff before running for her own council seat. At the time, Thao noticed many legislators making decisions affecting those on the margins didn’t have the lived experience to truly understand the impact of their policies.
Thao speaking with participants in the APAICS East Bay Regional Leadership Academy, a program encouraging APIs to get involved in government. Photo by Joyce Xi.
In 2018, Thao ran for and was elected as Oakland District 4 City Councilwoman. She credits building a broad coalition of people across racial and socioeconomic lines for helping her win. Thao become the first Hmong person elected in Oakland, and the first Hmong American woman elected to city council in California.
Thao with fellow Oakland City Councilmembers Carroll Fife (left) and Nikki Fortunato Bas (center) at an event. Photo by Joyce Xi.
All of the challenges she faced to get to that point, which may have once seemed unlikely, have continued to motivate her policymaking. Thao says her life experience, as a fighter, as someone who has continually overcome challenges and continues to persist, is one of the things that makes her effective and drives her fight to make change in Oakland.
A LEADER IN THE HMONG COMMUNITY
When asked about the significance of being one of the leading Hmong elected officials in the country, Thao says at first she didn’t think much of it and just wanted to create impact. But she realized the Hmong community saw it as a big deal.
Thao recognized that to be where she is at is why her parents fought so hard to ensure she had a good education, that every dollar they received from welfare went to making sure the family was taken care of. “Being a leader, in government, in America, they didn’t think they would ever live to see that one of their kids or grandkids or lineage would take on that position”
Reflecting on her identity, Thao sees Hmong people as strong and tenacious. As indigenous people to the mountains and jungles in Laos and other surrounding countries, Hmong people do not have their own country, and have long faced persecution and poverty. They live off the land. Because of the Secret War many have been displaced from their homelands and fled to places like California, not of their choosing.
“I have that refugee blood in me.” Thao says, “We will fight. We will fight to ensure we have equality. We will fight to make sure we have what we need.”
Thao speaking at a rally supporting a Cambodian Refugee community member facing deportation. Thao spoke about her own refugee roots and that Southeast Asian refugee community members who have made mistakes in life due to their circumstances should not be deported and separated from their families. Photo by Joyce Xi.
At the same time, public service was a part of how Thao was raised. “The great thing about the Hmong culture is that we truly believe that we help each other, community helps one another, clans help one another,” Thao says. “That’s what I learned growing up… there’s always someone that’s suffering harder than you are, deeper than you are. Our job is to be kind and to help as much as we can. We don’t have a lot but there’s things we can do to help others.”
As a leader within the Hmong community, Thao hopes to uplift the Hmong name and culture, and particularly strives to focus on supporting women and girls. Given her experiences, she hopes there can be a better understanding of patriarchy in the community. Thao hopes she can help provide more opportunities for Hmong women and girls to thrive, to be heard and feel empowered.
Overall, Thao says the Hmong American community has been excited and very supportive of her mayoral campaign. For the community, Thao’s campaign has gone national, with people across various states showing up to support her.
A RACE FOR THE FUTURE OF OAKLAND
Mayor of Oakland is not an easy job. Oakland, like many cities, has faced numerous challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic and is experiencing acute crises around public safety, housing and dignity for unhoused, affordability, and more. The root causes of these issues are deep and whoever is elected will be expected to find meaningful solutions by voters eager for change.
Thao believes she is up for the task. She is running for mayor to create needed change in the city, particularly for families that are most marginalized and in need. “When you lift from the bottom, you lift everyone up,” Thao says.
Thao speaking with Laney College staff. Photo by Joyce Xi.
Mending the relationship between mayor and city council is critical for whoever is elected, as trust has eroded during the current administration. Thao believes that what is happening in Oakland is indicative of what is happening in city hall– there is dysfunction. She believes Oakland needs a hands-on mayor who can unite city hall.
Thao believes she has the ability to unite people and rebuild trust. Her philosophy is pragmatic—build collaboration and partnerships and try to get to a “yes”. Bring different groups together and get people to start talking with one another. Thao shares an example from her first city council term when she helped bring seemingly disparate labor and business interests together. When they finally came to the table, they were able to secure an agreement to raise taxes on large corporations and reduce taxes on small businesses, generating $22 million a year in funds for things like public safety and housing.
Regarding the issues, public safety is a top priority for Thao, which she believes requires urgency and resources. What approach to take on public safety and policing is at the heart of debates across Oakland and amongst candidates. Thao hopes to address the issue on both the front and back end, and is advocating for a holistic approach to public safety focused on violence prevention, community building, and addressing root causes of crime. For example, she hopes to invest in more in opportunities for young people and create community safety through ambassador programs. On the other end, she would plan to fill police vacancies and increase coordination between interagency and intercity law enforcement task forces to address violent crime.
Thao and her top competitors differ in their approach around policing. While others have advocated for significantly more police and more tough on crime approaches, Thao places a greater emphasis on violence prevention and addressing root causes of crime. At the same time, she is still advocating to fill existing police vacancies, has supported police academies, and seeks to focus more resources on addressing violent crime.
Another top concern for Thao is housing and homelessness. Having been housing insecure and unhoused, these issues are personal for Thao and she believes they are linked. During the current administration, Oakland has built a significant amount of market rate housing yet fallen short of meeting affordable housing goals set by the region and state. Thao hopes to prioritize building more affordable housing, while some of her main competitors have pushed for more market rate housing. On homelessness, Thao believes it is important to treat people with dignity and protect those who are housing insecure. She plans to work closely with nonprofits that receive money from the city, to see what is working and what is not, and to better account for the money that is being spent. A recent audit showed that while the city spent millions on homelessness services, Oakland’s unhoused population grew, and the city did not adequately account for where the funds went and how effective they were.
At the end of the day, how would Thao plan on remaining accountable to the promises she is putting forward? After all, politicians who get elected into higher offices can often get swayed by various special interests, especially those with more money and power. Thao says that she will continue to be strongly driven by her values to uplift the most marginalized communities while serving everyone in the city. She says she will prioritize collaboration and partnership and continue to stay in touch with community organizations.
She knows people will not always agree with her, but she vows to have integrity and work with anyone, to hear various points of view and truly try to understand where people are coming from, and to bring different sides to the table to see how it is possible to work together. There is no doubt that in a town with a rich history and culture of organizing and activism, people will be watching to see if Thao can maintain integrity, where she draws lines around her values, and what kinds of compromises she will make if elected.
Election day is approaching on November 8, and Thao is one of ten candidates running for mayor. According to a recent poll, it is a tight race. Mail-in ballots are already out, and Oakland voters will have a chance to vote for multiple candidates with ranked choice voting.
Thao addresses graduates of the Salvation Army Corps in Oakland Chinatown during their graduation ceremony. Photos by Joyce Xi.
To get to this point, Sheng Thao has already persevered through challenges and made a mark on the political landscape in Oakland. And she is using her role to empower the next generation. I caught up with Thao for an interview for this article in between her packed work and campaign schedule, after a speech for the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies’ (APAICS) regional East Bay leadership academy. There, she spoke about how her personal challenges have been a superpower, shaping who she is today. She was present, engaged, and answered questions until her staff said time was up.
Thao says she doesn’t want her success to be a one off. She hopes she can inspire APIs to get more civically engaged and run for office, recognizing that it can be difficult when you don’t see people who look like you in those positions, if you are immigrant, have an accent, etc. This work is especially meaningful because Thao first got into politics through a similar program. Thao speaks at these types of community events —graduations, workshops, and celebrations —often. She shares her story as a daughter of refugees and imparts wisdom gained over the years through lived experience, always remembering where she comes from.
If elected, Thao will make history. And the people of Oakland will surely be ready to hold her accountable.
To read more about the Oakland mayoral candidates and their positions on various issues, read the in-depth interviews The Oaklandside conducted with each candidate.
Authors bio: Joyce Xi is a community photographer and advocate based in Oakland, CA. She can be reached at email@example.com
Sheng Thao Campaign Video: