On a rainy Wednesday, Oakland City Councilmember Libby Schaaf rushed into Laurel Elementary School, staving off any signs of exhaustion from the previous night’s late council meeting. There, potential student council members waited to hear her advice regarding their campaigns.
Known for both her cheery, social nature and her dogged pursuit of political agendas, Schaaf, who recently announced her plan to run for mayor in 2014, has become an increasingly influential figure in Oakland politics.
“If anyone can do that job well and do it justice, it would be Libby,” said Shereda Nosakhare, a policy analyst in Schaaf’s office.
That morning, Schaaf entered the classroom in her standard dress: black blouse and skirt, black tights and shoes, conservative makeup, hair in its usual twist. Her standout accessory of choice – wooden oak tree earrings from Oaklandish – appear almost comically large against her face.
As the students lobbed questions about everything from how to gain supporters to fair campaigning, Schaaf was authoritative but warm, referring to the kids as “sir” and “ma’am,” and using big, animated hand motions to accentuate her points.
“I’ll tell you something not many people know,” she said, leaning in slightly toward her audience. “When I was a senior at Skyline High School, I ran for class president. And I lost.”
The loss was an unusual setback for Schaaf, who, at 48, has led an unusually clean career in Oakland politics.
In 1999, Schaaf transitioned from nonprofit work to chief of staff of Ignacio de la Fuente, who was then council president, and went on to serve as a top aide to Mayor Jerry Brown, and then as an executive for the Port of Oakland. Her knowledge of policy and her concern for Oakland’s school system led her to run for City Council, and she was elected to represent District 4 in 2010.
Nicknamed the “Girl Scout barracuda” by an unnamed colleague in City Hall, Schaaf can manage to seem disarmingly accessible, but said she doesn’t shy away from being aggressive in debates around key issues.
“I do like to keep it positive, but when people need to be held accountable, they need to be held accountable,” Schaaf said. “So I can be pretty persistent in a way that not everyone finds pleasant.”
A self-proclaimed “data nerd,” Schaaf has become known for pushing innovative technological solutions to long-standing Oakland problems, like crime. “She really was determined to figure out how we can add more police to our force,” Nosakhare recalls. “That was something she was more aggressive about when it came down to the budget back in June.”
Last year, Schaaf also applied for Oakland to become a “Code for America city,” beginning a partnership that resulted in RecordTrac, a program that allows users to request public records online.
RecordTrac shows those seeking records where to find them — even if they aren’t filed under the City of Oakland. The process by which such requests are filled can also be tracked through the program, which will give city government feedback as to whether records searches are going smoothly. The program is designed to allow users to explore all past records requests by anyone who has used the program.
Schaaf has also continued to lobby for more community policing, which she sees as a key solution to reducing Oakland crime.
“We know that community policing works, that good policing is about preventing crime from being committed in the first place; it’s not about running after someone after they’ve committed a crime and arresting them and throwing them in jail,” Schaaf said. “That requires good relationships in the community.”
Staffers say that Schaaf’s schedule is often so busy that she will work into the night doing research for current policy, answering emails or working on her newsletter. “One thing I would change is I want her to sleep more,” Nosakhare said, noting that she and others often wake to find emails sent by Schaaf at 3 or 4a.m.
After her stop at Laurel Elementary, Schaaf made her way to a gun buyback press conference at Youth Uprising, a teen center in East Oakland that aims to reduce violence through educating the next generation.
Mingling afterward, she was everyone’s best friend, hugging people, taking pictures, insisting that they should catch up over lunch soon. She was also repeatedly encouraged to pursue her entry into the mayoral race, even though she had yet to officially announce her candidacy.
When Schaaf politely shook off the congratulations offered by Olis Simmons, CEO and president of Youth Uprising, calling it premature, Simmons rolled her eyes.
“Everyone knows,” she said with a grin.
As a girl, Schaaf was raised to be active in her community. Her mother was a frequent volunteer who along with her daughter co-founded Oakland Cares, a nonprofit that acts as a gateway into volunteerism, encouraging its participants to participate in neighborhood cleanups and after-school programs.
Her godmother, Mary Lawrence, was the first woman hired as a professional photographer by the Associated Press in the 1930s.
“She was a real glass-ceiling breaker and was involved in local politics—particularly the attempt to put the Equal Rights Amendment as a constitutional amendment,” Schaaf says. “She took me to rallies, and I particularly remember her taking me to hear [social justice advocate] Angela Glover Blackwell at an event sponsored by the League of Women Voters, and just feeling like if Angela were a minister, I would worship at her church.”
It was a feeling Schaaf could not let go of, and it inspired her to make the transition from her early work as a lawyer into politics, a place she felt she could make more of a difference in the issues she was truly passionate about.
“I grew up with a mother that volunteered all the time all over the community in Oakland, and she dragged me around with her,” Schaaf said. “I think you absorb things as a child, you learn things by being exposed to different communities, different organizations, different ideas, so I know in my own upbringing it enriched my life, so I’m hopeful that my children will look back and find the same.”
The work hasn’t always been easy. The previous night, Schaaf presided over a contentious city council meeting that focused on the creation of a controversial Domain Awareness Center, a surveillance program that would collect data from all over the city to be analyzed by the Oakland Police Department, and which is tentatively slated to start this summer.
Speaking to The New York Times, Schaaf defended the DAC, arguing that “it’s our responsibility to take advantage of new tools that become available” in response to Oakland’s infamous crime rates – while also acknowledging that the center would be able to “paint a pretty detailed picture of someone’s personal life, someone who may be innocent.”
At the council meeting, Schaaf spoke over loud chants and shouts from protesters who oppose the DAC, but rarely seemed flustered. She noted that many details of the surveillance plan were still open to debate.
“We could require that this center never records, ever,” Schaaf added. “That is an option.”
She also encouraged disputers to check out a crowd-sourced map Oaklanders put together that depicts the locations of cameras that are already in use.
Afterward, Schaaf said the protesters hadn’t upset her.
“I don’t blame them for being really frustrated last night, because they had to sit and wait for four hours for one unsatisfying minute at the microphone,” she said. “That’s not deliberation, that’s not meaningful public participation.” She paused. “Generally, when people are mad at their government, it’s for a really good reason.”
Correction: Olis Simmons, CEO and President of Youth Uprising, said that as the leader of a non-profit organization, she doesn’t endorse political candidates. An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested she had endorsed the mayoral candidacy of Libby Schaaf.