On his 27th birthday, aspiring lawmaker Sokhom Mao kicked off his campaign for a seat representing his District 2 neighborhood on Oakland’s City Council.
The son of Cambodian immigrants, Mao is a former foster child who brings a unique life journey and first-hand perspective to his advocacy on behalf of foster youth and the poor.
He’s facing a formidable field of competitors — including former TV news anchor Dana King, Andrew Park, Kevin Blackburn, and Abel J. Guillen — for the District 2 Oakland City Council seat being vacated by Pat Kernighan. But Mao’s work has drawn some key backers.
In a second floor restaurant of a local bar on Grand Avenue, the young candidate gathered a core of close supporters — two brothers, two sisters, high school friends, college professors, business people and politicians — who vouched for his promise as a leader as he raised contributions to run his grassroots campaign.
“The first thing I noticed is the energy of the young people in the room. It reminded me of my days in college still struggling to pay rent,” said mayoral candidate and attorney Dan Siegel, who surprised Mao with a visit and offering his support.
“Sokhom and I, we’ll be walking precincts and carrying his literature,” he said.
“When I heard he was running. I knew I had to offer help as a mentor,” added Kathy Chao-Rothberg who was appointed in 2012 then elected as Vice Mayor for the City of San Pablo. “There are steps to gaining public office, requirements in raising funds and public support. He is going to need more than the young progressive vote.”
Chao-Rothberg, herself a political refugee herself from Laos, felt a common bond with Mao. As children of immigrant families, both had learned early that hard work, resourcefulness and volunteerism can help with success in a new country.
Mao said his journey through the foster care system helps him identify the needs of Oakland’s most vulnerable residents.
“It is hard when you are making policies and you cannot identify with the struggles… the struggles of people living in East Oakland, West Oakland. We can advocate for ourselves if we have an income of over $50,000 to $100,000 with a home. We can advocate for ourselves if we have the education. [When] we have a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree,” Mao said.
“We understand that the election process is so important. But how about the people living on welfare that [speak] another language. Bilingual immigrants — how about those people? I think about that all the time during my campaign because sometimes it gets real tough,” he said.
“I ask myself if this is what I want to do. It’s definitely a risk for me but I’m committed to fighting and nothing will (make me) back down. I’ve been through the struggles,” Mao said.
Mao was born in Alta Bates Hospital to parents who had fled the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian killing fields. The fourth of six siblings, he was raised on state housing and welfare. By the time he was 9 years old, his mother died. Mao entered the foster care system, intermittently staying with relatives.
He bounced around eight different group home placements in a period of six years, meeting a social worker at a transitional housing facility who encouraged him to keep his grades up. Mao earned a scholarship through Guardian Scholar’s program at San Francisco State University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
Mao became known as a “Champion of Foster Youth and Families” for his work as a child welfare leader and policy expert around families, quality public education, police reforms and opportunities for youth.
He was appointed to two public commissions, the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Commission and the Oakland’s Citizens’ Police Review Board, where he currently serves as Vice-Chairman.
Mao also worked on state legislation including the California’s landmark Assembly Bill 12, which extends foster care until age 21, allowing youth in foster care opportunities for employment, higher education, and stable housing.
In his run for the City Council, Mao said his campaign will focus on: reorganizing of police services for residents, providing quality public education with student engagement, giving teachers the tools to help their students get ready for higher education, and offering experience to young people transitioning into the job market.
“Lastly, we need to focus on job creation and increasing minimum wage to $12.25 if not $15 an hour. No one can live on $7 and $8 an hour, especially those with kids,” Mao said at the campaign kickoff.
Asked if he were concerned about competing against a large field of candidates, he turned to his family. He yielded to his youngest sister, 24-year-old Chhienda “Jenda” Mao, a 7th and 8th grade teacher at James Madison Middle School in Alameda.
“We are going to back him up,” she said proudly. “We’re family. We stay together.”