The campaign to recall Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf was facing tough going on south College Avenue. In about an hour and a half of collecting signatures on a Sunday afternoon, Tova Fry and Madeline Taylor had collected nine between them.
The majority of people on the street in the upscale shopping district in North Oakland passed by without even a word of acknowledgement. Eight-year Oakland resident Peter Kurtz, who used to DJ on KALX under the name A.J. Curtis, was one of the few who signed the petition.
“We’ve got tons of bands here who can’t even get a rehearsal space because it’s been taken away for development,” Kurtz said, adding that there’s “too much activity as far as development.”
Across College, 71-year Oakland resident Willie Posey declined to sign. He’s a founder of Oakland’s Day Reporting Center, a facility where recent parolees can earn their GEDs and take other classes, including ones on anger management. He said that unlike previous mayor Jean Quan, Schaaf has attended graduation ceremonies at the center.
“When I’ve seen Libby in that facility—and it’s predominantly people of color, 90 or 95 percent—she doesn’t show no fear,” he said. “At this point in my life, I don’t think I could be fooled easily. I think I’m sharp enough and street-savvy enough to know a fake person. And I don’t see her as a fake person.”
Schaaf is hardly the first Oakland mayor to face a recall effort—recall drives have frequently been used by Oakland residents to express displeasure with the mayor’s office or specific policies. Quan faced two competing recall efforts, both of which failed, motivated by complaints about her handling of the Occupy Oakland protests. A recall effort against Quan’s predecessor Ron Dellums, which targeted the former mayor over a budget hole in Oakland and a perceived lack of administrative transparency, also fizzled out.
The current recall campaign is spearheaded by the Anti-Police Terror Project (APTP), a group that protests police brutality and advocates the defunding of the Oakland Police Department (OPD). APTP is promoting the recall effort with the Twitter hashtag #byelibby, and they’ve launched a website to gather additional signatures and encourage people to volunteer.
But so far the number of people actually gathering signatures is fairly small. About a dozen people gathered outside Oakland City Hall to pick up petitions on September 18, the first day of the recall effort. But Brooks said some members of the campaign couldn’t make it that day, and they expect to have additional volunteers in the future.
Brooks said the group wants to see Schaaf recalled for reasons that largely have to do with the mayor’s relationship with the police department, and what Brooks sees as Schaaf turning her back on a national movement against police brutality targeting minority communities.
“From that first day, of course, Libby Schaaf told black and brown and poor people of this city that she doesn’t care about us or our plights,” Brooks said. “She spent her entire first day with the Oakland Police Department, from sunup to sundown. Now, that’s critical, because it was right in the midst of a movement and a conversation, a national conversation about police brutality.” (Schaaf spent her first day in office at OPD headquarters, starting at 6:30 a.m., saying she was there to “listen and learn.”)
Brooks and other members of APTP are critical of her response to a sexual exploitation scandal at the OPD, saying that she has protected higher-ranking officers from fallout from the scandal, and of her failure to apply to the federal Department of Labor for a $2 million job-funding program, which they say was a missed opportunity to provide jobs to young people in Oakland.
“What we do know is that police don’t keep people safe, jobs and opportunity keep people safe. But Libby Schaaf just continues to ignore that research and double down on law enforcement,” Brooks said, referring to Schaaf’s approval of a major increase in city funding to OPD with the goal of adding more officers.
The mayor’s office, for its part, argues that the recall petition is unnecessary and would embroil the city in an expensive special election, which would be triggered because the recall effort won’t be done gathering signatures by November.
In an official response that, by law, must be published on the recall petition itself, Schaaf wrote that the special election would cost Oakland voters $3 million. “WARNING: If you sign this document, you will cost the City of Oakland MORE THAN $3 MILLION for a misleading and unnecessary special election. Ask yourself a simple question before you sign—wouldn’t it be better to spend more than $3 million on education, violence prevention, job creation, street repairs and affordable housing?” reads Schaaf’s response.
Schaaf spokesperson Erica Terry Derryck reiterated the point in an email to Oakland North. “While we do not believe the vast majority of Oaklanders want to spend over $3 million on an election designed to defund the police, Mayor Schaaf firmly respects the democratic process and the right of citizens to criticize their elected leaders,” Derryck wrote.
Terry Derryck said that Schaaf would not be available to comment on the matter herself.
According to Fry, recall supporters need to gather signatures from ten percent of Oakland’s registered voters by mid-January to succeed. That’s approximately 23,000 signatures. But the group is aiming for even more than that, because “a large number may be declared invalid” according to Fry—for example, because the signatory is not actually a registered voter in Oakland, their name is illegible, or other problems.
Dan Lindheim, Oakland’s city administrator under Dellums and briefly under Quan, said that while recall efforts are common in Oakland, it’s very difficult for them to succeed. “I’m sure that Libby isn’t quaking in whatever shoes she’s wearing,” he said. “I mean, there always is talk, when somebody doesn’t like what some mayor does: ‘Well, let’s recall them.’ … There was talk of a recall against Dellums, but it didn’t go anywhere.”
While Lindheim doesn’t think a recall against Schaaf will succeed, he said there can be other benefits to running a recall campaign: It can be an effective strategy to amplify a group’s message, or it can be used as leverage to gain greater access to politicians and city leaders.
“It’s just a different form of demonstration,” Lindheim said. “Some of this stuff is just noise as part of the political environment. The thing that makes it not noise is the Schwarzenegger/Davis situation. So, you know, people have to take it seriously.”
The “Schwarzenegger/Davis situation” Lindheim is referring to was the successful 2003 recall of then-California governor Gray Davis. Once the signatures were gathered for Davis’ recall, 135 candidates made the ballot to replace him, with film star Arnold Schwarzenegger ultimately winning the election.
Joe Tuman, a professor of communications studies at San Francisco State University who ran for mayor of Oakland in 2010 and 2014, said the circumstances surrounding Davis’ recall were a “perfect storm” that was not recreated in the campaigns against Dellums and Quan.
It all started, he said, with “rolling blackouts” instituted by Davis as a response to energy shortages in California. “We had gone through a period of time in California where we had these energy shortages,” he said. “And a lot of people were really angry about that. But Davis was trying to play the best game he could with the cards he’s been dealt.” The shortages weren’t Davis’ fault, Tuman said, but were caused by corruption at Enron, one of the companies then supplying power to California. Nevertheless, it provided the first ingredient for the storm: angry voters.
But, Tuman said, angry voters alone aren’t enough for a successful recall. “You’ve always got somebody who’s upset, right? So there’s always a potential as far as that part of the storm for somebody to want to recall someone,” he said. “One of the next parts of the storm is you have to have someone in place who can organize and put the thing together and also raise the money and get enough news coverage of it.”
Next, Tuman said, an influx of big-money donors allowed the recall campaign to hire paid canvassers to gather the signatures it needed. And it helped that a movie star was willing to run as a replacement candidate. “It didn’t all come together as a big news story until Arnold weighed in,” Tuman said. “And once that happened, the perfect storm really took off.”
In the end, Schwarzenegger won by a comfortable margin, taking home 48.6 percent of the vote. The next-closest candidate, then-Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, received only 31.5 percent.
The APTP recall campaign is run by a network of volunteers, rather than paid canvassers, something that Tuman said makes it very difficult to gather enough signatures. But even if they did have full-time staff, they’d still be missing the last ingredient for Tuman’s storm: a well-known candidate to replace the mayor. Schaaf is not up for re-election this year, meaning there are no big-name candidates to oppose her. Brooks said APTP has its own candidate in mind, but declined to say who it is because the group is still “building consensus.”
Members of APTP are undeterred by what appears to be an uphill battle, and brush aside the mayor’s response to their petition. Brooks said the $3 million in special election costs would be a small sum compared to the amount of money the Oakland Police Department has paid out in lawsuits. Last month, the city of Oakland settled for $1.2 million with the family of a man killed by police, and one analysis performed by the Oakland Police Beat blog in 2014 found that the city paid out around $74 million in police brutality settlements between 1990 and 2014.
The OPD and other East Bay law enforcement agencies are currently facing legal claims from the attorneys of a young woman known in press reports as Celeste Guap, who alleges that as a teenage sex worker she had numerous relationships with Oakland police officers, as well as officers from several other departments. According to the woman, several of the officers had sex with her while she was underage. The scandal, which broke in May, led to the resignation or dismissal of three police chiefs in nine days, and the city is still without a police chief more than three months later.
Since then, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced she is seeking charges against seven officers in relation to the case, and the teen has filed a lawsuit against the City of Oakland for $66 million, and has filed additional claims against the cities of San Francisco, Livermore and Richmond as well as Alameda County.
Brooks criticizes what she sees as the mayor’s slow handling of the case. Oakland officials became aware that officers had sex with the teen nearly a year ago, following the suicide of an OPD officer who wrote about her in his suicide note. According to a press release from Schaaf’s office announcing the firing of four OPD officers in relation to the scandal, Oakland officials reviewed over 28,000 text messages sent and received by OPD officers in the course of the investigation.
“Her ineptitude as a mayor to control the Oakland Police Department has resulted in hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money in scandals, restitution to families,” Brooks said. “Now we’ve got the latest with [the teen] filing a $66 million lawsuit, so it’s sort of a joke.”
Fry said the scandal is a major reason she supports the recall, in addition to her concerns about police violence against the African American community and what she sees as Schaaf’s cozy relationship with developers. “She is a capitalist mayor that is for corporate America, and she has shown that in every bit of her administration from allowing Oakland cops to kill seven black people in Oakland in 2015 alone, and then allowing this Oakland rape scandal to happen under her administration,” Fry said. “She clearly knew about it for months before it went public, and only made her charade of trying to do something after it hit the press.”
The Counted, a project of UK newspaper the Guardian to count the number of people killed by police in the US every year, found five black men killed by Oakland police last year, plus one black woman killed in Oakland by Emeryville police and one black man killed by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office in nearby San Leandro. A recent analysis by the East Bay Express found that Oakland police officers have been responsible for the deaths of 90 people since 2000, 74 percent of them black.
The group plans to hit the streets collecting signatures every Sunday through January in an effort to get the 23,000 signatures they need. In an email sent after their first signature drive, Fry said several other groups gathering signatures in other parts of Oakland “did much better than we did,” gathering several sheets of signatures front and back, or several dozen additional signatures.
“I think we picked the toughest part of Rockridge, closest to the border with Berkeley, and very middle class,” Fry wrote in the email.