On Feb. 15, 2023, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao walked up to a podium in a room at City Hall. Three masked police officers stood solemnly behind her. 

“Today,” Thao said into a microphone, “I have decided to separate Chief Armstrong from the city, without cause.” 

The newly elected Oakland mayor fired the popular police chief.

That afternoon, not even two months into her term in office, would become pivotal for Thao. The decision to terminate the city’s top cop would dramatically reshape public opinion about the mayor. 

While there continues to be staunch disagreement about how much power Thao really had in that moment, the choice was one of the first embers in a growing firestorm that would consume the mayor and those around her over the coming months. A missed grant, rising crime, closing businesses, bad PR, a troubled budget.

An attempt to recall Thao qualified for the ballot last month—the first such event in Oakland history. Voters will decide in November. Two days later, local TV channels and social media sites were saturated with images of FBI agents carrying boxes out of the mayor’s home. 

It’s hard to argue that Oakland’s had a more embattled mayor than Sheng Thao, at least in recent memory. Some say her troubles today can be traced to that day in February 2023 and the way she has talked to the public about her decisions and challenges facing the city. Others believe she never had a chance, arguing that powerful forces were organizing to replace her and thwart the progressive coalition she represents even before the final ballots were counted. Is Thao at fault for the disasters that followed her, or was her fate sealed from the start?

A start as a behind-the-scenes dealmaker

Charlie Hallowell in Laurel
In 2018, Sheng Thao was elected councilmember of District 4, including the Laurel and Dimond districts, and Montclair. Credit: Amir Aziz

Thao, who was not available for an interview in time for the publication of this story, was born in Stockton, one of a family of 12. Her parents were Hmong refugees from Laos, which they escaped under harrowing circumstances. In the U.S., the family lived in poverty and public housing, said Thao, who speaks about her upbringing often.

In her 20s, Thao, too, escaped dangerous circumstances, leaving an abusive relationship while pregnant and living on couches and in her car with her young son. She enrolled in Merritt College and then transferred to UC Berkeley.

After graduation, Thao got a job working in the office of City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, eventually becoming her chief of staff. 

Pamela Drake, a longtime activist and political commentator in Oakland who’s worked for multiple Oakland councilmembers since the 90s, said she was impressed with Thao’s work in Kaplan’s office. She saw a positive change in legislation coming from Kaplan, who’s still in the council’s at-large seat.

“I think she helped (Kaplan) focus—Sheng is a very focused person,” Drake said. “I really started to respect her.” Kaplan did not respond to several interview requests.

Thao ran to represent City Council’s District 4—Dimond, Laurel, Montclair, Allendale, and nearby neighborhoods—in 2018, in a dramatic race that saw multiple candidates drop out. She won with 54% of the vote. D4 is known for sending its councilmembers to the mayor’s office; Libby Schaaf and Jean Quan both previously represented the area.

Thao wasn’t a particularly vocal presence during her four years on the council. But many of her former District 4 constituents have said she was skilled at brokering deals behind the scenes. 

She served on the board of directors of the Chabot Space and Science Center along with John Spees, the son of former District 4 Councilmember Dick Spees. Both John and Dick told The Oaklandside that Thao used her good relationships within Oakland government to resolve a longstanding issue between Chabot and the Oakland Unified School District involving millions of dollars and property.

“It was thorny, and she came in and really sorted it out with us,” said John Spees. “My takeaway was she was very smart and talented.” Thao also won support in the district when she got PG&E to re-commit to moving fire-prone wires underground in the hills after the company had walked away from the project.

Drake said Thao’s knack for finding agreement between opposing sides showed up at council meetings, too. 

“She’s a moderate,” insisted Drake. “When they couldn’t figure out how to get there, Sheng would get with Dan (Kalb) and get a compromise through.” Thao led negotiations among business, labor, and community groups to settle on a progressive business tax proposal. She also forged a compromise between police and privacy groups around the use of automatic license plate readers.

In November 2021, Thao announced she would run for mayor. Introduced by California Attorney General Rob Bonta, she held her news conference in the flatlands of West Oakland, seemingly signaling that she was also running to represent people in less affluent districts. 

It quickly became clear that Thao’s main competitor in the crowded field was fellow first-term Councilmember Loren Taylor—the candidate endorsed by outgoing Mayor Libby Schaaf.

Trouble arose for Thao right before the election, when a complaint made by a former staffer of hers came to light. The staffer, LeAna Powell, filed the complaint with the Public Ethics Commission, accusing Thao of ordering city staff to work illegally on her campaign. According to the PEC, the investigation is still underway.

Taylor and Thao were neck-and-neck as the county registrar ran through several ranked-choice voting rounds after the November 2022 election. Thao, who had overwhelming support from labor and progressive groups, won. But she won by only 677 votes, a fact Taylor would frequently remind voters of in the ensuing months. He conceded the election but quickly called ranked-choice voting a form of “voter suppression.” 

Immediately, demands for a recount arose. The Oakland branch of the NAACP asked the county to pay for the costly re-tallying of votes, saying too many voters had been confused by the ranked-choice system. A recount didn’t end up happening, but the attempt was an early sign that Thao’s opponents would try what they could to get her out of office. 

OPD Chief Armstrong
The firing of Oakland native OPD Chief LeRonne Armstrong inspired backlash against Thao. Credit: Amir Aziz

“She got elected, and things started heading south almost day one,” Spees said. 

Thao was sworn in on Jan. 9, 2023. On Feb. 8, the city government was hit with a debilitating ransomware attack. Hackers stole sensitive data, cut off access to files, and shut down online services. “I think people don’t appreciate how difficult that made it to manage the city, to do her hires,” Spees said. 

Exactly a week later, Thao fired Chief LeRonne Armstrong.

Robert Harris, a decades-long member of Oakland’s NAACP branch, said the group had hoped to have a good relationship with the new mayor despite calling for the recount. He had a good impression of her at first, he said. The termination of Armstrong soured those chances. The chief had been their guy.

“Here was a homegrown fella, born and raised in Oakland, brought up through McClymonds, who really understood the problems of Oakland,” said Harris, a former lawyer for PG&E. In the 1970s, Harris represented the NAACP in local police brutality cases. He thinks the Riders scandal is a stain on Oakland history. Armstrong, he thought, was setting a different tone.

Under him, “we felt the police would respect more constitutional rights, especially the rights of African Americans,” Harris said. 

It’s clear the chief was well-liked. Former City Administrator Dan Lindheim, now a professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, said he once brought Armstrong in to talk to a “very woke” class of his filled with students critical of law enforcement. “It took five minutes, and they were all in love.” 

But behind the scenes, a months long investigation into how OPD investigates and disciplines officer misconduct had resolved by blaming Armstrong, among others, for systemic failures. The scathing report was made public by a federal judge in January 2023.

Thao placed the chief on administrative leave while deciding what to do next, but said the move wasn’t punitive. Meanwhile, Armstrong went on the offense, demanding to be reinstated and publicly accusing Robert Warshaw, the longtime federal watchdog overseeing reforms that the government is requiring of OPD, of corruption. 

A month after putting him on leave, Thao fired the chief, saying Armstrong was minimizing the systemic issues raised by outside investigators. Much later, she’d also call him out for publicly criticizing Warshaw.

“I think this was the event that caused so many people to turn against her,” said Paula Hawthorn, who’s on an Oakland public safety commission but spoke to us in her personal capacity. Community members didn’t take kindly to what Hawthorn described as Thao’s “unfeeling way of treating (Armstrong) and his supporters.” 

The decision, along with Thao’s victory over Taylor, may have bolstered a feeling among some Black Oakland residents that Thao and her progressive coalition don’t represent or support their community. “From a lot of people’s point of view, it was time for a return to African American control of the mayor position,” Lindheim said. 

About a week after his termination, Armstrong and his supporters rallied outside of City Hall. There, NAACP President Cynthia Adams called Thao’s termination of the chief a “modern-day lynch.”

Chants of “Recall! Recall!” erupted at the event.

Hawthorn, who’s no fan of the mayor, told The Oaklandside that Thao “had to fire Armstrong.” The federal monitor’s disapproval of the chief, and the chief’s public blasting of Warshaw, forced her hand, several people told us. “If Warshaw decides he doesn’t like a police chief, that police chief is gone,” said Hawthorn.

“When he started badmouthing the federal monitor, nobody had any choice,” Spees agreed. “But in a town where crime is exploding, it made people unhappy, understandably.” 

When Armstrong went after Warshaw, Drake said, he tapped into a feeling many people in Oakland have, dating back to the era of COINTELPRO and the Black Panthers, that the feds are after the community, and not to be trusted.

In September 2023, a neutral hearing officer—a judge agreed upon by both Armstrong and the city— issued a report that bolstered Armstrong’s claim that he did nothing wrong as chief. However, the report said there is no evidence that Warshaw, the federal monitor, was corrupt, as Armstrong and his supporters had claimed, or that Warshaw had taken steps to remove the chief in retaliation for his criticism.  

Drake, still a strong Thao supporter, said the mayor gave some remarks throughout the saga that offered an impression—false, in Drake’s view—that she was dismissive of community concerns around the firing and public safety in the city.

“I think sometimes,” Drake said, “she should be more careful.”

Puppets and PR

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Seneca Scott addresses press at a public-safety rally he organized in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Organizing to kick Thao out of office switched into high gear after the Armstrong debacle. 

After he was placed on leave, Armstrong hired prominent crisis consultant Sam Singer, who worked with Chevron after its 2012 refinery fire and with former fired OPD Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. But regular residents provided plenty of bad PR for Thao on their own. 

From the start, much of the opposition to Thao, on social media and at rallies, has taken an incendiary tone. Just months into her time in office, platforms like X and Nextdoor became inundated with posts calling Thao a “grifter,” “poverty pimp,” and “narcissist.” They accused her of delusion and incompetence.

Thao’s public speaking style has generated polarizing reactions. Spees said her “casual” style is appealing. An energetic mayor who gets down in the streets with high school kids. Others call her out when she fumbles important facts in interviews.

“She strikes me as a person of a different generation than the people who can’t stand her,” said Drake. “The idea that people say she’s in over her head is just pure sexism to me. Maybe with a touch of racism.”

Several of Thao’s most vocal critics would go on to launch a recall campaign this January. They included community activist and political organizer Seneca Scott, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor the year Thao won. Leading up to the election, Scott made photoshopped memes featuring Thao. He also amplified the allegations made by her former staffer.

After the election, Scott made puppets mocking Thao and other progressive officials, posting videos of them online. He accused a top staffer of the mayor’s of pedophilia without presenting any evidence, promoting a homophobic trope. And he organized rallies to criticize Thao and call attention to rising crime and the worsening homelessness crisis.

“I swear to God the guy is like an anti-Sheng bot,” Spees said about Scott. “He posts something every day, and he’s not alone.” The circumstances she’s faced in in her short term in office, Spees acknowledged, “have given them a lot to work with.” 

Thao and her team have occasionally lashed back. Her chief of staff referred to the recall organizers as “losers.” And in a speech in June following the FBI raids, Thao called them “rightwing radical forces” and “a handful of billionaires from San Francisco and Piedmont.” But the mayor and her team have mostly stayed quiet in the face of daily criticism.

Growing alarm around crime in Oakland

Car and property theft has skyrocketed over the past few years. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Crime soared in Oakland during the pandemic. Burglaries, business break-ins, car theft, and violent crime—everything went up, up, up. Homicides and shootings have come down a bit since, but numbers overall are still high.

Why has crime risen? People we spoke with have plenty of theories, and the answer is likely a combination of many of them. They point out that the pandemic decimated incomes. Thousands of kids were living in stress-filled homes where regular routines had vanished overnight. Gun ownership skyrocketed around the U.S., and firearms are readily available on the streets of Oakland. Legalized cannabis made small-time drug dealers turn to more serious crime. Oakland hasn’t had a fully staffed police department for years. And the department didn’t have a permanent chief for months. 

“One of the real differences is crime started happening where middle-class, or white, people go,” said Lindheim. “There’s always been a lot of crime in the flatland areas, but I think things became much more visible.”

The crime rate is really bad, no question. Countless people in Oakland are recent victims of harrowing and harmful attacks. Is it the worst it’s been ever, or even in recent decades? No. But statistics are cold comfort for residents who feel under threat in their neighborhoods. When people are staying home out of fear, perception is reality.

“I have been in Oakland since August 1960, out of rural, segregated Arkansas,” said Harris, the longtime NAACP member. “This is the first time I’ve felt unsafe.” 

City officials have the job of not only trying to reduce crime but also showing the public that they’re dedicated to and capable of doing so—getting out in the community and addressing the problems piling up in neighborhoods. For instance, Harris said, out-of-towners have the perception that they can come and illegally dump their trash in Oakland, because it seems like nobody cares. “Whether that is all her fault doesn’t matter,” he said about Thao, “because it is a leadership issue.” Elihu Harris, mayor of Oakland in the 1990s, launched an effective community clean-up program, he recalled. He’d like to see Thao out in the community more often, signaling she cares about the town.

Meanwhile, Oakland’s police department is staffed below the number of officer positions budgeted. The city has struggled to recruit new cops from its training academies, and scores are on leave. On council, Thao was part of a majority in 2021 that voted to fund four, not five, police academies. She said an additional academy wouldn’t improve safety in the city, but she’d be open to one in the future. A few months later, with crime continuing to rise and pressure mounting, she introduced a resolution to fund a fifth. 

Her supporters say she’s undergone a thoughtful evolution. “I don’t think we have enough police, and I don’t think that’s her fault,” said Spees. “She’s done a 180 pivot, and she’s (now) super pro-police and anti-crime.”

Her critics call it flip-flopping. “She kind of blew with the wind,” said Hawthorn.

As mayor, Thao resurrected an effective anti-gun-violence program in Oakland, Ceasefire. An audit she commissioned in 2023 found that Armstrong had weakened the program by shifting the department to a less successful approach to fighting violent crime.

But even many of Thao’s backers cringed last year when the city failed to apply for a state grant that could have provided Oakland with millions of dollars to curb business break-ins and other forms of retail theft. City leaders blamed Oakland’s Economic and Workforce Development Department for missing the deadline, while records showed that multiple departments, including OPD, dropped the ball. Thao and her city administrator ultimately took responsibility.

“Missing the deadline—say what you will, I say that’s her fault,” Spees said. “In a city having the worst crime wave in years, it’s inexcusable.”

A structural budget deficit years in the making

Mayor Sheng Thao Fires OPD Chief LeRonne Armstrong 08
Sheng Thao announces the firing of OPD Chief LeRonne Armstrong in Feburary 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Underpinning the public safety crisis is an economic squeeze.

Oakland had been skating by for the past few years, balancing the city budget with one-time-only COVID relief money from the state and federal governments, drawing down cash reserves, leaving staff positions vacant, and relying on volatile real estate transfer taxes, said Lindheim, the former city administrator. He believes Thao inherited a difficult situation but could have gotten in front of an impending crunch a bit sooner. 

“Come to (planning for) 2025-26, there’s no reserves, no one-time revenues, and a massive structural deficit,” Lindheim said. The vast majority of Oakland’s flexible money—dollars that don’t have to be used for specific purposes—goes to fund the police and fire departments, he pointed out. So when cuts need to be made, those areas are often slashed most deeply, giving the public an impression that safety isn’t a priority for city leaders.

The City Council this week passed a $2.2 billion balanced budget proposed by Thao. The 678 police officers it funds are fewer than the 696 the city originally planned, though more than Oakland’s been able to recruit currently. But the budget hinges on the uncertain sale of Oakland’s $105 million share of the Coliseum.

The Oakland Athletics leaving the city is another mark on Thao’s tenure, after the Golden State Warriors and the Oakland Raiders left under Schaaf. There’s continued debate over whether sports teams are a net benefit or a drain to city coffers, but there’s no denying that when the A’s depart, they’ll take hundreds of stadium jobs and some other economic benefits with them.

Some people blame the mayor, but most observers believe the exodus of the A’s was set in motion before she even worked in government.

“She cannot be held responsible for the A’s,” said Lindheim, who recalled previous owner Lew Wolff telling Jerry Brown, when he was mayor in the 2000s, that the team was already on its way out.

Thao will also be remembered as the mayor under whom the Ballers came to West Oakland.

Thao faces a recall election

A man gathers signatures in support of a Thao recall. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Since the police chief was fired a month into Thao’s term, people have been calling for her ouster.

“Chief Armstrong has enough clout to run for Mayor of Oakland at this point,” posted Nenna Joiner on X on Feb. 20, 2023. Joiner, a small business owner, ran unsuccessfully for City Council in District 4 in 2022. 

“Wouldn’t that be something?” responded another user. “A recall of Thao, followed by another election with Armstrong winning?” Now, in 2024, Armstrong is, in fact, running for office—the at-large seat on council that Kaplan, Thao’s former boss, currently holds. 

All year, money has poured into the campaign to recall the mayor. A huge chunk of the funds came from San Francisco tech billionaire Ron Conway and his sons. Between January and March, the family contributed $30,000.

Recalls are hard to beat in the Bay Area, and they’re an increasingly common political tactic. DA Price is also facing the possibility of removal from office. In San Francisco in recent years, DA Chesa Boudin and three members of the San Francisco school board were recalled. The Conways were big backers of the Boudin recall as well.

Many political observers are wary of the growing reliance on recalls, saying these elections are costly to taxpayers and undermine the legitimacy of a political system in which voters get to select candidates for office, see how they perform over the course of their term, and then decide whether or not to re-elect them. 

“I honestly believe elections have consequences,” said public-safety advocate Hawthorn. “This woman needs to be able to finish out her term and show us what she’s got. She’s made some mistakes, but she’s doing good things as well,” she said. She cited Thao’s hiring of City Administrator Jestin Johnson and her pursuit of the sale of the Coliseum as smart moves.

“On the other hand, if she is recalled, you betcha I’m supporting Loren Taylor,” Hawthorn said. Taylor, who spent the past two years setting up a political advocacy group and getting elected to the Democratic Party’s county board, has indicated he’ll run again if given the chance.

Lindheim said “something switched” in local politics, “where all of a sudden, if you lose an election, you now have the recourse of a recall.” He believes the frequency of recalls creates a perception that elections don’t matter, and doesn’t give leaders half a chance to get anything done. When he was administrator under Mayor Ron Dellums, Lindheim told his boss that the most he could expect to achieve in one four-year term was “turning the ship around”—hardly sailing all the way to the destination.

But the closeness of the 2022 mayoral race, mistakes by Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis, and criticism of ranked-choice voting appear to have sullied some of the public’s trust in local elections, or at least in the race between Thao and Taylor. Drake thinks the county should stop releasing early election results altogether, knowing they’re highly likely to change as more vote-by-mail ballots are counted and through ranked-choice tabulations.

Drake believes that, with all the focus on public safety, housing is actually the driver of the recall. Oakland’s COVID-19 moratorium on evictions was likely the strongest in the country and lasted three years. Officials passed the policy recognizing that many tenants who’d lost income and dealt with health issues may not be able to pay rent on time and become homeless during the crisis. Landlords organized in opposition, saying city leaders were messing with their private property and financial well-being. 

“We have very powerful landlord groups in Oakland,” said Drake, calling the backlash to the moratorium “landlord derangement syndrome.” Some of the most vocal protesters against the moratorium are involved in the recall attempt. 

For Harris of the NAACP, recalls are part of the democratic process—the tool is right there in the city charter. His organization is supporting the removal of Thao from office.

“This is just too much for citizens of Oakland, especially the Black citizens,” he said. “We know Oakland can be better, has been better, will be better, under new leadership.”

Mayor’s house is raided by the feds

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Federal agents raid the home that Mayor Sheng Thao shares with her partner and their children. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

In the morning of Thursday, June 20, FBI agents barged into Thao’s home just below Highway 13. Elsewhere in Oakland, agents were raiding the homes of David and Andy Duong and the offices of their recycling company, California Waste Solutions.

We still don’t know why the FBI conducted these searches. But in the days following, a network of alleged illegal campaign contributions, fraud, violent crime, and business ties has come to light. There is no indication at this time that Thao has any direct connection to the allegations.

A seething mayor took to a podium four days after the raid—the same podium she stood behind when she announced Armstrong’s termination. She made a defiant speech, declaring, “I’m innocent.” She questioned the timing of the raids, noting they immediately followed the recall qualifying for the ballot. 

“I have questions—questions that need to be answered,” Thao said. “I will not be threatened out of this office.” She asked how the press knew to show up at her house as the raid was getting underway. The mayor said she’d cooperate with the FBI, but, as Armstrong had a year prior, she also evoked a history of distrust of the federal government among communities of color and low-income residents in Oakland. She made a dig at former officials “sitting safely in their houses in the hills right now” in spite of alleged campaign violations—apparently a reference to Schaaf.

Thao insists the FBI investigation is not about her. But the explosive raid was just the latest challenge in a tumultuous term. 

Dissent was likely inevitable for Thao. Schaaf had plenty of haters too, and past Oakland mayors endured no end of controversies and public backlash against their decisions. But no one has ended up in a position quite as precarious as the current mayor’s. 

Chicken or egg? Did Thao’s choices cause the criticism? Or did the constant criticism cast the die against her future in Oakland government? Certainly, the tone set by a small group has had an outsize role in determining the tenor and ferocity of her opposition, which has grown into a forceful effort to kick her out of office in November. Some of the other hurdles she’s set up for herself. 

“It’s going to take a couple of miracles to keep her in office,” said a chagrined Drake. “I don’t want to lose her because I don’t see good options out there.” Drake had been optimistic when a progressive majority that aligned with Thao was elected to City Council in 2022.

“We’ve been in a world of hurt for a long time in Oakland, and we finally had people working to pull us out of it,” she said.

But in the grand scheme of Oakland history, most of the city’s beauty, potential, problems, and perils aren’t the result of one fleeting leader.

Harris said his street, Sequoyah Road, hasn’t been paved once since he moved there in 1987.

“That is not the mayor’s fault,” he said, then paused. “Well, it’s all of the mayors’ faults.”