(Bloomberg) -- Oakland City Council Member Sheng Thao emerged as the winner of the city’s mayoral race under its ranked-choice voting system, with a margin of only 682 votes over her nearest opponent.
Thao, 37, will become the city’s youngest mayor in 75 years and also the first Hmong-American woman to lead a major US city.
The Hmong are an ethnic minority who fled Laos in the 1970s after being persecuted by communist forces for supporting US Cold War efforts in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Four of the top 10 US metro areas by Hmong population are in California.
One of 10 children born to Hmong refugees who fled genocide and eventually settled in California, Thao made her personal story a central element of her campaign to run California’s eighth-largest city. Thao overcame an impoverished childhood in Stockton and survived domestic violence in her early 20s. She attended community college and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in legal studies, at times living in her car with her infant son.
“I’ve been through a lot to get to this moment, and have had so many people lift me up in order to get here,” Thao said in a statement after the vote tally was released late Monday.
Thao became active in Oakland politics following her graduation from Berkeley, serving as a staff member to a city council member and later as chief of staff, before being elected to the council herself in 2018, the first Hmong-American woman to do so in California history, according to her biography.
While working in city government, Thao cultivated many of the political allies and labor unions who supported her mayoral campaign against multiple candidates, including fellow city council member Loren Taylor, who was endorsed by outgoing Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.
Thao will assume leadership of a city beset by surging crime, homelessness and housing costs that are eroding the quality of life for its 430,000 residents. A recent poll by the Oakland Chamber of Commerce found that 64% of residents surveyed say the city is on the wrong track, and 68% say they “feel less safe” than they did a year or two years ago.
Thao pledged in her statement to enact a comprehensive public safety plan on “Day One,” investing in violence prevention programs, creating more jobs and educational opportunities, filling vacancies in the police department and getting guns off the city’s streets.
Thao sidestepped calls to defund the police in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, and said during her campaign she would support funding the Oakland Police Department to hire nearly 50 officers in order to reach its authorized level of 752 officers.
Citing her own experience as a survivor of domestic violence, Thao has also called for greater funding for Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention, created in 2017 to take a public health approach to public safety that funds counseling resources other than police response to prevent violence and de-escalate conflict.
Thao also cites her family’s own status in Oakland’s expensive housing market to describe her approach to expand affordable housing and reduce homelessness.
“We’re going to have an aggressive housing policy that protects renters, fights displacement, and treats our unhoused with the dignity they deserve,” Thao said. “And I’m a renter myself. So our tenants should know that I’m going to be a Mayor who has their back.”
See Also: Oakland Mayor Urges More Housing Bonds to Ease California Crisis
As a city council member, Thao supported statewide legislation to build housing in commercial corridors and voted to increase zoning limits to allow for multiple units in place of single-family homes throughout Oakland.
“I’m excited to get to work building the safer, more affordable, more just Oakland we know is possible in the months and years ahead,” Thao said.
(Adds background on Hmong population in third paragraph. An earlier version corrected the vote.)
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