Seneca Scott is running for mayor in Oakland’s November elections. Current mayor Elizabeth Schaaf is terming out. A political nonconformist, Scott is attracting attention in a race dominated by radical progressives and old-school Democrats. And he isn’t afraid to make appeals to the city’s more conservative base.
There are approximately 10,000 registered Republicans in the city, and Scott is courting every one. He is a regular at Bay Area conservative meetups, spreading his message of program and financial accountability. Most members, he says, are nonpartisan and eager to elect a candidate who is outside the political duopoly. This strategy has already been tested. When Jerry Brown, a Democrat disillusioned with corruption within the two-party system, ran for mayor of Oakland in 1998, he did so as an independent and won 59 percent of the votes.
Scott is a Cornell graduate, union organizer (East Bay Director for SEIU Local 1021), goat lover, map collector, cofounder of Bottoms Up Community Gardens, and Second Amendment advocate, with a history of selling cannabis. He can trace his lineage to Coretta Scott King, was conceived in Iran, and is hearing-impaired. As executive director of Neighbors Together Oakland, a grassroots organization, he sued the City of Oakland over its homelessness policies. The purpose of the lawsuit is to enforce the city’s encampment-management policy. A damning auditor report found that the city spent $69 million on service providers’ contracts, with virtually no monitoring or evidence of success. The case is still pending.
In late August, I took BART from San Francisco to meet him, and conduct an in-person interview. A short train ride dropped me off in another world. Oakland has one of the highest crime rates in the U.S., at 65 crimes per 1,000 residents. A recent egregious event: on August 30, a 12-year-old brought a gun to school and shot a 13-year-old. Oakland is also one of the most diverse cities in the U.S.
We met at a community garden, a bucolic place filled with flowers, tomato plants, passion-fruit vines, and chickens. Before Covid wreaked havoc on normal human interactions, these were spots where neighbors gathered to eat and socialize. From there, we walked to the farmer’s market. Along the way Scott played tour guide—“Here’s where the Black Panthers lived; there’s my home”—while greeting everyone like he knew them, which he pretty much does. Two men on bikes asked for more campaign pamphlets. More of the same took place at the farmer’s market.
After stopping to pet and feed the goats at another community garden, Scott and I returned to the first. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.
Why do you want to be Oakland’s next mayor?
Oakland needs to hit the reset button. We have failed leadership. These offices exist to serve neighbors and local businesses. When their primary goal becomes special interests, whether altruistic or not, if it’s not for the people then they’re disconnected from the job. We’ve been screaming for help to recover from the pandemic, but have been ignored, gaslit, ridiculed, bullied. I’m here to stop that.
What is your political party?
I’m a post-partisan solutionary. I don’t go left or right; I go up and down. It’s a simple barometer.
Do you think the skills you acquired with collective bargaining help you in this race?
Absolutely. In unions we learn one thing: organize around the issue. What are our issues in Oakland? Are our current leaders organizing around them? No.
Where do you stand on commerce?
We need local businesses—small, medium, and large. I love big business when it’s local. There’s no free lunch. We need the tax money.
Civil discourse is tough, especially during an election. How are you managing?
As long as we’re engaged in good faith, we’re fine. There is only one way to debate intellectually: point out errors or omissions in your opponent’s facts or logic. Progressives can’t do that. Instead, they engage in ad hominem attacks, straw men, question-bombing, whataboutism, lawyering—every anti-intellectual technique in the book, especially on social media.
I don’t do that. I communicate with people so that I can learn more and get a better sense of the territory. I expand my map by talking to people who have different experiences. The people fighting me are projecting their own anger and insecurity.
Let’s talk crime and law enforcement. Where are the cops?
I’m laser-focused on crime and homelessness. People are afraid to go outside. In Oakland we have less than 680 police officers for 450,000 residents. I’m planning on getting us to 900 officers.
We have a problem with attrition because officers leave after four years when they don’t have to pay back their police academy training costs. Less than 10 percent of them live in the city. It’s a dangerous job and they’re villainized, not respected. That’s even more incentive to leave. We need to change the culture.
There’s a movement to end most, if not all, incarceration. Thoughts?
It’s nonsensical. Those same people are typically against firearms. They don’t live in the real world. So, who do they call when they’re robbed? They call the police.
Can you address the illegal drug trade?
That’s what fuels all this. We’re the promised land of milk and fentanyl.
Homelessness in Oakland has grown by 24 percent—and we have an eviction moratorium! Right now, the city has more than 360 homeless encampments. Less than a dozen are open-air drug markets, but they are responsible for most of the harm. People are being raped daily. There’s human trafficking, drug manufacturing, drug sales. It’s a free-for-all.
Where are these people coming from?
All over the country. You can come here, get a check, a free tent. You won’t get harassed; you’ll get harm reduction with free pipes. All you have to do is sit there and get high.
Please talk about race and youth crime in Oakland.
Young black children are robbing and killing themselves. We fed them poison in schools. We don’t teach reading or comprehension. We did a bunch of performative altruistic projects on them instead of teaching them finance or math or how to compete in the global environment. And then we want to blame the children?
To stop it, you must first acknowledge it. I don’t use the term African-American. I’m black. I love being black. I love black people. I fight for my people. But according to FBI statistics, black people commit 50 percent of the crimes in this country and at most we are only 15 percent of the population. Numbers don’t lie.
We live in an oppressive society. When people can’t compete financially, they compete for moral superiority.
What’s going in with the escalating attacks on Asians?
It’s disgusting. I feel ashamed. It’s not a racist issue; it’s not motivated by hate against Asians, but opportunity. A person who is small and can’t fight back but who has cash, gold jewelry, and a nice watch becomes a target.
How can this be changed?
To reverse course, you must look at how children in these war zones are rehabilitated. That’s how far we’ve come. We need triage and we need to make it absolutely clear that violent crimes is not acceptable. Community leaders need to come out and say, “stop.” And stop making excuses for it. There’s no mentorship, guidance, opportunity. Parents are stuck on their phones. You want to reach the children, give them some hope. But you also need to convey that it’s absolutely not okay to conduct themselves like that. And that we’re going to start protecting people.
We deserve better. All of us do. If I win, Oakland will hit the reset button. You’re electing your neighbor. We can run our own city, especially here, where we have so many well-educated people. I’m going to empower us.
Photo: Erica Sandberg