The news keeps getting worse for Oakland mayor Sheng Thao. Accused of creating a public safety crisis by dismantling the Oakland Police Department and missing a deadline for a state grant to fight retail theft, the mayor may soon be removed from office, less than two years into her term. Former Alameda County Superior Court judge and police commissioner Brenda Harbin-Forte and community organizer Seneca Scott, who ran for mayor of Oakland in 2022, are spearheading a recall effort, obtaining 40,595 valid signatures to place the initiative on the November 2024 ballot.

Early in the morning on June 21, the FBI raided Thao’s home. The surprise search extended to three properties connected with the Duong family, owners of California Waste Solutions. Several Duong family members are board members of the Vietnamese American Business Association. In the summer of 2023, Thao traveled to Vietnam with the association, ostensibly as part of a delegation to boost the country’s business dealings with Oakland.

The FBI has not revealed precisely why it raided Thao’s home. On June 29, the Oaklandside reported that Andy Duong, son of California Waste Solutions founder David Duong, may have laundered cash to Oakland officials through Music Cafe, a karaoke bar known for illegal drug sales, human trafficking, and prostitution. According to a California state oversight body, Andy Duong allegedly recruited dozens of people to write checks to Oakland City Council candidates’ 2016 and 2018 campaigns. He then reimbursed the check-writers with either his personal funds or money from California Waste Solutions. Each candidate received thousands of dollars. Thao, a council member at the time, was among the recipients.

Thao has not been accused of a crime, but it’s another bad story amid many exposing the city government’s dysfunction. Oakland is in a deep social and financial mess. Everywhere one looks is trouble.

Illegal stunt-driving exhibitions, for example, are now a common occurrence on city streets; one that took place at a 2024 Juneteenth event ended in a mass shooting that left 14 people wounded. Pervasive crime has led major chains like In-N-Out Burger to abandon the city. The Hilton Oakland Airport hotel, a 56-year mainstay, will close for good in August, leaving more than 150 workers without jobs. In a dubious exercise in brand management, the Metropolitan Oakland International Airport changed its name to San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport. And after this year’s season, the Oakland Athletics, the city’s last major league sports team, is leaving for Las Vegas (with an intermediate stop in Sacramento). 

Though facing calls to step down, Mayor Thao, the first Hmong American to be elected mayor in a major U.S. city, remains intent on finishing her term. During a press conference in late June, Thao declared, “I will not be bullied, and I will not be disparaged, and I will not be threatened out of this office.”

Thao’s attorney, Tony Brass, who apparently didn’t know about the mayor’s plans to hold the news conference, promptly quit. Thao’s chief of communications, Francis Zamora, followed him out the door.

As the drama unfolds, passionate reforming Oaklanders like Scott are hopeful. The city, he says, is divided into political thirds: progressives, who tend to be older, white and affluent, as well as recent arrivals who are renters; moderates, who are race- and class-diverse established home- and business-owners; and people who bridge these two categories.

“The moderates always knew Thao was corrupt,” says Scott. “There was something funny about the infusion of cash to the progressives. But now the progressives have lost the hearts and minds of people in the middle. They are reeling and trying to save themselves. Even a lot of staunch progressives are doubting themselves.”

Speculation about any ties the mayor may have to sex trafficking (in association with the allegations against Duong) and financial malfeasance has captured the imagination of observers on social media, but for Oakland residents, the attention is not welcome.

Oakland native Sokhom Mao, a community member who served on the city’s police board and juvenile justice commission, laments the state of affairs. “Thao being raided by the FBI paints a bad portrait of Oakland across the country and world,” says Mao. “We’re already seen as a city of increased violence and multiple issues with the police.”

Mao contends that Oakland is being mismanaged because those in charge lack the experience and required skills, and no one is held to account for overspending. Public safety is a major concern, but it’s just one of many pressing issues. The city admits to facing a $177 million deficit in the next fiscal year.

“I hope the mayor does the right thing and steps down,” says Mao. “I supported her. Many did. We thought she’d come in and change Oakland, but as she progressed as mayor, she failed. We’re up to the brim in terms of what else we can handle. Everything is going downward because we don’t have a strong leader. She needs to focus on her personal issues and resign.” 

Photo by Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images 


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