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Sheng Thao is Oakland’s next mayor, latest tally shows

City Councilwoman Sheng Thao, whose strong relationships with labor unions helped her earn support from progressives, has been elected Oakland’s next mayor after unofficial election results Friday saw her take the lead from Councilman Loren Taylor.

Thao’s comeback was completed on Friday when nearly 23,000 more ballots were counted, giving the 37-year-old Oakland native and former city council aide enough of a boost to win the race. Although the results are unofficial — there are still 2,000 uncounted ballots countywide —  Thao now holds a 50.30% lead in ranked choice results to Taylor’s 49.70%, a margin of about 680 votes that Taylor appears unlikely to overcome.

“We are optimistic that our lead will hold and that Sheng Thao will be the next Mayor of Oakland,” Thao’s campaign said in a statement.

As mayor, she will lead a town struggling to curb high levels of crime that emerged during the pandemic and find sustainable living spaces for its large homeless population.

Thao, who promises to be a dealmaker, may also play a key role in the city’s negotiations with the Oakland A’s over a massive ballpark and housing development at the harbor.

Cynthia Cornejo, the deputy Alameda County registrar, said Friday night there were still 2,000 ballots left to process in the county — likely a fraction of which are from Oakland voters. The registrar on Monday will release the final results, which will then be subject to an audit.

Oakland Mayoral candidate and Oakland Council President Pro Tem Sheng Thao greets supporters during an election night watch party at 7th West in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Taylor did not concede the race after Friday’s results, saying on Twitter that it would be premature to declare victory or accept defeat.

“I will respect the will of the voters once their verdict is made clear,” Taylor said in the tweet thread. “Regardless of the final outcome, I am proud of the Oakland-centered campaign we ran and endlessly grateful for every voter who had faith in my leadership and ranked me on their ballot.”

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The registrar’s office had intended to finish its count on Friday, but had 2,000 ballots left over by day’s end, Cornejo said.

“We wanted to make sure that we provided as much of an update as we could,” she said. “We know everybody wants to see the final counts so we tried to get as much in as possible.”

The race to be Oakland’s next mayor has unfolded like a slow-burn thriller, with the city’s ranked-choice voting format pushing Thao firmly back into contention this week after she fell behind early.

It is vote transfers from candidate Allyssa Victory, a political newcomer with openly progressive views, that helped Thao overcome a stronghold of support for Taylor and two of his allies: Councilwoman Treva Reid and political veteran Ignacio De La Fuente.

It was also Thao’s overwhelming support from Oakland’s labor unions, which spent large sums of money to back her campaign. Zac Unger, the head of the firefighters union, said both outside expenditures and direct campaigning helped Thao reach voters throughout the city.

“We had a strong ground game made up of rank-and-file working people in Oakland who did our best to contact as many people as possible, starting early and until the last minute,” Unger said.

Mayoral candidate Loren Taylor addresses the crowd during his election night party at For the Culture in downtown Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
Mayoral candidate Loren Taylor addresses the crowd during his election night party at For the Culture in downtown Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

What fueled Thao’s resurgence after early results indicated Taylor was on a path to victory? It is difficult to be certain, since so little data is currently available about how different precincts or council districts voted.

Nor do the results — the vast majority of which are comprised of mail-in ballots — say much about in which parts of the city votes were counted first.

Taylor and Thao’s campaigns have been almost entirely radio silent this week, repeatedly declining press interviews but promising to speak up when all the votes are counted.

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Oakland’s ranked choice format reliably keeps political experts from making bold proclamations early into the rollout of results.

And many who follow the city’s politics learned not to trust first-place vote margins after city council member Jean Quan in 2010 blew past former state Sen. Don Perata in that year’s mayoral election — the first time Oakland voters were asked to rank their candidates. It took 10 rounds of ranked choice voting tabulations for Quan to emerge as the winner.

But the results Friday may have created a margin that proves too difficult for Taylor to make up, however many Oakland votes are left to process from the 2,000 countywide ballots.

“What a great race between two outstanding candidates,” said Steve Hill, an election expert with FairVote, a nonprofit group that advocates for ranked choice voting.

Alameda County’s very drawn-out reveal of the election results could lead some to believe ranked choice voting is to blame. But tabulating those votes does not take much time – the delay in results is more due to the proliferation of mail-in ballots during the pandemic, Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis said earlier this week.

It took Thao nine full rounds to defeat Taylor and win a narrow majority of ranked choice votes. This is the second time — across four mayoral elections in Oakland where the format has been implemented — that a candidate won the race without securing a plurality of voter approval.

Taylor, for his part, said on Twitter he was “honored to win the most first place votes out of any candidate” in the race.

“I will have more to say soon,” Taylor added in the thread. “Until then, I will be enjoying my son’s 10th birthday weekend and discussing with my team, my supporters, and my family the best course of action to move forward.”

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