Before starting her political career, Schaaf was an attorney at Oakland law firm, Reed Smith LLP. She then became the program director for the Marcus A. Foster Educational Institute in 1995, creating and running a new volunteer program for the Oakland Unified School District.
Schaaf first involved herself in local government as a legislative aide for Oakland city council president Ignacio De La Fuente, before becoming a special assistant to then Mayor of Oakland Jerry Brown.
In 2006, Schaaf joined the Port of Oakland as the Director of Public Affairs, helping to secure state and federal funding for the city of Oakland, as well as directing all strategic communications for the port. In 2009, Schaaf graduated from Emerge California, an intensive training program for women who aspire to seek elected office.
Before joining the Oakland City Council in 2010, Schaaf served as the Economic Policy Advisor for the council for a year.
In 2010, Schaaf was elected to represent her home district, District 4, on the Oakland City Council.
During her tenure on the city council, Schaaf fought to raise the minimum wage, voicing her support for Measure FF, also known as Lift Up Oakland, a $12.25 minimum wage ballot initiative which passed in a landslide on November 4, 2014. Schaaf also strove to increase government transparency and efficiency, build a safer city, and strengthen Oakland neighborhoods in her time on city council. She worked extensively on Oakland Police Department reform, hiring more civilian staff and pushing through a plan to unite both the Alameda and Oakland Police Departments.
In the race for Oakland mayor, Schaaf was endorsed by Governor of California Jerry Brown and US Senator Barbara Boxer.
In June 2015, Mayor Schaaf announced the formation of Oakland’s first Department of Transportation. The Department of Transportation assumed some responsibilities formerly held by Oakland Public Works, such as road design, resurfacing and maintenance. In her announcement, Mayor Schaaf said that the focus will be on, “sustainable strategies that can bring needed change quickly to city streets.”
The Department of Transportation consists of 300 employees, previously working in the Department of Public Works and Oakland Police Department's Parking Enforcement operations.
Funding for the Department of Transportation came from many public resources, including Measure BB, a sales tax approved in November 2014 to fund transportation projects in Alameda County. Schaaf hired Matt Nichols as her Policy Director for Transportation and Infrastructure in March 2015. Jeff Tumlin was named Interim Director of the department in June 2016.
In May 2015, Mayor Schaaf instituted a ban on nighttime marches without permits in public roadways in Oakland, citing existing city policies. The first enforcement of this ban was on May 21, during a #SayHerName march, a nationwide coordinated march focused on ending state violence against black women and girls in the US. Demonstrators met at Frank Ogawa Plaza before sunset for a rally. After the rally, demonstrators began to march onto the street. Police officers told them to keep to the sidewalks, and cited California Vehicle Code Section 2800, making it an arrestable offense not to comply with the police order.
Enactment of this policy brought harsh criticism and allegations of illegality from some constitutional lawyers, including civil rights attorney and one of the co-authors of Oakland Police Department's Crowd Control and Crowd Management Policy, Rachel Lederman: "My general impression is the police took an unduly aggressive approach that not only violated their own crowd control policy, but also the First Amendment... This was an unreasonable interference with the demonstration given that there had been no serious crimes committed." Other legal experts pointed to similar policies in cities like New York, which have been ruled constitutional.
Schaaf was born in Oakland, California, on November 12, 1965. Growing up in Oakland's District 4, Schaaf attended Head-Royce School and Skyline High School, both in Oakland. She holds a B.A. in political science from Rollins College and a J.D. from Loyola Law School.
Schaaf is Jewish. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Salvatore Fahey, and her children, Dominic and Lena.
Schaaf co-founded the nonprofit Oakland Cares, which organized and implemented hundreds of volunteer community improvement projects across the city. She also built and ran the first centralized volunteer program for Oakland public schools at the Marcus Foster Institute. She currently serves on the Leadership Council at Kiva, a non-profit organization that allows people to lend money via the Internet to low-income entrepreneurs and students in over 80 countries.