Zac Unger…a future Mayor of Oakland?
Zac is one of those multi-talented people among us who has done enough in his 43 years to be on the cusp of celebrity. Some of you may know him as the
author of two books and many articles on subjects ranging from polar bears to “swim vacation” getaways (and, yes, those are two entirely different subjects, thank God). He’s also gained notoriety as an Oakland firefighter, and spokesperson for the fire-fighters union. But Mayor of Oakland? Well… not yet, but—you read it here first, folks—I’m saying it could definitely happen.
For one, Zac is a confirmed Oakland-er, currently living with his wife, attorney Shona Armstrong, daughter Percy (short for Perseverance) and sons Maccabee and Zeke on the same “mean streets” of Rockridge just a couple of houses down from where he grew up. He’s committed to Oakland in other ways as well, although his life has taken a circuitous path to get there.
A graduate of the Head-Royce School in Oakland’s Dimond district (his Spanish teacher was none other than CALMer, Judy Jonas) where he was one of only three boys on the swim team (more on that later), he displayed enough academic excellence to receive an invitation to the esteemed, if unconventional Deep Springs College. Deep Springs is an all-male two-year school with a student body of only 27-30 men at any given time, located on a working cattle ranch in a remote
valley east of the California Sierras. Most of its graduates go on to complete their bachelor’s degrees at ivy league schools or other prestigious universities. Zac chose to continue on to Brown University in Rhode Island, where he majored in Environmental Studies. He chose Brown for its open curriculum, and because, “I wanted to try the east coast for a couple of years and see what it was all about.” After graduating, however, for Zac the east wasn’t about all that, and he returned to California to begin a graduate program in Range Management at UC Berkeley.
Now, dear reader, you are perhaps scratching your head and thinking, wait, I thought this guy was a fireman. What’s with all the academia? And how does Range Management fit in? Fear not, this will all come together.
Zac is indeed an Oakland firefighter…and Vice- President of Local 55 of the IAF Oakland Fire Fighters. He’s also a talented writer—just read the excerpt (available on his website) of his Working Fire and you will likely immediately want to get the full book. As if that’s not enough, he’s a part- time river guide for outfitters in Utah and Oregon.
Clearly, Zac has an affinity for the great outdoors.
This is reflected in everything from his choice of Deep Springs College to his avocations and writing subjects, and also in his swimming. Most mornings find Zac swimming too fast for the 1:25 lane at the 6am CALM workouts at Golden Bear Pool. He’ll sometimes go slumming at the mid-day Spieker pool workout (but he slows down for that one—it’s a more mellow crowd). But he’s really an open- water guy, and has ambitions to swim in every open-water event this season (he came close last year).
His penchant for outdoor activity may also have contributed to his finding graduate study not quite the best fit halfway through his program at Berkeley; that’s when he turned to fire-fighting. “I literally saw an ad on a bus bench,” he says, “and I applied.” It took two years to get hired by the Oakland Fire Department, but once he got a taste, he was hooked (and laddered).
Still, it took a while for this ivy league graduate and only child from the union of a college professor and a psychiatrist to fit into the firehouse. “The first couple of years I was self-conscious—it was a different culture than I grew up in,” he says. Eventually, he learned just to be himself and accept his role as the college-geek fireman. And his
atypical education and background have become an asset: he has undertaken to purge Fire Department and union press releases and publications of all spelling and grammatical errors, and particularly a prediliction to inappropriate uses of the apostrophe.
A few years ago, a friend asked Zac to write an article on being a fire-fighter, and he discovered a knack and love for writing that lead to a couple of books and other on-going writing projects. He found another outlet for his intellectual talents by joining the board of the local fireman’s union, thereby continuing a four-generation long tradition of union activism in his family. Now Vice-President of the Local, he has become quite familiar with the political landscape of Oakland. A leading spokesperson on the recent Ghost Ship fire controversy, he’s been credited as a primary source for a series of articles on the tragedy, which recently won a Pulitzer prize for the East Bay Times. He has regular dealings with City Hall, and calls Oakland Mayor Schaaf, ‘Libby’—as do many in Oakland, but you get the sense that he is ’Zac’ to her as well.
Sure, some who know Zac well may not see him as a likely politician. For one thing, he’s too
irreverent, they’ll say. After all, how many politicians would confess—on the record—that they joined their high school swim team primarily because it afforded the opportunity to be in a pool with 25 girls and only two other guys. Also, he’s not into the money sports, and has little interest in the comings and goings of city’s professional sports franchises which have been a political football (if you will) for a long time. Raiders leaving? “I don’t care about sports,” he demurs, “but Libby did a good thing not giving them all the things they were demanding.” Warriors? “I don’t think I’ve ever watched a whole game. If it’s on TV I might look up to see if there’s more points after the ‘GS’— that’s about it.” Then there’s the Range Management thing—Oakland needs management, but it ain’t no range (and Zac admits to never having managed an actual range). He also harbors a peculiar ambition to own only one car for his entire life, still tooling around in the 1993 4-wheel drive Toyota pickup truck that he’s owned for over two decades, and that a friend who’s an auto- aficionado has dubbed a “bohemian classic.”
So here’s my case, though: at 43, Zac is perhaps on the down slope of his career as a fire-fighter, but just coming into his prime as a politician. He has the skill-set and connections, and dedication to his
city to be a player in its politics. “I look at my whole life as kind of Oakland-centric,” he says. “The great thing about Oakland is that it’s a big enough city to be interesting, and small enough to wrap your hands around.” And Zac’s hands have taken a firm hold; from being a city employee, a union rep to the city, and working on Measures Z and KK in recent elections, to serving on the public schools PTA.
And Zac displays more than a passing interest in politics. His wife, who grew up in the Yukon territory has an uncle in the Canadian Parliament. On a recent family trip to Ottawa they had an opportunity to sit in on a session. “They were debating something completely irrelevant, like funding for icebreakers on the ferries,” he describes, “…and it was utterly fascinating. We were only going to watch for like 10 minutes and wound up staying for two hours.” Of course, part of the fascination, he says, was watching adults act like squabbling children—but you’d think ten minutes of that would have been enough for most people. Notably, when I asked him if he ever considered running for office himself, he did not say no—like any veteran politician would have, but, hey, he’s a newbie.
And there’s also the fact that there is a serious policy wonk somewhere inside Zac Unger. Despite himself being the product of several prestigious private educational institutions, all his children attend Oakland public schools and he will pepper casual conversation with statements like: “I don’t believe education is something that should be connected to the profit motive.”
So Zac Unger for Mayor? Don’t rule it out. He’d get my vote!