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Centrist groups say they want to save San Francisco. Progressives see a hostile takeover.

Autor: POLITICO

San Francisco has become a potent symbol of dyfunction — and tech-backed centrist groups believe they can change that. | Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO — The tech-fueled movement that ousted San Francisco’s liberal District Attorney Chesa Boudin and school board members in a pandemic uprising is just getting started.

Powered by voter frustration over drugs and homelessness and backed by millions of dollars, a constellation of centrist groups is working to shift the balance of power in a famously progressive city whose woes have become a national political Rorschach test. The groups, which are planning to push progressives out of San Francisco’s governing board and local Democratic party, argue it’s a rescue operation that could reverberate across the country.

Their critics see something more sinister: business interests and conservatives seeking to control the establishment in a city animated by tension between the center and the left. It is a struggle for the soul of a city that regularly produces Democratic stars from Kamala Harris to Gavin Newsom and, depending who you ask, embodies the best or worst of liberal ideals.

Public discontent over San Francisco’s woes — stoked by some of the same wealthy players — erupted during the pandemic as tech workers fled the city, schools closed and shuttered businesses left a vacancy-marred downtown corridor. A sour mood fueled the 2022 ousters of progressive Boudin and three members of a school board that drew national ridicule for debating whether to rename schools like George Washington High School as classrooms sat empty. A national narrative of decline took hold.

The question of where San Francisco stumbled and how it can bounce back is again looming over this election cycle as the city’s deep-pocketed business interests prepare to spend upward of $5 million and mobilize tens of thousands of voters to reorient the city’s political center of gravity.

“I think 2024 is the most important local election in 50 years in San Francisco,” said Supervisor Joel Engardio, a moderate who ousted an incumbent last cycle with the help of some of those groups. “The electorate is really restless and fed up,” and “other groups and PACs and people with resources want to amplify what’s out there.”

The faithful gather

The centrists determined to save San Francisco from itself gathered over wine and light refreshments on a recent Tuesday night, as voters mingled with local lawmakers, candidates for local offices, and people running for positions in the city’s influential Democratic Party.

Glossy guides laid out a vision for San Francisco — “Sidewalks you can walk on. Train cars free of fentanyl smoke. Parking sans smash-and-grab.”

“In San Francisco, politics has become so extreme that extreme is now the norm,” Kanishka Cheng, a City Hall veteran who is now the executive director of Together San Francisco, told the crowd.

Several of the 100-plus attendees said they were Democrats who had been preoccupied by national politics until the pandemic, when they began paying closer attention to San Francisco government and concluded the city had spun out of control.

Together San Francisco and other like-minded political groups seemed to offer a way out.

“Thank goodness for all these groups,” said Lily Ho, who is running to be a voting member of the local Democratic Party after helping lead the successful school-board recall campaign. “Not paying attention to local politics is a luxury this city can’t afford.”

Sporting interchangeable-sounding names like Abundant SF and Grow SF, the groups offer a similar diagnosis: Progressive supervisors, a Democratic Party dominated by far-left insiders and a dysfunctional city bureaucracy have allowed chronic issues to fester — badly eroding the quality of life in San Francisco.

The loosely aligned groups, whose members regularly communicate but say they do not coordinate spending, are operating on multiple fronts to pull the city to the center. They aim to elect allies to the San Francisco Democratic Party and Board of Supervisors, pass local ballot initiatives to strengthen the mayor’s office and oust incumbent judges they deem too lenient.

The activists behind these efforts argue they represent a new surge of civic engagement from everyday San Franciscans — many of them tech workers with young families — who are determined to stay in, and fight for, a city rocked by the pandemic.

“I believe we are on the road to taking back San Francisco,” Garry Tan, CEO of the Y Combinator tech startup accelerator and a board member of Grow SF, said in a statement, and “hope it will spread to the national level of the democratic party.”

That goal has spurred vicious infighting as progressives resist what they see as a hostile takeover of their liberal bastion. Tan is facing criminal complaints from county supervisors after naming eight board members on on X and posting that he hoped they would “die slow.”

“These guys are the foot soldiers for a bunch of tech billionaires,” said Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, one of the politicians named in Tan’s since-deleted post.

Who they are

Three organizations that emerged out of Covid-era voter pessimism and frustration have channeled the energy behind the 2022 recalls to galvanize voters around issues like housing, homelessness and crime.

Together SF is backed by politically involved venture capitalist Michael Moritz, a Welsh-born billionaire who has steered investments toward a string of iconic tech firms like Google and PayPal and has focused on the city’s drug problems, along with public safety and governance. Grow SF was founded by a pair of tech alumni, Steven Buss and Sachin Agarwal, and has waded into recalls and board of supervisor races. Abundant SF grew out of an ascendant, pro-housing “YIMBY” movement and is powered by an inner circle of tech executives.

The groups have enlisted political veterans and enjoy ties to stars in San Francisco’s moderate firmament, like state Sen. Scott Wiener. They’ve also drawn support from party luminaries like Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi.

They claimed a signal victory in 2022 by powering the upset win by Engardio, a crime-focused centrist — the first time in decades an incumbent supervisor had been ousted. The crime-focused centrist was active in the school board recalls, has worked with Grow SF and Together SF and sat on the board of the judge-focused Stop Crime SF.

The groups are largely supportive of San Francisco’s incumbent mayor, who has clashed with the progressive Board of Supervisors since she was first elected in 2018. While Breed’s sliding poll numbers have made her vulnerable heading into a November reelection campaign, the groups are less focused on protecting Breed than on expanding her authority or furnishing her with a more supportive board.

Breed has multiple moderate rivals, like Levi heir Daniel Lurie, but retains strong support in San Francisco’s business-friendly and pro-housing establishment. Those forces see the problem elsewhere.

“We see a very aligned mayor,” said Todd David, a longtime Wiener campaign aide who is now Abundant’s political director, but “she is blocked at every turn by an obstructionist Board of Supervisors.”

Taking a different approach than business interests of the past, the groups are assembling lists of voters and volunteers, like the people who showed up at the Together event last month, and disseminating voter guides to tens of thousands of San Franciscans. Together regularly brings endorsed candidates to meet voters at events.

“The groups that are involved now are approaching this in a very different way than groups in the past that just gave money but didn’t do anything else,” said Maggie Muir, a political consultant who works for both Abundant SF and Breed.

But money still talks. Cheng estimated Together SF would need to spend over $5 million to pass its November ballot initiatives that would give the mayor more power and slash city commissions that they blame for a bloated bureaucracy. Its nonprofit arm took in some $2.5 million from 2021 through 2022, according to tax filings, while a supporting entity drew millions more. Moritz has separately bankrolled a scoopy new publication called the SF Standard.

After collecting donations from prominent tech donors and spending money on Engardio’s race in 2022, Grow SF has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to oust progressive supervisors this cycle (Elon Musk pledged $100,000 but has not delivered) and is spending to boot judges. Abundant is assembling a network of committed multi-year donors — led by an inner circle of business founders, many with families — that is prepared to deploy millions of dollars a year.

They are following the lead of an organization called Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, launched in 2020, that has played an outsize role in San Francisco’s recent upheavals. It spent millions of dollars, much of it flowing from major real estate and finance firms and players like billionaire and longtime Republican donor William Oberndorf, to oust Boudin, the criminal justice reform-minded district attorney, in 2022.

Neighbors is connected to Together by family ties: Its executive director, Jay Cheng, is married to Together’s Kanishka Cheng. It sent $100,000 this year to Together’s ballot initiative empowering the mayor and streamlining city government and has supplied funding to both Grow SF and Stop Crime SF.

A common impetus

Emboldened by the successful DA and school board recalls, the leaders of Grow, SF, and Abundant say they aim to remake San Francisco by rejecting progressive orthodoxy and ousting what Abundant SF’s David called “ideologues who are more interested in performative politics than in real results.”

“The inflection point was in 2020. That’s when everything bottomed out, when everyone was the most unhappy, realizing everything was broken,” said Buss, who was heavily involved in the school board campaigns. “The reaction was, ‘We have to get rid of these people who are failing us.’ And then that has turned into several subsequent victories for common sense policies.”

This era has brought another kind of inflection point in how the city’s tech workers engage in politics as they blasted the city’s dysfunction on social media.

Many of those disaffected San Franciscans decamped for cities like Miami or Austin. Some who remained have plunged into politics, serving as leaders, funders and foot soldiers for the upsurge in anti-progressive political activism.

“A lot of people come from this perspective that, ‘We’re the last people in tech left in San Francisco and we want to save the city,’” said Catie Stewart, a San Francisco-based political consultant who used to work for Sen. Wiener.

The nascent kingmaker Tan and his fellow Y Combinator executives have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into local politics. Investor Chris Larsen has spread hundreds of thousands of dollars across multiple of the groups and at least $50,000 so far to boost a single San Francisco Democratic Party candidate.

“You had sort of a vacuum in San Francisco for maybe a decade-plus that allowed the far left progressives to really make their mark on the city,” Larsen said, in which progressives did “a really good job of cowing people into inaction. And that bullshit is over.”

A stubborn housing affordability crisis has been a key impetus to get priced-out tech workers engaged in politics. Before co-founding Abundant SF, tech executive Zack Rosen launched California YIMBY, which advocates for statewide policies to promote denser development in cities and suburbs.

“One thing tech people do have is resources. They have money,” Rosen said, and plunging into housing politics meant many now “gotten their hands dirty.”

San Francisco’s sharp-elbowed Democratic politics have long been dominated by intraparty tensions.But the newer centrist players — though funded by tech money — insist their focus on quality-of-life issues differentiates them from other wealthy political interests that have embraced a more business-centric program of lower taxes and lighter regulation.

“We don’t advocate for tech,” said Agarwal, an alumnus of Apple, Lyft and Twitter. “I’m not going to go and pass some ballot measure that’s going to reduce taxes for the tech community.”

Their foes don’t buy it. They note real estate interests bankrolled the Boudin recall and that Moritz spent $1.3 million to defeat a proposed state tax funding electric vehicles after lambasting a San Francisco tax on high earners. They see a familiar cast of wealthy players using front groups and exploiting political neophytes to achieve their own aims.

“In previous cycles, they may have been called Jobs PAC and now they’re called Together SF,” said former San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim, a progressive who now directs the Working Families Party’s California branch. “The players may change, who gives the money may change, but it’s the same fight.”

Their anti-crime message in particular has fanned accusations of embracing right-wing rhetoric. Together SF bankrolled an anti-fentanyl campaign that plastered glib “That’s Fentalife” posters around town, angering Newsom and progressives for amplifying a hard-right narrative. Cheng argued it succeeded in pushing supervisors to budget more money for drug enforcement while also shifting the city’s discourse.

“Now, closing the open air drug markets is going to be a talking point for every mayoral candidate,” Cheng said.

Breed has vowed to crack down on crime as her reelection bid accelerates. She launched a program to arrest drug dealers and open-air users and is pushing March 5 ballot initiatives to loosen restrictions on police officers and drug test welfare recipients — both with substantial donations from Larsen and from investor Ron Conway, a longtime ally and power broker.

“How do we get to the point where the mayor and these groups’ plan for a drug overdose crisis is to run around arresting drug users?” said San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston, a Democratic socialist in the groups’ crosshairs. “In many cases it’s indistinguishable from right-wing platforms and policy messages you hear across the country.”

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