Momentum builds for ‘outsider’ Assembly candidate

Are recent endorsements enough to bring Bilal Mahmood a victory?

Outsider candidate Bilal Mahmood needs three things to have a realistic chance of making it through Tuesday’s state Assembly primary election, San Francisco State Political science professor Jason McDaniel has observed.

“He would need a Chronicle endorsement, a London Breed endorsement and a Scott Wiener endorsement,” McDaniel said.

On Sunday, Mahmood notched one of the three, when the Chronicle editorial board made him its preferred pick for the Assembly seat recently vacated by San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu. While finishing in the top two is still a tall order against a pair of much better-known candidates, this late endorsement represents the biggest validation yet for a surprisingly strong insurgent campaign.

The Chronicle endorsement, combined with endorsements from groups such as YIMBY Action, and strong fundraising numbers also signal dissatisfaction with incumbent politicians and the current orientation of the Board of Supervisors, McDaniel said. “If incumbents are on the ballot right now, it would be a pretty good time to be somebody who could craft a message as an outsider.”

And that’s exactly what Mahmood is hoping to do in this campaign.

”We are reaching a lot of people who are undecided, who are upset at the political establishment,” Mahmood said as he canvassed the UN Plaza Farmers Market on a sunny afternoon last week. “Our city is not doing their job, especially the Board of Supervisors, and the state has the ability to take top-down approaches to affect things like homelessness, climate and transit.”

The other candidates in Tuesday’s special primary election — which is combined with the school board recall — include Supervisor Matt Haney, former Supervisor David Campos and City College Board trustee Thea Selby. If no candidate wins an outright majority, the top two vote-getters will move on to a general election on April 19. The winner of that election would then have to compete once again in the regularly scheduled primary in June and general election in November.

What voters want

In a confusing election year, Mahmood is trying to keep things simple. The startup founder walked the farmers market stalls, introducing himself to voters with a breathless pitch.

“I’m a scientist by training, I’ve worked for President Obama, I’ve worked in the public and private sector, my parents immigrated here 35 years ago and I’m trying to fight for San Francisco to be a beacon of hope for the middle class,” he said to several voters, before shifting his tone and concluding, “But I just want to hear what matters to you.”

The answer to that question, Mahmood says, is remarkably consistent. “They say homelessness, safety and housing.”

On homelessness, he talks about “built for zero,” a strategy to connect every homeless individual with shelter that has shown promise in a handful of small cities. On housing, he touts his YIMBY Action endorsement, and bashes the “obstructionism” of the current Board of Supervisors.

On safety, he highlights his willingness to go against the progressive party line and get real “accountability” for criminals — though he emphasizes he hasn’t taken a position on the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

Climate is another pillar issue for Mahmood. He teamed up with Saikat Chakrabarti, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s former chief of staff and the architect of the original Green New Deal legislation, on a Green New Deal plan for California that envisions new financial and industrial tools for the energy transition.

Critics describe Mahmood’s big plans as naive to the inner workings of Sacramento. His “built for zero” homelessness blueprint, for instance, was pioneered in Rockford, Illinois — a place that doesn’t share much in common with California’s big cities. Critics also say his leading qualification can be a bit misleading: Mahmood only worked in the Obama Administration for a year as a junior analyst at the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

In fact, Mahmood hasn’t been particularly engaged in local and state politics until recently, having sat out several nonpresidential elections during his adult life. Most of his career has been in scientific research and tech, a resume that includes leading the data analytics startup ClearBrain to acquisition by the company Amplitude. While the terms of the deal were not disclosed, ClearBrain was estimated to be worth about $12.6 million by the startups rating analysts at PitchBook Data before the acquisition.

Mahmood has parlayed that financial success into his campaign, contributing $500,000 of his own money, including a $100,000 contribution just last week. He readily acknowledges his campaign wouldn’t have gotten off the ground otherwise.

But the candidate is not the campaign’s only supporter. Mahmood has raised nearly $400,000 in addition to his own contributions, according to the latest filings with the California Secretary of State, almost as much as his more established rival, Campos.

On housing

That support, along with the Chronicle’s endorsement, could be read as “a reflection of a move against the progressive governing majority on the Board of Supervisors,” McDaniel said, especially on the issue of housing. While endorsing a political upstart is unusual for the Chronicle, pushing for the YIMBY-backed candidate is consistent with the paper’s recent positions on housing issues.

Notably, Haney has been working hard to take the pro-housing lane in this race, calling for massive increases in housing production, and supporting market rate developments that a majority of the Board — and Campos — disapproved of. But that wasn’t enough for YIMBY Action or the Chronicle editorial board, which wrote it is “difficult to picture (Haney) becoming the force for transformational housing policy that Chiu was.” (The Examiner editorial board, which is separate from its newsgathering operation, endorsed Haney in the race.)

But in low-turnout elections like this one, nuanced differences in housing policy, or any policy disagreement, tend not to be the deciding factor for most voters, McDaniel said. The Chronicle endorsement “most likely cuts into Haney’s potential base of support and might lower it a few percentage points,” McDaniel said, but it’s still “unlikely” Mahmood finishes in the top two.

Political consultant Jim Ross agrees. “If he were a product, and he went from zero to 20% market share in three months, that would be a remarkable story. In politics, that’s third place.”

Bilal Mahmood, candidate for California’s 17th State Assembly district, brings home his message with voters at UN Plaza on Wednesday. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Bilal Mahmood, candidate for California’s 17th State Assembly district, brings home his message with voters at UN Plaza on Wednesday. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

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