Malia Cohen refuses political label

Refusing to pick sides, the newly elected representative of San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood promises collaboration and staking out positions on issues regardless from which political camp they originate.

The youngest of the four newly elected members to the Board of Supervisors, Malia Cohen, 33, says her experience running a business and various nonprofits along with a stint as a staffer in Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration has laid the foundation for her to become “a successful” legislator.

Since winning this November by beating out 20 other candidates in a competitive race, Cohen has been meeting with community groups, her soon-to-be-colleagues and city department staff. She will be sworn into office on Jan. 8.

The crash course will serve her well. The City faces a deficit of about $380 million, and she could cast a decisive vote selecting who will serve as San Francisco’s mayor for at least the next year.

“It should be a caretaker mayor,” Cohen said, meaning someone who will not run for election in November after serving the year in office. “And I do believe it should be the new board who should select.”

Newsom may postpone his Jan. 3 swearing in for his lieutenant governor post, ensuring the new board will decide, not the current one.  

Closing a budget deficit will be part of the workload right away, and that will include talks with labor unions about concessions.

One means of cutting back that Cohen has in mind is for elected officials to start paying into their pensions.

“When you are an elected member, you don’t pay into your pension,” Cohen said.  “That’s a problem. I do think everyone should be paying into their pension. There is no free ride. I should be paying in, members of the Board of Supervisors.”

Her first-year focus for District 10 will be public safety. She also plans to facilitate the formation of a community benefit district for the entire Third Street corridor, as well as for San Bruno Avenue.

These districts, which assesses a fee on property owners if a majority approve, pay for enhanced services like increased security and marketing of businesses.

She now finds herself responsible for shepherding the massive redevelopment of the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard with plans of 10,500 new residences.

The southeastern neighborhoods — along with District 6, which will be represented by newly elected progressive Supervisor Jane Kim — are where San Francisco will grow through massive development. She has discussed with Kim working together on legislation, as their districts face similar challenges.  

On the legislative body, where every vote counts — it takes six to approve legislation and eight to override a mayoral veto — Cohen will likely find herself courted by both sides of the political aisle.

Cohen’s political bent is often compared to her that of her predecessor, Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, who was middle of the road, at times siding with the board’s progressive bloc, other times aligning herself with Newsom and his moderate allies. But Cohen refuses to be pinned down.

“I will be able to work with anyone,” Cohen said. “For me it’s less about who is introducing [legislation] and what political camp that they self-identify. I’m never going to measure 100 percent up to anyone’s either moderate or progressive litmus test, so I don’t identify with either.”

Malia Cohen

Date of birth: Dec. 16, 1977

Neighborhood you live in: Bayview

Occupation: Small-business owner

What is the most significant issue facing your district? I think District 10’s double-digit unemployment rate is by far the most significant issue. This impacts quality of life, public safety and crime as well as well as public health.

Do you support the use of gang injunctions to curb violence? No. I believe that gang injunctions are a short-term fix to a much larger and complex problem. It’s analogous to a shell game. You’re simply moving criminal activity from one block to the next without really addressing the root causes of the problem.

What concerns do you have about the Hunters Point Shipyard redevelopment?

  • Jobs for the local work force
  • Affordable housing for families and seniors
  • Gentrification



What are your top three accomplishments?

1 City Build (provides work force training and job placement services to San Francisco residents interested in pursuing a career in the construction industry, among other fields)

2 The rezoning of the eastern neighborhoods, it was the biggest rezoning in over 50 years.

3 And then, of course, Hunters Point Shipyard, and also the redevelopment plan.

How do you want to be remembered?

As somebody who helped empower people, believes in collective leadership and somebody who had integrity. Somebody who above all listened to people.

What are the biggest challenges facing The City as you leave?

I think trying to keep intact what we truly believe in because those things are under attack. We believe in everyone being healthy. We believe that everybody should be welcomed here. And that means poor people. We are losing that population of poor people. You have to be almost wealthy to be able to live here.

What is the biggest challenge facing District 10 that your successor needs to deal with right away?

A lot of promises have been made. We have a lot of development going on. The biggest challenge is to make sure that all the things that we have put in place, and there have been some great things, that those things actually happen and that we don’t take no for answer. And that we continue to understand that the city has to have an industrial base because that helps to ensure that there are diversity of jobs.

Biggest regret?

You know, I really accomplished everything I set out to do. I had some big, huge things
to accomplish.

Who should be interim mayor?

I think it should be someone who knows this city inside and out, no personal agendas and nobody else’s personal agendas other than The City’s and knows the departments inside and out, knows the budgets inside and out. We have a $380 million gorilla in the room. Ed Harrington [director of the Public Utilities Commission] is my first choice.

What do you plan to do next?

Being on a management team dealing with water issues.

Words of wisdom for Malia Cohen?

The No. 1 thing is to listen and a lot of times people have the answers, so if you listen hard enough you find the best answer since sliced bread. You don’t have to know everything, but you have to listen.

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