Venerated progressive campaign consultant Jim Stearns allegedly assaulted a former campaign staffer of Chesa Boudin Tuesday night at an election party, according to witnesses.
That same night, Supervisor Aaron Peskin fired Stearns from his 2020 re-election campaign, citing an “unfortunate interaction” between himself and his long-time friend and nine-time campaign consultant.
Stearns and the campaign staffer he allegedly assaulted had previously disagreed about choices regarding Boudin’s campaign, according to multiple sources.
Stearns counts some of San Francisco’s most well-known elected officials in his list of past clients, from City Attorney Dennis Herrera to former supervisors David Chiu, David Campos, former district attorney Kamala Harris, and most recently Boudin in his run for District Attorney.
Stearns is now a campaign consultant for the Jackie Fielder for State Senate campaign.
“He was my first choice because he’s the best,” Roisin Isner, Fielder’s campaign manager, said Wednesday.
Stearns was attending Fielder’s state senate election party at Barrel Proof bar in the Mission Tuesday night when he allegedly shoved former Chesa Boudin campaign field director Steven Kight.
Kight claims Stearns knocked him to the ground, causing a head injury. Kight went to Mission Police Station in the morning to file a police report concerning the incident and said he fainted after he arrived.
San Francisco Police Department spokesperson Officer Adam Lobsinger confirmed Kight filed a police department incident report and that Kight suffered a medical incident at Mission Police Station.
“While at the station he did suffer a medical emergency, officers summoned an ambulance,” Lobsinger said. “He was treated at the scene for non-life-threatening injuries.”
Stearns was contrite when recalling the Tuesday altercation.
“It was stupid, and it was wrong, and I’m embarrassed that it happened,” Stearns said by phone Wednesday. But, he said, “It was a shoving match at best,” adding it was a “minor incident.”
Kight disagreed on the severity of his scuffle with Stearns.
Stearns allegedly approached Kight, accusing him of various personal slights.
“Then (Stearns) knocked me to the ground by hitting me in the chest repeatedly as I tried to back away from him,” Kight said. “He knocked me to the floor twice, the second time after I scrambled back up from the first time. I hit my head very hard on the floor and later lost consciousness this morning and collapsed in public leading me to come to the (emergency room) to assess what might be wrong.”
Multiple sources witnessed the altercation. Brad Joseph Chapin, a volunteer on Fielder’s campaign and a board member of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, called it an example of “toxic masculinity.”
Chapin said he saw Kight standing in the bar, when Stearns approached him screaming before beginning the physical fight. The crowd started holding Stearns back, while “he was throwing his arms like he wanted to do more.”
“It happened so fast,” Chapin said. “Steven (Kight) looked like he was standing there, terrified, in my opinion.”
Seamus McGeever, another board member of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, said
“I saw them basically fighting. I think both of them were being pulled apart from one another.”
Stearns decades of experience and keen know-how boosted Boudin’s campaign — where he worked with Kight — and helped mobilize volunteers that pushed Supervisor Dean Preston’s electoral support a hair over that of former supervisor Vallie Brown’s just last November.
Stearns is the not-so-secret weapon of progressive campaigns large and small, even as more experienced centrist Democrat campaign consultants of his caliber move on to statewide campaigns, leaving the field wide for progressives to reclaim the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco.
“I think it’s fair to say that Jim Stearns has been the go-to consultant for progressive campaigns and progressive causes as long as I can remember,” Campos, the former supervisor and now-San Francisco Democratic Party chair said. “He’s brilliant when it comes to messaging. The perfect example of that is ‘No Wall on the Waterfront.’ I’m sorry to hear that this happened.”
But now one supervisor from The City’s progressive faction has fired Stearns: Supervisor Aaron Peskin.
Peskin told this columnist that “Mr. Stearns called me last night and we had a remarkable exchange and I subsequently fired him.” Peskin did not provide additional details about the exchange which occurred before the altercation with Kight.
Stearns confirmed Peskin let him go, but when asked to comment on the interaction he said “nope.”
Kight and Stearns’ friction began on Boudin’s campaign for district attorney, Kight and others with knowledge of the campaign said. It was one fissure among many.
By the account of people with knowledge of Boudin’s campaign, Stearns wanted Boudin to send out mailers that compared him directly with rival candidate Suzy Loftus. Boudin’s campaign did not like the mailers, saying they problematically looked like an attack on a woman and may also have had the reverse effect of bolstering Loftus’ image.
Stearns also advised that Boudin co-mobilize campaign volunteers in San Francisco’s District 5 along with now-Supervisor Dean Preston, who was in a heated race with former supervisor Vallie Brown. But Boudin’s campaign pushed back, citing a need to canvass in different — and less saturated — neighborhoods.
Those disagreements, and others, including the priority of the campaign budget, took place before Stearns decided to leave the campaign within two weeks of election day, leaving Boudin without his star consultant just as Loftus was appointed to the District Attorney’s seat by Mayor London Breed.
“Chesa decided he wanted to be his own campaign consultant,” Stearns said. “He decided how we were going to spend the rest of the campaign budget. I told him if he was going to take that direction I was going to quit the campaign.”
So he did.
That’s when another calamity hit — Stearns revoked the Boudin campaign’s access to needed campaign software, citing an unpaid bill for $100,000 that Stearns issued once he quit.
Stearns said “the interaction between myself and Chesa was entirely caused by his refusal to pay over $100,000 in bills that he owed me.”
Stearns cut the Boudin campaign off from campaign software called NGP VAN, short for Voter Activation Network. This software is vital to campaigns, providing an “integrated platform” with access to fundraising, communications, and field organizing information — including voter registration information necessary for volunteers to know which doors to knock on, and which are a waste of time.
Boudin’s former campaign manager Kaylah Williams declined to address the conflicts between Stearns and Boudin. She also was present at Barrel Proof bar for the alleged altercation between Stearns and Kight, and said, “I would work with Jim Stearns again in a heartbeat.”
Isner, who is now Fielder’s campaign manager but also worked as finance director for Boudin’s campaign, said, “a campaign is a lot of big personalities working together for a very long time. Things happen. Conflicts happen.”
After Stearns cut off the Boudin campaign’s access to VAN, “we were able to resolve the whole conflict within 12 hours, the very same day,” Isner said.
Now, the altercation may be an unfortunate distraction for a young, up-and-coming state senate candidate, Jackie Fielder, who as of now commands 31 percentage points in San Francisco against incumbent State Senator Scott Wiener, who leads with 56 percent.
“I really am extremely frustrated that the day after women did amazing things in these elections that we’re talking about men behaving badly at a bar,” Isner said.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Steven Kight’s name.