A conversation with top political consultant Ace Smith

‘Never allow a recall to become a referendum on your person’

Ace Smith knows politics like few others. The longtime political consultant has run campaigns for some of the biggest names in the Democratic party, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, Vice President Kamala Harris and former Senator Barbara Boxer.

So it’s no wonder the San Francisco-based politico finds himself in the middle of California’s biggest political stories. He just helped Newsom fend off an attempted recall that consumed the nation’s attention this summer. Now, Smith is looking to send Supervisor Matt Haney to Sacramento in the midst of a tumultous time for San Francisco politics.

After a corruption scandal surrounding former public works head Mohammed Nuru spurred a shake-up at City Hall, Assemblymember David Chiu announced he would leave behind his seat to replace Dennis Herrera as city attorney.

Now Smith is in for what is expected to be a close race to replace Chiu in the state Assembly between Haney and another member of the progressive faction, former Supervisor David Campos. Other names in the running are Thea Selby, a transit advocate and trustee at City College of San Francisco, and startup co-founder Bilal Mahmood.

“There is a generational realignment going on,” Smith said. “It’s not just locally, it’s statewide. It’s happening now as we speak.”

In light of all these changes, The Examiner caught up with Smith to look back on the Newsom recall and the lessons it holds for other officials facing recalls, from District Attorney Chesa Boudin to school board members Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez and Faauuga Moliga.

Smith also talked Haney and what’s in store for the Assembly race.

Newsom just defeated a recall attempt overwhelmingly. Can you reflect on the campaign for me?

The most unexpected surprise in that whole thing was really how much credibility the other side got in a few moments. It’s kind of an interesting question about public polling and how accurate it is. But the truth of it is that we needed the Democrats. The only way we would have lost this race is if the Democrats and donors didn’t wake up and see the threat. So people seeing that, it was a threat. Seeing that it was real was probably one of the best things that happened to the campaign.

The frightening thing going forward and maybe one of the greatest myths about the campaign was that somehow this was created one way or another by the French Laundry (incident). That is just fundamentally not true. What created the campaign was that these folks got an extra amount of time from a judge, and it was in the wake of Donald Trump losing. What they did — and this bodes very poorly for the future, we need to change the recall rules — they were able to essentially mail-in to all the top Trump precincts in the state and get people to return by mail. That’s never been done before at the rate that they did it and the rapidity that they did it, which means you could almost default mail-in Trump voters and put on the ballot a recall of anyone from a mosquito abatement district to (the) California Supreme Court.

You mentioned the credibility of polling. Now that it’s all said and done, do you think Newsom was ever really in any danger of being recalled?

There is no question it got closer over the summer. We had come out of that really grim spring. Folks had a feeling of hope like, ‘Okay, this is all over.’ Almost like the war had ended. And then that hope got crushed. There were some points where people just were down on everything. And when you’re down on everything, you’re down on Newsom. Now was it really ever as close? Probably not. But did it close? Yes absolutely.

Not that that’s all over, what lessons do you think officials facing a recall in San Francisco could learn from the Newsom recall and how you all handled it?

The fundamental question anyone should be wondering really goes back to the way (former political consultant) Clint Reilly dealt with the (Dianne) Feinstein recall in 1983. (Editor’s note: Reilly is the owner and publisher of The San Francisco Examiner.) You could just never allow a recall to become a referendum on your person. You have to give voters a choice. Is that unfair? No, that is actually the way the world works. When you hire someone, when you marry someone, when you buy a product from a company, you are not buying against the perfect — which becomes a referendum on your candidate — you make these choices based upon the alternatives. You always have to seek to do that.

But Newsom had Larry Elder to run against, while Boudin and the school board members don’t. Is that going to be a problem for them?

Clint Reilly didn’t have any particular candidate to run against and ran a pretty effective campaign in the same city. … The truth of the statewide recall was once all those Republican candidates … took the stand that they were against mandates for healthcare workers on vaccinations, it was all over. It didn’t matter which one (Newsom ran against). That is a permanent black stain on their record … It was a matter of saying choose your side.

So you don’t necessarily need to make a choice between two people. You can also give voters a choice between two sides of an issue.

Exactly, and it wouldn’t have mattered if it was Kevin Kiley or Kevin Faulconer or Larry Elder. Larry Elder just put a little more spice into the dish. But eventually it would have been the same outcome.

How do you think San Francisco ended up in a position where we have two progressive-aligned politicians being the biggest names running for one Assembly seat, without a prominent moderate candidate in the race?

This Assembly district is basically the east side of San Francisco. Like going back to the classic mayor’s race, the 1975 mayor’s race (that ended up in a runoff election between George Moscone and conservative John Barbagelata), this is the Moscone side. So of course there are going to be two progressives.

So it’s not a reflection on the strengths of the moderate faction?

No. Let’s say you drew up the line, literally criss-crossed the other way. There would be an opening for what you would call a more moderate candidate.

What do you say to the folks who believe Haney is going to have to run to the more moderate side of the political spectrum to defeat Campos?

I don’t think that’s the way we see the race. We see the race as Matt Haney is a progressive. He has a record of being incredibily effective. I think that it will play out along completely different dimensions than ideology. Voters are going to ultimately have to make a choice of who has a record of getting things done and therefore we can send them to Sacramento to actually be effective. That is going to be the pivotal question of this race.

I saw Campos had scooped up a lot of early endorsements. How big of a role are endorsements and labor going to play in this race?

That all plays a role, there’s no question. But I don’t think one side or the other is going to dominate.

Do you think the fact that Campos serves as Boudin’s chief of staff is going to be a pain point for his campaign?

That’s an interesting question. I think the voters will figure that one out.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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