AOC’s former chief of staff weighs in on San Francisco politics

Saikat Chakrabarti on solving climate change, and his pick for state Assembly

Saikat Chakrabarti had a decent run in D.C.

After leading Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s underdog campaign for U.S. Congress in 2018, Chakrabarti became her chief of staff in Washington and led the drafting of the original Green New Deal legislation. Justice Democrats, the organization he co-founded to support progressive candidates for Congress, helped recruit and elect Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley — the women of color, who, along with AOC, have come to be known as “The Squad.”

But now, Chakrabarti has returned to San Francisco, where he worked in tech before getting into politics.

“The simple answer is I just fell in love with The City,” he said, when asked why he moved back. “In my head, I’d always thought of the entire time I spent away from San Francisco as a kind of short-term sabbatical that turned into a long-term sabbatical.”

In the new world of remote work, Chakrabarti is still sort of working in D.C., serving as president of the progressive think tank New Consensus. However, with the policy shop’s focus on long-term plans, rather than ongoing legislation, Chakrabarti and his wife plan to stay in San Francisco over the long haul to raise their toddler.

New Consensus is currently thinking beyond the recently passed infrastructure bill, and even the Green New Deal, to “imagine a world where the political will exists for going as far as possible on climate change,” Chakrabarti said. In this approximately two-year project, he and his colleagues will provide a detailed action plan for how to decarbonize every major source of greenhouse gas emissions, from heavy industry to urban transportation.

“Ideally, we’re writing a playbook for a president or an executive who comes into office either on a mandate to do everything necessary to solve climate change, or maybe a disaster happens and suddenly you have the political capital to do it,” he said. “Here’s the playbook to get it done.”

The infrastructure bill, which will add about $600 billion in new spending over 10 years, is “a pretty modest reform” in comparison to the work necessary to truly rebuild America’s infrastructure, let alone fight climate change, Chakrabarti says. It would cost about $50 billion to replace all the lead pipes in the nation, he offers by way of example, but the bill earmarks only $15 billion. “The whole bill is like a 20 percent bill. It’s not transformational,” he says.

As he settles back into life in San Francisco, Chakrabarti is starting to get involved in local politics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has gravitated toward a relatively unknown political upstart.

In September, he took to Twitter to endorse startup founder Bilal Mahmood in the upcoming special election for the state Assembly District 17, over more well-known candidates like Supervisor Matt Haney, former Supervisor David Campos and City College board trustee Thea Selby. “Why I like Bilal, and why I like new candidates, is we need people who come in without existing political baggage, who are willing to say true things without being afraid that so-and-so group is going to remove their support,” he said. “That was my experience of why AOC was able to do a sit-in at Pelosi’s office (in support of the Green New Deal). It was because she didn’t have something to lose yet.”

Mahmood is open to “radical ideas” and has detailed, specific plans to carry them out, Chakrabarti said. “The big problem in my opinion in San Francisco, which is related to national politics, is no one actually proposes the plan that solves the whole thing. So everyone’s fighting over the scraps. And I think that’s how housing is here.”

Housing has emerged as a major flashpoint in the Assembly race, personified in the case of a 500-unit apartment building in SoMa that the Board of Supervisors delayed two weeks ago. Campos has staked his claim with a majority of the board, who say that mostly market rate developments such as this one cause gentrification and displacement. The other three candidates, including Haney, who voted for the development to go forward, all said they support the project, implying they believe building market rate housing is an important part of solving The City’s housing crisis.

“​​You can support banning evictions and having universal rent control, building social housing and building market rate housing,” Chakrabarti said. “We’re all focused on this, piece by piece, fighting over every parcel of land approach to solving a crisis.”

Despite his focus on national politics, Chakrabarti sees San Francisco as “a beacon of progressivism that a lot of the rest of the country looks to. And I think S.F.’s successes and S.F.’s failures are the national progressive movement’s successes and failures.”

San Francisco is in the unique position where “everyone agrees climate change is a problem, everyone agrees that we shouldn’t have a system with huge inequality,” Chakrabarti said. If any place can actually produce transformative government policies, it should be here.

Chakrabarti knows firsthand that “a motivated group of people can get quite a bit done” in local politics. He recalls how the New York City Bicycle Coalition got AOC to come to multiple meetings to talk about bike lanes during her first campaign. The challenge for local political activists is motivating people to fight for “a government that can actually function well and execute progressive ideals,” and for “competent bureaucracies to handle smart regulations,” he said. “It’s unfortunately not a pithy slogan.”

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