City College trustee jumps into race to represent Western Addition, Haight

Tell me if you’ve heard this yarn before.

A woman who attended San Francisco public schools and grew up in the Western Addition, whose family struggled with poverty, death and addiction, heroically rose from that hardship to leadership in a historically black community and now is running for San Francisco political office.

It sounds just like the stirring tale Mayor London Breed told during her campaign to lead The City. But it’s also the life history of Shanell Williams, the City College of San Francisco trustee.

Williams pulled papers at City Hall late last month to run for District 5 supervisor, a seat representing the Western Addition, Haight, Cole Valley, and Cathedral Heights, among other neighborhoods. The San Francisco native and alumni of Raoul Wallenberg Traditional High School and Washington High School has a long list of proposed fixes for the neighborhoods she’s called home, from a focus on affordable housing (as opposed to just build, build, build) to specific home help for middle-income San Franciscans.

“I’m ready to get this party started,” Williams told me Tuesday. “We need new ideas, and new leadership.”

Williams presents an interesting political challenge to the presumed moderate and progressive Democrat front runners in District 5, Supervisor Vallie Brown and tenant advocate Dean Preston.

Williams won her CCSF Board of Trustees seat with a handy 191,317 votes, more than District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman won in his June election. If I were Brown or Dean, that might give me pause. Williams candidacy also puts Breed, who is also up for reelection in November 2019, in a thorny position.

The mayor may be politically vulnerable if she does not back Williams, a black woman candidate from her own community — who grew up a single city block away from Breed — over her own appointee, Brown.

It seems that political pain-in-the-neck has already been foreseen by prominent allies of our illustrious mayor.

I heard through the grapevine that Breed supporter and Third Baptist Church pastor, Dr. Amos Brown (no relation to Vallie), may have called Williams to get her to back out of the race, and clear the way for Breed’s supervisor appointee. Was that done at Breed or Vallie Brown’s behest? Heck if I know! And if you think they’d tell me, I’ve got an international orange bridge to sell you.

Williams did confirm a prominent community member made such a call “discouraging” her from running, but would not name names. Dr. Amos Brown would not confirm or deny, and when I asked him point blank, he answered “If she wants to run, that’s her choice” and then quickly hung up.

(Hint to you, readers, usually when people haven’t done a thing, they just say “no.”)

Ultimately, Williams said, “I’ve worked hard in the community. We need people (on the Board of Supervisors) who aren’t just lawyers, but organizers.”

Williams’ run presents an interesting choice for progressives, too.

They’ve got a record of failing to back and recruit black candidates. But in Williams they have a unique opportunity because she identifies as a progressive, even if the progressive “camp” isn’t behind her, yet. She also said her politics are aligned with democratic socialists, much like New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is running as a democratic socialist.

Williams supports the Our City, Our Homes homeless tax measure, Proposition C, while Breed has come out against it. And she also backs state Proposition 10, the Costa Hawkins Act repeal that would allow cities to set stronger rent control laws. Those are pet progressive issues that should endear her to our city’s lefties.

Yet progressives have poured a lot of energy into Preston, the former executive director of Tenants Together (he announced he was stepping down from his gig on Oct. 4). Dean is right now, as you read this, working hard to see Prop. C passed. He also came a stone’s throw away from unseating Breed during her second supervisoral race, so he’s well poised to win the District 5 seat.

So who’s really trying to push Williams out of the race? And which candidate will jump in fast to start a 1-2 ranked choice strategy with a woman of color running to represent her district?

Breed and Vallie Brown did not return requests for comment, but Preston said in a statement, “I think this is great. I just called Shanell to welcome her to the race. Look, the more choices there are, the better democracy works.”

Ultimately, being between two political camps is a tough position for Williams.

“It’s scary,” she said, “But it’s also the fire in my belly.”

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at

Correction: This column initially called Williams a “former” CCSF trustee. She still holds the position. The columnist regrets this error.

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