Sachin Agarwal has lived in San Francisco for 15 years. But the former tech worker only began paying attention to local politics over the past few years. It happened when he and his wife decided to raise a family here.
Then two progressive candidates, District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Supervisor Dean Preston, won narrow victories over moderate-backed opponents in the November 2019 election.
For Agarwal, the election was a wake-up call.
“People on Twitter were just outraged by the results,” said Agarwal, an Inner Sunset resident who previously worked at Apple, Twitter and Lyft. “There was this realization in my mind that The City is deeply divided. We have these two factions of the Democratic Party, these elections are incredibly close, and people don’t understand who they’re voting for down ballot.”
Agarwal, 41, has since launched a new group called Grow SF that aims to offer tech workers and other political newcomers like himself a moderate perspective on city politics. He’s hoping to tap into what he sees as a “huge population” of newly engaged voters who were energized by the recent controversies surrounding the school board, and the perception that San Francisco is becoming unsafe.
“In the last few years I think that people are waking up and saying there’s been a decline, this is not The City I want to see,” Agarwal said. “COVID of course magnified that massively. There’s a huge number of people that are saying, ‘I didn’t realize that the people who I elected are not creating the policies in The City that I want.’ Now they’re looking for a group that aligns with that.”
Founded last September, Grow SF is kind of like an ideological extension of YIMBY Action, an organization that pushes for transit and building more housing, except it plans to weigh in on a broader set of issues. Agarwal’s group has already advocated for legislation at City Hall to make parklets permanent, and recently fundraised to support the recall of members of the Board of Education. (Grow SF has not taken a position on the efforts to recall Boudin).
Its main focus is producing a voter guide each election that will offer residents an alternative to the progressive one produced every election since 2004 by the League of Pissed Off Voters, a similar political action group that promotes a far-left agenda. With its first voter guide last November, Grow SF endorsed moderate candidates like Vallie Brown and Marjan Philhour. Its hope is to influence the course of future elections by supporting “common sense” candidates.
“Our goal for Grow SF is to be very pragmatic,” Agarwal said. “When we do put out a voter guide, we are going to outline what our criteria was and then go forward as opposed to just being outraged at someone because they are idealogically on the left.”
“The number of votes that it takes to change these elections is very small,” he added.
Steven Buss is a member and co-founder of Grow SF. A former tech worker who ran for a seat on the Democratic County Central Committee last year, he blamed The City’s intractable social problems like homelessness and a lack of housing on progressive leadership.
“We’ve got an unbelievable amount of wealth in our city and also an unbelievable amount of poverty and human suffering — that to me is directly attributable to the bad policies from the progressive faction of the Democratic Party,” said Buss, 34. “What I want Grow SF to do is lead San Francisco in a direction where we can do better.”
But Shanti Singh, a local advocate on the left side of the political spectrum, disputed the idea that progressive leadership is to blame. She pointed out that Mayor London Breed and her predecessors have been aligned with the moderate faction for years.
“We’re a strong mayor city and the moderates have run the Mayor’s Office forever,” said Singh, a member of the local Democratic Socialists of America who was speaking in a personal capacity. “The idea that they don’t have any control is ridiculous.”
To the extent that residents have woken up to the pitfalls of progressive leadership, Singh said it’s a belief held among a subset of the upper-middle class. A former tech worker herself, she said the industry is not a monolith and not all of its workers vote moderate.
“I wish them luck on representing their perspective,” Singh said. “But we don’t all agree with them and we’re not going away.”