San Francisco’s local election may be getting overshadowed by the pandemic and looming presidential election, but Tuesday remains as important as ever for the opposing political factions at City Hall.
This election could strengthen the progressive’s dominance on the Board of Supervisors, or determine whether Mayor London Breed has more moderate allies in office to help drive her agenda.
Four competitive supervisor races on the ballot are setting the stage for future battles over issues like homelessness and housing development.
While progressives stand to gain more control if former Supervisor John Avalos defeats incumbent Supervisor Ahsha Safai in District 11, moderates have a chance to flip three seats representing neighborhoods including the Richmond, Haight and West Portal.
The progressives currently hold a supermajority on the board. But supervisors Sandra Fewer and Norman Yee are leaving their seats open in Districts 1 and 7, and Supervisor Dean Preston is seeking to stave off his predecessor — former Supervisor Vallie Brown — in District 5.
In all four races, moderates have benefited from significant outside spending against their opponents from an independent expenditure committee called the SF Workforce Housing Alliance, which has funding from real estate and tech interests and Republican donor William Oberndorf.
In District 1, frontrunners Connie Chan and Marjan Philhour are battling to represent an area that has traditionally swung progressive. Chan is a former legislative aide who was endorsed by Fewer as her replacement. Philhour is a former senior adviser to Breed who has the mayor’s endorsement.
“What is at stake is whether San Francisco will become the prey for the wealthy speculative investors, or if we can fight against corporations and special interests so the working people, immigrants and communities of color can stay and rebuild this city together,” Chan said.
The SF Workforce Housing Alliance has spent roughly $117,000 to oppose Chan, compared to some $39,000 spent against Philhour by the San Francisco Labor Council. Outside groups have also spent about $68,000 to support Philhour compared to just over $53,025 to support Chan.
Philhour herself has denounced outside spending in the race.
“I don’t know why anyone would think I would side with anyone but families and working people and keeping people in their homes and stopping people from getting evicted,” Philhour said. “These are my friends and neighbors and I would fight for them every single day. I mean that is the job.”
The District 7 race has pitted seven candidates against each other, including former journalist Joel Engardio, progressive public defender Vilaska Nguyen and former Planning Commission President Myrna Melgar, who is endorsed by Breed but also has backing from progressives including Yee.
Engardio, the vice president of a group called Stop Crime SF who has campaigned on a platform of fixing quality-of-life issues, said the election is a chance to bring more moderates to the board.
“We can’t go back to the way things were before the pandemic, because things were pretty broken back then,” Engardio said.
District 7 is composed mostly of homeowners and known for being one of the most conservative districts in The City. But Melgar criticized Engardio for running further to the right than he has in his previous two campaigns.
“That distresses me,” said Melgar. “We’ve had people protesting in the street for months.”
Breed endorsed Engardio as well as Melgar.
Nguyen is the candidate with the most outside spending against him in the District 7 race, with $110,603 in opposing funds from the SF Workforce Housing Alliance, records show. San Francisco Tenants and Families for Affordable Housing have also spent $10,000 against Engardio.
Quality-of-life issues have also been central to the District 5 race, where the SF Workforce Housing Alliance has spent nearly $186,000 to defeat Preston and more than $46,000 to support Brown, records show.
One ad from the group accused Preston of making “our tent problems 1,000 times worse” by handing out 1,000 tents.
“That’s a strange way to attack someone,” said Preston, who added that he donated 20 tents for advocates to distribute at the start of the pandemic to homeless people who were forced out of crowded shelters.
“I’m proud of donating to their effort,” Preston said. “They would be on their doorstep without a tent getting sick and dying.”
Preston also benefited from roughly $32,000 from the San Francisco Tenants and Families for Affordable Housing.
Brown said the issue wasn’t Preston handing out tents, but doing so without a management plan. “It was not what he did, it was the way he did it,” she said. “He left businesses and residents to deal with the sanitation.”
Brown narrowly lost to Preston last November after being appointed to the role by Breed. The race was one of the closest in The City’s history, with a margin of less than 200 votes.
This time Preston appears to have the advantage as the elected incumbent, according to Maureen Erwin, a longtime political consultant.
“Incumbents are always a challenge,” Erwin said. “You’ve got to make a case to throw somebody out. I don’t know that there is a case to be made for that.”
Avalos similarly faces an uphill battle running against the incumbent Safai despite being well known in the district.
“We hope to be the first campaign since district elections were re-established to beat an [elected] incumbent,” Avalos said. “It’s never happened.”
Safai has the endorsement of Breed. Plus, he has benefited from more than $77,334 in outside spending against Avalos from the SF Workforce Housing Alliance and nearly $79,000 in outside spending in support of his campaign, mostly from the Edwin M. Lee Democratic Club.
In comparison, the San Francisco Tenants and Families for Affordable Housing spent nearly $30,000 to support Avalos.
“We’ve been doing the work for this district for the past four years and particularly during this pandemic for the past eight months,” Safai said. “I don’t make predictions, but feel good about what we’ve done and where we are today.”
Erwin predicted there would not be much change on the Board of Supervisors in terms of the moderate-progressive divide. That means Breed might have to look for other ways to get things done without the board.
“San Francisco looks pretty darn amazing right now in terms of its ability to handle Covid,” Erwin said. “She looks like a leader and people like her. And I think she’ll maybe just have to do what other mayors have had to do at times — just go to the voters if you are going to get thwarted at the board all the time.”