Progressive politicians rise to power on the Peninsula. Will redistricting reverse the trend?

‘There’s this wave of young people really trying to shake things up’

The Peninsula elected multiple young progressive people of color to city councils in 2020, most of whom had never been involved in local politics.

The new class included: Lissette Espinoza-Garnica, a 25-year-old nonbinary, Chicanx member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Redwood City; James Coleman, 22, a South San Francisco-raised LGBTQ member of the Democrat Socialists of America; Antonio Lopez, a 27-year-old East Palo Alto native, poet and Stanford University graduate student; and Michael Smith, a young Black LGBTQ entrepreneur who was motivated to run for Redwood City’s council by his concerns regarding public safety.

Together, they represent a visible generational and ideological shift in political representation for the region, influenced by significant progressive mobilization on the Peninsula. That trend received a critical boost with the area’s switch to district elections. Looking forward, the rise of progressive candidates could face setbacks by the nation’s current redistricting process.

The move toward more progressive representation on the Peninsula came to pass during a tumultuous time that included a global pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests over George Floyd’s murder by police and devastating wildfire seasons that turned Bay Area skies orange.

Coleman, joined by friends who moved home to finish out their degrees, started speaking up at virtual City Council meetings during this time.

Upset by what they felt was an inability to be heard, the group decided one of them should run in the November 2020 election. Coleman won, defeating an 18-year incumbent.

“It really makes you think about whether the status quo is working, and right now, it isn’t working,” said Coleman, who is bisexual, half Taiwanese and half white, of the simultaneous crises. “Many of the issues we’re facing affect our generation — housing, climate change, public safety, education. When they aren’t supporting the issues people care about, it’s time for us to run and hold our officials accountable.”

Whereas San Francisco has a somewhat different definition of what counts as progressive, much of the Peninsula is stacked with moderates that would find it difficult to get elected to The City’s Board of Supervisors.

The advent of the Trump administration also served as a catalyst for participation in local politics, including in San Mateo County. Progressive groups like 4DalyCity, Change South San Francisco, and Justice for Chinedu formed to push for police accountability. The latter was created in response to the 2018 death of Chinedu Okobi, a 36-year-old Nigerian American, after San Mateo County sheriff’s deputies tased him in Millbrae.

“It was this recognition of the failure of the Democratic Party to counter Republicans and firmly enact policies people wanted,” said Chet Lexvold, Peninsula DSA membership co-chair, of the chapter’s creation in 2017. “We’re really trying to focus locally where we can build working-class power and can make positive changes.”

That’s not to say progressive policies or representatives were nonexistent before the current slate. Lopez said East Palo Alto has had progressive leadership, for example, and the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District severed ties with law enforcement last August.

“Redwood City has always prided itself on its diversity in population, including ethnicity, gender, age, occupation, economics and points of view,” said Redwood City Mayor Diane Howard. “Our own council has demonstrated this with the open dialogue and questions we ask at our council meetings. I appreciate that diversity and welcome the different points of view. That is how we will advance as a community together.”

But Gen Z and young millennials heard the call to action louder than ever in their lifetimes during 2020, motivated by generational issues like student debt, income inequality and housing. Lopez, Coleman and Espinoza-Garnica all grew up in the cities that elected them, raised by working-class immigrant parents with whom they still live.

“I have a lot of struggles myself,” Espinoza-Garnica said. “It’s a lot of issues I care about — LGBTQ issues, centering vulnerable voices now in our policies. The loudest voices in the room tend to be people who have more wealth and privilege.”

So what was it about 2020 that helped a new, motivated cohort of young, progressive, largely LGBTQ candidates of color to succeed on the Peninsula?

Espinoza-Garnica, Smith and Coleman all attributed district elections in helping remove major barriers to their grassroots campaigns and to reach enough voters. Like in San Francisco, Redwood City and South San Francisco council members represent certain areas of the city rather than being elected by all residents. Proponents say it takes a fraction of the resources to reach one part of town and better ensure representation of neighborhoods with different needs.

But those districts are drawn based on demographic data informed by the census, and many low-income communities and communities of color have been displaced, potentially leading to smaller representation. With the 2020 U.S. Census data in, redistricting is underway in jurisdictions across the country. Deadlines to submit maps on city and county levels are expected to land throughout the winter.

“It’s possible we could see my district or Lissette’s district be significantly redrawn to changes in population,” Smith said. “The achievements that were made in terms of diversity on the city council could really be set back if we’re not careful.”

Voters in Daly City, which doesn’t have district elections, did not elect progressive candidate Shakeel Ali. The former Jefferson Elementary School District Governing Board member grew up in the city’s public housing and said his area has long been shut out from the council.

“We’re up (against) a real serious machine that goes way back,” Ali said. “ (Residents are) engaged in survival. It’s the younger people, it’s their children and grandchildren who are finding out the truth and making a chance. It’s not enough for progressives to go and fight at these meetings.”

One thing is clear: Young elected officials are becoming the norm rather than the exception. In the South Bay, 25-year-old Alex Lee was elected to the Assembly in 2020 — the youngest state legislator in decades, youngest Asian American state legislator, and first openly bisexual candidate. And at a statewide political conference in Sacramento last year, Coleman said he met roughly a dozen young, newly elected representatives.

“There’s this wave of young people really trying to shake things up,” Lopez said. “COVID became my catalyst. My main goal is to make sure four years from now, eight years from now, youth want to show up to change their community.”

San Mateo County will hold its next redistricting meeting virtually at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 21 . For more information, visit smcdistrictlines.org.

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

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