The hottest political race of SF’s election season

Assembly candidates tap into recall anger, but keep the progressive cred

It’s going to be the hottest political race of the election season.

That’s what we keep hearing.

It is the heavyweight face-off between two of San Francisco’s most ambitious and successful politicians, Matt Haney and David Campos, in a battle for a state Assembly seat in District 17. Get ready for some heat.

OK, so far it has been more like a mug of warm milk.

But wait for it.

We’ve already gotten some hints of where this is headed. The two have disagreed on housing and gentrification. And there’s a juicy rumor the Board of Supervisors torpedoed a large housing project in Haney’s supervisorial district because he had the gall to run against Campos.

And the election isn’t even until April 19.

So far, the long lead time has led to predictable wishy-washyness. No need to start throwing spit wads this early. At a Zoom debate this week, sponsored by the Eastern Neighborhood Democratic Club, the candidates confined themselves to that familiar San Francisco metric — who is progressive and who is progressive-er.

Campos and Haney were joined by candidates Bilal Mahmood, a startup founder, and Thea Selby, a trustee on the City College of San Francisco board, but you couldn’t see much daylight in any of their positions.

At one point, moderator Annie Gaus asked for yes or no responses to 11 hot button issues, from single-payer health insurance to wind farms. And all four agreed on every one. As David Chiu, whose resignation to become city attorney created the vacancy, used to say, “In San Francisco we are all (politically) blue. It’s just different shades.”

But it won’t stay that way. Haney and Campos clashed on the Stevenson Project, a 495-unit construction at Sixth and Market. But would the local political powers really be so petty as to kill the deal to punish Haney?

Sure. It’s San Francisco.

Campos raised the issue with Haney in the debate, asking how the current District 6 supervisor could support a project with “only 14% affordable housing.”

Haney countered the 14% figure is only for affordable housing on site, and that there are also 45 off-site units, raising the total to 24%.

The real reason the project was sent back for more environmental study — despite an existing 1,129 page report — looks pretty sketchy. So much so that state housing director Gustavo Velasquez has attorneys in his agency looking at whether the vote violated the Housing Accountability Act, which limits the ability of cities to stop housing that meets local zoning regulations.

Something is definitely up. Nearly everyone in local politics, including all four Assembly candidates, agree more housing is essential in The City. And the idea that the project would contribute to gentrification seems far-fetched at best.

Have you been to Sixth and Market? It is one of the grimiest corners in The City. Gentrification is the least of the worries. Besides, the structure was to be built on a parking lot. No one was going to be displaced.

Campos will have to answer for opposing the project. He says he’s “evolved” on the housing issue. But voters will remember that when he was a two-term supervisor, he proposed that no market rate housing be built in the Mission District, despite a chronic lack of housing there.

There’s also the fact that the six supervisors who voted against the project — Hillary Ronen, Aaron Peskin, Rafael Mandelman, Dean Preston and Gordon Mar — have all endorsed Campos. It makes the “political retribution” theory more likely.

Meanwhile, Haney has his own voting record to defend. During the debate, Mahmood called him out for voting against Mayor London Breed’s housing charter amendment, which would have streamlined approvals for affordable and teacher housing.

Like Campos, Haney says he’s “evolved” on housing, but Mahmood wanted to know if he’d support Breed’s amendment now.

Haney said he was “open” to considering it and went off on a tangent about more building.

“But,” Mahmood persisted, would Haney support it, “exactly the way it was written?”

“I’d have to look at it,” Haney said.

Would you like some syrup with those waffles?

The recall elections, both for three members of the San Francisco Board of Education and District Attorney Chesa Boudin, cut both ways for the candidates.

Campos, of course, is all in for Boudin. Until recently, he was Boudin’s chief of staff. He took a leave, at least partly because of blowback from him tweeting about attending campaign events while still employed at a city agency.

Boudin is a political lightning rod, so Campos will inherit some voter dissatisfaction. Mahmood pressed Campos on why the D.A.’s office has lost 30% of its staff since Boudin took over.

Some of it is just turnover, Campos said, but admitted “some do not want the criminal justice reforms that elected Chesa Boudin.”

Which is also likely true for recall supporters. Campos is going to have to find a way to win them over.

Haney is going to have to walk a line, too. He’s on record as opposing the recall, but when the petition drive collected over 83,000 signatures, it had to give him second thoughts.

Haney’s political strategy is generally to tack middle-ward as a moderate progressive. His stand on the school board is textbook. He supports recall, but only of the deeply unpopular Alison Collins. (Campos has the same stance.)

It lets them try to have it both ways, tapping into the anger about the school board, but also keeping progressive cred by not opposing everyone.

That’s all fine for now. But sooner or later the candidates are going to stop with the pattycake politics and go after each other.

Will it get ugly? Could it really turn into a political donnybrook?

Sure. It’s San Francisco.

Contact C.W. Nevius at Twitter: @cwnevius

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