James Coleman (Courtesy Morgan McCarthy)

Young progressive set to shake up South City

The 21-year-old is the newest Councilmember for District 4

South San Francisco’s political leadership gained a progressive newcomer keen on policy change in 21-year-old James Coleman, who defeated 18-year incumbent and mayor Richard Garbarino with 51.39 percent of the votes on Nov. 10.

The Harvard University senior’s victory was an immense achievement. With Garbarino’s concession, Coleman is the youngest person elected to South San Francisco City Council, along with its first bisexual and democratic socialist representative.

“In my thoughts, he would either blow me out or I’d blow him out — either our message would resonate with people or not,” Coleman said. “Our district was small enough that we could reach each person multiple times.”

Franchesca Buendia, Coleman’s longtime friend and campaign manager, attested to the many avenues he used to mobilize voters: “Phone banking, social media pages, mailers, lit drops and personally contacting friends who live in the area.”

A UC Irvine student herself, Buendia found the challenge of balancing school with grassroots campaigning rewarding.

“Connecting with the community, helping design graphics and coordinating with volunteers felt impactful as they helped more residents learn about the campaign,” Buendia said.

These efforts translated into successful fundraising, according to his campaign’s press release. Together the team raised $16,000, or $4,000 more than Garbarino, through many smaller donations.

Contributions toward Coleman’s campaign averaged $50 per donation, compared to Garbarino’s $529.

“South San Francisco is a working-class city. Those communities showed up for James despite the uphill battle against an incumbent,” said Ruy Martinez, Coleman’s political director. “If James won in District 4 against Garbarino, it shows the political moment is wide open for leadership that values the many, not the few.”

Above all else, Coleman aims to improve overall quality of life in South San Francisco. He intends to give back to his home city, using knowledge gained from his scientific studies and his experiences in student-run organizations like Divest Harvard and Harvard Undergraduates for Environmental Justice.

Accordingly, his platform champions causes including defunding South San Francisco police, addressing climate change, putting forward universal preschool and high-speed internet and creating more affordable housing.

As the son of working-class parents — his father sustained a paralyzing traumatic injury when he was 5, making his mother the main family breadwinner — Coleman’s experiences compelled him to become a developmental and regenerative biology major minoring in government.

“At a young age, I was really confused as to why this is reality. This led to a curiosity for the world around me and to incite change so other children don’t feel as hopeless as I was,” Coleman said. “Growing up, I really wanted to research how people could heal. Also, I had an interest in government because a lot of people in our country are being left behind and they need more help from the government.”

To finance some objectives as a councilmember, Coleman noted that South San Francisco’s Measure W, a half-cent tax passed in 2015, could be used to benefit many residents because the money is uncommitted. He estimated it can generate “upwards to $10 million a year.”

Reallocating police funding while enforcing police oversight is another objective. Coleman noted that tiny South San Francisco is the only Bay Area city with a mine-resistant military tank, which he believed should be returned to the federal government.

“We need to make sure police funding is going where it should be. Demilitarizing the police force, restricting overtime and holding police officers accountable will save money,” Coleman said. “A lot of [lawsuit] settlement money comes from the city budget, not the police department. South City has paid $3 million in settlements, legal fees and other expenses since 2012.”

Coleman envision a police oversight commission composed of everyday people. They’d be tasked with examining police data, actions and policy, as well as granted power to enact change to put the well-being of the public first.

This focus on public well-being further explains the newly elected leader’s prioritization of climate change.

His campaign also rejected donations from fossil fuel companies and other corporations.

Providing more affordable housing to meet demand would reduce South San Francisco’s carbon footprint and improve the city’s jobs-housing balance of 11 jobs per household, according to Coleman.

“Given that one orange Wednesday in September, climate change is a very pertinent issue,” Coleman said, referencing the wildfire smoke seen throughout San Francisco on Sept. 9. “If we make sure South San Francisco decarbonizes its energy economy, South San Francisco has the potential to be an example that other cities can follow.”

Coleman believes his election is only the beginning. Other young LGBTQ politicians, including Lisette Espinoza-Garnica of Redwood City and Alex Lee of South Bay, also won seats in California in November.

“It’s not just people like us can win — it’s people that think like us can win,” Coleman said. “It really follows the national atmosphere where Bernie Sanders inspired Ilhan Omar and Cori Bush, who are in turn inspiring new candidates to win their elections. I hope the election of candidates like myself and Lisette can inspire young candidates to run in 2022 and 2024.”

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