Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, a mayoral candidate, says voters have give Mayor London Breed her shot: 'She’s had six years, going on seven. It’s hard to argue that anyone is obstructing her ability to lead this city.' Photo by Joe Eskenazi, July 2023

Listen, Ahsha Safaí has come unstuck. As one of the trio — soon to be a quartet — of serious San Francisco mayoral candidates hailing from the right side of this city’s local political spectrum, Safaí is seeking the opportunity to separate himself from the peloton. 

In a crowded contest, in which most of the candidates are playing in the same end of the pool and fighting over the same sliver of voters, it makes sense to distinguish yourself; there are a lot of voters out there who are not being courted. For upwardly mobile politicians, distinguishing yourself from the competition, for lack of a better word, is good. 

But it’s not good enough. You have to distinguish yourself in a manner that voters like. Or care about. If Safaí were to stand up and say, “You know who I’m rooting for in the Super Bowl? Kansas City!” this would definitely distinguish him. But it would not be good. 

Safaí, whether due to his heartfelt beliefs or political strategy or a dollop of both, has decided to distinguish himself by coming out hard against Proposition E. This is Mayor London Breed’s proposal that tacitly places blame for the state of the city not on the city’s incumbent mayor, but on the Police Commission, composed of a majority of her own appointees. It would give more discretion to police to engage in high-speed chases of nonviolent criminals on city streets; it would weaken the requirements for police to document and report use of force on the general public; it would exempt police from transparency rules regarding surveillance technology and it would also neatly sidestep the city’s ban on facial recognition technology.  

During a public interview with Mission Local Friday night, Safaí did not spare the rod in assailing the mayor’s signature policy initiative. He mocked it as enabling “‘The Fast and the Furious’ to happen in San Francisco.” But his real vitriol came when discussing Prop. E’s moves to reduce reporting requirements for violent police interactions with the public.

“I truly believe that this is one of the most anti-Black, anti-brown and anti-communities of color or immigrant communities” legislation, he said. He described communities of color as “the most over-policed, not just in San Francisco, but in the United States,” and summed up Prop. E as “a racist piece of legislation …  it’s shocking that this mayor would put her name on it, and believe that this is the way San Francisco should be governed and policed.”

Two men sitting in chairs with microphones.
Ahsha Safaí and Joe Eskenazi at Manny’s. Photo by Yujie Zhou, Feb. 2, 2024.

But, you know, it polls well. And, hilariously, this ballot measure, which responds to city residents’ frustrations with antisocial behavior and crime was, itself, stolen. Mayoral contender Daniel Lurie took the unusual move of firing up his own Independent Expenditure committee to push his rival Breed’s measure — while using it as a cudgel against her for dithering nearly six years before tossing this item to voters. 

As a result, the heaps of money directed into flogging Prop. E have been significant: $1.5 million, with $635,000 coming from Lurie’s IE. This is the donation to make if you want to aid — or ingratiate yourself — with either Lurie or the mayor, depending upon how you give. Either way, massive sums of cash are backing this measure: 7.5 times what the American Civil Liberties Union has ponied up against it. 

And this is where Safaí has chosen to distinguish himself: On a measure being spun, via torrents of money that he can’t come close to countering, as let the police police! and get cops out of doing paperwork and back on the streets! It figures to win over frustrated voters handily, merit notwithstanding.

If Ahsha Safaí decided to make his big pivot by wearing a Travis Kelce jersey to Board Chambers tomorrow, he would certainly please somebody. The patrons of the sole Kansas City bar in San Francisco would likely be enthused (the folks taking the bar’s “Man vs. Beer” challenge of drinking 120 ounces of brew in 3-ounce increments in just two hours might be preoccupied. Or in a coma.). But that’s not exactly a winning mayoral coalition. 

But going hard against Prop. E doesn’t figure to be quite the same. The consensus among political strategists is that nobody will remember Prop. E one minute after the election — but Safaí et al. can say “I told you so” the next time a police car careens into Lucca

Moreover, even if the polling is correct and Prop. E wins easily, the minority of voters who rejected it are going to remember what Safaí does here with a lot more clarity than the majority who voted for it. 

And those are the voters Safaí needs. 

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As we wrote last week, the state of progressive leadership — and the cohesiveness of progressivism as a movement — is in tatters in San Francisco. But that doesn’t mean this city’s most left-leaning voters are going to sit this mayoral election out. 

Those votes, coming from perhaps 30 to 45 percent of the electorate, figure to go to someone. And Safaí is in position to pick up a lot of them.

You might be surprised to learn that nearly 40 people have signed up to run for mayor — but the serious contenders are Breed, Lurie and Safaí. Former District 2 supervisor and appointed mayor Mark Farrell will, barring unforeseen lunacy, make his entrance — and that right soon. 

And, if the field essentially stays as it is, Safaí has a puncher’s chance. But if a bona fide progressive candidate (read: Peskin, Aaron) or progressive-adjacent and/or strong Chinese candidate (read: Chiu, David) gets in the race? Poof. 

But that’s out of Safaí’s hands. What is in his hands is to make moves to appeal to this city’s more left-leaning voters. Political strategists suggested Safaí, a sitting supervisor, might want to try on a little economic populism to tweak the billionaires supporting his opponents (or running against him). He could throw a few bones to renters and low-wage workers and make a God’s honest effort to win over signifiers of lefty approval like the Tenants Union and Milk Club (failure to win endorsements from them would be dire). He has already, via Prop. B, aligned himself with labor. 

Just as Safaí will be hard-pressed to win if a strong left-leaning and/or Chinese candidate jumps in the fray, he cannot win without labor. The mayor will get the laborers and carpenters and, when he declares, it’s hard not to foresee Farrell picking up the building trades (though Safaí could conceivably wheedle a co-endorsement). But the bulk of labor will be looking for a candidate. Virtually every union contract is being renegotiated this year — the winter of this city’s economic discontent

These figure to be unpleasant conversations. If a union has soured on Breed enough (or the city’s finances are dour enough) that it’s not feasible to seal the sort of pact that would be reciprocated by a mayoral endorsement — then all bets are off. 

In baseball, it’s one, two, three strikes and you’re out. How many unions will strike this year? Who will be out?  

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But when I asked city political strategists about Safaí’s chances, they responded not with baseball analogies but football ones. Football is top of mind (I wonder why). 

Safaí, says one experienced political hand, finds himself in much the same position that Brock Purdy did at halftime vs. the Lions  — down, for sure, but not yet out. Says another, there’s a gaping hole in the secondary, and the receiver is there — but Safaí has to deliver the pass in the face of pressure. Finally, yet another strategist saw big holes where Safaí could scramble — just like that man Purdy did vs. Detroit. 

I like this analogy best. Purdy is not a natural scrambler, but he took what the defense was giving him — and it won him the game. Safaí is no city lefty’s first choice, but he may end up being the last and only choice. And, while the progressive electorate is — demonstrably — not enough to carry progressive citywide candidates, it’s enough to serve as a kingmaker. 

The plurality of city voters with no intuitive mayoral candidate may, come November, be asking themselves the classic Peggy Lee question: Is that all there is? If Safaí has a prayer of winning, many of them will have to hover over his name and think he’ll do. Hitting those big holes may not win Safaí this game — but failure to hit them guarantees a loss. 

In any event, by November, all the analogies will have switched from football to whatever’s next. And, for the record, Safaí is picking the Niners to win it all, 31-27.  

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. The support for Prop E, which is a free pass for the police to do what they want without adult supervision from the Police Commission, is demoralizing in what should still be a progressive city, where we know better than to let SFPD run rampant without accountability.

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  2. Breed is a single black woman born and raised in the projects who is running a “law-and-order” campaign which would have made Nixon proud. Prop E is the first step, maybe not the first, in dismantling police reforms designed to hold the police transparent and accountable. The reforms came after reports from the DA, Grand Jury and DOJ reviews and were widely hailed at the time (even the SFPD released a reform-minded report). To Mr. Safai: it’s doesn’t matter if you change the chief. The question is whether he or she will have the power and the intestinal fortitude to take on the POA. Until the POA is busted, it’s all a public relations stunt. A racist publicity stunt at that.

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  3. “[…] hailing from the right side of this city’s local political spectrum.”

    Thank you, Joe. I wouldn’t be surprised if you get pushback from that side for the accurate description, but may the truth set them free.

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    1. With the rump progressives, the truth shall get ye banned and blocked, cancelled and excommunicated. If we’re going with Christ quotes, “Physician, heal thyself” is more apt.

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  4. If he is separating himself from the pack by being more pro-crime than the others, that’s helpful. I’d really rather not see more of London Breed, but there’s no point in replacing her with somebody worse. We did the pro-crime thing already and we haven’t recovered from it yet.

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  5. San Francisco wasn’t always like this. The many problems in SF, recognized, even made fun of, around the country, is the result of years and years of leftist policies. Look what they have wrought. But Mission Local wants more of them.

    The ACLU, long an admirable organization which supported civil liberties, is now little more than a leftist advocacy group.

    “Progressive” is just another word for Marxist.

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  6. “[…] the state of progressive leadership — and the cohesiveness of progressivism as a movement — is in tatters in San Francisco.”

    I think it can easily be argued that the state of progressivism is in tatters everywhere. Why is debatable, but I think eschewing ubiquitous right-wing framing is a first remedial step..

    “But that doesn’t mean this city’s most left-leaning voters are going to sit this mayoral election out.”

    Yup, and they’ll once again vote almost uniformly for insider-trading, warmongering fan of ethnic cleansing, Nancy Pelosi.

    These articles pondering the feeble state of the city’s left are much appreciated by some of us, while no doubt making others uneasy (“afflict the comfortable”): a sign of good journalism,

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    1. Don’t forget “McCarthyite” when referring to our dear Speaker Emeritus. She recently called on the FBI to investigate organizations calling for a ceasefire in Gaza explaining this kind of speech is pro-Putin. So bad; so sorry for the Dems that it’s come to this.

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