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Politics & Policy

Analysis: Haney dominates Campos by shrewdly following shifting political winds

Matt Haney gives a speech Tuesday night in San Francisco after election returns showed he beat David Campos in their special election runoff for a seat in the state Assembly. I Camille Cohen

It was only the second of four elections this year to represent San Francisco in the state Assembly, but it will almost certainly prove to be the decisive one as Supervisor Matt Haney scored a dominating victory Tuesday over David Campos in a special election. 

Results for the Assembly District 17 runoff—near-final returns had Haney taking 63.3% of the vote—suggest the District 6 supervisor’s ideological shift over the last year, as he rebranded himself from a San Francisco progressive to something more moderate, was a savvy strategy. But it’s unclear if that change represented a genuine evolution of thought, particularly on the issue of housing, or a calculated plan to mirror the path others have taken to political prominence.

The Standard spoke with almost a dozen sources at City Hall and the Capitol—including people close to both Haney and Campos’ campaigns, community organizers in San Francisco and longtime Bay Area political consultants—to get a sense of what San Franciscans should expect from its next assemblymember, and whether the results of this race are indicative of a less progressive electorate in San Francisco. 

While the low voter turnout makes it difficult to foreshadow the future of political races in the city, there is no doubt that the multiple crises San Francisco is facing—an intractable housing crunch, the opioid epidemic in the Tenderloin, and growing anxiety over public safety—played a huge role in how Tuesday’s race shook out. 

Haney has been described as a friendly, studious, inoffensive ally, but one who has  also ruffled feathers with political opportunism. Many forget that it was Haney’s attempt at being woke while serving on the Board of Education that created the school renaming mess that contributed to three board members being recalled in February. 

“He has run away from his super-left record,” said David Latterman, a Bay Area political consultant with two decades of experience. “While it is true that he is kind of the amorphous blob that he is, he’s not a dyed-in-the-wool progressive. He’s been able to say enough things to moderates and the housing folks and the young people to make them happy.”

Haney’s victory Tuesday in some ways is a testament to his ability to distance himself from his own record in 2018, when he easily won a seat on the Board of Supervisors despite opposing Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB 35 housing bill and offering limp support of development projects outside of District 6. His more recent about-face on housing helped him secure the support of YIMBY Action and other pro-housing groups in the city, a crucial step in differentiating himself from Campos.

“It took [Haney] a while,” said Laura Foote, the executive director of pro-housing group YIMBY Action, which endorsed Haney after working with him during his three-plus years as a supervisor. “He had to go through the experience of seeing all the roadblocks to building housing in San Francisco.”

Haney’s campaign also made a smart move tactically by having him move closer to the center to fend off an unexpectedly strong challenge from third-place primary finisher Bilal Mahmood. That maneuver set Haney up to absorb much of Mahmood’s supporters following a post-primary endorsement.

Haney, who did not make himself available for an interview for this story, not only had a bigger campaign war chest than Campos, but he also benefited from $1.7 million in spending by independent expenditure committees over the course of the primary and runoff. That avalanche of outside spending shouldn’t be discounted. A torrent of mail propped Haney up on housing while taking Campos to task for everything from his work history with District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who is facing a recall, to votes Campos cast a decade ago when he served on the Board of Supervisors.

“Haney has run a better campaign,” Latterman said. “He has more money (than Campos), but Haney and his team have run a decent campaign. He’s done a pretty good job not ticking anybody off.” 

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Campos ran a campaign that most observers considered to be anachronistic and even grating at times. In many ways, he relied on the same progressive playbook that led him to a similar Assembly race defeat in 2014: not taking money from corporations, focusing on identity politics and framing the discussion on housing in binary terms in which affordable homes are mostly pitted against luxury condos. 

If the Asian American vote was truly as sacrosanct in this race as both candidates have acknowledged in recent months, the absence of the late Chinatown boss Rose Pak probably hurt Campos more than his campaign initially realized. Pak spearheaded a get-out-the-vote operation on Campos’ behalf in a close Assembly loss in 2014 to David Chiu, whose resignation last year to become San Francisco’s city attorney prompted this year’s race.

Campos also has a well-established reputation for irritating the very people who would seem to be his obvious allies. Only one of the city’s two major LGBTQ+ organizations endorsed Campos, who is openly gay, and Equality California—the state’s largest LGBTQ+ group—decided to sit out the race entirely, a red flag considering how outspoken the group has been on behalf of Sen. Wiener and other out legislators.

Campos’ focus on being corporate-free might have resonated in the days when Bernie Sanders had liberal arts majors swooning, but the pandemic and issues the city is facing this very moment have superseded noble gestures on campaign cash.

Perhaps the most glaring example of Campos failing to read the room occurred just two days after mail-in ballots went out to voters last month, as he told a group of supporters at the Bernal Heights Recreation Center that his campaign was “fighting and running like Ukrainians” in an effort to defeat Haney. 

If that seemed ill-advised, the rest of this year’s electoral calendar could inspire even more groans.

In an interview earlier this month, Campos told The Standard that winning is his only focus—even if that means he needs to challenge Haney again in June when voters will be forced to weigh in once again on who should represent AD 17 for a full term spanning 2023 to 2024. The top-two finishers in that race are guaranteed to advance to a runoff in November, regardless of whether voters feel emotionally equipped.

New district lines, which were redrawn last year to include the city’s southwest side, suggest that the races this summer and fall will feature an even larger bloc of moderate voters, adding to Haney’s advantage as an incumbent. And yet, Campos pulled papers to run last year and is giving every indication he is determined to grimly carry on.

Tuesday’s victory will give Haney the rest of the year to find his footing in Sacramento and essentially cast roll call votes on the state budget. As one of 80 assemblymembers, his vote will frequently land with the rest of the Democrats, who hold a supermajority in the Legislature. 

His legacy will largely depend on his ability to follow through on his newly crafted image and author transformative policy to address California’s housing crisis.