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Politics & Policy

Honey Mahogany’s supporters see her as the harbinger of a new kind of San Francisco politics

District 6 Candidate Honey Mahogany poses for a portrait on Folsom Street in San Francisco on Oct. 15, 2022. Mahogany is running against current District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who was appointed by Mayor London Breed in May. | Kori Suzuki for The Standard

Most candidates for local office would be ecstatic to receive the endorsement of a labor union or a neighborhood political club. But on Monday, two-time Oscar winner Jane Fonda—or, rather, her eponymous climate PAC—parachuted into a race for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, declaring her support for Honey Mahogany, a social worker, small-business owner, chief of staff for former Sup. Matt Haney, and caftan-clad RuPaul’s Drag Race competitor who is vying to represent District 6 on the board.

As endorsements go, it was hardly the most unusual. (Remember when 50 Cent backed George W. Bush?) Whether glamorous or cringe, the fact that Hollywood’s ultimate liberal weighed in suggests that a contest to represent one-eleventh of America’s 17th-largest city is as consequential as the fight for a Georgia Senate seat.

District 6 Candidate Honey Mahogany poses for a portrait outside OASIS Nightclub, where she used to perform, in San Francisco on Oct. 15, 2022. Mahogany is running against current District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who was appointed by Mayor London Breed in May. | Kori Suzuki for The Standard

Newly redistricted to cover SoMa, Mission Bay, the Design District, Rincon Hill, Treasure Island, half of the Financial District and a jagged fragment of Civic Center, D6 may not be the keystone to an evenly divided America or even control of the board. But it is San Francisco in microcosm, encompassing incomparable tech wealth and unhoused encampments, shiny medical campuses and dilapidated SROs, overpasses from all three of the city’s freeways (along with everything that transpires beneath them) plus restaurants with 15 Michelin stars all told.

As a Black transgender woman whose family arrived decades ago as Ethiopian refugees, Honey Mahogany, 38, is at once an unlikely candidate for office and, in her backers’ eyes, the right person at the right time. A native of the Sunset District and a lauded drag performer, her chief opponent is the incumbent, Supervisor Matt Dorsey, a cisgender gay white man living with HIV whose struggle with substance abuse gives him a compelling narrative of his own. 

The contest is technically a four-way affair, with Dorsey fending off challenges from two other Black women: labor leader Cherelle Jackson and longtime transgender and homeless advocate Ms. Billie Cooper. Given all this, a reliance on checklist-style identity politics may not propel anyone’s campaign over the finish line. 

With polling at local levels all but nonexistent, the race is widely perceived as a race between Dorsey and Mahogany, two LGBTQ-identified renters in SoMa with little daylight between their positions on housing, safe drug consumption and public safety. But many of Mahogany’s supporters—Fonda among them—see a candidate whose lived experience informs her stances in a way that transcends City Hall’s persistent and frequently petty divisions. To them, she is a harbinger of a new San Francisco politics. 

Candidates for Distict 6 supervisor gather to debate at The San Francisco Standard offices on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, in San Francisco. From left to right are Ms. Billie Cooper, Cherelle Jackson, San Francisco Supervisor Matt Dorsey and Honey Mohogany. Noah Berger for The Standard

Many challengers take up the mantle of the outsider, crusading to deliver needed change. Mahogany, however, comes close to outflanking Supervisor Dorsey as a savvy insider, one whose political experience buttresses her quasi-unicorn status as a San Francisco native.

“Generally, in San Francisco, people are relatively close together politically, and it is really splitting hairs,” she told me as the Blue Angels practiced sorties overhead. “I think the key difference between us is that I definitely have that on-the-ground experience as a social worker and small-business owner, and as someone who has done the work of legislating and performed the functions as a legislative aide and chief of staff.”

Mahogany grew up in a four-story building along the Taraval corridor—“They exist!” she insists—and went to St. Ignatius. After receiving her master’s degree in social work from UC Berkeley, she worked at Tenderloin LGBTQ+ nonprofit Larkin Street Youth Services and later the Rainbow Community Center in Concord as its first full-time employee, revamping the youth program before returning to the city, where she cofounded the Transgender District with two other Black trans women, Aria Sa’id and Janetta Johnson. 

Honey Mahogany crosses the street wearing a white coat and carrying a cup of coffee.
District 6 Candidate Honey Mahogany on her way to the second annual Bearrison Street Fair on Oct. 15, 2022. Mahogany is a co-owner of The Stud, a 55-year-old LGBTQ+ bar whose previous home was within the festival’s footprint. | Kori Suzuki for The Standard

The cultural district, which covers a small part of the Tenderloin and some of SoMa’s Sixth Street corridor, is like a progressive’s dream come true. But it gave Mahogany particular insights into how the city’s most marginalized residents view their safety.

“As someone who has worked with trans women of color and low-income trans people, I can tell people that all of them have asked, ‘Where are the police, and why aren’t they doing their jobs?’,” she said. “Anyone who has worked in D6 knows that police are part of the solution, and the people most impacted by crime are low-income—and they are asking for more police.” 

Her role in the city’s nightlife—specifically, as part of the 18-member collective that owns The Stud—may be an even better lens to analyze her political development. San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ scene entered the Covid pandemic in a state of free fall, with venue after venue closing. The constellation of nightlife luminaries who in 2016 had purchased The Stud, long the most freewheeling queer space in SoMa, shuttered it mere months into lockdown. 

From left, then-state Sen. Mark Leno, then-Supervisor Scott Wiener, drag legend Heklina and Honey Mahogany at the San Francisco Eagle, commenting on the reintroduction of a bill that would allow bars to stay open until 4 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. | Liz Hafalia/The SF Chronicle via Getty Images
Honey Mahogany, center, speaks as Jose 'Jojo' Ty (left) and Jessy Ruiz (right) listen during a panel discussing The 2020 Census and the LGBTQ+ community on “The Michelle Meow Show” at the Commonwealth Club on Jan. 31, 2020. | HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Since then, the club has existed in suspended animation, its vacated, ramshackle former home at Harrison and Ninth streets the occasional target of grumbling and graffiti. (The collective is in preliminary talks to obtain another space, but members would not specify its location on the record.) If elected, Mahogany would likely have to sell her share.

“I own very little of The Stud outright,” she insisted. “It holds such a huge piece of my heart; I would hate to let it go, but we pass the torch when we can.”

This is how the city’s queer communities know her best. And it’s not so much Mahogany’s intersectional identities (Black, trans, somewhat famous) as the perceived qualities that those identities endow (empathy, quiet authority, showing up) that form the backbone of her support. 

Asked what the main difference between Dorsey and Mahogany is, supporter after supporter cited her connection to “the community.” It’s the fuzziest of buzzwords, but few aspirants to local office unseat incumbents without convincing stakeholders of their bona fides. 

“To me, she’s the people’s candidate and will bring a heart and soul and true SF values about inclusion and diversity, and people feeling seen and respected and cared for,” said Sister Roma, probably the best-known Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, who co-hosted San Francisco Pride’s Main Stage with Mahogany for several years. 

“She’s done quite a bit from the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee]. More than I’ve seen in San Francisco, at least from the time I’ve been paying attention to politics,” said Sophia Andary, who sits on the SF Commission on the Status of Women. “She did the resolution standing up for solidarity for women in Iran and one for women Afghan refugees. She’s not thinking about the negative political consequences. She’s thinking about what’s needed.”

Even Supervisor Dorsey may agree. Asked what the fairest criticism of Mahogany is, he takes a long pause and offers up the mildest barb: that she was a latecomer to SB 50, state Senator Scott Wiener’s controversial bill to streamline housing production. 

“This isn’t a classic kind of progressive-moderate thing,” he says of their contest. “Let’s hope these are how these SF races are moving forward—with nuance.”

Or, as Mahogany put it, “The most important difference between Dorsey and myself is the independence. I’m going to be an independent voice and not always defer to the mayor.”

San Francisco Democratic Party Chair Honey Mahogany speaks with union workers holding a 24-hour rally for an increase in living wages in front of the offices of Tenderloin Housing Clinic on Turk Street on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Employees are citing the low wages as the impetus for staff burnout and high turnover. | Don Feria for the Standard
District 6 Candidate Honey Mahogany, center right, greets Stud Collective member Neven Samara, right, and his partner Ben Stilp, left, at Bearrison Street Fair on Oct. 15, 2022. Mahogany is running against current District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who was appointed by Mayor London Breed in May. | Kori Suzuki for The Standard

South of Market is, in the words of Assemblymember Matt Haney, who held the District 6 supervisor seat until this spring, the “most shitted-on neighborhood” in San Francisco. Yet, as the cinematic cliche goes, the D6 race is quiet—a little too quiet. Meanwhile, over in the normally sleepy Sunset District where Mahogany grew up, mild-mannered incumbent Gordon Mar has been smeared as a “communist pedophile” in his bid for reelection. 

This might have something to do with Mahogany’s manner. For a performer who has co-hosted San Francisco Pride’s main stage and been on reality TV, she’s somewhat low-key—even conflict-averse. At the candidate forum hosted by The Standard in early October, Mahogany fanned herself on a stool while enduring occasional jabs from Cooper, who felt she was receiving favorable treatment.

Mahogany refrained from chucking any javelins in return. Instead, she took an almost technocratic stance on issues surrounding addiction and homelessness. Hammering home the point that the Department of Public Health’s treatment beds are useless without adequate staff, she called for a “Crisis Workers Hiring Act.”

“I’m an outreach counselor, and here’s what I can tell you,” she said then. “There’s tons of money sitting at the DPH going unused, because we haven’t hired for the positions we have open, and that’s because we’re not paying people a living wage. Nurses and other health-care workers cannot afford to live in San Francisco."

Dorsey, for his part, touted his work with colleagues on a program called “San Francisco Recovers.” It quickly became clear that he and Mahogany not only agree on several hot-button issues, but they also defy certain political orthodoxies together. They support safe consumption. They want to upzone low-density neighborhoods. With qualifications, they back conservatorship. Both believe that the San Francisco Police Department must be part of any discussion about public safety. And both have endorsed Proposition D, a charter amendment to streamline multifamily housing approvals. 

Many left-leaning organizations oppose that measure—including the same SF Democratic Party whose central committee is chaired by Honey Mahogany. 

Supporters of Supervisor Matt Dorsey and candidate Honey Mahogany listen during a debate for District 6 supervisor candidates at The San Francisco Standard offices on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. | Noah Berger for The Standard
Honey Mahogany, and San Francisco Supervisor Matt Dorsey listen during a debate for District 6 supervisor candidates at The San Francisco Standard offices on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. | Noah Berger for The Standard

A specter is haunting District 6: the specter of Yes In My Backyard. 

In the four years since Matt Haney defeated arch-YIMBY Sonja Trauss to represent D6, public sentiment has shifted in a build-baby-build direction. While it might be a stretch to say “We Are All YIMBYs now,” Haney successfully made an issue of David Campos’ opposition to a 495-unit project in SoMa during their several contests for an Assembly seat this year. If bland, market-rate condos are what it takes to get some affordable units around here, this line of thinking goes, then so be it. 

“Thirty members of my family lived in San Francisco at one point,” Mahogany said during The Standard’s debate. “Now that’s down to two. The lack of affordability is why I got involved in housing.”

An overwhelming proportion of new construction in San Francisco during the 2010s took place in SoMa and Mission Bay. Consequently, District 6’s population growth relative to the other districts introduced a distortion into the city’s political map. Its contours were always going to change after the 2020 Census, but this spring’s redistricting fight struck some observers as unnecessarily protracted. While insisting that Mahogany would emerge victorious from any version of the district that emerged, Haney believes that redistricting was undertaken specifically to torpedo progressive-aligned campaigns.

District 6 Candidate Honey Mahogany poses for a portrait on 11th Street in San Francisco on Oct. 15, 2022. | Kori Suzuki for The Standard

Since Danica Roem won a 2017 upset for a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates, transgender lawmakers have become more common around the country. 

Maebe A. Girl, a member of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council in Los Angeles who is currently challenging Rep. Adam Schiff for a seat in Congress, says that while her politics are antithetical to that of the former president, she believes that his presidency had one unexpected effect. It’s counterintuitive, maybe even perverse, but Donald Trump essentially “redefined who people could picture in office,” and gender-variant people are among the groups who have benefited from that shift. Still, she says, simply running for office as a nonbinary trans woman presents complications.

“If I underdress or don’t wear makeup, I get misgendered, and if I do too much, it’s like, ‘Oh, look at this drag queen,’” Girl said of the campaign trail. “I have to find this strange balance.”

In her run against Schiff, whose involvement in Trump’s impeachments brought him national media exposure, Girl laments how hard it has been to garner media attention.

“I’m the first trans or nonbinary person to advance to a top-two race for the House of Representatives,” she said. “I thought that would make a good story.”

California activist and politician Maebe A. Girl. | Silver Lake Neighborhood Council/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Visibility cuts both ways, though. In September, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, often considered to be among the Board of Supervisors’ more left-leaning members, dismissed Mahogany as an ego-driven arriviste and declared his support for Dorsey and other candidates who “are real people and who are human.” 

Peskin, who is 58 and serving his fourth term on the board, apologized for his remarks, which were inartful at best and transphobic at worst. But it may have revealed a new political fracture in the city—not so much between left and right, but young and old.

“The idea that Aaron Peskin represents what a progressive is is fucking nonsense, and I don’t believe it,” said Nate Allbee, Mahogany’s campaign strategist. “How is he more progressive than Matt Haney if you look at what they say and do? The one difference is that Matt and Honey are openly willing to say that building housing at all levels is the right tactic to do right now.”

District 6 Candidate Honey Mahogany watches the Leather Pride Flag raising at Bearrison Street Fair in San Francisco on Oct. 15, 2022. | Kori Suzuki for The Standard

If an openness to new construction disqualifies someone as a progressive, Allbee continued, then progressivism is in a heap of trouble. And the record indicates that a measure of pragmatism has been a boon to people looking to make history, even when they had to struggle to do it. Harvey Milk fought his way to becoming the first gay person on the Board of Supervisors almost half a century ago with soaring, “You gotta give ’em hope” oratory combined with a crusade against that most mundane of issues: dog poop. If you assumed that the first Black trans woman with a credible shot at following Milk would succeed simply by veering to the left of the left, you would be wrong.

“There’s a diversity of opinions there,” Mahogany said, “but it’s the No. 1 thing: a complete failure of accountability and a failure to implement practical solutions. We can’t allow people to suffer and die in the streets and call that progress.”