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Politics & Policy

A rival to Mayor London Breed rises

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí stands during a Board of Supervisors meeting on Feb. 28, 2023. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí has confirmed City Hall’s worst-kept secret, telling The Standard that he is weighing a challenge to Mayor London Breed in next year’s election due to a sense that San Francisco is failing to make progress on housing, homelessness and public safety.

Safaí, who represents District 11 and neighborhoods that include the Excelsior and Ingleside, said he has been having conversations about a potential run and intends to make a decision by early this summer.

“The city right now is in crisis, and I’m having a lot of people—on a daily basis—talk about the future of the city,” Safaí said. “Are we headed in the right direction? I think overwhelmingly people are saying, ‘No, we’re not.’” 

“I'm going to spend the next few months talking to people and continuing to talk to people as we work our way through this budget [cycle].”

San Francisco’s budget must be finalized by June, and negotiations between the Mayor’s Office and supervisors are expected to grow contentious in the months to come. 

But, in many ways, the fight has already begun.

More than a dozen sources within City Hall and working in local political campaigns told The Standard that Safaí’s actions over the last year have clearly signaled his intent to challenge Breed’s reelection. 

Mayor London Breed, left, and Ahsha Safaí have usually been identified as political allies. | Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

More complex are the reasons why he would go from an ally of the mayor’s agenda to a potential challenger. The question local politicos are asking is whether Safaí has the coalition to mount a credible challenge, and whether the political winds could turn on Breed between now and November 2024.

Why Run?

It isn’t unusual for a supervisor to exploit policy differences with the Mayor’s Office, or to size up opportunities for the future. But the break between Safaí and the mayor has been unusually swift. 

Safaí, 50, has been on the board for more than six years, and while he has acted as a swing vote at times, he has consistently sided with Breed on most votes since she became mayor. But signs of distance came into view last year when Safaí advanced Proposition C, a successful ballot measure that created a new commission overseeing the city’s homelessness response.

Breed didn’t actively oppose the measure until it went on the ballot, and by then, it was too late.

“I think any mayor doesn't like to see any diminution of executive branch power,” said Aaron Peskin, who serves as president of the Board of Supervisors. 

Since the election, the Mayor’s Office has bristled over Prop. C and the perception that a new commission will improve conditions on the street. Not helping matters, Breed made an unforced error in nominating Vikrum Aiyer to be a commissioner, who bowed out of consideration after his unethical past behavior received scrutiny.

Since the board’s new session began in January, Safaí has been on a tear in co-sponsoring his colleagues’ legislation. The perception amongst some on the board is that Safaí sidles in to take credit for others’ ideas and has a tendency to chase issues that will result in headlines.

His attempt to boost police overtime funding on top of the mayor's $25 million proposal, which was negotiated with supervisors, elicited eye-rolls from colleagues. Despite the alleged peacocking, he’s also credited with being a savvy political operator who knows how to read a room.

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí speaks to Supervisor Shamann Walton during a Board of Supervisors meeting in San Francisco on July 19, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

“I was baffled when I first heard this rumor [of Safaí running], because I don’t see Ahsha as someone who has the ability to assemble a winning coalition—especially absent help from the mayor,” said Jason McDaniel, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University. “I could imagine him being a winning citywide candidate if he was trying to woo the mayor’s coalition.”

Restless Voters

As voters increasingly voice dissatisfaction with the city, Breed’s popularity has taken a hit. A fall 2022 poll by The Standard showed Breed’s approval rating underwater, with almost two-thirds disapproving of her job performance. 

Approval numbers notwithstanding, Breed is still seen as a formidable political candidate due to her charisma and ready acknowledgement that the city is failing in its mission. In exasperated press conferences highlighting the city’s problems, Breed has cultivated an image that she’s on the case, even if progress appears slow.

Plus, polling shows that the Board of Supervisors is held in even lower regard than the mayor. 

For someone like Safaí to unseat the mayor would require cobbling together a coalition that extends beyond the organized labor groups that have supported Safaí throughout his political career. 

At the moment, Breed’s camp seems unconcerned.

“The mayor shared her vision for the city in both broad strokes and great detail in her State of the City address in February,” said Maggie Muir, the mayor’s political consultant. “She laid out a road map for getting more police on the street, holding fentanyl dealers accountable for what they’re doing to our city, revitalizing Downtown and building homes for San Franciscans more quickly. 

“If Supervisor Safaí has a different plan, let’s see it. In the meantime, I don't think most people in his district, let alone citywide, know who he is.”

A grand introduction to voters can likely wait, as Safaí will first need to secure the backing of institutional players to fund a multimillion-dollar campaign against an incumbent. 

Supervisor Catherine Stefani, left, greets Supervisor Ahsha Safaí in front of City Hall on Nov. 16, 2021. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

No endorsements loom larger for Safaí than organized labor. Thanks to his background as a small building developer, Safaí has strong ties with the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, and also has a close relationship with the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) city chapter Local 87.

A dispute between building and trade unions and Mayor Breed over her support for modular housing built by the carpenters union’s Factory OS shop on Mare Island—essentially a one-stop-shop that keeps costs down but cuts out unions other than carpenters—could become a sticking point.

City Hall insiders and campaign experts reached for this story suggested Safaí would need to build a coalition that also includes nurses and teachers, and perhaps even progressives.

“A lot of things go into a campaign, particularly a citywide mayoral campaign, and a united house of labor would be a factor,” Peskin said. “But a divided house of labor? Not so much.”

Risky Play

The recent defeat of Chicago’s now-former mayor Lori Lightfoot, also a Black woman who was running a city known for its cutthroat political climate, could be seen as a cautionary tale for Mayor Breed. 

A lot can happen in a year, especially with voter dissatisfaction near an all-time high after entrenched crises like property crime and homelessness reached a boiling point during the pandemic. 

Ahsha Safaí speaks during the official unveiling of a mosaic mural at Guadalupe Elementary in San Francisco on April 21, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard | Source: Nick Otto for The Standard

One source compared the current political climate to Art Agnos’s tumultuous one term as mayor. A homeless camp near City Hall dubbed “Camp Agnos” offered an opportunity for former Police Chief Frank Jordan to take over Room 200.

“If you think people are going to be angry at the mayor specifically, you can make the argument that, yeah, London is probably going to lose because people are not happy with her,” said David Latterman, a longtime political analyst in the city who previously worked on Safaí’s 2016 supervisor race.

“You could make the case to offer yourself up as an alternative if something goes wrong. But it's a risky play,” Latterman added.

There are suspicions that Safaí might simply be seeking to elevate his name recognition ahead of other potential elections. While there is no obvious political road map for Safaí after finishing out his term as supervisor at the end of 2024, a domino effect could play out if state Sen. Scott Wiener follows through on a potential run to succeed Nancy Pelosi in Congress

If Wiener were to win, new state Assemblymember Matt Haney, who represents the eastern half of the city, could make a run to serve in the state Legislature’s upper house. Safaí’s home lies in Haney’s Assembly District 17, making him eligible to run for that seat.

However, sources close to Safaí said he and his wife, Yadira Taylor, who holds a senior role in the San Francisco City Attorney's Office, have two young children and shuttling back and forth between the city and Capitol would not be ideal.

All of this will not be decided today, of course. The true games won’t begin until after budget season. But the clock is ticking.

“As I’ve been talking to people,” Safaí said, “I’ve been getting a lot of encouragement.”

Josh Koehn can be reached at josh@sfstandard.com