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Politics & Policy

San Francisco’s glossiest new political group is ready to party

Members of WE San Francisco throw their hands in the air during a recent event. The group intends to recruit thousands of members on the way to reforming local politics. | Source: Courtesy Jason Martineau/WE San Francisco

San Francisco political groups come and go, but a new clique of concerned residents who want to save the city—but also kind of want to mingle and party—are coming together to take a seat at the table. And, preferably, that table will have good lighting to make the evening Insta-worthy.

WE San Francisco started popping up on social media feeds last month as it began hosting summertime events in the city. The organization’s members appear to be a clean-cut group of young professionals, some of whom have sizable social media followings. While the group’s own Instagram account had fewer than 160 followers as of Monday, organizers say they have already recruited the support of 500 residents since June and have ambitions to grow to a “magic number” of 8,000 members.

“I like to create movements or to make things go viral,” said Ben Kaplan, the founder of WE San Francisco and the CEO of multiple marketing and PR companies. “And when we do that, we basically need 1% of the population to really buy in to something, get aligned, be kind of die-hard about a message, and it will spread in the whole population.”

It’s like a fever, and the only prescription is more elections.

Kaplan, who lives with his wife and children in the Lone Mountain neighborhood, has all the hallmarks of a born pitchman—on top of his companies, he started writing economic self-help books in his early 20s and has made himself available for thousands of interviews. The clips go all the way back to a grainy appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

But whether people will buy what Kaplan is selling with WE San Francisco is still an unanswered question. 

The group, which Kaplan named with the algebraic slogan We>Me in mind, cites high crime, homelessness, unclean streets, corruption at City Hall and unresponsive bureaucracy as signs that something is rotten in Denmark. The group also believes people will come together despite differences in how to approach problems, a notion Kaplan defended as “not naive.”

Starting this month, WE San Francisco intends to survey up to 15,000 residents to fine-tune its positions. The strategy to start with polling is based on a model used by the En Marche movement, which propelled Emmanuel Macron to become president of France. 

Kaplan’s wife, Virginie Eskenazi, is a lawyer who was born in France and also serves as part of the new political group’s strategy team. Other leaders of WE San Francisco include Seema Sri, an outdoor adventure event planner and community volunteer in the East Cut, and Brandon Au, managing partner of financial planning firm Pacific Advisors. 

Brandon Au, Ben Kaplan and Seema Sri address members of WE San Francisco during a recent event. | Source: Courtesy Jason Martineau/WE San Francisco

Au’s affluent lifestyle posts on Instagram have attracted 104,000 followers, and a recent WE San Francisco mixer welcomed reformed drug dealer and activist videographer Ricci Wynne—who has 80,000 followers on Instagram—looking bespoke as he straddled a poodle for a group photo.

Once the community survey is completed, WE San Francisco intends to hold town hall meetings before formalizing operations by filing for nonprofit status and creating a political arm to get involved in next year’s elections and budget cycle, Kaplan said. A focus will be using community pressure to reshape city department priorities. Kaplan cited pro-vaccine education programs he led in Georgia during the pandemic as a successful model for pressuring lawmakers into action.

“I don’t think we have to wait for the mayor or a Board of Supervisors member or the head of some department to be like, ‘Here's our plan,’” Kaplan said. “I think the community can do it. And that’s one of the big differences is we’re trying to, like, community-lead stuff. And the idea is that if we get enough of our community behind one voice, then politicians, elected leaders and others will follow it.”

Those paying attention to the local political landscape might think WE San Francisco’s mission will overlap with moderate, public safety-focused policies being pushed by organizations like TogetherSF and Grow SF—and they might be right! Podcast episodes for the fledgling political group feature interviews between Kaplan and billionaire Chris Larsen, affordable housing developer Sam Moss and TogetherSF founder Kanishka Cheng.

But beyond a lack of deep-pocketed benefactors at the current moment, Kaplan said, there is one key difference that separates WE San Francisco from the rest of the political pack.

“One aspect that is unique is that we want to change the city but, like, have incredible fun along the way doing it and bringing people together,” Kaplan said. “And that’s powerful.”

Ben Kaplan, a published author and founder of multiple marketing and PR companies, poses for a photo at a recent WE San Francisco event. | Source: Courtesy Jason Martineau/WE San Francisco

Jim Ross, a longtime political consultant in the city, was dubious about the new political group’s chances of making meaningful policy changes, but he appreciated the social angle, noting that “San Francisco politics have been kind of boring lately.”

Ross formed a similar group more than two decades ago after ballots were presumed missing in the 2001 election—the lids of ballot boxes were found floating in the bay. He called the group “The Committee To Find the Lost Ballots,” and members allegedly attempted to hunt them down in local watering holes. Ross met his wife at one bar stop, but they never did track down those ballots.

“The hard thing in politics, especially in San Francisco politics, is to translate things that are politically social into things that are politically effective,” Ross said. “It’s easy to get people to come have a drink and flirt with somebody who could be a potential partner, but it’s hard to get people to walk a precinct, host a party and make phone calls—the work that actually impacts elections.”