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San Francisco district supervisor race heating up as ex-transit official announces candidacy

Former San Francisco transportation official Sharon Lai, center, announced her candidacy for District 3 Supervisor at a kickoff in Chinatown on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. | Source: Han Li/The Standard

More than a year before the November 2024 election, the race for who will represent Downtown San Francisco on the Board of Supervisors is heating up.

Sharon Lai, a former transportation official, announced Friday morning that she will run to represent District 3, which covers the northeast covers of the city, including the Financial District, Chinatown, North Beach, Nob Hill and Russian Hill.

Lai, a Chinese American immigrant, is hardly new to city politics. She worked for the Planning Department earlier in her career and served on the board of directors of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency from 2020 to 2022. She later resigned from the board position to pursue a master's degree at Harvard University. Upon graduating in May 2023, she moved back to the city and currently works for the World Economic Forum, an international lobbying nonprofit.

“We’re tired of the dysfunction that we have experienced in the city,” Lai said Friday at a Chinatown rally. “It’s time for us to start leading.”

As a victim of sexual harassment on public transit, Lai said her focus will be on public safety, as well as homelessness and economic recovery. She was an outspoken advocate of transit safety for Asian Americans during her term as a transit commissioner. 

San Francisco’s politics are frequently divided into progressive and moderate camps, and while Lai acknowledges that some of her political ideology is more progressive-leaning, she said she has “always worked across the aisle.”

Lai may be able to appeal to Chinatown’s large voting bloc because of her Chinese immigrant identity and fluency in Cantonese and Mandarin. She has also garnered strong support from the city’s progressive Chinese American leadership, including current and former supervisors Norman Yee, Sandra Lee Fewer and Connie Chan.

Two other candidates, Deputy City Attorney Moe Jamil and Democratic County Central Committee Vice-Chair Peter Gallotta, have announced runs for the seat, too. Former North Beach Neighbors president Danny Sauter, who challenged Peskin in 2020 and is expected to run again, told The Standard that he will have more to share soon.

Asked about running for office in a district into which she had only recently moved, Lai told The Standard she had spent a lot of time there because it’s close to her kids’ school and it’s where she shops. She also emphasized that during her career as a city planner and transit official, she focused on the Downtown and Chinatown areas.

“I feel strongly that this is the heart of San Francisco,” Lai said. “I would feel so honored to be able to fight for this community.”

Current District 3 Supervisor and Board President Aaron Peskin is terming out after two decades in city politics. Neither Peskin nor Mayor London Breed, who appointed Lai to the transit board, were present at the campaign kickoff.

“We need to focus on issues, not political teams,” Lai said by way of addressing their absence. “If I have to pick a side, I'm on the side of San Francisco.”

Han Li can be reached at han@sfstandard.com