At a Sept. 30 fundraiser, San Francisco Democratic officials gathered in a ballroom at the Palace Hotel to raise a glass and look to the future.
The smartly dressed, wine-sipping crowd gave roars of approval as San Francisco Democratic Party Chair Honey Mahogany, U.S. House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi and a roster of top party and labor officials sent a clear message: The Democratic Party’s fight is a fight for civil rights, for working people and for democracy itself as Republicans seek to reinstall Donald Trump as president.
But the message of unity belied a brewing fight over control of the local Democratic chapter as San Francisco faces multiple crises—including, in the eyes of many political and business leaders, a bad reputation.
The normally obscure race for Democratic County Central Committee—set for March 2024 and often glossed over by voters—is the subject of a major push by moderate political groups to take control of the 33-member body. Twenty-four of those seats—14 representing the east side of the city and 10 on the west—can be voted on by registered Democrats. The remaining “ex officio” seats are held by Democratic state and federal elected officials in San Francisco.
The responsibilities of the DCCC, or “D-Trip” in politico-speak, include registering voters, chartering Democratic clubs and passing resolutions that can help articulate the local party’s values. But its most sought-after power is to make endorsements for candidates and local propositions that carry the official Democratic Party seal of approval in campaign advertisements sent to San Francisco’s roughly 320,000 registered Democrats.
In many ways, the race reflects a broader identity crisis within a local party that has historically churned out national leaders like Pelosi, the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Vice President Kamala Harris and Gov. Gavin Newsom but has since become associated—fairly or not—with surging fentanyl overdoses, street homelessness, housing unaffordability and dysfunctional governance.
“San Francisco has a history of leading the Democratic Party with progressive policies, pipeline and pocketbook,” said Emma Heiken, an aide to Supervisor Myrna Melgar and a candidate for DCCC. “But we haven't been doing that.”
In a heavily blue city, an endorsement by the DCCC can be a powerful signal to voters.
“The ability to have the Democratic Party endorsements is, to me, the most important reason why people want to have influence on these decisions; it can really boost the candidates in the running and help voters distinguish between those candidates,” said Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University.
The current makeup of the DCCC skews progressive, with left-leaning members—many of whom were elected on a social justice-oriented slate in 2020—making up roughly three-quarters of the elected seats. All 24 are up for grabs in March.
Abundant SF, a political group led by affluent families in tech, plans to spend $850,000 to help elect a moderate slate of DCCC candidates that includes well-known names such as Supervisor Catherine Stefani, Supervisor Matt Dorsey and former Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier along with up-and-comers such as Heiken, former assembly candidate Bilal Mahmood and small business advocate Marjan Philhour.
Moderate political group GrowSF is actively fundraising to back DCCC candidates “who align with what voters in San Francisco want: increased public safety, great public schools, stopping open-air drug use and building more housing,” said co-founder Sachin Agarwal. The group spent around $600,000 promoting a November 2022 voter guide and is preparing to circulate a similar guide for March 2024. Other groups, such as TogetherSF and moderate-leaning Democratic clubs, are expected to promote DCCC candidates in their campaign materials.
Last year, San Francisco voters recalled three progressive school board members and then-District Attorney Chesa Boudin. They did so despite the Democratic Party condemning the recalls in a resolution.
The party’s endorsements in multiple November 2022 races, such as the district attorney election and two closely watched supervisors races, also fell on the losing side. Critics pointed to these results as a sign that the local party is out of touch with San Francisco voters.
“It is my hope that Democrats elect a board that will put partisanship aside to work together to focus on the issues, problem-solve and help our city recover,” said progressive-leaning Mahogany, who was elected DCCC chair in 2021 but is undecided about whether to run again.
“If the party is out of step with anyone, it’s with Republican billionaires and the big moneyed interests that try to influence our politics,” said Peter Gallotta, a DCCC vice chair who is running for reelection to the committee. “As a San Francisco Democrat, I believe that’s the way it should be.”
Moderate backers also pointed to what they viewed as petty factional fights playing out on the governing board, such as a vote against chartering a moderate west-side political club over baseless accusations that it was fueled by Republican dark money. (Following a backlash, the DCCC later voted to charter the club.)
“I just really hope that whoever gets elected really tries to carve out a strong identity for what the DCCC is supposed to be doing,” said Janice Li, a BART board member and DCCC member who said she’s not planning to run for reelection. “My opinion has always been that it should be focused on building a strong, ‘big D’ Democratic Party.”
Moderate groups see the upcoming DCCC race as a chance to restore a damaged political brand and to educate voters about the importance of the governing body. Progressives are expected to announce their own slate in the coming days; progressive-leaning candidates who have already filed to run include former Supervisors John Avalos and Jane Kim, City College Trustee Vick Chung and Frances Hsieh, a longtime aide to Supervisor Connie Chan.
Although candidates don’t need to run as part of a slate, slates are an important marketing vehicle for candidates, especially those who aren’t household names. Part of Abundant SF’s strategy involves breaking out the slate into “caucuses,” or interest groups that resonate with certain blocs of voters, such as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and LGBTQ+ voters, housing advocates and parents.
Unlike traditional candidate campaigns, where donors are limited to a $500 maximum contribution, DCCC races come with no such limit. Candidates are also permitted to coordinate with one another and with other groups making expenditures. And ahead of a packed November 2024 ballot, political insiders are expecting an expensive race and potentially a large field of candidates.
Candidates have until Dec. 8 to file.
Winning a DCCC seat is largely a name-recognition game: Elected officials or other high-profile individuals are often the likeliest to garner votes.
That could partly explain the presence of Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, in the race. A longtime, high-profile veteran of state and Bay Area politics, the progressive Rosselli was frank about why he’s running.
"I feel it's very important that the Democratic Party's endorsements and influence reflects its solidarity with organized labor and working families," Rosselli told The Standard in a phone call.
Factional fights over the committee are nothing new. For example, as Willie Brown was beginning his political career in the 1960s, he participated in a similar battle as part of a progressive coalition led by Phillip Burton. Interviewed by a University of California history project, Brown—who went on to lead the California Assembly and become San Francisco’s mayor—described his primary accomplishment on the DCCC as “just ousting the old guard and installing our own people.”
Democrats of all persuasions view the DCCC election as a prelude to critical November 2024 races that could further shake up the Board of Supervisors, where opponents of moderate Mayor London Breed hold a slim majority. Six of the board’s 11 seats will be up for grabs.
Supervisor Connie Chan, a progressive who represents the Richmond neighborhood, is viewed as vulnerable and likely to face off against Philhour—who lost to Chan in 2020 by just 125 votes.
Trevor Chandler, a moderate who’s running to represent the Mission District on the Board of Supervisors, is also running for the DCCC. So is Mahmood, who’s expected to challenge Supervisor Dean Preston—the city’s most left-leaning supervisor, representing the Haight, Japantown and the Tenderloin—in November 2024.
Gallotta, a progressive, is also running for supervisor in the district that includes North Beach, Chinatown and his own Lower Nob Hill neighborhood.
“[The DCCC] can’t create majorities, but it can guide voters,” McDaniel, the SFSU professor, added. “I would see the DCCC fight as being about solidifying some of that support so they can present a clear message to voters.”
For the November 2024 election, the body will issue endorsements for mayor, six members of the Board of Supervisors, district attorney and a slew of ballot measures that could change the city’s governance for years to come. Indirectly, the San Francisco Democratic Party’s agenda could serve as a benchmark for how voters nationwide view Democrats, McDaniel added.
“What we're seeing right now is a recognition that more left-wing, ‘defund the police’ kind of politics has proven to be unpopular here in San Francisco,” McDaniel said. “And that is a signal for other Democratic cities and groups.”