Stephen Torres, an LGBTQ+ community activist, bartender and member of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission, will file Tuesday to run for a seat on the Board of Supervisors, hoping to replace the termed-out Hillary Ronen next year.
A native Angeleno who serves as executive co-chair of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, Torres has lived in San Francisco since 1999, apart from a brief period in Mexico City. Torres is also a bartender at Twin Peaks, a well-known queer bar in the Castro. If elected in November 2024, he would be among the board’s progressive wing.
“Having lived here in District 9 for almost two decades, I feel like I know very much what the average constituent knows and feels about all the amazing, wonderful parts of it,” Torres told The Standard. “The challenges, too.”
In a statement to his supporters over the weekend, Torres emphasized the importance of the city’s neighborhoods to its overall economic and civic health, adding that “without community, it’s just real estate.”
Torres will face a crowded field of contenders hoping to represent District 9, which covers the Mission District, Bernal Heights and much of the Portola District. Among the serious competitors for the seat are public banking advocate and 2020 state Senate candidate Jackie Fielder, Carnaval San Francisco CEO Roberto Hernandez and former Citizen app employee Trevor Chandler. Rafael Gutierrez, Julian Bermudez, Jaime Gutierrez and perennial candidate Michael Petrelis have declared their candidacies as well.
District 9 is a focal point for the city’s struggles with poverty, unlawful vending and perceptions about a decline in public safety. Recently, Ronen proposed a controversial, 90-day ban on sidewalk vendors along Mission Street, the neighborhood’s main commercial corridor. Torres believes his involvement with the city’s nightlife community during and after Covid, plus his familiarity with the mechanics of city governance, distinguish him from his rivals.
“There's a lot of well-intended gestures to the challenges that San Franciscans face,” he said. “But then, when it comes down to the actual implementation, they still fall short of helping people. Everything from public safety to wellness to resources to housing.”
Among his accomplishments, Torres cites increasing the availability of naloxone, or Narcan, in the city’s bars and entertainment venues. He’s also proud of the ongoing work that both the cultural district and the commission he sits on have undertaken to gather and analyze city data to assess whether San Francisco’s nightlife industry workers have recovered from the pandemic.
“So many of us that work in nightlife—our lives have completely changed. Our income is a third of what it was,” he said. “Some of us have had to leave this industry because it is just not sustainable. Even for those of us who live in affordable housing.”
As the city stakes its future on a revival of nightlife—Downtown, most prominently, but certainly in neighborhoods like the Mission—questions of public safety rise to the fore. Torres wants to make sure that everyone, patrons and staff alike, can go out, have fun, spend money and enjoy their city without fear.
He hopes to work with grassroots activists across the district and city to create outdoor, Mexico City-style markets that are loosely grouped around certain types of wares, from the fixed mercados to the looser tianguis, which are more like farmers markets.
“A constituent from the Portola, whose family has lived here for a long time, was telling me how his grandmother used to go to the Crystal Palace market,” Torres said, referring to the long-ago shopping center at Market and Eighth streets where SoMa’s now-closed Whole Foods stands. “We should return to these kinds of things. It’s a way of dealing with illegal peddling.”
While stating that people who commit violent crimes should be held accountable, Torres insists that the city must also work to provide alternatives for economically desperate people around the 16th Street and 24th Street BART stations, where vending is often considered a public nuisance.
“I'm sorry, but in my entire 25 years of living in San Francisco, neither one of the BART stations have been widely known as gathering places—aside from, you know, illicit things,” he said. “And so how do we change that? It's by making them gathering places for other things.”
Torres’ candidacy will likely draw its support from the Latinx community, which, in spite of the Mission’s advanced state of gentrification, remains a potent political force.
“Stephen’s desire to be a district supervisor is genuine and principled,” said Lito Sandoval, former chair of the San Francisco Latino Democratic Club. “I have known Stephen for years and have seen how he is level-headed and thoughtful. We need supervisors who are willing to do the work and not just grandstand for the cameras.
“His passion for justice and his work in the community aligns with mine,” said Per Sia, a Latinx drag performer and educator. “He has put in the work and will continue to do so as District 9 supervisor. That mustache can conquer it all.”
Connecting people to their neighborhoods sometimes means reimagining those neighborhoods. As the son of a quality-assurance engineer, Torres has warily eyed the city’s Central Freeway for years, and he supports the movement to remove the elevated roadway, much of which marks the northern boundary of District 9.
“That all used to be an estuary. To reclaim some of that and also integrate both housing and public space—it’s just an opportunity that you rarely if ever get in a city this old,” Torres said. “I would love to see that happen. But the thing is, you have to make sure that it happens with the community at the ground floor.”
That way, he said, Division and 13th streets don’t become a wall of five-story, concrete monoliths priced beyond the reach of the neighborhood’s existing residents.
That viewpoint might be a bit rose-tinted, but retaining a sense of optimism is more important than a dogmatic affiliation with this or that political faction.
“There's this narrative that this state was like a paradise. But I think that's actually a big falsehood,” Torres said. “This is actually rather a cataclysmic state to inhabit. But you can’t help but be optimistic a little bit. Otherwise, you’re insane.”
Astrid Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org