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Politics & Policy

Bilal Mahmood claims progressives target him with racist election mailer

a side-by-side comparison of two photos of a bald Muslim man half-smiling
A photo posted by Bilal Mahmood on X, formerly known as Twitter, is compared with a mailer urging people to not vote for Bilal Mahmood, right. | Source: Courtesy Bilal Mahmood

Bilal Mahmood, who is running for a seat on the Democratic County Central Committee in Tuesday’s election and for the Board of Supervisors in November, has been targeted by opponents in a way that he believes distorts his record—and darkens his skin and eyes.

A campaign mailer, a text blast and the website all state that Mahmood has fabricated his credentials, claiming—among other things—that he is not a neuroscientist, that he inflated his title when he worked for the Obama administration and that he has never run a nonprofit. 

Paid for by the Labor and Working Families Slate, the mailer shows him in half-profile, with a shadow falling across his face. Mahmood contends that his skin tone has been deliberately darkened. Although he is being attacked from the political left, he describes it as a racist tactic from the Republican Party playbook.

San Francisco politics can be famously bruising, but Mahmood believes this particular campaign exceeds the limits of acceptable political discourse and veers into outright racism. 

“I remember when they did this to Stacey Abrams,” he said, referring to the 2018 and 2022 Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, who is Black. “That’s my context for it. Even one shade, it has a statistically significant impact on depressing the vote. It’s insidious.”

Reached for comment, Daniel Anderson, a consultant for the Labor and Working Families Slate, which paid for the mailer, said the team stood by the mailer’s accusations and presentation. The image was not darkened, he added, but was taken from Mahmood’s own tweet.

“We’re saying [Mahmood] is backed by billionaires and Republicans and has taken money from [Y Combinator CEO] Garry Tan, and we’re alleging he’s committed some serious ethics violations,” Anderson said. “I think it’s important that voters know about this person who is running.”

The Labor and Working Families Slate is a Democratic County Central Committee slate affiliated with the city’s progressives. Funded by unions and individual contributions, it endorses candidates, organizes phone banks and coordinates get-out-the-vote drives and campaign literature drops.

a multicolored politcal flyer urging people to vote no
The flyer urging people to vote no to Bilal Mahmood also contains several assertions that Mahmood contests. | Source: Courtesy Bilal Mahmood

Beyond the contested photographs, Mahmood believes that makes use of language and visual tropes that portray him as a magician out to deceive the voters with tricks. “If you put it all together, that’s a very old stereotype of Muslim people: the sorcerer, a Disney villain,” he said. “I’m not Jafar from Aladdin.” 

This is not the first time a candidate of color has made claims around representation on opposition mailers. Marjan Philhour, another moderate running for a seat on the DCCC in Tuesday’s election and for supervisor in November, cited a similar experience.

“In my case, there have been similar ads where my skin was also darkened and my face was somewhat distorted,” Philhour said. “It’s all part of a larger political machine keeping newcomers out of local politics.”

Mahmood offered rebuttals to each of the campaign’s biographical assertions. To the statement that he’s not a neuroscientist, he said he holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from Stanford University and an M.Phil (the equivalent of a master’s) in bioscience enterprise from Cambridge University, and conducted neuroscience research for one year under professor Robert Sapolsky. He worked for the Obama administration for a six-month period in 2011; after that, the interagency task force he sat on concluded its work, he said. He was not an intern.

With respect to the assertion that Mahmood voted in Santa Clara County, he stated that he maintained a permanent residence there before fully relocating to San Francisco. To the point that he has poured $600,000 of his own money into his races, Mahmood clarified that he spent “more than half a million dollars” on his failed 2022 campaign for an Assembly seat but has not  self-funded in his bid for the DCCC or for District 5 supervisor.

Mahmood’s clean energy nonprofit, Electric Action, has only a nominal online presence. It does not appear in state filings, but a spokesperson for SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, confirmed that that organization had served as Electric Action’s fiscal sponsor. This is a common practice for small nonprofits.

At the same time, Mahmood’s campaigns have faced their ethical troubles. Last month, he “self-reported” a violation in which he used the logo for his supervisor campaign (for which individual contributions are capped at $500) on a mailer for his DCCC campaign (for which contributions are unlimited). 

Mahmood believes this campaign may not even be about his bid for a seat on the DCCC. Rather, it’s about his fight to unseat District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston in November. District 5 straddles the boundary of the city’s two Assembly districts, AD 17 and AD 19. Only residents of AD 17 are eligible to vote for Mahmood on the DCCC, yet homes in both halves of District 5 received versions of the attack ad. 

“Several political people noted there are no sources and no footnotes,” he said of the mailer’s claims. Comparing it to the conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, he added, “I feel like I’m having to produce my birth certificate.”