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Politics-curious techies are attending teach-ins with moderate candidates

A group of young adults sit on the floor in a Victorian-style apartment.
Attendees listen to Democratic County Central Committee candidate Mike Chen at a political house party in San Francisco. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

For the past few years, Taco Tuesday has been an almost weekly ritual of the Manifold community—a loose collection of software engineers, roommates and friends of the prediction markets startup, which allows users to bet with play money on anything from who will win the 2024 presidential election to, rather cheekily, whether there be tacos at the next Taco Tuesday.      

“It’s kind of like Sunday Mass,” said Sinclair Chen, a 26-year-old software engineer at Manifold, while plant-based ground meat sizzled and onions were chopped in the NoPa group house’s kitchen. “You can just come and just block out that part of your calendar and plan your life around it.” 

But this Tuesday, a week before the 2024 California primary election, tacos and camaraderie were not the only thing on the menu—there was also a heavy side of politics. 

A man holds up a flyer comparing two US Senate candidates at a dinner table with a wine glass nearby.
Barak Gila, a 28-year-old YIMBY activist and startup founder, shows a political flyer at a dinner party he organized to help guests fill out their primary ballots. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

Gathered in the dining room of the same Victorian flat where Burning Man was born, about 20 twenty- and thirty-somethings ate their Tex-Mex creations on the floor picnic-style, while the evening’s guest of honor, Democratic County Central Committee candidate Mike Chen, stumped for why these young, tech-savvy voters should pay more attention to the obscure yet consequential local election he’s racing in. 

Essentially, Chen explained, those elected to the “D-Triple-C” determine Democratic Party endorsements for everything from the mayor’s race to the school board for the next four years. 

“If you can control the party, you can control the government,” he said. “It is, in my opinion, the most impactful race on the March ballot and maybe even this year.”

While the DCCC race is usually a dull, down-ballot affair, this year’s race has become a heated battleground for the soul of the city—and also an excuse to throw a house party. 

From pizza parties with La Croix to happy hours with fire pits, tech-heavy co-living and co-working spaces have been hosting scores of candidate meet-and-greets in the days leading up to the March 5 primary. The candidates, who are primarily affiliated with a tech-friendly moderate slate known as the SF Democrats for Change, are trying to galvanize a new base of techie voters and—with their help—maybe even make San Francisco politics a little bit cool. 

A bulletin board is covered with flyers, notes, and a political signs.
Political signs and other flyers hang on a corkboard at a political dinner party in a home in San Francisco. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

‘I could probably go to two house parties a week’

Tech entrepreneur and investor Asheesh Birla began throwing politically focused dinner parties in his Noe Valley home about three years ago. The goal was to give his friends in tech and medicine a forum to discuss their concerns about public safety and public education in the city. While Birla hasn’t thrown his own soiree since November, he has been surprised by the number of gatherings related to the DCCC race recently. 

“If you had told me before, there’d be like 50 dinner parties around this D-Triple-C, I’d say probably not. But it’s happening,” said Birla. “It’s like a niche election that I think folks are waking up to. It matters quite a bit. … I could probably go to two house parties a week at this point.” 

Two men in a room, one standing with papers, the other sitting and pointing, both look engaged in a discussion.
Gila speaks at a San Francisco political house party featuring Democratic County Central Committee candidate Mike Chen in the week ahead of the March 5 primary. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

One of the architects of these politically themed gatherings is Barak Gila, a 28-year-old passionate YIMBY activist and founder of the American Politics Company, a newly launched startup aiming to democratize the sale of political advertising. In the week leading up to this week’s primary, his company not only sponsored Manifold’s Taco Tuesday event with Chen, Gila also held his own freewheeling, fill-out-your-ballot dinner party at his Mission Dolores home.

Eccentric and intense, Gila has been tuned into local politics since the rise of the YIMBY movement while a student at UC Berkeley—even penning his own voter guides over the years. More recently, he decided to jump into SF politics full force, although he admits he was also motivated to promote his own company and ride a wave of tech money and influence pouring into local races.

“I’m not usually interested in just screaming into the wind. I want to scream into a current already almost there,” Gila said. “Back in 2018, I was too young and poor, and it was too early for tech to really win. You needed SF to get worse and tech money to get bigger and better and richer for all of this to come together. The winds are shifting in San Francisco.”

Now, almost like a tornado, Gila peppers his ballot party dinner guests with quiz-like questions over rib-eye and wine—“Who is paying for this political ad?” or “Does anyone know what a jungle primary is?” 

Scattered personal belongings and a Mike Chen campaign sign sit in front of a brink fireplace in a cluttered room with two individuals.
Party attendees hang out at the tail end of a political house party held in San Francisco for Democratic County Central Committee candidate Mike Chen. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

He also barnstorms events where he’s not the designated host or emcee. At a recent fireside chat held last Friday at the iconic hacker house, Mission Control, Gila grilled dual DCCC and District 9 supervisorial candidate Trevor Chandler and his fellow SF Democrats for Change DCCC slate-mate Michael Lai about what they would do to address the state mandate that San Francisco build 82,000 housing units over the next eight years

“What would you hold yourself accountable to?” Gila asked Chandler as soon as the floor opened for questions. “Like I, Trevor, I’m going to make sure we build at least X housing units via XYZ. Like, what is the top-level accountability on housing?” 

While Gila represented one of the more well-versed policy-wonk techies at that event, the gathering, which feted Chandler and Lai with pizza, flavored water and a crackling “fire” on a big screen TV, was geared more toward the Politics 101 crowd.

The image shows a flier with headshot photos and names of individuals running on the SF Democrats for Change slate for the Democratic County Central Committee.
An SF Democrats for Change slate flyer sits on the floor of a political house party in San Francisco. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

Surabhi Todi, an aspiring founder and resident of Mission Control who runs the house’s TikTok account, said that her roommates decided to host Lai, specifically, both out of a sense of civic duty and techie solidarity. Lai’s credentials— which include directing North American and global outreach at the venture-backed university project Minerva, starting the micro-day care center network Tinycare and getting Garry Tan’s stamp of approval—were all appealing.  

“It’s important for us as founders and people who are kind of the tech elite of San Francisco to get really involved in SF politics,” Todi said. “We also think Michael represents the tech voice. … We trust Garry Tan and startup people.”

Lai also recently appeared as the guest of honor at the Commons, a social club beloved by the city’s Cerebral Valley set, and the intentional living community Noasis’ “Firepit Politics” happy hour. (Lai’s also a member of the Commons.) He said his visits to those spaces came organically, via invites from friends. “In humility, I’ve heard that people are really excited that I’m running and bringing a different perspective,” he said. But he also hoped those campaign stops could bridge a divide between San Francisco’s various communities, tech and otherwise.  

“I do want to provide representation for especially the young builder energy that has largely felt not engaged at all or represented in SF politics,” Lai said. “That’s how we unite the city.” 

As for party attendees, there were two main camps in attendance: the ones fed by a passion to get more involved with local politics and the ones just looking to get fed. 

A person reads a voter guide at a table where others are engaged in discussion, with food and drinks present.
UX designer Grace Ling reads a Grow SF voter guide during a ballot party at a San Francisco home. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

At Taco Tuesday, 26-year-old software engineer Richard Chen admitted to not being all that engaged in the political process. “I’m here as a function of the tacos,” he said. 

“It’s cool that it happened and that I’m at a random house party,” added software engineer Eliot Huang.   

As for Birla, he doesn’t see the hacker house political party trend ending anytime soon—it is, after all, an election year. 

“If we follow this trend post-March, it’s going to turn to supervisor races,” he said.