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Politics & Policy

After spending millions, San Francisco political group abandons push to empower mayor

A person with long black hair stands next to a window.
Kanishka Cheng, who leads TogetherSF, said her group is nixing an effort to give the mayor more power because of uncertainty over who will win the November election. | Source: Godofredo A. Vásquez/AP

After spending a whopping $3 million to put two charter reform measures on the November ballot, political group TogetherSF Action announced that it is dropping an effort to strengthen the mayor’s powers due to uncertainty around who will be elected.

Kanishka Cheng, the head of TogetherSF Action, said the group was hitting the pause button to avoid wasting more resources because of a “lack of clarity in voters’ mind around who is going to be mayor.” 

The group’s committee has already spent more money on potential ballot measures than any other efforts for the fall, with $1 million going out the door just between mid-March and mid-April. The San Francisco Examiner was first to report the abandoned ballot measure.

TogetherSF Action receives funding from Michael Moritz, who is also the chairman of The Standard.

The organization has stumbled since first announcing it intended to go to voters to reform the charter, which requires a petition with more than 50,000 signatures from registered voters to qualify. In December, a proposal to slash the number of city commissions had to be withdrawn and resubmitted to the Department of Elections due to flawed language.

Kanishka Cheng and Jay Cheng smile a table at a social event. She has long hair and he wears glasses.
Kanishka Cheng, founder and CEO of Together SF Action, left, and Jay Cheng, CEO of Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, attend a recent event together in San Francisco. | Source: Courtesy photo

While Cheng did not say what specifically influenced the decision to drop the strong mayor proposal, which included the creation of deputy mayor positions while giving the mayor more control over commission appointments and department heads, political observers suggested the contest’s newest candidate, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, could have been a determining factor.

Peskin, the president of the Board of Supervisors, has cast himself as the progressive choice and spoken out vociferously against the city’s moderate groups, which he has accused of being controlled by big-money interests. 

“It’s either a legal issue, and we’re not privy to the details, or they saw something that Peskin has a real shot of winning, and they don’t want him to have that power,” said David Latterman, a longtime San Francisco political consultant.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Peskin slammed TogetherSF’s reform proposals as “no way to do public policy or run a government.”

He added, “What they have revealed is that this is an exercise for them to consolidate power for their intended candidate. It is actually quite frightening. The only thing I can take from this is that, apparently, I must be polling quite well.” 

Cheng said that TogetherSF is still “moving full steam ahead” on its other ballot initiative that would cut back on the number of city commissions, an effort that moderates claim will help fight back against unnecessary bureaucratic red tape. Cheng also said the group intends to bring back the mayoral powers ballot item in a future election cycle.

The group’s abandoned ballot initiative also has implications for mayoral candidate and former Supervisor Mark Farrell, who formed a committee in support of TogetherSF’s initiatives as he challenges Mayor London Breed.

In an interview Wednesday, Farrell brushed off any notion that TogetherSF Action’s decision would drastically change the goals of his committee.

“I am fully behind the bold reform of our commission structure inside of City Hall,” said Farrell, whose committee has raised about $140,000. “And I will continue to do everything in my power to help improve it.”

Jim Ross, a political consultant in San Francisco who is not working on any local races, questioned the argument TogetherSF Action made when putting together the strong mayor charter reform proposal.

TogetherSF’s effort to change the charter came in response to criticisms that San Francisco’s complex governance—the mayor cannot directly choose certain department heads, for example—makes it difficult to tackle the city’s issues effectively. 

“The only reason we don’t have a strong mayor system in San Francisco is because we don’t have a strong mayor,” Ross said. “San Francisco’s mayor has as much or more power as any mayor in the country as long as they are able to work the levers of power that they have.”

The abandoned ballot measure is a costly lesson for TogetherSF Action. Ross said that petition gathering across California currently costs about $8 to $12 per signature, and any charter reform measure in San Francisco would need more than 50,000 valid signatures to qualify for November.

TogetherSF Action’s decision comes as its moderate ally, the political action committee Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, faced scrutiny this week over a potentially inappropriate relationship with the Farrell campaign. 

Text messages show Jay Cheng, who leads Neighbors and is married to TogetherSF’s director, attempted to help the Farrell campaign with hiring—a move that has raised questions about how much independent committees and candidate campaigns can legally coordinate.