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Politics & Policy

San Francisco’s most powerful political group is in crisis

A collage featuring Jay Cheng, city skyline, text "Neighbors for a Better San Francisco," and scribbles.
Jay Cheng led Neighbors for a Better San Francisco as it spent almost $9 million on elections since 2020. Now, an old sexual assault allegation is raising questions about his future. | Source: Jesse Rogala/The Standard

A Republican billionaire, a real estate developer, a venture capitalist, a famed investor’s wife and a lawyer huddled last week to decide whether Jay Cheng—the head of Neighbors for a Better San Francisco—should continue to serve as the leader of the city’s most powerful political group.

After spending millions to dominate local politics over the past four years, Neighbors was suddenly in the midst of a crisis. 

Media outlets were reporting that Cheng had attempted to help hire staff for Mark Farrell’s mayoral campaign, raising questions about improper coordination between the Neighbors political committee and a candidate committee. More disturbingly, old reports of Cheng being accused of sexual battery by an ex-partner in 2010 were resurfacing.

Casting doubt on his claims of innocence then and today, Cheng had confessed in multiple emails—under duress, he said—to sexually assaulting the woman. 

“I am sorry for sexually assaulting you,” Cheng wrote. “I tried to rape you and I thank you everyday for not letting me do that to you.”

If there was any doubt that Neighbors officials sensed that their leader was under siege, the organization hired political consultant Sam Singer, the Bay Area’s preeminent crisis communications manager. After the board meeting, Neighbors circled the wagons and launched a coordinated PR campaign. 

On Wednesday, the board sent a letter to rattled donors to reassure them that Cheng was innocent of any wrongdoing politically as well as criminally. The letter said that Cheng was ordered by the board to not have any interactions with mayoral candidates or campaigns, and the sexual assault allegations were “behind him” as no criminal or civil charges were ever filed.

The next day, Cheng sent a letter defending himself against the allegations of sexual assault to Nancy Tung, the new chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, which was hosting a hearing on predatory sexual behavior and harassment in local politics. Cheng was the latest prominent figure to come under the spotlight after The Standard reported disturbing allegations against once-rising political star Jon Jacobo.

Nancy Tung speaks into a microphone. She looks focused, has long dark hair and wears a tweed blazer.
Jay Cheng wrote a letter to Nancy Tung, chair of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, before party officials held a hearing Thursday to discuss sexual assault and harassment in local politics. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

In a phone interview, Cheng told The Standard that he had nothing to hide but stuck mostly to talking points he has repeated since he was arrested on suspicion of sexual battery in 2010. Cheng said he was pressured into the confession because his ex-girlfriend was harassing him, calling him 50 times a day and demanding he admit he assaulted her.

“I regret lying to her in those emails,” Cheng said. “It was absolutely a mistake to capitulate, just so that she would stop calling me to try and move forward.”

Prosecutors declined to file charges against Cheng, citing a lack of evidence.

On top of discomfort that Cheng may have been improperly colluding with Farrell’s campaign—which ruffled feathers among supporters of Mayor London Breed and nonprofit founder Daniel Lurie—a #MeToo moment appears to be taking place in San Francisco as local Democrats demand accountability for those who have enabled harassment and sexual violence.

Leaders in the local Democratic Party's moderate wing are being forced to make a decision on Neighbors: Shut up and stick with Cheng, or risk losing access to the golden spigot of local politics.

‘It’s all very cutthroat’

No political organization in San Francisco wields a fatter checkbook than Neighbors.

The group has spent almost $9 million on an array of successful ballot measures and political candidates since 2020, with conservative hedge fund billionaire William Oberndorf, venture capitalist Steven Merrill and Cheng exerting the most influence on where the money is directed, according to sources with knowledge of Neighbors’ operations.

Neighbors’ donors list apparently numbers in the hundreds, with retirees giving relatively modest sums along with real estate CEOs and tech entrepreneurs cutting six-figure checks or transferring over hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock.

The group has pinned pelts to the wall in the form of two successful recall elections: One ousted three school board members who were seen as too woke, and another sidelined progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin to a bench far outside of any courtroom.

Chesa Boudin stands before a crowd, facing bright lights, holding a microphone.
Neighbors for a Better San Francisco led the multimillion-dollar effort to recall former District Attorney Chesa Boudin. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Sources with knowledge of Neighbors’ operations told The Standard that even before the tumultuous last two weeks, the organization’s board was split on Cheng’s future. Some of his allies have been slow to speak up in support of him. Sources said that relationships have become strained as moderate political groups are competing for the same pot of money in an election year. 

Just weeks before the March primary election, housing advocates were dumbfounded by a Mission Local report that found Cheng had signed off on giving $110,000 to a slate mail organization that opposed an affordable housing bond measure, Proposition A, which was widely supported in the city’s political community. Neighbors, at its core, specializes in slate mailers.

“When he made an excuse about his PAC supporting an organization that didn’t support the affordable housing bond—that was unacceptable,” said a source who works on housing in San Francisco.

Winning causes that Neighbors supported in the March primary included Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mental health ballot measure Proposition 1 and Breed’s public safety measure Proposition E. The group also helped to defeat Proposition B, a measure derided as a "cop tax."

Within the city's pro-development YIMBY coalition, tensions have emerged over Cheng's role in Neighbors. The Standard obtained screenshots of a Slack channel used by members of YIMBY, where several people raised concerns about the allegations of sexual assault and political impropriety against Cheng. 

The conversation quickly turned confrontational when Cheng’s wife—Kanishka Cheng, the head of another powerful moderate political group, TogetherSF Action—responded that people were treating reports about her husband as “fun gossip.” 

Kanishka Cheng and Jay Cheng both smile while seated at a festive table with dinnerware, both dressed semi-formally.
Kanishka and Jay Cheng have become a political power couple in San Francisco, but both have come under the spotlight for their organizations’ close ties to Mark Farrell's mayoral campaign. | Source: Courtesy photo

“If people want to ‘hold him accountable’ they should feel free to have those conversations,” Kanishka Cheng wrote. “You opining about it and alluding to things is what makes it gossip.”

TogetherSF Action and Neighbors have received funding from Michael Moritz, The Standard’s chairman. 

Jay Cheng’s political acumen has generally been widely praised, but his decision to send text messages about a job offer for Farrell’s mayoral campaign was seen as stunningly naive, if not an ethical breach that should disqualify Neighbors from trying to influence the mayor’s race.

“In this town, if you open your mouth to one person, you might as well put it on a billboard on Van Ness,” said a longtime San Francisco political consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid upsetting Neighbors.

Mary Jung, the former chair of the local Democratic Party and Cheng’s predecessor as the executive director of Neighbors, said in an interview that criticism of Cheng is motivated by progressive forces looking to derail the moderate agenda. 

“It’s all very cutthroat, and this is part of the progressive playbook to stop us from having any victories in November, but I really disagree with the way people are going about it,” Jung said. “Maybe it’s because I’m older, but politics should be about the issues—not jeopardizing someone’s livelihood because they’re smart enough to figure out how to win.” 

Mary Jung speaks into a microphone at a podium with signs urging to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
Mary Jung mentored Jay Cheng when he first arrived in San Francisco to work on former Mayor Ed Lee’s 2011 campaign. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard.

Cheng said repeatedly he has shown “humility” in the way he conducts himself personally and professionally.

“My son is 3 years old,” Cheng told The Standard. “I don’t want him to grow up with this question there. I don’t want him to grow up with gossip or rumors like this flying around. So that’s why I decided to kind of be very straightforward in all of this.”

While he may be able to weather doubts about his allegiance in the mayor’s race—Neighbors officials said they have not taken a stance on the race at this point—the sexual assault allegations could prove harder to overcome. 

Ryan Khojasteh, a San Francisco prosecutor who is challenging District Attorney Brooke Jenkins in November’s election, called for Cheng to be removed as the head of Neighbors in a statement to The Standard.

“Standing up for victims and survivors should not be a left or right issue—or within San Francisco’s political culture, a moderate or progressive issue,” Khojasteh said. “Accountability needs to supersede political alliance.”

Nadia Rahman, the former president of the San Francisco Women’s Political Committee, questioned the decision to keep Cheng in a position of such influence in San Francisco politics. 

“It is possible for someone to move on with their life after allegations like this without having an extremely influential role in shaping political power,” Rahman said. “This is one of the issues that is making survivors uncomfortable about this specific case—it sends a message on who is allowed to be the gatekeeper of power despite their past.”