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Politics & Policy

Last in the mayor’s race, Ahsha Safaí says don’t count him out

A man in a blue shirt stands attentively in a dimly lit bar, surrounded by blurred figures focused on their drinks and conversations.
Ahsha Safai pauses before addressing supporters during a campaign event on Wednesday night. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

Standing at the back of the brick-walled cocktail bar Swig on Geary Boulevard on Wednesday evening, Supervisor Ahsha Safaí took stock of his most loyal supporters, some of whom had traveled all the way from the outskirts of his district in the southernmost part of the city.

His district’s proximity to downtown—approximately a 25-minute car ride to the watering hole that was chosen for his 100th campaign event—is in many ways a fitting analogy for his fight to nab the city’s top job. 

He’s not quite at the center of the mayoral race—he’s trailing badly in polls, and some may even forget he’s in the running—but Safaí maintains that things are A-OK. 

Don’t count him out, he says.

“I do not feel discouraged,” he told The Standard. “I feel very hopeful.”

A man speaks into a microphone in a bar with attentive listeners, brick walls, a lit bar shelf, and hanging menu signs.
Ahsha Safaí speaks to supporters during a campaign event at Swig in San Francisco on Wednesday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

A supervisor in District 11 since 2017, Safaí has walked an ideological tightrope since entering into the mayoral race about a year ago and is selling himself as the guy who knows the intricacies of City Hall’s byzantine bureaucracy like the back of his hand.

It’s a similar pitch to that of Board President Aaron Peskin, who’s known for his political acumen, but Safaí would probably tell you the difference is he’s not the dramatic type who will go around playing the blame game with his challengers. 

Sure, Safaí is an insider who’s been working in City Hall since the Willie Brown days—but he’s trying to convince voters he’s not an insider-insider, like some of his opponents, including Peskin, Mayor London Breed and former Supervisor Mark Farrell, who led the city for a short stint. 

An individual holds a campaign sign reading "Ahsha for Mayor", expressing a serious demeanor. They wear glasses and a brown sweater.
Brenda Barros, of Antioch, shows her support for Ahsha Safai during a campaign event on Wednesday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard
Three men share a conversation at a social event, one gesturing animatedly while holding a wine glass. They are dressed in business casual attire.
Ahsha Safaí, center, talks with supporters during a campaign event at Swig in San Francisco on Wednesday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

He’s the everyday man, unlike that fancy rich guy, nonprofit leader Daniel Lurie with his Levi’s jeans fortune, Safaí will tell you.

“Everything that I have heard over the last year is people are ready for change,” Safaí told the crowd of roughly 50 supporters at Swig. “They want to see the new leadership in the Mayor’s Office. They want someone that’s going to bring the city together, that’s going to fight for everyone. And that’s not going to continuously point fingers at everyone else.”

But Safaí’s optimism may need to face a reality check. 

The polls aren’t looking so good for him: On Sunday, moderate-leaning political group GrowSF released figures showing Safaí polling dead last, with a mere 9.5% of the vote in a simulated ranked-choice contest. That comes after a San Francisco Chronicle poll released in February resulted in similar figures.

Despite the numbers, Safaí’s campaign manager, Lauren Chung, was adamant that he’s staying in the race.

“In San Francisco, I’ve seen enough races to know that five months, six months, is a long way to go,” she said. Between fundraising and public financing, Chung said the campaign has brought in roughly $900,000.

So why drive half an hour to a bar in the Tenderloin on a Wednesday night to see a candidate presumably in last place?

“Today is about name ID,” said Safaí supporter Susan Horsfall, responding to the latest polls. “That’s all it is.” 

An elderly woman in a bar holds a menu with Japanese characters, smiling while interacting with someone off-camera; drinks and soft lighting in the background.
Susan Horsfall holds a sign supporting Ahsha Safaí at Swig in San Francisco on Wednesday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard
A group listens attentively to a speaker at a bar, illuminated by ambient lighting and a backlit shelf of bottles.
Supporters of Ahsha Safaí listen as he speaks during a campaign event at Swig in San Francisco on Wednesday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

Horsfall wasn’t the only one to point out that at least one of the candidates, namely Lurie and his independent expenditure committee, has spent gobs of money trying to get his relatively unknown name out there. That’s skewing the current polling, they claim, but once voters get to the ballot box, Safaí stands a chance. 

Many also felt the type of contest could end up with a win for Safaí.

“It’s ranked-choice voting … who knows how that will end up,” said David Strother, who has known Safaí since the late 2000s. “I’ll support him anyway because I know who he is,” said Monica Vivanco, sitting next to Strother. 

“They said the same thing about [former District 10 Supervisor] Malia Cohen,” said city employee Brenda Barros, referring to Cohen’s win in a ranked-choice contest back in 2010. “It’s about the work you put in and the contact you do with the people.”

Barros said she initially supported Breed but turned to Safaí after what she saw as the sitting mayor’s lack of support for the city’s nurses, who are currently in contract negotiations. “He’s compassionate about issues that I care for as a Black person,” she added.

A man in a business suit smiles broadly, looking off to the side; background suggests an indoor setting with subtle decor.
Ahsha Safaí told The Standard he remained "hopeful" despite training badly in polls. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

Just around the corner from Barros, at a high-top bar, sat two more of Safaí’s supporters, Richard Alexander and Mike Fitzgerald. The two said they felt that Safaí was one of the first to “really advocate” for scrutinizing city contracts with social services nonprofits before a swirl of scandals regarding misused funding.

Some remain skeptical about a Safaí win, or at least say there’s an uphill battle for him.

“He’s definitely going to have to get himself out there and get people to know him the way I know him,” Joe Guglielmi said. “If they did it, he’d have a lot of support behind them. It’s a difficult race with so many candidates. And so I don’t know, via marketing efforts, how he’s going to accomplish that, but no question a challenge.”