From left to right. District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, his opponent, Rafael Mandelman and moderator Joe Eskenazi. Photo by Mark McHale

[dropcap]Ask [/dropcap]Supervisor Jeff Sheehy a question and you may be treated to a game of verbal Frogger. He leads you here and there in a slaloming route; you’re not quite sure where you’re going to end up and, by the time you get there, you’re not always certain where you began.

He is, for good or ill, not a lifelong politician content to recite talking points. He will never be a master of message control. To wit, here’s his answer Wednesday night at the Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association candidates’ forum when asked, “Who is your choice for mayor?”

I feel like, in order to solve the homeless crisis, I put Prop. D on the ballot but we need leadership from Room 200. We have to do something about it; it’s no longer tolerable to me. I see plans, but I don’t see where the money is coming from. The question is, where do you get the resources? Are we going to commit to getting resources into San Francisco? I think Prop. D gets us resources but the second part of the question no one has asked is, is it OK to sleep on the streets of San Francisco? Is that your civil right? You know, in New York, they have the right to shelter. They have 60,000 beds. This is, for me, a public health crisis crisis we are experiencing every day in this city and it’s no longer acceptable. People are dying on our streets and people are saying, ‘Oh, that could be me and I don’t want people telling me what to do.’ But I say that could be my daughter! If she was in Seattle lying on the street, people physically and sexually abusing her and pumping her full of drugs and people say it’s her civil right, I would be horrified! I would be disgusted! I want a mayor who says this is a public health crisis and we will people clean, safe, warm space, we will diagnose what’s wrong with them and gets them appropriate care, but it is not compassionate to leave people to die on our streets!

So, “Who is your choice for mayor?”

Your humble narrator was the moderator of this debate; this was my question (Sheehy’s opponent, Rafael Mandelman, is all-in for Mark Leno, whom he even referred to as “Mayor Leno” at one point in the proceedings). My follow-up to Sheehy was functionally identical to the initial query: Do you know who you’re going to vote for? “No, I do not,” he replied.

He turned to the crowd. “Do you feel like you’ve really had the debate that you should have for the next mayor? Have you really heard — does anybody here think they’ve really heard positions on issues across the board clearly delineating and giving you the information you need to decide?”

An answer rose from the crowd: “YES!”

The supervisor and his constituents agreed to disagree.

[dropcap]Sheehy [/dropcap]on Jan. 23 played no small role in the forthcoming mayoral election in which, he says, his ballot is still in play. On that day, he voted for London Breed to permanently become mayor — but was joined by only three other supervisors. He then moved to support Mark Farrell, providing the sixth and deciding vote. Pandemonium ensued.  

Sheehy’s move made some people angry and others happy — but the folks who are angry are a lot angrier than the happy folks are happy. He made trouble for himself with this vote. That, combined with his peripatetic manner of answering questions, his ruminations about not being a politician but an activist, and his tendency to dispense with political consultants the way George Steinbrenner went through managers led to rampant speculation that Sheehy didn’t even want to win June’s election.

“It’s the weirdest narrative I’ve ever seen,” grumbled Sheehy at last week’s debate. “Yes, I want to win! Why else would I even be here tonight?”

Mandelman and Sheehy have run a collegial campaign and this was a collegial debate. The lack of venom and the bright glare — and soft money bonanza — of the mayor’s race has obscured the contest in District 8.

In some ways, this race plays into a tired read of San Francisco politics: That every office here is held by an interchangeable set of liberals, meaning it matters little who you vote for and, by extension, who wins. Sheehy and Mandelmen are both affable gay white men who agree on many issues. But not all the issues, and, even on the issues they agree on, they don’t proffer the same solutions.

The ideological similarity of San Francisco politicians is often contrasted with the viciousness of our city’s political process; it’s an easy point for a writer to bring up if he or she is hoping to make this city’s leaders look even more ridiculous than they really are. Yes, Chris Daly and Gavin Newsom would both be the most liberal men in town in broad swaths of the country. But that’s irrelevant; the ideological divides currently typifying national political debates have largely been resolved here. Viewing San Francisco politics through an ideological lens reveals little. That’s because the issues defining San Francisco and dividing its people and politicians are municipal: business regulation, housing policy, transportation, public safety, homelessness, poverty, and, at the heart of nearly everything, land-use.  

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[dropcap]And [/dropcap]Mandelman and Sheehy do differ on the issues (albeit collegially). Sheehy is open to eliminating mandatory ground-floor retail in his district in the midst of a housing shortage. Mandelman says he’s not yet ready to wholly capitulate to Amazon, nor for ground-floor housing on Market Street. Both slammed corporate, out-of-town landlords, though Sheehy was more keen to mention particular bad actor Veritas by name. (After he held a hearing targeting the real-estate giant Veritas this month, the company dropped $10,000 on the county Democratic Party, which is supporting Mandelman).

Sheehy is also keen to mention Proposition D, which he co-authored, as often as possible. Mandelman counters that the $70 million yearly it might raise would build just 140-odd affordable housing units — and, he adds, it targets the same revenue source Prop. C would use for childcare funding. That voters have been left to make this Sophie’s Choice, says the City Hall outsider, is an indictment of the City Hall status quo.

Sheehy favors Mayor Farrell’s call to hire hundreds of new cops; Mandelman questions this move when plenty of current cops are working desk jobs. “In two years, the controller anticipates the city will have a $600 million deficit. That is on an annual basis,” he says. That’s something to factor in before hiring the most expensive public employees money can buy. That massive shortfall, Mandelman adds unsubtly, dwarfs whatever funds would come our way under Prop. D.

Mandelman decried Proposition H — the Police Officer Association-penned Taser measure, which would supersede the authority of the Police Commission and the chief of police — as “patently wrong.” Sheehy supports it. “When I supported Prop. H,” he explains, “there was no Taser policy.” But now there is Taser policy. That development led Mayor Farrell to drop his support for Prop. H, but not Sheehy. When prodded further, Sheehy, the POA’s endorsed candidate, offers little in the way of explanation.

That question preceeded the seemingly simple one about who each candidate preferred for mayor.

District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, and his opponent, Rafael Mandelman. Photo by Mark McHale

At the end of the debate, the candidates’ last prior to election day on June 5, they shook hands, mingled with the crowd while organizers folded up chairs, and wandered into the foggy night. Outside, a homeless man who’d purportedly waved a bat-like object around moments earlier, spooking passers-by, was pinned to the ground by a platoon of cops. He pleaded to be released — “Please! I beg of you!” — while his wife’s shrieks pierced the leafy green hills of District 8. “He didn’t do nothing! This ain’t right!” she wailed before dropping to the ground and convulsing. An officer spoke into the microphone on his shoulder and several more cars and vans showed up. Then a fire truck. Then an ambulance.

Another Wednesday night in San Francisco.

“I have been hard-working and productive,” Sheehy told the crowd moments earlier when asked why he deserved to retain his position. “I have worked to get police officers here. I have attacked the problem of homelessness systematically. I have done a good job.”

But that’s not entirely his call to make. That’s the voters’ call. They’ll make it on June 5.  

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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1 Comment

  1. Wow. This is an incredibly accurate and insightful account of the district 8 supervisors’ debate. I am glad that you mentioned the heart-rending struggle of the homeless couple with the police. The one thing I wanted to add is that Supervisor Jeff Sheehy does regularly credit London Breed in his election forums, and criticizes Jane Kim. I think it is safe to say that he does know who he is voting for for mayor; he just doesn’t want to tell voters because he is taking pains in this election to appeal to progressives. (To be fair, Rafael Mandelman does not mention that Jane is his #2 unless he is asked specifically.) Sheehy’s donors are the same people who support London Breed. He was appointed by Ed Lee.

    In addition, Supervisor Sheehy spends as much time stumping for Prop D as he does stumping for himself. At the previous debate in Noe Valley Commons, when asked about Our City, Our Home, the initiative to raise $300 million for homelessness and services as an alternative to Prop D, Sheehy dismissed it as not being real. Well, folks, I’m here to tell you it is real. Thousands of signatures were gathered last Sunday. It is sponsored by the Homeless Coalition, the Glide Foundation, among other. It is a broad coalition of organizations and people who are determined to quickly and effectively house 4000 of the unsheltered, as well as protect our poorest people from becoming homeless.

    As always, thank for for your thoughtful reporting.

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