Texts between Chair of the Redistricting Task Force Arnold Townsend and Cheryl Thornton on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. April 6, 8, and 10, 2022.

Multiple activists and one member of the Redistricting Task Force have said that task force Chair Rev. Arnold Townsend confided in them that he has been under intense pressure from outside forces to vote in favor of the present controversial district map.

“I had a conversation on Saturday with the chair where he discussed the pressure he is feeling around the Potrero Hill and Portola vote,” said task force member Raynell Cooper. “He suggested that pressure was due to a longstanding friendship and relationship with the mayor.”

The current draft map, approved on Sunday after four members of the task force walked out over concerns about the transparency of the redistricting process, controversially includes Portola in District 10, Potrero Hill in District 9, and splits the Tenderloin into District 5.

Cheryl Thornton, an activist who also works for the Department of Public Health, showed Mission Local a text exchange with Townsend. In it, Townsend sends Thornton a text at 9:52 p.m. on Friday, April 8: “If you see me stand up, meet me outside.”

Texts between Chair of the Redistricting Task Force Arnold Townsend and Cheryl Thornton on Friday and Sunday. April 8 and 10, 2022.

A while later, she said, Townsend stood up and the two met. Thornton did not record the exchange because doing so would have been illegal, but she recounted it to Mission Local.

Townsend told her that the decision to swap Potrero Hill and heavily Asian Portola would be coming up again, and she would not be happy with his vote.

Townsend, Thornton said, explained that he had no choice but to vote for this proposition. Townsend allegedly mentioned that Mayor London Breed does not get along with District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton.

The final draft map being proposed creates an Asian majority in District 10, a Black stronghold — and puts the African American Walton in a more vulnerable position.

The next text exchange is from early Sunday morning. Matthew Castillon, a mayoral appointee on the task force, had just proposed voting on a map that put Potrero into District 9, Portola into District 10, and moved the Tenderloin out of District 6 and into District 5. Townsend voted to accept the map, disliked by Thornton and others who spoke at public comment, but it was voted down 5–4, with Townsend in the minority.

In the text exchange, Townsend refers to Thornton and other activists winning while he managed to keep his “commitment.”

“You got what you needed and I kept my commitment,” he wrote after that vote. Just minutes later, however, around 1:30 a.m., Townsend called for a recess.

“Excuse me,” Townsend said. “ Why don’t we move our cars? Come back. Pull up whatever you want to pull up. Get a chance to think and talk for a minute and then we’ll come back.”

The recess lasted half an hour.

When task force members returned, Vice-Chair Ditka Reiner, who had voted with the majority against the map that would put Portola in D10 and Potrero Hill in D9, said that she had erred and had been confused about what she had been voting on.

The task force re-ran the vote. This time around, the map that puts Portola in D10 and Potrero in D9 won, in a 5-4 vote.

Task force member J. Michelle Pierce has said there was no way Reiner was “confused.” Clerk John Carroll had asked for the motion to be clarified immediately before the initial vote, and Reiner made detailed explanations of why she voted the way she did prior to the recess. Pierce adds that Reiner received a phone call as she left chambers.

Reiner, Townsend and Breed have not responded to attempts to reach them. 

Raquel Redondiez, director of SOMA Pilipinas, also spoke with Townsend in the days before the controversial vote. Townsend, she said, told her that he had to take another “bad vote.”

According to Redondiez, Townsend added that he was going to “catch hell” if the vote went another way.

“The people who had been telling him behind the scenes to put Tenderloin in District 5 had not shown up,” said Redondiez. She said Townsend felt he had been “hung out to dry” because there had been insufficient support in public comments for moving the neighborhood, yet he was still expected to vote that way.

“He is clearly not acting independently,” she said.

Although Townsend twice voted in favor of the map that puts Portola into D10 and Potrero Hill into D9, he did not appear happy with the outcome.

After the re-vote was taken early Sunday morning and the controversial map won, Pierce referred to the approved map as “ethnic suicide,” before walking out of the proceedings.

Townsend, who voted for that map, responded, “I tend to agree with you.”

At that point, with four members of the task force gone, Townsend and others appeared unsure what to do. Chasel Lee, clearly frustrated despite having voted for the map, said that it “should have stayed failed.”

Townsend agreed: “Damn right, it should have.”

Nonetheless, Townsend, Lee, and the three remaining members continued to meet and approved the map that Townsend and Lee said “should have stayed failed.” As it stands, only small tweaks can be made to the map. 

Thornton said that she was so angry, she stopped talking with Townsend. She has heard since that he has been deluged with calls from the Black community and is considering rescinding his vote. But that was only a supposition, she clarified.

“This isn’t what I signed up for,” Cooper told Mission Local. “And I’m sure it’s not what [Townsend] signed up for either.”

Townsend has publicly stated that he did not seek out his appointment. He was appointed to the task force by Mayor London Breed.

The task force’s meeting to approve the final map is currently ongoing, but chair Townsend has proposed extending the deadline by two more meetings. Deputy City Attorney Ana Flores has said that it would be illegal to miss the 11:59 p.m. Thursday deadline.

Proposed boundaries

Data from the Redistricting Task Force.

Proposed boundaries and income

Data from the Redistricting Task Force and from the 2020 American Community Survey.

Proposed boundaries and race

Data from the Redistricting Task Force and from the 2020 American Community Survey.

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DATA REPORTER. Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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. Well, this is an incredibly damning article. I mean yes, the part of it about Townsend allegedly being influenced by Breed (although that seems potentially speculative? He just says he’s not voting how Thornton wants, not because the Mayor wants it) is pretty damn damning.

    But so too is what is pretty obviously a frankly ABSURD level of back room influence that people like Thornton have. The fact that the chair of the committee was live texting an advocate for a specific set of maps *even during the hear* calls the entire process into question.

    Whether or not the Mayor exerted improper influence here (and I’m sure no one would have trouble believing that), Thornton’s own evidence makes it clear that she was. To what is frankly an *absurd* degree.

    How are we supposed to trust any of these maps or the process that generated them when it’s coming from this sort of thing?

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  2. If Townsend knew ahead of time that Castillon was going to present a motion to swap Potrero and Portola in D10, that implies a blatant violation of the Brown Act.

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  3. I don’t understand how this story can just take for granted that Townsend was available to special interests to the degree presented here. What the hell business did Thornton have making demands of him and berating him for doing his job?

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    1. DARVO insults our intelligence.
      DENY–that Townsend gerrymandering
      ATTACK–those who name the evidence
      REVERSE–speaking the truth and gerrymandering so the
      VICTIM–is Townsend and the

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      1. No idea what you’re blathering about. Townsend sounds like a spineless idiot, and Thornton sounds like an opportunist who seems to think she’s entitled to much more access than any ordinary citizen is.

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  4. With this rampant speculation and hearsay, I regret donating to Mission Local. Blatant partisanship doesn’t deserve donations.

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    1. Mission Local certainly seems to have become more political and partisan from what I remember from a few years ago. And its remit seems to have expanded from the Mission to the entire city. Not sure if that was intentional or just mission creep (pun intended).

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    2. These are chat transcripts, not hearsay, and when authenticated, can be admitted as evidence in California courts.

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