Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, 50, is punctual, showing up at a west side cafe located conveniently near both the things one must do and people one must meet when one runs for mayor, and the places San Francisco parents need to be to pick up and drop off their kids during the summer months.
The second-term District 11 supervisor was the first serious contender to announce his intention to take on Mayor London Breed in 2024. While, as we’ve written in the recent past, it’s a good bet that most San Franciscans cannot spell “Ahsha Safaí,” that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t vote for him: He narrowly edged the beleaguered incumbent in a June poll.
Mission Local met with the man who would be mayor on Friday, July 14. Safaí, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and a Teamsters jacket — from a rally he’d attended that day alongside the mayor questioning the expansion of autonomous vehicles — spoke of his competition, his city, and what comes next.
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Mission Local: When did you decide that San Francisco needed a new mayor and it may as well be you?
Ahsha Safaí: Deep into my second term, I really began to see the crisis. We were seeing this rise in brazen crime. I saw the amount of money we spent on homeless services and drug addiction and things were getting worse, not better. I saw the mismanagement in this city. Thousands of jobs are going vacant. We have unfilled city positions: 90 911 call operators, almost 500 police officers down, 150 firefighters, dozens and dozens of emergency-room nurses. I talk to people at the Department of Public Health and they say they don’t have enough HR people; Public Works is down hundreds of workers — they have a historic vacancy over the last several years of 20 or 30 percent, while people complain about the condition of the streets.
You start to hear over and over again from everyday San Franciscans that we want change. So, I had to take a serious look, and a lot of people started approaching me and talking to me about it. Ultimately I decided it was the right time.
ML: Have you and the mayor drifted apart, or were these differences always there?
AS: I have known London Breed for 23 years. I don’t see this as an affront to her.
ML: Does she?
AS: I’m sure she does. You’d have to ask her. I would say it’s like last year, when we put on the ballot to change the mayoral election from ’23 to ’24 My entire argument was: This is about democracy. If you want to have maybe around 50 percent of the people elect the most important position in this city, that’s your opinion. But I would rather have 75, 76, 77 percent, the highest voter turnout determine the outcome of the most important race. And she was staunchly against that.
ML: The mayor called it a “power grab” from the Democratic Socialists of America.
AS: Yeah, exactly. So, at the end of the day, maybe that’s another thing that separates us. I fundamentally believe in democracy. At times, challenge is a good thing. Competition is a good thing. It breeds better ideas, better policy. But, quite frankly, my style of leadership is one of collaboration. My style of leadership is looking to have a big tent and bring people together. That is, fundamentally, not her style of leadership.
ML: Then what is, in your opinion?
AS: I think the mayor enjoyed during Covid-19, when she had all the emergency powers to make executive orders. If she could have complete control without having to work with the legislative body? That is where her nature drives her, I guess. She doesn’t want to come in and do the work to build consensus around legislation.
ML: They seem to be kicking the tires on that line: If not for the bureaucracy, she could be an effective mayor.
AS: You know what? I started my career under Willie Brown. I spent one Saturday a month with Willie Brown, for two years, when he opened up his doors. He managed the city as a mayor should. He picked up the phone, he called department heads, he held people accountable. I would argue he probably had a much more antagonistic board than any other mayor has in the last 40 years. And yet, he got a tremendous amount of things done. I don’t think Willie Brown would’ve allowed anyone to say bureaucracy is gonna get in the way; the legislative body is going to hamstring me. Listen: We are the most strong-mayor city in the United States. The mayor can hire department heads, fire department heads, set the policy, direct where money goes. This mayor has no excuses.
In fact, if you look at what happened when she called her emergency order for the Tenderloin Linkage Center: Ultimately, she directed millions of dollars into a failed experiment of connecting people to nowhere. The goal started out, we’re going to focus on preventing overdoses, to we’re going to link people to services, to we’re not going to link people to services, we’re just going to get people off the streets, to all of a sudden creating a concentration of drug use, drug dealing and failure. That is completely within the mayor’s purview and control. The mayor has the authority. If we allocate funding, as we did with our recent $25 million supplemental budget request for cleaning the streets, the mayor can say — and she did — “I’m only gonna spend $16 million of that. I’m taking the other $9 million and I’m putting it toward something else.”
The mayor in this city enjoys tremendous power. In my opinion, the buck begins and ends with this mayor. The fact she has used her entire time in office to make excuses on why she can’t get things done, in my mind, is one of the biggest reason why the voters in San Francisco — 66 percent in the most recent poll — said they’re not gonna vote for her again. They’ve given her her shot. She’s had six years, going on seven. It’s hard to argue that anyone is obstructing her ability to lead this city.
ML: You’ve made your case on what the mayor hasn’t done. What is the case for what you will do differently? This is a difficult city to lead.
AS: Starting with my experience under Willie Brown, working as a deputy department head of community development under Gavin Newsom, working in Public Works, working in the San Francisco Housing Authority, I have internal government experience. Also, I started my own small consulting business, and worked with organized labor for almost a decade.
I am not neatly defined. I think of myself as a pragmatic progressive, pragmatic moderate, however you want to define it. I am pragmatic in my thinking. My ability and my experience, now seven years on the board, prepares me for this job on Day One.
Take the Prop. G case: I was able to bring everyone to the table to get to yes. That is one of the biggest distinctions between me and the mayor: My ability to build consensus. Citywide Project Labor Agreement: I led that process with Supervisor Peskin. That had been sitting there for years. And we were able to get the small business community, the city administrator’s office, department heads, other elected officials, organized labor and the mayor’s office in fact, and we got that legislation passed. Same thing with inclusionary housing. We coulda rammed it through, 6-5, that was the balance of power at the time. Instead, my good friend Mark Leno said to me, “Ahsha, I want you to do everything you can to strive toward consensus.” This is the type of policy that requires you to build consensus. And we did! On an 11-0 vote. Myself, Aaron Peskin, Jane Kim, even London Breed. We got that legislation passed and that was the first time that had been done in 15 years.
ML: What is the responsible way to talk about crime in San Francisco? One could argue the mayor played up the lawlessness when it served her purposes, but …
AS: (interjects) Now it’s not in her interests to talk that up anymore. I think the way to talk about crime should be consistent. Two weeks ago, there were women the age of your wife and my wife being hit over the head in all parts of the city and having their smartphones taken. That was really happening. That’s not made up. And so, a few years ago, it was ‘brazen crime, theft, crime is on the rise.’ Now when you hear the mayor talk, it’s fake news. It’s Fox News. It’s the right-wing media. Actually, no it’s not.
ML: So, in this case, you’re saying that the mayor’s position on crime has shifted depending on who is in the hot seat.
AS: Right. Because she’s in the hot seat. That is the No. 1 issue. You talk to any voter: Every single survey, everything we’ve seen and, I’m sure, everything you’ve seen, crime is the No. 1 issue. People are concerned about it. It is touching a lot of people. To talk about it in a thoughtful way, say: Yes, we are down police officers. That is a reality. We also need to deal with intervention programs, we need to deal with true recovery programs for those who have mental health and drug addictions. That is also a big difference. I have been working for the past three years on abstinence-based recovery when no one else wanted to talk about it. And we did it: We got money in the budget for an alternative sentencing adult probation therapeutic recovery community for those who were formerly incarcerated.
That was our No. 1 allocation that we fought for in the budget, was abstinence, sober living. We want to continue to expand that.
ML: Are you expanding it at the expense of harm reduction?
AS: I don’t buy into the argument about pitting the two against each other. Though I will say, did you see the Washington Post article a few weeks ago …
ML: (Interjects) The one where they called the mayor “hapless”?
AS: No. No. (Laughter). No. Not that one. No. The one where they were looking at the programs in Portugal and how some of their decriminalization and harm reduction has now created a blurred line of what is acceptable and what is not. I think you do need to have a balance. You do need to prevent people from dying, and stop the overdoses, but we also really need to get people into real, alternative recovery programs and I think that has been lacking in this city for some time.
ML: Do you agree with the mayor’s approach to overt drug use?
AS: I think that if you don’t have a hard line you’re going to get a tremendous amount of permissiveness. But let me just say this: To arrest someone and hold them for six hours or four hours and then release them back onto the street? That’s not really doing anything. That might actually be exacerbating the problem. You have to be more thoughtful. There are a lot of different pieces to that puzzle. It’s not about just arresting people on the spot.
First and foremost, there are two different ways to approach the issue. Supply side, which are the drug dealers: If you’re selling drugs, you should be arrested. I don’t even see that happening, actually. I was walking in the Tenderloin yesterday, and I was there for 45 minutes and I didn’t see a single police officer. And there were all types of open-air dealing and use. So that’s one thing. Gotta deal with the supply side.
But then on the demand side, yes, some people might need to be arrested. But if you’re not referring them to the right type of treatment program, that’s going to get them on the road to recovery. It’s not going to be successful. That has been the missing element in this conversation.
ML: If what we’re doing exacerbates the problem, what is the motivation there?
AS: I think it’s … wanting to give the perception of being tough on crime. I don’t know what other thing to say.
ML: Let me ask you some strategic questions: How do you win? Were you surprised by the poll where you beat the mayor head to head?
AS: I wasn’t. Because I’ve been out on the street, talking to people for months now, and I will tell you: The idea that 66 percent of the people aren’t going to vote for the mayor, that might even be a little bit low.
I have not met a lot of people who are ready to support her. But my campaign is about me. What I can bring to San Francisco. What I said before about the work I’ve done to prepare myself for this job and being ready on Day One: That’s the message I’ve been out there promoting to people. Look, it’s a marathon. One poll is just one poll. But the desire for change is strong.
ML: Who is the Ahsha Safaí constituency and how do you bridge the gap between people disgruntled with a centrist mayor on both the right and the left? How do you do that?
AS: I think you do that by talking about what’s best for San Francisco, and uplifting what everyone wants. Everyone who lives here loves this city. [I want] to bring back to the forefront what makes this city special: Our diversity. We’re a city of immigrants. Myself, I was born outside of this country. This is a place that is welcoming, and people are free to be who they are.
So, how do I win? I win by talking to everyday San Franciscans who feel like their city is upside-down, who want to see their city safe, clean, compassionate but also firm in areas it needs to be firm, and really celebrate our welcoming nature, our diversity, our ingenuity, our creativity.
ML: Let me ask a difficult question. Today was the Bernie Curran sentencing. And he was sent to prison, in large part, because he took money from a man that the federal sentencing memo strongly implies is developer Sia Tahbazof. You have a relationship with Sia. Is this going to be an issue for you?
AS: Listen, I think that when you work in this city for 25 years, you’re going to know a lot of different people. At the end of the day, there’s Bernie and the whole host of people who have been under the cloud of corruption in this administration. I actually think it’s just another piece of the corruption this administration has had to see unfold on a monthly, if not daily, basis.
In my administration, we are going to operate our city government to serve the people and only the people. It’s not about self-promotion or any of the other things that have been accused of the whole slew of department heads under this administration.
ML: You were there when the mayor responded to Supervisor Dean Preston’s queries about whether she’d institute the policies she tasked her health department with writing by blasting him as a “white savior.” But you are not susceptible to that kind of attack. You are not a white man. You did not grow up in particularly fortuitous circumstances.
AS: No, not at all. I think that’s the nature of democracy: You don’t get to choose your opponent. You can’t create your opponent.
ML: Unless you do.
AS: Right. Unless you do. But, like that poll said, head to head today — I win. I would say she’ll have to think of another attack for me.