Why a Progressive Candidate for Supervisor Is Suddenly Wooing Techies

How a demographic tsunami in wild and woolly District 6 has scrambled the race for Jane Kim’s old seat.

San Francisco magazine

September 25, 2018

Most mornings, Matt Haney wakes up in his Tenderloin studio apartment and heads to the nearest tech-shuttle stop. He’s not a coder or a programmer busing to Mountain View, though. The longtime Board of Education member is stumping for votes in his bid to replace Jane Kim, the outgoing District 6 supervisor, in next month’s election. That Haney, who along with fellow candidates Christine Johnson and Sonja Trauss is hoping to represent the swath of the city that includes the Tenderloin, SoMa, Mission Bay, and Treasure Island, should be out shaking hands is no surprise. That he should be doing so among the techies might be—but only for those who haven’t been paying attention to the district.

Already endorsed by Kim, as well as Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Hillary Ronen and former supervisor David Campos, Haney is a member of San Francisco’s progressive wing, a political faction that has made hay out of decrying tech’s malignant influence on the city in the years since our late mayor Ed Lee and, somewhat ironically, Kim pushed through a payroll-tax break to bring Twitter into Mid-Market. So why is Haney smiling and glad-handing with the very scooter-­riding, free lunch–eating, condo-dwelling workers who’ve long served as the progressives’ collective scapegoat?

The answer is simple: demographics. District 6 is famously diverse—former supervisor Chris Daly once joked that even Jesus Christ himself couldn’t represent the district fully—but it’s changing. Between 2007 and 2016, nearly 60 percent of the city’s new housing units were built there. As new residents, many of them techies, have put down roots, the area’s political character has shifted. (Redistricting in 2012 also carved away a slice of the Mission, traditionally a progressive stronghold.)

The effects of these changes became evident this summer, when Kim, who cruised to victory in 2010 and won reelection in 2014 with 67 percent of the vote, ran a disappointing third in the ­special-election mayoral race in her own district, finishing behind London Breed and Mark Leno. “In Rincon Hill, South Beach, and this area of SoMa, there’s a sense that Supervisor Kim didn’t change with the times,” says Johnson, a former member of the city’s Planning Commission. “Supervisor Kim was a transitional figure.”

But a transition to what? According to San Francisco State political science professor Jason McDaniel, it may not be away from the progressive wing altogether, but simply to a different kind of progressive, measured rather than pugilistic when it comes to techie relations. Kim tried that tactic in her first years as supervisor, before—as Richard Edward DeLeon, the author of Left Coast City, puts it—she “regained her progressive mojo” and adopted a more hard-line stance. Haney faces the same challenge, synthesizing social justice and Soylent. “The progressive faction, like any good political party, is able to coordinate around the candidates that are a good fit for their districts, rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all style,” McDaniel says.

So while Haney may, in terms of policy, be a dyed-in-the-wool progressive, his demeanor could make him a better match for the district than either of his predecessors, the tech-wary Kim or the infamously inflammatory Daly, would be. At any rate, he’s been able to tap into the city’s otherwise moderate-favoring political machine, winning endorsements from Gavin Newsom, Senator Kamala Harris, and the local DCCC. “I’m running to represent people, not to throw things at people,” Haney says of his strategy. “We need more empathy.”

Haney and his opponents have largely presented similar policy platforms, focusing on quality-of-life issues such as reducing homelessness and confronting the visible drug use and squalor in the Tenderloin, along Market, and down Sixth Street. As in this summer’s mayoral race, with little in the way of substantive differences separating the candidates, the election has become more about personality than politics. And Haney’s competitors have seized on District 6 residents’ frustrations and painted him as all talk. “People are over-empathy-ed,” Johnson says. “People want to know what you’re going to do in office.”

Johnson, an African American mother of one who rents an apartment in Mission Bay, worked in public finance for 13 years while serving as an appointee on several local boards, including the Planning Commission. A moderate who supports building more market-rate housing, she has also proposed a plan to transfer the responsibility for cleaning sidewalks from property owners to the city, and she wants to spend more public money on acquiring properties to house low-income residents. But for all her policy chops and the demographic changes that would seem to favor her, Johnson has thus far failed to emerge as a leading candidate in the race: She entered late, struggled to capture many prominent endorsements, and as of August had raised only $50,166 in campaign contributions (compared with Haney’s $245,211 and Trauss’s $165,281). In late August, perhaps sensing a runner-up finish, she and Trauss announced that they’d run as a ranked-choice pair—a move that netted them the endorsement of Mayor Breed.

Then there’s Trauss, the fiery pioneer of the yes-in-my-backyard movement, who made a name for herself as a spirited champion of housing, both subsidized and market rate, before moving to the district in 2016. “People here are pissed,” says Trauss, who lives in SoMa with her husband and young child. Though in personality she’s closest to Daly (who once vowed to use the f-word at every Board of Supervisors meeting), she has struggled to find a base of support beyond the urban-­development crowd. And on housing, the issue she’s most closely identified with, she’s had a hard time finding daylight, as Haney has sought to minimize their differences, saying he supports new housing in the district even as he avoids revealing his position on market-rate development. (Haney was the only major supervisorial candidate who declined to answer the YIMBY Action questionnaire.) “My biggest problem is that Matt Haney is stealing my lines,” Trauss says.

But running a prevent defense—­avoiding gaffes or fights, downplaying any differences on housing, and staying away from tech-bashing proposals like Supervisor Peskin’s cafeteria ban—may well prove a winning strategy for Haney come November. If not, and he needs a new job, he already knows where the tech shuttles pick up.