Nobody likes a boring election. (Plenty of people don’t like allegedly exciting elections, either, so there’s that.) People like to know their vote matter and that, in turn, they matter, even if it means shaming and denigrating the electorate into voting but the truth is, in a place like California and in a place like San Francisco, our choices are between shades of liberal Democrats. Everybody is mostly the same, so what’s the difference?
The supervisor race in District 11 the residential neighborhoods along the city’s southern edge, home of City College, Jerry Garcia’s grandmother’s old house, and an immensely popular medical cannabis dispensary is a good example of this. Take the candidates: Ahsha Safai and Kimberly Alvarenga are doth Democrats, they are both political directors for unions, they are even both political directors for different locals of the Service Employees International Union. They’re both for creating jobs, they’re both for working families. What's in a vote?
The apparent sameness masks the contest's potential importance to the balance of power at City Hall: Safai is the “moderate” and Alvarenga is the “progressive” a difference, as San Francisco Magazine points out this week, that more or less boils down to taking a call from Airbnb versus a call from the Tenants’ Union and since the progressives hold a one-vote majority on the 11-member Board of Supervisors, what happens in District 11 could very well determine who runs the city. If city politics is a playground seesaw, swinging back and forth, District 11, this collection of mostly working class people of color living in Mediterranean homes Tom Wolfe’s “slums with a view” is the fulcrum. (All of that is moot if Jane Kim wins the state senate seat and the mayor appoints a moderate to replace her, but I digress.)
There could be a lot at stake in the D11 race, and to date, if anyone has been on the offensive, it’s been forces aligned with Alvarenga. She served as political director for SEIU 1021, the massive and massively-influential public employees union, and proxy attacks have been steadily coming via local progressive website 48Hills whose editor, former Guardian top honcho Tim Redmond, is also on the SEIU 1021 payroll.
Though there’s no reliable polling of the district that we’ve seen, it’s reasonable to assume Safai is running with a lead: He has endorsements from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and other top Democrats, and has raised almost triple the cash Alvarenga’s raised. (Mayor Ed Lee is staying out the race, which says as much about him as it does about the candidates.) That could explain the attacks on him, while Alvarenga’s been mostly unsullied. About the worst we heard was talk that the former district director for Tom Ammiano hasn’t done much for the neighborhood, the same critique leveled at current D11 supe, John Avalos, not long after he took office in 2009.
So far, the tone of things has been mostly positive, but now’s the time October is upon us, Election Day six weeks away that the tone typically changes. At this point, things turn one of two ways: they get really nasty, or they get really technical. The latter is how you’d describe what's been going on this week.
We mentioned endorsements. Neither side has the endorsement of the local Democratic Party a very big deal in a year when even engaged voters are staring helplessly at the massive voter guides stuffed with an alphabet soup of ballot propositions, wondering what to do. This is when cheat sheets like the local Democratic Party slate come in handy hence this negative piece about Alvarenga neatly placed in the Chronicle on Wednesday afternoon, hours before the Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) was set to vote for a second time on an endorsement in D11. It seems Alvarenga hadn't registered as a Democrat until this spring. She apparently declared no party affiliation before that, despite saying to interviewers that she'd been a Democrat since she was 18. A smart ploy, but it didn't work. No loyalty, no problem: on Wednesday night, the DCCC still elected not to endorse either candidate.
So now what? As it happens, the janitors' union is having its own power struggle. And now, Safai has to do some explaining, courtesy of forces within SEIU Local 87 who don't like current president Olga Miranda, and are using the union's munificence to Safai as a hammer to bash her with.
Back in 2012, Safai received $9,500 from the janitors for helping negotiate a long-term tenant for SEIU Local 87’s Tenderloin union hall, according to public records, something he’s not licensed to do. It goes like this. Safai came on as SEIU Local 87’s part-time political director in 2009. The union is small, averaging just under 3,000 members during his tenure compared to 54,000 for Alvarenga’s SEIU 1021, so conceivably there’s just less to be done. In 2011, federal immigration conducted "desktop raids" on employers to see if workers' eligibility papers were in order. According to Safai and Miranda, massive amounts of janitors lost their jobs, and the bereft union could no longer afford to keep him on. (Whether this is true SFist could not confirm; federal records show membership and revenues were both relatively steady during this time.)
However Safai stayed on to “keep doing the work,” he told SFist. In addition to political work, he also had a series of meetings with St. Anthony’s Foundation over a period of ten months which culminated with the charity renting office space from the janitors. After St. Anthony’s signed the lease and moved in, Safai went to the union’s executive board to ask for some kind of compensation. The $9,500 sounds big, but it “barely covered my expenses,” he says. After that, he came back on as political director, but as an outside consultant rather than being in-house on the payroll.
State law says you need a real estate license to negotiate a commercial lease. Public records show Safai does not have one which is why both he and SEIU 87 president Miranda call the payment a “referral fee,” even though the payment is described as a “commission” in public records on file with the Department of Labor.
“I’m not the person who prepares [the internal forms for payments], but I can tell you it was understood to be a referral fee,” Miranda told us Wednesday. “A commission is very distinct from how we paid Ahsha.”
Why does this matter, and why should anyone care? Consider: In 2008, Safai lost to current D11 supe John Avalos by about 1,000 votes. Avalos is heavily supporting Alvarenga but, according to Miranda, about 800 members of the janitors' union live in District 11. And SEIU 87 has, predictably, endorsed Safai in the race.
Thus, the balance of power in City Hall could very well rest with the people who clean our floors for under $20 an hour.
This is why Miranda’s opponent in her modest-sized union’s presidential race is trying to make Safai and the check he received into a major issue.
“Ahsha doesn’t do anything,” says Elsa Maria Almanza, who has mounted several unsuccessful bids against Miranda for president. “He doesn’t work with the members. The only thing he’s in for is political interest.”
And that's not it. Almanza claims union members have been all but coerced into volunteering on the Safai campaign. Here's how: There was a contract rally a few weeks ago. Anyone who didn't attend, according to Almanza, was threatened with a $150 penalty taken out of their checks a penalty that would be refunded, if members then attended a Safai campaign rally. "This is extortion," Almanza says.
Miranda did not immediately respond to a request for comment on that accusation. Whether or not it's true, this race could quickly become the fall's messiest.