Tech-rooted groups seek to shake up San Francisco politics

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The tech entrepreneurs who flocked to San Francisco two decades ago bringing jobs and wealth, and also soaring housing prices and gentrification, are becoming a rising political force in a city they say is woefully off track.

They are forming advocacy organizations — among them TogetherSF Action, Abundant SF and Grow SF — to pressure officials to tackle soaring housing costs, public drug dealing and other woes exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the organizations differ in their priorities, they all say a small group of power brokers, many of them progressives, have prevented the city from solving some of its most pressing issues. The groups are highlighting fissures among Democrats in this liberal stronghold that has struggled to rebound from the pandemic.

“In San Francisco there’s a lot of political ideology that holds people back from working together for the things that they actually agree on,” said Kanishka Cheng, who co-founded TogetherSF Action in 2020 with billionaire venture capitalist Michael Moritz, a former journalist who also started the San Francisco Standard news website and was among the initial investors in Google.

This year TogetherSF Action is educating people about the city's drug problem and pushing for an increased police presence to hold dealers accountable, and also for treatment options to get addicted people off the streets. Like many cities, San Francisco is battling the fentanyl crisis and sees about two deaths a day from overdoses.

Another tech entrepreneur seeking to influence change is Zack Rosen, who is co-founder and CEO of the website platform Pantheon and helped launch YIMBY California, a pro-development group that fights for state-level zoning reforms.

Rosen said he is motivated by his and his wife's desire to raise their family in San Francisco. He grew frustrated at the lack of affordable housing after workers at a bike shop he owns were displaced, and he wants to cut through the red tape and bureaucracy that have hampered new construction.

Now Rosen, his wife and other couples working in tech are the force behind Abundant SF, which plans to spend millions to back ballot measures and candidates that would create safe, accessible public spaces and increase the housing stock for all income levels.

“There is a lot of complaining on Twitter and not a lot of action,” Rosen said. “We want to be part of the solution.”

Tech has had a huge presence in San Francisco since the early 2000s, when major companies including Google, Twitter and Uber began renting office space downtown as the Silicon Valley expanded north.

But only recently have industry leaders sought to so publicly attempt to influence policy and elections. Some of them were encouraged last year after their efforts promoting moderate candidates led to ballot-box defeats for multiple progressive officials: A supervisor, three school board members and District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

They range from activists with a track record of influencing city and state policy to higher-profile, brash figures like Elon Musk who turn to social media to criticize officials.

Earlier this month Musk joined in an outcry on Twitter, which he purchased last year for $44 billion, that sought to characterize the killing of Cash App founder Bob Lee, who was stabbed repeatedly on a street, as an example of out-of-control crime in a declining San Francisco.

In fact, San Francisco has some of the lowest violent crime rates among the country's 23 largest cities, according to FBI data. And ultimately an acquaintance was arrested in Lee's death, and authorities said the attack was not a case of random street violence but the result of a dispute between the men.

Still, many residents feel unsafe with property crimes on the rise, including catalytic converter theft, shoplifting at convenience and grocery stores and home break-ins. Many are also fed up with scenes of drug dealers doing brisk business in public spaces and people in mental distress or passed out on trash-strewn sidewalks in central neighborhoods.

Only about a third of San Franciscans said in an April city survey that they feel safe walking at night, down from 53% in 2019, the last time officials conducted the poll. Asked to grade the government and police department, residents gave them a C and C+, respectively.

With such concerns in mind, GrowSF, an advocacy group started in 2020 by two software engineers who left tech jobs to launch it, focuses on public safety and helping elect officials who will crack down on things like property crime and open-air drug bazaars.

“This has been something people have been frustrated by for years,” said co-founder Sachin Agarwal, who worked at Twitter and then Lyft.

With a following of more than 15,000 on Twitter, GrowSF also publishes voter guides supporting what it calls “common sense” candidates and has backed efforts to defeat Dean Preston, a progressive supervisor who is up for re-election next year. It is also pushing against resistance to a plan to convert the iconic Castro Theater, a 100-year-old cinema in the heart of the historically gay Castro District, into an event venue.

“There is a very small minority of folks with an aversion to change that want to freeze the city and keep it in the past,” Agarwal said. “But the vast majority of folks here want to see growth, and they want to see progress.”

Preston, who won his seat in 2019 after running as a democratic socialist, rejects that kind of talk, saying he, too, wants progress — but it should include the working class and poor.

The supervisor said he has become a target of many of the groups created by tech entrepreneurs because of his support for things like tenants' rights, affordable housing for low-income residents, anti-displacement initiatives and taxing the rich. In 2020 he sponsored a ballot measure raising taxes on real estate sales topping $10 million that was approved by voters.

Preston takes a dim view of the new political movers and shakers from the tech world, saying he doesn't see them as true champions for regular San Franciscans.

“I don’t think they’re interested in coming together to solve problems,” he said. “They’d rather have public fights and try to exploit those wedge issues for electoral gains.”

Emily Lee, co-director of the nonprofit San Francisco Rising, also is skeptical of the tech-backed groups, saying they do not work with those most affected by homelessness and addiction to understand the root causes. The city's failure to make real progress, she said, stems from a lack of compromise between feuding elected officials.

“The mayor and the supervisors have a longstanding inability to work together,” Lee said. “What we need is for all these politicians to stop being petty and stop fighting with each other and actually do something to address the community’s problems.”