Interview Transcript: Bilal Mahmood

This transcript is from an interview on our radio program and podcast “Civic,” published as part of our February 2022 nonpartisan election guide. Though “Civic” will broadcast only seven minutes of each candidate’s interview to give each equal airtime on our program, we are making a transcript of the full conversations available. These transcripts have been edited for clarity.   

Laura Wenus  

I’d like to start by getting a little bit of your background first because there’s a lot — you trained as a neuroscientist, you worked for Stanford, you started at least one company. You’ve also worked as a political analyst. Could you just briefly describe each of those roles, your educational background, your role at Stanford, what your companies did and the kinds of policies you were working on in the Obama administration?  

Bilal Mahmood  

Sure. I mean, thanks again for having me. And I think a lot of the reason we’re running for State Assembly in this election is I feel that our type of background that mixes science and technology and policy is what’s necessary to reform our government. And I’ve worked, as you mentioned, across each of those sectors. And the reason that’s important is the issues that matter to us right now, from climate change to health care to pandemics, they require a mix of science, technology and policy. At Stanford, I was a neuroscientist by training, worked on — actually, my thesis was on — the psychology of political terrorism, of all things.  

Laura Wenus  

Whoa.  

Bilal Mahmood  

Yeah, fascinating research. But my bench work was actually on regenerative medicine and how to heal, wound healing responses, for burn victims. So, we did that for several years in Stanford Medical School. It was fascinating research. I transitioned to government and policy actually out of — my graduate thesis at Cambridge was on health reform. This was back in Obamacare, obviously. And just realizing that I didn’t want to just build one small molecule drug or one therapeutic treatment. The entire system was struggling. It takes like 10 years and a billion dollars to make one therapy. The entire system was fragmented. So, I felt that Obamacare had — one of the strongest ways to represent the policy is the way that you make an impact on, holistically, the entire science industry. So, when I went into the Obama administration, you don’t necessarily get a choice of which department you go to, but thankfully they placed me actually in the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Which was an amazing kind of like interdisciplinary department between White House OSTP, Treasury, Commerce, SBA — and we were working on a mix of different policies. It was recommending things to Secretary Locke who would take it to President Obama around: How do we expedite research grants, SBIR grants, to research foundations and universities so they could accelerate the development of much needed technology a lot faster? It would — took years to get those grants. How do we expedite that? How to get more funding for small businesses and economic development agencies, how to re-change how we do crowdfunding legislation that went into the Jobs Act the subsequent year? So, it’s really focusing on how do we help small businesses? How do we have high-growth businesses as the source of recovering our previous financial crisis and looking at it from the lens of innovative policies? And it was that foundation that kind of taught me from a very early inception of that point, that like there are innovative approaches to approaching government when you think outside the box, when you merge people from public and private sectors across multiple agencies. In a very quick, creative time, we got amazing things done. And that was the kind of on the foundations of my kind of integration into the political system.  

I came back here into the Bay Area, where I was born and raised — I’m the child of immigrants. My parents came here 35 years ago and my mom was a librarian. My dad worked in technology, starting his research was NASA’s simulators, and he worked for Cisco and Google. And I saw the benefit of social justice, combined with technology, to bring up the middle class here in the Bay Area, and in the 2010s came back to try to have that same impact from a social entrepreneurial lens.  

My first company was actually a nonprofit. We worked on microlending services for small businesses. We distributed over a thousand micro loans to mostly female entrepreneurs across the globe to help them get access to capital that most lending institutions that are too predatory, wouldn’t give them. And that was kind of my first foray as entrepreneurship — was really from a social entrepreneurship lens. After that, I worked predominantly in data, and I think that really brought to light that a lot of, as we’re emerging into a new economy, a lot of the problems that we face are the mix of software and data. If you look at the EDD system right now, our unemployment system has been down for years, you know, over the course of the pandemic. And it’s a software failure. It’s an organizational failure. It’s innocuous vendor procurement failures. And I think people who haven’t worked in the private sector and haven’t worked in software, wouldn’t know how to actually solve that problem. They don’t even talk about it. But if you talk to most constituents and most residents today, that’s one of the primary failures that they face. They can’t get those, access to those services. And having built a data company that predominantly provided those services, our company provided services for free, we gave a kind of analytics and data services that Amazon and Facebook had, we gave them for free to small businesses so that they could compete against the Amazons of the world. Saw the power that technology can provide when it’s given from a social entrepreneur lens. And so, across my career, I focused from science and technology and policy and seeing the intersection of how impactful that can be.  

I think that’s what’s really unique about our campaign is we’re not riding off of celebrity or trying to kind of like, say, the things we have done in city government, because the outcomes of our city government have been a failure and no one’s really presenting a vision for the future. No one’s presenting a vision. They’re kind of saying, like, well, if you elect us again, then we will just keep trying the same thing over and over and over again, which hasn’t worked, and we’re actually presenting a detailed vision of the future. What’s different? How do we actually solve these problems from climate change to health care to homelessness? These things, surprisingly, or not surprisingly, require science, technology and policy together.  

We’re the only candidate in the race that actually has a detailed policy platform, we’re the only candidate who had one from day one. And it’s because we’re presenting a vision for the future that’s really resonating with so many people in San Francisco, that’s why we’re catching so much fire in terms of like campaign momentum and hundreds of volunteers and endorsements because people want a vision for the future that is innovative, that is courageous, that’s based on principle. And that’s a lot of how my background has informed the campaign that we’re driving forward today.  

Laura Wenus  

I’m glad that you brought up specifics because I would like to talk about specifics. We’re recovering right now from a record breaking spike in COVID cases and hopefully on the road to a less dangerous time, pandemic wise. But people are still getting sick and they will continue to get sick for a while. Yet the pandemic policy has been very multi-tier. There’s local, there’s federal, there’s state regulations and resources, and they’re all kind of layering on top of one another, superseding one another. How do you think that the state legislature should be responding to the ongoing fluctuations in coronavirus cases? What policies would you be pushing if you were elected?  

Bilal Mahmood  

Yeah. So, I think, I mean, the first thing we recognize is that, I mean, thankfully, omicron is hopefully dying down. But we’re really entering into an endemic situation where we need to be prepared for the next outbreak. Coronavirus is going to continue to mutate, and I think it’s damning that we’re two years into the pandemic, we’re still operating like it’s day one. We don’t have a stockpile of PPE, we don’t have 24-hour testing. We don’t have backward and forward contact tracing. We don’t have 7-1-7 systems like they have in Seoul and Taiwan to control outbreaks as they occur. I think that’s what we need to prioritize. We need to be prepared for the next outbreak so that we don’t have to shut down the economy every time there is another outbreak. And so, what we can do in the state is, A, boost up the infrastructure to ensure that we have 24-hour free universal testing. We have that in New York. We should be able to do it in California as well. Second, we need backward and forward contact tracing, and we only have one of them. And contact tracing doesn’t work if you don’t have 24-hour testing either. On average, still in California is about 72 hours. And so, we at that point, it’s too late as we need to have background for contact tracing. We need to boost having those types of testing in place for free in schools so that schools don’t shut down due to incidents happening. And then more broadly, we need to create a pandemic emergency response agency, focused on COVID in the state. We still don’t have one, and that agency needs to focus on developing a 7-1-7 system, which is the gold standard internationally — that you identify the source of outbreaks in seven days, you identify the actual pinpoint what caused it in one day, and then you control it in seven days. That is the standard for how you identify, control and abate pandemic outbreaks going forward. And we don’t have that in California or, frankly, I think, anywhere nationally in the country. And so those are the three things that we need to ensure is being prepared for the next outbreak to ensure that we don’t have future incidents going forward because we are going to have more outbreaks going forward.  

Laura Wenus  

Yeah, thank you for saying that. The pandemic has also raised a question of equity going forward. It’s exacerbated all of the inequalities that existed before COVID. What role do you see the state legislature playing in paving the way for an equitable economic and social recovery from the pandemic? Assuming that we get there.  

Bilal Mahmood  

Yeah, I think, I mean — the pandemic, I think, at a higher level was a powder keg for underlying systemic inequality in our city and our state and our country. The issues that got exacerbated — from the opioid epidemic to income inequality to unemployment to housing unaffordability, and small businesses, even, closing — those things were happening for years over the course of San Francisco’s history. But the pandemic was a powder keg, and I think it showed that the role of the state is it’s supposed to be providing a social safety net for people who are not being provided for. I saw that in the example of, I’ve been — I run a foundation called 13 Fund, simultaneously, which over the course of the pandemic we set up a grant to support workers who were struggling during the pandemic, [16.7s] either because they couldn’t qualify for PPP loans or they just couldn’t get access to them, often because they were undocumented. And I saw how impactful giving them a guaranteed income was. So, we have several hundred bucks a month to several hundred workers over the course of the pandemic. And so how helpful and impactful it was to help them get access to health care, help them pay for rent and stay in the Bay Area because they couldn’t afford to live here? And that’s an example of where the state can play a role in providing guaranteed income, providing universal health care, providing affordable housing, guaranteed shelter, guaranteed from by-right development of supportive housing, you know, and affordable housing. That’s the role of the state is to ensure that when we have these shocks to our system, that we take care of those who are in most need, and we’re not doing that. And I’ve seen through the nonprofit sector what’s possible to actually do this, in the work I’ve done. And I’m running for State Assembly because I think the onus should not be on nonprofits to take care of our of our most vulnerable. It should be on the state. And nonprofits do amazing work. But bad policy is keeping a ceiling of support on what we can do in the nonprofit and the private sector, but also in the government. And that’s why I think the state play a role in better supporting those who are most vulnerable, as we’re going to have more shocks to our system.  

And another example of that is that climate change is going to have the same impact, if not worse, on underlying systemic inequalities. We’re going to have refugees coming in from all over the world, or even our own country, coming to San Francisco because of our perfect temperate climate, it’s going to further exacerbate housing inequality pollution. The same way the pandemic was a powder keg on these underlying systemic inequalities. Climate change is going to be even worse, and that’s why we need to act with urgency to address inequality. Because the ticking time bomb — we have a five to eight years, according to IPCC reports, before we have to move from climate mitigation to adaptation. It’s the same time bomb I would give to, actually, inequality. And so, we have a very limited time to actually affect these causes, and we need bold solutions to address them. Otherwise, we’re going to reach the point of no return in our country.  

Laura Wenus  

So much to talk about on all of these topics. And I know all of the candidates in this race have a lot of strong perspectives on each of the items that you just mentioned. But I want to talk specifically about housing because you’ve recently earned the YIMBY endorsement — that’s the pro-housing policy advocacy group Yes In My Back Yard — despite having no legislative experience, just based on your observation that political outsiders have made significant change once elected to office and because of all the proposals that you’ve put forward. Since you’ve already put all that out there, I’ll ask you to get specific. What is an example of one state-level policy you would propose and try to get enacted that, to your mind, would improve housing availability and affordability?  

Bilal Mahmood  

Yeah. So, I think the most, most concrete example of the difference of why did YIMBY endorse our candidacy, why have so many people supported our candidacy, is because we provide concrete, innovative, evidence-based solutions to problems that people have been struggling with for years. And people are tired of the status quo. And that’s largely — a lot of it’s not just they’re tired of the status quo, but no one’s presenting a vision for how to solve this problem. They keep presenting the same solutions.  

So let’s take homelessness, for instance. We keep trying the same thing over and over again, and we pretend that the solution is just to spend more money on it. We’re going to spend a billion dollars over the next two years on the same solutions in San Francisco. And so, one of the things we’ve proposed is a model based on the Built for Zero system to solve chronic homelessness. This is a model that has eliminated, to functional zero, chronic homelessness in 14 U.S. cities across the country, using an evidence-based approach, and it works in four components in our plan in California: The first is you set up an integrated interagency department, which we’re calling HEMA, or the Homeless Emergency Management Agency, which would have the authority to integrate between public-private partnerships to get different agencies to collaborate. But also, it would have the authority to set targets on the number of shelters, a number of permanent supportive housing units, a number of navigation centers. And if we don’t meet those targets in specific periods of time, it would have the emergency authority to enforce by-right development, to streamline permitting or any laws that are prohibiting the development of those housing projects, to ensure that we meet the right ratio of individuals who are unhoused to housed in that context. Because one of the largest problems is that our laws, like CEQA, are continuously used to block housing. And so, we want to give emergency power to this agency, that if we’re not meeting housing targets — we’re in a housing emergency — that it has the authority to obviate them to get the housing that we need to get built. The second is using real time data collection on unhoused individuals. If we don’t know where people are, if we don’t know what health status they have, if we don’t know what they’re struggling with, how can we personalize treatment to every individual? So, what this does is it combines a by names list methodology and real time census data style collection to just know: What are the number of unhoused in each city in each location? What is their health status? All done with consent, so that we can then personalize treatment to every individual. And then the third is that we actually then personalize treatment. So, we develop, each HEMA agency within each city will have the authority to develop kind of interconnected case management teams integrated case management teams. Right now, people are homeless for many different reasons — family conflict, eviction, mental illness, addiction, a job loss. And so, the integrated case management teams will have the authority to collaborate on a weekly basis to personalize treatment to every individual to see what is this person struggling with today, what we need to do to help them get on track in the next week. And this model of integrated case management teams, integrated departments, real time data collection, is called the Built for Zero model, that has been highly effective at solving chronic homelessness to functional zero in 14 U.S. cities. In Rockford, Illinois, a city that struggled with chronic homelessness for 13 years, they implemented this program and in one and a half years, eliminated chronic veteran homelessness. And then in two subsequent years eliminated complete homelessness to functional zero. And so, if it works in Rockford, Illinois, it should work in San Francisco and should work across California. It’s an evidence-based approach that has been working. And so that’s kind of one example of why so many groups, from YIMBY action to others, have endorsed us, is that we’re presenting a vision for the future based on science, based on data, based on evidence, and we have the courage to actually act on it.  

Why doesn’t housing legislation pass in California? It’s because of so many special interests, but also they just don’t have the actual kind of special interest, from developers to housing units to other organizations, or lobbyist groups. We are not tied to any special interests, and we haven’t taken any money from corporations, from any corporate PACs, from law enforcement, from fossil fuel. And so that gives us the flexibility and the ability to remain independent and be able to say the things that are necessary. And that’s why I think more broadly, outsiders are effective at bringing systemic change from AOC at the national level to Alex Lee in the State Assembly here in California, because we don’t we don’t have any special interest that we respond to. We can operate on courage or conviction, but also, we have the courage to present bold new ideas because anywhere to go here is up. And the stakes are way too high, I think, to rely on politics as usual, and we’re presenting a strong vision for the future that is resonating with so many people based on evidence.  

Laura Wenus  

Real quick, what’s functional zero as opposed to zero?  

Bilal Mahmood  

Yeah, so functional zero just means that, people will obviously still go in and out of homelessness. Right? Because people still lose their job, they’ll still sometimes get evicted. But it means that within a couple of months’ buffer, people will still be able to get rapidly housed and basically you don’t get into chronic homelessness. But you keep functional zero in that context.  

Laura Wenus  

Mm-Hmm. Okay. And then last question for you, because you did bring up finances, you’re the only candidate in this race, to my knowledge, to not agree to voluntary spending limits. Can you talk a little bit about why?  

Bilal Mahmood  

Yeah, so as a first-time candidate, we want to get our name out there and communicate to as many voters as possible in a very short period of time. And to do that, we need to raise capital. We’ve raised close to $400,000 in individual donations across the city and the Bay Area, which is quadruple when one of the other candidates and commensurate to another candidate, both 20-year veterans, in the entire industry. But we also, we’re going up against opponents who have over $680,000 and independent expenditures spending on their behalf. And so, if we want to remain competitive, we don’t have those types of IE spending on our behalf. We need to be competitive and we’re in this to win.  

Laura Wenus  

And so, you have contributed, you know, on your own behalf as well. Just to be clear, yes?  

Bilal Mahmood  

Exactly. And that enables us to be competitive with the total amount of money that’s being spent by our opposition and the people that support them. And so, to remain competitive, that’s why we didn’t subscribe to expenditures, could — so we can get our message out to as many people as possible in the short election and communicate our values and proposition.  

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