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.
Okay, so I think I’d like to start by asking if you could give San Francisco voters a quick review of the work that you’ve been doing between when you were District 9 supervisor — I know you were a deputy county executive in Santa Clara County, and after that became chief of staff to the San Francisco District Attorney, Chesa Boudin — but maybe if you could just give an overview of some of what you’ve been working on in that time?
Sure. Thank you very much for the opportunity. I think that I’ll sort of divide the work that I’ve been doing since I left the Board of Supervisors into two different types of work. On one hand is the work that I’ve been doing on behalf of the Democratic Party. As you know, after I left the Board of Supervisors, I was elected chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party. And I’m very proud that in that role I work together to bring the diverse group of people that are San Francisco Democrats together to focus on common ground, and specifically work with Nancy Pelosi to help her take back the house in 2018, when we ran Red to Blue SF, and then in 2020, when we ran Vote Blue SF. And I’m very proud of that work, which really made the San Francisco Democratic Party very influential in what happens in the rest of the state, in the rest of the country. And out of that work is that I ended up getting elected to lead as vice chair of the California Democratic Party. So that’s one area that I’m very proud of where we have worked to make sure that we promote San Francisco values at the state and national level.
The second area is, in terms of my work as a professional, after I left the Board of Supervisors, I was hired by the County of Santa Clara to be deputy county executive and, in that role, oversaw the operations of several agencies. And one of those areas included the Office of Supportive Housing, where we worked to implement the housing bond, Measure A, that was passed in Santa Clara in 2016 with the objective of building, over a 10-year period, 4,500 units of supportive housing that essentially provided housing and services — mental health, substance abuse — to people who are homeless. And I’m very proud of that work that essentially allowed for Santa Clara to really get a better handle on the issue of homelessness in a way, quite frankly, that San Francisco hasn’t. That work also included overseeing the creation of the Division of Equity and Social Justice that injected a social justice, racial justice and gender justice lens to the work of the county. And the last 10 months of my term in Santa Clara County, I worked to help oversee the communications and public education around COVID and the COVID response. And I’m very proud of that because Santa Clara, as you know, had the first COVID case in the country and essentially led the way in the Bay Area response to COVID through the work and the leadership of our health officer in Santa Clara, Sara Cody.
Then I left the County of Santa Clara to help Chesa Boudin, and I’m very proud that during my term as chief of staff in that office, we worked to get the office more connected to what’s happening in the neighborhoods of San Francisco. We created the community liaison program that assigns prosecutors and other staff to supervisory districts so that we have a better grasp of what’s happening on the ground and to better respond to issues around crime and public safety. I bring to the table the experience of a supervisor who did a lot in eight years and was probably among the most prolific supervisors to tackle some of the most important issues facing San Francisco. And I also bring the experience of someone who has run county departments and agencies. And I think that combination of legislative and executive experience is something that is very unique and will be very beneficial to San Francisco. And that’s why I think in this campaign for State Assembly, I have support of people from across the political spectrum who don’t necessarily agree with me, who might be folks who have been on the other side of political fights but who respect my ability to get things done and to bring people together as I did as a county executive, as chair of the party and as the supervisor.
Maybe this is a good opportunity to talk a little bit about what the Democratic Party at the state and county level actually does, because as you mentioned, you talked about it making the Democratic Party more influential at the state level. For voters who only every once in a while get a ballot that has like 50 different people on it for DCCC, that doesn’t really necessarily mean a lot. So how does that affect the people who you are now asking for their vote for you to go to the legislature?
Thank you for that question. That’s very important. You know, I was chair of the Democratic County Central Committee in San Francisco, known as the DCCC, for four years. And what I found when I took over as chair of the DCCC, is that you had San Francisco Democrats — and it’s a body of about 34 people, 24 of whom are elected directly to those seats, and others are elected officials that serve in those seats in San Francisco. But what I found was that the DCCC spent a lot of time with folks arguing and fighting with each other, and you went to those DCCC meetings, before I took over, and you would see a lot of animosity — a lot of infighting among San Francisco Democrats. And that happened sometimes in San Francisco because we’re passionate about local politics. And so, when I took over, I made it clear that I was not really interested in having this body spend the bulk of our time arguing and fighting with each other, that we have to reach an understanding that we would put aside whatever local differences we had, but that we needed to figure out how we as San Francisco Democrats helped what was happening at that time. And this is, by the way, in the middle of Donald Trump becoming president, right?
And so, what I set out to do was to figure out how the San Francisco Democratic Party could help push back against the Trump administration, and the one area where we felt we could make a difference was in taking back the House of Representatives. And so, we reached out to the state party at the time — the party at the state was not interested in working with us on that. So, we communicated with Nancy Pelosi, our representative, and clearly she was interested in doing something to take back the house. That’s what she was focusing on, and we decided to be partners. And Nancy Pelosi and the San Francisco Democratic Party ran this operation that we call Red to Blue SF. We rented a space at the corner of Market and Castro where we, basically, for the last two months of the election in 2018, we had thousands of volunteers, San Francisco Democrats who came in to focus on calling swing districts throughout the state of California. We started with about seven swing districts, districts that we wanted to turn from red, Republican, to blue, Democrat — that’s the name: Red to Blue SF. And we started out with seven congressional districts. That number, quite frankly, grew because we started getting more volunteers coming into that space. And by the time that we had finished that effort in 2018, the number of districts that we had focused on was about 19, actually, and we ended up being players and helping to flip about 16 of them. We ended up including districts outside of California, just because we had so many people that were interested. And so that’s an example of how the local San Francisco Democratic Party can influence what happens at the national level.
What happened as a result of that is that we as Democrats took back the House of Representatives. And not only that, but we helped Nancy Pelosi get elected speaker. Because our efforts had a lot to do with some of the new members that were elected, and I’m very proud of that. And I think that I’ve always understood, and one of the reasons that I did it was that as much as we have differences, when it comes to local issues, as San Francisco Democrats we have a lot more in common with each other than we want to admit, and that when people work together on something, that it creates a special bond. And so, I think there’s something to be said for sitting next to your local political opponent, perhaps, calling the same congressional district in Orange County that you’re both trying to flip.
I want to bring us back to this particular race — although that is interesting — because I only have a limited amount of time. You mentioned opponents. This might be a good segue into a question about your opponent Matt Haney’s accusation that describing yourself as a civil rights attorney on the ballot isn’t accurate. Would you like to respond to that?
Well, I think that the ballot argument speaks for itself. The reality is that I have been practicing in the area of civil rights all of my life. And in fact, one of the reasons that I was hired to play the role that I played in the District Attorney’s Office was to inject the lens of civil rights into the work of that office. Criminal justice necessarily implicates civil rights. When you are looking at whether or not to charge someone, the civil rights of that individual, that civil rights of the victim are necessarily implicated. And there are a number of special teams that we have in that office that focus on protecting the rights of workers, the rights of consumers. And I think it’s actually disappointing that a candidate would spend their time worrying so much about what another candidate does, and I understand that the supervisor hasn’t practiced law. (Editor’s note: Matt Haney has an active legal license with the California State Bar association. According to his LinkedIn profile, he has also served as a pro bono tenant attorney in San Francisco.) So, maybe that’s not entirely clear to him. But we’re very proud of the work that I have done, and it’s work that precedes the DA’s office, that goes back to my work in the City Attorney’s Office, to my work in private practice. I have been a civil rights attorney for most of my legal practice. I’m very proud of that and I think that voters have every right to know about that record.
One of the things that you want to work on at the state level is equitably addressing the economic recovery from COVID-19. At the time of this recording, we are seeing a massive spike in cases nationwide and in San Francisco. First of all, how do you think the state legislature should be addressing the ongoing pandemic and those spikes in cases? And then we could talk about recovery.
Well, I think that there has to be an equitable response. And as someone who played a leading role in the response in Santa Clara County, I can tell you that as much as all of us are hurting from COVID, there are some communities that are being disproportionately hurt. And I think that the response should take into account the disproportionate hit that COVID is having in communities of color, as an example. You know, there was a study that was done by the L.A. Times looking at Latinos in California, in the generation that’s 22 to the mid-50s. In that generation, they’re eight times more likely to die from COVID, and I think that something has to be done about that. So, I do think that there has to be more done to address the infections — the disproportionate number of infections — that are happening in these communities. And I can tell you, in the Latino community as an example, so many members of that community are essential workers here on the frontlines. And I don’t think we’re doing enough to not only help prevent them from being infected, but once they’re infected, to help them and their families not only to keep the infection from spreading, but also helping them recover and helping them have access to health care. And not just access to health care, but once they recover, that they have access to economic opportunity. And that’s really at the core of this campaign for me is that COVID has not created the inequities in our society, but it certainly has highlighted them and exploited them. And it is not surprising that certain groups have been hurt the most because that hurt is directly linked to the inequities in our society. And if there’s ever a time to address those inequities, this is the time.
I am running to be a champion for the people that have been on the frontlines of the COVID response and who have been forgotten, quite frankly. I think that they need a voice in California, and it’s something that I think that we all should care about. I am lucky to have a law degree and, in that sense, I have the ability to avoid infection in the way that someone who works at a liquor store or who delivers food cannot. But it’s in my interest as someone who doesn’t have to do that, that the person who delivers my food, the person who might clean my house, that they are taken care of — the health of those individuals is connected to our own health, but beyond that it’s the right thing to do.
And where do you think that the state legislature has fallen short, specifically, on planning for an equitable recovery and addressing this equitably? Because it is a state legislature seat that you’re running for. So how can legislators at the state level address this?
Well, look, I know that many of the legislators have tried, but I think that more has to be done and let’s begin with the health care system. And that’s why, for me, the first thing that I’m going to do is to address the issue of lack of equitable access to health care, and that’s where single-payer and Medicare for All comes in. The reality is that one of the reasons why these communities were hit so hard is, not only because they were on the frontlines, but because they did not have the same level of access to quality and affordable health care. And so, we need to make that health care accessible. And one way in which the legislature has not done that is that it has failed to pass Medicare for All. And that’s why I think that’s the first thing that has to be done. If we don’t pass Medicare for All — that makes health care accessible and affordable for all Californians — if we don’t pass it after a pandemic that has killed so many Californians, then when do we pass it? And so that’s the first thing that I’m going to do to make sure that we address the inequitable access to health care.
The second thing that has to be done once you address the issue of health care, is the recovery. We need a more equitable recovery. And I appreciate what is being done at the federal level with Build Back Better, but we need to do more. California needs its own recovery plan. I would call it Build Back Fairer, and “fairer” because I think that there has to be an added focus on those communities that have been hit disproportionately by COVID. I think that we need a Green New Deal as part of this recovery — that California needs its own infrastructure plan. We need to add our own money as the fifth-largest economy in the world to create more job opportunities in these green jobs — move away from fossil fuels. Not only are those renewable energy jobs better for the environment, not only do they save the planet down the road, but they’re cheaper. And so we need to invest in those new industries and I think that the recovery should create more opportunities, prioritizing those communities that were hit the hardest by COVID.
As I explained to people, I want to be a champion for the people who work with their hands, for the people who can’t shelter in place and work from home. They need to have a focus in this recovery, for this recovery to really include all of us. And then connected to this — and this is more of a long-term strategy, but it’s something that I think has to be a part of addressing the inequities in society — is education. The reason why I, as a formerly undocumented kid from Guatemala who spoke no English, that I got to be where I am today — a graduate of Stanford and Harvard Law School — is because of the public school system. And right now, the public school system in California is severely underfunded. We’re in the bottom 10 among all the states in per-pupil spending. We should be in the top 10. A college education is so expensive. For so many young people, and adults in California, we need to make it more affordable. I personally think that as the wealthiest state in the country, that we could make college free if we wanted to, or at least make a secondary education or vocational training, whatever the person wants to pursue, that we can make it free. It’s an investment that I think is worth making. And if countries like Ireland can do that, we as the fifth-largest economy in the world certainly can afford to do so as well.