Tech-rooted groups seek to shake up San Francisco politics

Apr 28, 2023, 8:53 AM

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 Together SF, 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 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 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.”

United States News

FILE - Supporters cheer as Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks a...

Associated Press

Democracy’s appeal is slipping as nations across much of the world hold elections, a poll finds

Representative democracy remains a favorite system of governance around the globe, but its appeal is slipping on the eve of elections in much of the world, according to a survey of 24 democratic countries by the Pew Research Center released Wednesday. While a median of 77% across the 24 surveyed countries said representative democracy was […]

8 minutes ago

Associated Press

Justice Department finds problems with violence, gangs and poor conditions in 3 Mississippi prisons

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi failed to protect inmates in three prisons from violence because it does not adequately supervise incarcerated people, control contraband or investigate harm and misconduct, the U.S. Justice Department said Wednesday. “These basic safety failures and the poor living conditions inside the facilities promote violence, including sexual assault,” the department said […]

13 minutes ago

Associated Press

US Rep. Lauren Boebert’s son arrested in connection with string of vehicle break-ins, police say

DENVER (AP) — The oldest son of U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert was in a Colorado jail on Wednesday after being arrested in connection with a recent string of vehicle break-ins and property thefts. Tyler Jay Boebert, 18, was arrested Tuesday afternoon and is facing possible felony charges of criminal possession of identification documents involving multiple […]

36 minutes ago

Associated Press

A New York collector pleads guilty to smuggling rare birdwing butterflies

NEW YORK (AP) — A Long Island man has pleaded guilty to illegally trafficking birdwing butterflies and other rare insects, according to a plea deal filed in Brooklyn federal court Tuesday. Charles Limmer, 75, of Commack, pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to smuggle wildlife into the country and agreed to pay a $30,215 […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

A pregnant Amish woman is killed in her rural Pennsylvania home, and police have no suspects

SPARTANSBURG, Pa. (AP) — Investigators have no suspects in the killing of a pregnant 23-year-old Amish woman inside her home in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, and are appealing for tips from the public to help solve the crime, a state police spokeswoman said Wednesday. Rebekah A. Byler was the victim of a criminal homicide inside her […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Police in suburban Chicago are sued over a fatal shooting of a man in his home

CHICAGO (AP) — The sisters of a man fatally shot in his home this month by suburban Chicago police filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the officers and their department, alleging wrongful death and other counts. Kyenna McConico and Kennetha Barnes, sisters of Isaac Goodlow III, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Chicago […]

3 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s 1 way to ensure your family is drinking safe water

Water is maybe one of the most important resources in our lives, and especially if you have kids, you want them to have access to safe water.


Fiesta Bowl Foundation

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade is excitingly upon us

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe is upon us! The attraction honors Arizona and the history of the game.

(KTAR News Graphic)...

Boys & Girls Clubs

KTAR launches online holiday auction benefitting Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley

KTAR is teaming up with The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley for a holiday auction benefitting thousands of Valley kids.

Tech-rooted groups seek to shake up San Francisco politics