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Election Matters with SDR, Opinion

Why Mark Farrell’s message resonates with San Francisco voters

Mark Farrell during his tenure as mayor in 2018. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A new poll released by the Mark Farrell for Mayor campaign shows Farrell having the most first-choice votes among major candidates, and that after allocating votes to simulate the ranked-choice voting process, Farrell comes out on top against incumbent London Breed, 57% to 43%. According to the poll, Farrell leads all candidates at 23% with Breed at 21%, Levi’s heir and Tipping Point founder Daniel Lurie at 20%, and termed-out District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin at 17%. Termed-out District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí comes in at 4%, behind “someone else” at 5% and 11% undecided.

Granted, the poll is small and was commissioned by Farrell’s team, but the company that conducted it, Impact Research, has a long record of electing Democrats and beating incumbents. In fact, they’ve flipped more Republican-held congressional seats over the past 10 years than any other polling firm in the country (their win-loss rate on ballot initiatives is also impressive with 92 wins and just 10 losses). So why is Farrell resonating with San Franciscans? Perhaps another question from the poll holds at least part of the answer: 56% of those polled believe the city is headed in the wrong direction and that a drastic change in leadership is needed to get back on track. 

Ahead of the corruption game

As arguably the most moderate, sensible member of the Board of Supervisors, Farrell was often criticized or even ignored by his left-leaning colleagues. In a 2016 column for the Marina Times, he called for a federal investigation from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development into the Tenants Owners and Development Corporation (TODCO) and Yerba Buena Neighborhood Consortium (YBNC), both owned and operated by John Elberling. “Profiting from taxpayer subsidy and funneling those profits into local political campaigns is reprehensible,” Farrell said. “I am calling for an immediate investigation to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that public resources were not used for political purposes.”

In 2013, John Elberling incorporated two organizations on the same day, and used the same address for both organizations, TODCO Group LLC and Yerba Buena Neighborhood Consortium LLC. As Farrell pointed out, YBNC appeared to exist only to funnel dark money into local ballot measure committees. YBNC was listed as the major donor in support of Propositions C, M and X and opposing Propositions P and U. Propositions C and M were authored by left-of-progressive and infamous NIMBY, then (and current) District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, while Proposition X was authored by left-leaning supervisor Jane Kim, who represented District 6 at that time.

YBNC had also donated tens of thousands of dollars to Propositions D, H and L. John Elberling admitted in the San Francisco Chronicle that he gained millions in profits from refinancing his group’s properties that were initially built and financed with a mix of federal, state and local funds. “YBNC’s activity and spending clearly does not pass the smell test,” Farrell said. “Instead of reinvesting profits gained from public subsidy to affordable housing needs and tenant improvements, YBNC is acting as a shell entity to bankroll their pet political campaigns.” The California Fair Political Practices Commission opened an investigation into the activity of YBNC after an official complaint alleged that YBNC broke eight state and two San Francisco campaign finance laws. But try as he might, Farrell could not get any of his colleagues (including his current mayoral opponents Peskin and Breed) to join his calls for an investigation into TODCO, YBNC and Elberling. Why? Perhaps because they were getting money for their causes, campaigns and ballot measures and didn’t want to kill the golden goose. 

In March of 2023, Catherine Stefani — whom Farrell appointed to replace him as District 2 supervisor when he became mayor, and who has continued in the role since as an elected official — called for hearings on Elberling and his empire, saying she had “serious concerns” that the nonprofit had ramped up spending on political campaigns while neglecting care of its buildings and tenants. In 2021, TODCO successfully lobbied the Board of Supervisors to reject a project that would have converted the now-closed Nordstrom’s valet parking lot into a 495-unit tower off Market Street. TODCO’s spending on lobbying increased from $5,000 in 2013 — just three years prior to Farrell calling for an investigation — to $473,000 in 2021.

Homeless encampments and nonprofit grifters

As interim mayor in 2018, Farrell cleared all large tent encampments in six months, much to the chagrin of “progressive” supervisors and San Francisco’s notorious homeless industrial complex. The Marina Times was one of the only newspapers to endorse a strong “no” on Proposition C, meant to raise millions for homeless services by increasing taxes on large businesses. Farrell — along with fellow supervisors Ahsha Safaí, Malia Cohen, Katie Tang and London Breed — were also against it. With Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff bankrolling the campaign, led by Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach and her friend Christin Evans, it passed. The Our City, Our Home Oversight Committee (OCOH) was set up to ensure Proposition C funds were “effectively and transparently used,” but Friedenbach was appointed to the committee by the Board of Supervisors. In May 2023, the Homeless Oversight Commission was launched to oversee the incompetent Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and “receive advice and recommendations from OCOH on the administration of Proposition C funds.” Guess who the Board of Supervisors appointed as one of its commissioners? Christin Evans.

How’s the money being spent? Hard to say, because there’s a complete lack of transparency. According to the OCOH page on the city’s website, during the 2022–23 fiscal year, it spent $94 million on the acquisition of new buildings for use as permanent supportive housing and $57 million for “housing operations.” Overall, the city funded 2,909 units of housing capacity across “several types of housing,” including “783 net units of capacity added in FY22–23.” You read that correctly: a net 783 units of housing after spending nearly $100 million.

Back in 2018, it wasn’t popular to criticize Friedenbach, who had been lionized by progressive legislators for years as an expert on how to solve homelessness. I got emails from people accusing me of “hating the homeless” because I thought Friedenbach was a fraud. One of the only officials who agreed that Friedenbach shouldn’t hold such a lauded role at City Hall was Supervisor Mark Farrell. And it turns out, we were on the right side of history. When Farrell launched his mayoral campaign, I asked if he would consider shutting down the Our City Our Home committee and look for ways to move funds out of Friedenbach’s control. “Both,” Farrell answered. “Coalition on Homelessness and all the nonprofits have controlled the narrative for the past five and a half years — it’s time to take our city back. We need to get people the help they need, and I don’t believe those decisions should lie with the Coalition on Homelessness.” Farrell also said he would audit every homeless nonprofit receiving city funding. 

‘The law-and-order guy’

Back when “moderate” was a dirty word in San Francisco, critics sometimes referred to Farrell as “the law-and-order guy.” As supervisor, he was head of the Budget Committee for four years, where he was sometimes a lone voice on prioritizing public safety. While in 2024 many politicians say they didn’t support the 2020 “defund the police” movement, their social media feeds, videotaped hearings, and legislative priorities say otherwise. During his short tenure as mayor, Farrell averaged five new police academy classes a year with an average of over 50 recruits per class. 

In 2021, while Farrell was a private citizen, Mayor Breed and District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton announced the creation of The Dream Keeper Initiative, a citywide plan for “reinvesting” $120 million in San Francisco’s African American community over the next two years. And where is that $120 million coming from? As part of the budget process, Mayor Breed redirected $120 million from law enforcement for investments in the African American community for Fiscal Years 2020–21 and 2021–22. 

Breed and Walton weren’t alone: In a 2020 interview with The Frisc, fellow mayoral candidate Aaron Peskin said, “I’m supportive of the efforts of Reinvesting.us, DefundSFPDNow, Black Lives Matter leaders, and the Office of Racial Equity staff to demilitarize our police force … The $120 million is a reasonable first step.”

While these ideas might have gained favor in 2020, they don’t ring true for most voters in 2024. Maybe the reason Farrell’s message is resonating today is that, while his priorities haven’t changed since his seven years at City Hall and short stint as mayor, voter priorities have, and they look a lot more like Farrell’s than those of his former colleagues, Peskin and Breed: grift is bad, balance is good, extremes don’t work, it’s OK to go against the grain for what you believe in, and common sense — well, it just makes sense in these crazy San Francisco times.

Follow Susan and the Marina Times on Twitter: @SusanDReynolds and @TheMarinaTimes.

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