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David Chiu's Seat in California Assembly Already Has Candidates Lining Up for Special Election

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San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney and former Supervisor David Campos are among the candidates who have already jumped in the race to fill David Chiu's state Assembly seat.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

After appointing state Assemblymember David Chiu as city attorney Wednesday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed quipped that "the worst-kept secret in San Francisco is finally out."

Now, the campaign to replace Chiu in the state Legislature will also burst into the open.

After weeks of speculation, a handful of candidates have announced plans to run in a special election. A compressed campaign timeline, which could result in a vote in late winter or early spring 2022, could pose challenges to campaigns trying to get their message in front of voters.

"I think it's going to be interesting, to say the least, in terms of the holidays and time of year when you have to stand up a campaign, stand up a strategy, and then turn around and be on the ballot," said political consultant Lauren Feuerborn.

Chiu is planning to leave his Assembly seat on Oct. 31, too early for Gov. Gavin Newsom to combine his replacement election with the regularly scheduled June 7 primary.  Instead, the vote will likely occur in the first few months of 2022.

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Already, two progressives — former Supervisor David Campos and current Supervisor Matt Haney — have jumped into the race, as have entrepreneur Bilal Mahmood and City College trustee Thea Selby. Facing voters who are likely fatigued after the gubernatorial recall election, the quartet of candidates has little time to waste in their quest to fundraise and capture key endorsements, Feuerborn said.

"They're going to have to make some really fast decisions about where to spend their energy and time," Feuerborn added. "You can always raise more money, you can always recruit more volunteers and put out policy papers and knock on doors and call folks, but you can't get more time."

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Strategists following the race agree that the accelerated campaign accentuates the advantage for candidates who enter the race with higher name identification in the district, which spans the eastern half of the city.

Campos, who represented the Mission, the Portola and Bernal Heights on the Board of Supervisors from 2008 to 2016, also ran for the seat in 2014, losing a competitive race to Chiu.

"I think that in life, you actually learn more from your failures or mistakes than you do victories," said Campos. "And when I lost that race, I didn't just leave. I actually continued working and found other ways in which I could continue to serve."

Campos was chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party from 2017 until this year, worked as a county executive in Santa Clara and is now chief of staff to San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

The son of Guatemalan immigrants who brought him to the U.S. as a teen, when he was undocumented, Campos said his priority in the Assembly will be looking out for the health needs of working Californians like his parents.

"The first bill that I will introduce will be a bill to make Medicare for all and single-payer the law in California," he said. "We need single-payer to address the health disparities that led to different outcomes during the pandemic for some communities."

Haney, the former president of the San Francisco Board of Education, has represented neighborhoods including SoMa, the Tenderloin and Civic Center on the Board of Supervisors since 2019.

Haney has been a recurrent critic of Mayor London Breed, calling for more oversight of the mayor's department heads. But he was able to compromise with Breed to achieve an overhaul of the city's mental health care system.

"I represent ... one of the toughest districts, where I've taken on really big problems and delivered," Haney said.

If elected to the state Legislature, Haney said he would tackle the root causes of the issues that have turned his district into the epicenter of San Francisco's homelessness and drug crises.

"Not just pull the bodies out of the river to get them help, but to go up the river and find why they're being pushed in there to begin with," he said.

Selby, a City College of San Francisco board trustee and public transit advocate, did not respond to a request for an interview. She has served as a member of the board of directors for the state's High-Speed Rail Authority and is co-chair of the San Francisco Transit Riders board of directors.

The political newcomer in the race is Bilal Mahmood, an entrepreneur who founded the analytics startup ClearBrain, which was acquired by Amplitude last year.

In this Assembly race, he's likely to run to the center of Campos and Haney, in an attempt to appeal to the bloc of voters considered "moderate" in reliably liberal San Francisco.

The son of Pakistani immigrants, Mahmood remembers visiting the Tenderloin as a kid to eat at Shalimar Restaurant on Jones Street. Now, he says, the neighborhood is evidence of how the city's "tribal politics" have failed residents.

"All of the foundations of what makes it possible to achieve the American dream, from safety to schools to transit to health care [are] disappearing," said Mahmood. "And I feel that a lot of San Franciscans are upset about that."

Mahmood said he is working with Saikat Chakrabarti — the former chief of staff to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who helped craft the Green New Deal — to develop a comprehensive environmental platform for California.

The proposal, Mahmood said, will include a carbon tax to fund zero-interest loans to help families and businesses pay for green retrofits.

"We think we're a Democratic establishment, but a lot of the oil and gas unions really own a lot of the Democrats in Sacramento," he added.

Mahmood could draw a clear contrast with Campos and Haney if the Assembly campaign intersects with recall elections pending against three San Francisco school board members and Boudin, the district attorney, who critics say is too lenient toward those committing crimes in the city.

Mahmood said he supports the recall against school board commissioners Gabriela Lopez, Faauuga Moliga and Alison Collins. The recall against the trio, driven by parents angry with the board's handling of pandemic schooling, is likely to make it to the ballot after its supporters submitted hundreds of thousands of signatures.

Campos and Haney said they only support the removal of Collins, who came under fire for inflammatory tweets about Asian Americans and subsequently sued the district.

The campaign to recall Boudin faces an October deadline to submit signatures. Campos and Haney oppose the recall attempt and argue that Boudin has done nothing to warrant a removal prior to the end of his term. Mahmood said he remains undecided on the DA recall.

Still, a more moderate candidate like Mahmood, who lacks name identification in the city, could struggle to gain traction in the district, said progressive political consultant Jim Stearns, who has run campaigns for Campos in the past.

"The bulk of the votes in this race will be coming from the more progressive districts: the Haight, the Castro, Noe Valley, the Mission, Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill," said Stearns. "My guess is that the more progressive the candidate is, the stronger they’re going to be in this particular race."

The district, which includes Chinatown, has one of the largest Asian populations of any Assembly district. Chiu, whose parents came to the U.S. from Taiwan, was the first Asian American to hold the seat.

"It's going to be really key for the candidates to get out there and to reach out to the AAPI community," said David Lee, executive director of Chinese American Voters Education Committee.

The district's AAPI residents, said Lee, "have been suffering during the pandemic, facing anti-AAPI hate ... to economic downturn, to uncertainty in the tourism industry, and have been really hurt by the lack of economic recovery in Chinatown."

Already, Lee said he has seen Assembly hopefuls making appearances at Chinatown community events, hoping to make inroads with a key voting constituency.

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"There is no mistake, campaign season is already upon us," he said.

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