San Francisco is a city of buried treasure, booms and busts, untouchable homes, earthquakes, steep hills, hard drugs, free love, gorgeous vistas—a city of extremes. But it may be moderating in politics, perhaps the unlikeliest of domains. In 2022, by overwhelming margins, voters recalled Chesa Boudin, the progressive district attorney who had kept his promise not to prosecute quality-of-life crimes, and Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez, and Faauuga Moliga, school board members who had sought to end “white supremacy” by rechristening schools that had been named after Abraham Lincoln and Dianne Feinstein, among others. Last year also saw Mayor London Breed order a surge of police officers into the blighted Tenderloin district to combat “the bullshit that has destroyed our city,” and the San Francisco Chronicle reported extensively on the consequences of the city’s permissive attitude toward illegal drugs. Not only did the city have problems with disorder and addiction, prominent San Franciscans observed, but it had also possibly invited them.
Behind these developments were a number of political activists who hail from the tech industry, believe that misgovernance is a solvable problem, and are working to transform the city’s politics. Their efforts to push the city to the center haven’t been uncontroversial, as the city’s hard Left has attacked them as crypto-conservatives, backed by a tech oligarchy. But their own words challenge that characterization, and their own views—for more housing; against open drug use; for economic growth; against cultural radicalism in public schools—seem to hew closer to those of the city more broadly. City Journal interviewed some of these figures and asked them to explain their vision for a commonsense politics in San Francisco. The interviews have been edited for clarity and economy.
GrowSF, a nonprofit advocacy group, was founded in 2020 by Steven Buss and Sachin Agarwal, two self-described Obama Democrats, who want their city to be “safe, clean, affordable, and vibrant.” The group was prominently involved in the D.A. and school board recall campaigns and publishes a voter guide recommending candidates for local office.
Theodore Kupfer: Why are you doing this? I assume that the reasons aren’t financial. So what are you hoping to accomplish?
Steven Buss: I got involved in local politics when I moved to San Francisco in 2016. I was motivated by housing costs. It’s obviously a super-expensive place. Finding a place to live was radicalizing because it shouldn’t be this hard to move to a city. That sent me down the path.
Early in the pandemic, I was working at Google while doing more political things. Politics was a hobby, and then it started taking over my life. I found that working to make San Francisco a better place was much more rewarding and motivating than working in tech as a software engineer. I still love to write code, but I can’t resist the attraction of solving problems with easy solutions. And this problem has the easiest solution of all: just vote better people into office and change the laws. We’re going to make San Francisco more affordable and more welcoming, with better schools and more startups.
Sachin Agarwal: My background is in tech, like Steven’s. I was here for about 15 years in various roles. During most of that period, San Francisco was booming. We were seeing a lot of new companies come in—new jobs, new development. The last few years, things have gone the other way.
About four years ago, my wife and I had our first kid. That’s a moment when people think about leaving the city—they’re thinking about public schools, safety, all the other things that come into play. But we love San Francisco. We love being in the city. We love the diversity, the culture, the food, the museums, public transit. So we decided to stay. As a part of that, I wanted to get more involved in politics to figure out why things are on the wrong track.
Steven and I came to the same conclusion: that the way to fix San Francisco is to win elections. These races are sometimes won by mere hundreds of votes. To echo Steven’s point, this is an easy problem to solve—we’re just bringing together voters, educating them on the things that they care about, and letting them know how to demand outcomes.
Kupfer: Your major issues range from public order and housing to education and the economy. What is the political consensus that you’re trying to displace?
Agarwal: We are very, very progressive. Anywhere outside San Francisco, we’d be the most progressive people in the room. But San Francisco has this hard Left.
Buss: What we do is, first, advocate for popular things in San Francisco. We advocated to make outdoor dining permanent after that was put into place during Covid. We advocated to make JFK Drive, a road through Golden Gate Park, car-free. We picked things that are genuinely popular but that a vocal minority very loudly oppose. As we build our brand, people think, “Oh, GrowSF does all this great stuff.” And we’re also able to give supervisors or whoever cover to vote because they can say, “Well, the majority wants this. I don’t have to listen to the loud neighborhood group that’s drowning them out at public comment.”
We also publish a lot of content. We have our newsletter, a blog, and Twitter. What we’re doing through all this is building trust and name recognition. And when we publish a voter guide, it’s not like you get something that you don’t recognize. You get this thing in the mail—we run digital ads, and people know what we stand for: common sense.
Kupfer: You were involved in high-profile elections, such as the recalls, but also in some lower-profile races that took place last November. What do you regard as your biggest successes?
Buss: In my mind, our two biggest successes are the school board recall and electing Joel Engardio as a city supervisor. Recalling Chesa Boudin was also huge. They’re all important.
Agarwal: I would probably put the Boudin recall higher. He wasn’t doing a good job, for one thing. But that campaign also set a new tone for the city: that this is not okay and that the people who’ve been in power are not doing a good job. It had repercussions beyond San Francisco.
Buss: When Democrats don’t take crime seriously, they undermine their own objectives. Progressives have basically been saying that crime doesn’t exist and that if you experience crime, it’s because you’re a bad person. No: crime is real. We should take it seriously. And it’s the role of the state to run a police force. The monopoly on the use of force is actually a good thing, and the state ought to have it.
I’ve known Engardio for several years. He was one of the first people I met in San Francisco politics. He’s competent and cares about safety and education. As a journalist, he investigated corruption and helped tell the stories during the school board recall and the Boudin recall of regular people suffering because of bad policies. All of that made him an obvious choice for me.
Agarwal: Part of what was clear in that race is that the incumbent, Gordon Mar, was not representing his constituents. He did not endorse the school board recall or the D.A. recall, which voters in his district overwhelmingly supported. It was a clear story: voters knew what they wanted but weren’t sure how to vote; we just needed to provide that information. We don’t try to change people’s minds on policy. That’s not our goal. For most of the things we care about, 70 percent of San Francisco voters align with our views. We just need to make sure they’re voting along those lines.
Kupfer: Both of you come from tech. Do you think it’s fair to say that, historically, tech workers in San Francisco have punched below their weight politically?
Agarwal: Tech has been in the city of San Francisco only about 12 or 13 years. Obviously, Silicon Valley’s been big, South Bay, San Jose, other areas. I opened my startup in 2008 in San Francisco—but that was rare at the time.
A lot of the tech people, including myself, were really young when they began. I started a company in 2008, when I was 28 years old. Now I have kids and care about contributing. But during that period, from 2008 to 2016, the city was doing well. We were seeing a lot of companies move in: Twitter, Square, Uber. People just weren’t paying attention because things all seemed okay. Now there’s an awakening that things aren’t working.
I don’t think it’s a matter of people not caring. Most people shouldn’t have to pay attention to politics. That was fine for a while; now it’s not. And I think people are going to step up and get involved.
Buss: We should expect government simply to work. We’re happy to push government in that direction so that people can go back to ignoring what was happening in City Hall.
Kupfer: You guys have switched industries, from tech to politics. Tell me about building a new institution in an entirely different field, filled with institutional sclerosis and inertia that the tech business doesn’t tend to tolerate.
Buss: It’s been fantastic. Politics is an old industry that doesn’t know how to use technology. We’re able to out-execute everyone by using best practices from tech. Without giving too much away about our strategy, we know, for example, how to run effective digital ads. It sounds so simple. But without throwing my allies under the bus, political consultants are not incentivized to win. They’re incentivized to run a campaign that you pay them for. So who cares? If they win, they win. If they lose, they lose. They still got paid. Many don’t optimize ad delivery or focus on hyper-targeting.
Agarwal: We look at metrics. It is not even about ads. How are we doing? Where do we want to be by November 2024? And are we charting toward that or not? We’re merging a tech company with politics. We think of this as a tech company, in a way.
Buss: We’ve got a user-acquisition funnel, and we’ve got success metrics that we look at every day. It’s a simple product-engineering problem: we’ve got a product, and we need to grow our user base.
Kupfer: Five years from now, what will make you think that GrowSF has succeeded?
Buss: Success, for me, is that the population is growing, we’re building more housing, more businesses are being formed, public school enrollment is growing, and transit is reliable and fast. This city has plenty of socialists who say that we need to make transit free. Actually, before it’s free, we need to make it dependable. People rely on the bus to get to work, and when the bus doesn’t show up, it doesn’t matter that it was free. What matters is that it didn’t show up.
Those are my top-level success metrics. Improve the standard of living in San Francisco—it’s bad. Get people off the streets and into housing, into shelter. Treat our fentanyl drug crisis, which has killed twice as many people than Covid during the pandemic. And we’re just letting it happen.
Progressives have this weird laissez-faire attitude about the public realm: it doesn’t matter that the streets are dirty and that people are dying from drug overdoses on the sidewalks—what matters to progressives is that you’re trying to replace your window without a permit: that’s illegal. That’s what law enforcement should crack down on, not the street conditions.
Agarwal: Did you see Elon Musk’s tweet? He’s installing beds at Twitter headquarters, and the city Department of Building Inspection is investigating this. In response, he posted a link to a story about a baby almost overdosing on fentanyl in a city park.
Buss: Right. It’s a complete misalignment of priorities by the far Left.
SF Guardians, a nonprofit advocacy group, was founded by Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj in 2020. Formerly known as Recall the S.F. School Board, the organization was formed to oust the city’s school board when its schools failed to reopen during the pandemic.
Kupfer: Tell me about your professional backgrounds. What brought you to the worlds of politics and education policy?
Autumn Looijen: I’ve worked in Silicon Valley for 20 years. I started at Netscape and worked at some startups as well. My first job was at the Open Directory, sorting websites into categories and using volunteer editors to do it. It was one of the sites that Google used as the basis for its search engine early on. Siva and I had been talking about doing a startup, and we moved to San Francisco to do that. And then, in the world’s weirdest pivot, we went into politics.
Our family has five kids between us. We had my kids, down in the Peninsula, who were already back in school, and Siva’s kids, who were still suffering through Zoom school. We got to see how the pandemic was affecting children in a visceral way. We could see the difference that it made to have schools open. My kids had a rough time during homeschooling, but their schools opened in October. The difference was night and day in how happy they were on a day-to-day basis and how much they were learning.
I was doing Zoom school as a single parent, and, with three small children, we were working until 10 every night and still falling behind. So it was a godsend to me when schools opened. And then to see Siva’s kids still suffering was intensely frustrating.
Siva Raj: My eldest, especially, struggled quite a bit. He’s in high school now. He had just started high school, all distance learning. The first few months were okay—I guess he enjoyed being at home a little—but then it wore him down. He’s a very extroverted kid, and not having any social connection at all was draining. His grades declined. But the bigger concern was that he was borderline depressed. He wouldn’t come out of his room and just lost all interest in learning. Then he started to think of himself as not good at studying, which is not true.
We moved to San Francisco in December 2020. In October 2020, the school board had passed a resolution saying that schools would reopen in January 2021. That was consistent with many other school districts across the Bay Area. But in January 2021, I received an e-mail from the school district: at the bottom was a note saying that middle school and high school kids were not going to go back for the rest of the year. That really shook me up.
That’s why I got involved. I started some parent groups, and other parents were doing the same, all saying, “We need to get kids back in school.”
Kupfer: How did this desire to return things to normal transform into a recall campaign?
Looijen: We didn’t set out saying, “Let’s go recall a school board.” It was a gradual process.
Raj: My first instinct was to reach out to other parent groups. There were some Facebook groups that were forming, and we started advocating. I also started logging in at the school board meetings, trying to figure out what was going on. The meetings would go on for hours. They spent a lot of time talking about renaming schools in the district. School reopening was the last item on the agenda. It was shocking.
I realized that they didn’t have a plan for reopening. There were no deadlines, no commitments, nothing. It was all just vague statements of intent. As we started to do more advocacy, it became obvious that they were not interested in listening to and hearing from parents. In fact, they treated parents like the enemy.
Then we started to get active. We organized the Zoom-In protest, where we had our kids sit in the parks or outside schools doing distance learning to demonstrate how challenging it is. We got a lot of media attention for that, but it didn’t seem to change anything. We had to do something more dramatic. We had to put more pressure on the school board.
Kupfer: Why do you think the recall vote was so overwhelming? And whom do you credit for the result?
Looijen: From the beginning, we decided to focus on the things we all agreed on and build as big a tent as possible. Usually in a recall campaign, you’re attacking the other side pretty hard. We did not do that. We let them make the case on their own. And we would point out what they had done wrong and tie it back to the values that we all share.
We all believe that San Francisco schoolchildren deserve an excellent education, and shutdowns were getting in the way. We talked about competence because everyone can agree that that is important. We spent less time throwing stones at the other side and instead talked about the future that we all wanted. I think that this made it easy for people to get on board.
Raj: We had parents across demographics. Asian-Americans got very involved because the board changed the admissions system for Lowell—a magnet school that has had, historically, merit-based admissions—without community involvement, without giving it thought. The renaming stuff, too, was a silly process. The way that they did these things has made skeptics of all of us.
A big community built up around us. The success was largely organic. A thousand volunteers collected signatures. Before we got into the signature gathering, we built a systematic case grounded in fact. We didn’t start the recall because we dislike these people; we started it because we felt that they were genuinely abandoning their responsibility to educate our kids. That is their job.
Kupfer: What’s next for you and what’s next for education in the city—whether merit-based admissions at Lowell or the well-being of students?
Looijen: The schools are in a death spiral right now. They’ve taken away a lot of opportunities for high-performing kids, and that drives parents away from the district. We want to get the school district back on track so that we can attract families back to the city. We would love to see San Francisco as a place where families come because the schools are so good. Obviously, we’ve got a long way to go before that happens.
In last November’s elections, we supported the three members who had been appointed after the recall. Two of them were the top vote-getters. We also supported Ann Hsu, who lost in a discouraging reversal, right at the end. She does lots of work on fiscal responsibility: making sure that money is being spent wisely and that people are doing what they say they’re doing. No one else on the board has the focus on accountability that she has. We’re going to have to provide some of that from the outside, through advocacy or through other means.
Raj: We wanted people to stop using the school board as a stepping stone to build their own political careers. That has been the case for decades now, and it’s a key reason that our school district has been struggling and suffering. The board is really a training ground for future politicians in this city.
The political environment in San Francisco is very fractious. Overall, the new board members have done a great job in terms of delivering. For the first time, we saw the school district resolve to spend at least half its time talking about student outputs—reading and math and things like that. Student outcomes, plus the finances, are the things that need to be corrected and improved. San Francisco is full of people who use the word “equity” 300 times per second, but they do nothing to improve outcomes. In fact, their actions are often counterproductive.
Top Photo: San Francisco voters recalled three far-left members of the school board in 2022. (STEPHEN LAM/THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE/GETTY IMAGES)