Jeff Sheehy was something of a surprise when Mayor Ed Lee appointed him to fill Scott Wiener’s seat on the Board of Directors in January 2017, upon Wiener’s election to the state Senate. A former president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and director of communications at the UCSF’s AIDS Research Institute, Sheehy was well-known in the queer community and among sexual-health advocates, but less so in political circles. As his nomination became public, he was hailed for his history as a long-time HIV-positive activist who fought for the rights of those living with the disease, but how he’d play out on the Board of Supervisors was largely a mystery.
Now, 16 months later, Sheehy is still struggling to define himself, as an election that could unseat him looms on the horizon. Despite a slew of proposals he’s brought forth, he’s being out-paced and out-endorsed by Rafael Mandelman, an urban-development attorney and current president of the City College board of trustees.
While the mayoral race gets dirtier, with domestic violence-themed attack ads and hundreds of thousands of dollars being given to candidates by various tech millionaires, the District 8 race has seen little drama or fanfare. There has been surprisingly little mud-slinging from either candidate, but in the past few months, Mandelman has established a clear lead. While Sheehy has hustled to push forward legislation on bike chop-shops, cannabis regulations, and a watered-down right to counsel for those facing eviction, his opponent has been quietly securing endorsement after endorsement.
It’s these backings that lay the race bare. Mandelman sees himself as the progressive candidate, but in addition to the usual left-leaning suspects like the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, he’s managed to receive the blessing of organizations that consistently skew more moderate, such as the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club. (In 2016, it endorsed Wiener for senate, London Breed for District 5, and Ahsha Safaí for District 11.) This time around, they’ve chosen Mandelman over Sheehy.
The Chronicle, which also historically supports moderate candidates (including Breed for mayor) also surprisingly chose Mandelman for supervisor. But this is where a pattern has begun to emerge: In their short endorsement editorial, the Chronicle’s staff did not wax prophetic about Mandelman per se, but instead highlighted some of the reasons why they don’t think Sheehy should hold onto the job.
“His answers to various policy questions were rambling, and tending to drift off point,” they wrote. “He was especially unpersuasive in his explanation for his decision to install Mark Farrell as acting mayor — a move that aligned him with progressives who were trying to undercut the June candidacy of centrist London Breed, the board president who had been serving as interim mayor after the December death of Mayor Ed Lee.”
And there it is: the deadly wrench in Sheehy’s campaign. When he voted in support of the progressives’ alleged plan to oust Breed and install Farrell in her place, Sheehy sidestepped moderate/progressive delineations to establish himself as an independent. And as much as San Francisco hails itself for being unique, it prefers its candidates cut-and-dry when it comes to predictable policies. Upon Breed’s ouster, as chaotic screams broke out and sheriffs stepped in, Sheehy leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling, lost in thought. He was later escorted out of the building to a waiting taxicab, over concerns of security.
“I don’t have any regrets about the vote,” Sheehy later told the Examiner. “I am independent. I feel like, in San Francisco politics, like a unicorn.”
Dazzling mystical-horse analogy aside, his campaign has never quite recovered. From the get-go, it had seemed disorganized. Initially rumored to be working with Maggie Muir, the political consultant with a stellar record who’s currently running Breed’s mayoral race, Sheehy later settled on Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partners, before parting ways with them. He’s also failed to present himself as a strong, dynamic political actor on the campaign trail, spurring the Chronicle’s damning statement that “It was almost as if Sheehy were tacitly asking us to do him a favor by endorsing his opponent.”
Perhaps eyeing his opportunity to snag more endorsements, Mandelman has moved slightly toward the middle while he’s campaigned, supporting the hiring of more police officers and the controversial expansion of mental health conservatorship. Perhaps partly as a stab to Sheehy’s vote, he’s thus secured endorsements from more moderate elected officials like Sup. Malia Cohen to District Attorney George Gascon.
In the end, it’s the “who backs who” that might win this race. For the voters who’ve never met either candidate, the intricacies of who’s more likable become moot. And as is often the case with political races in S.F., the policy differences between each candidate are a hair’s breadth apart. (That’s aside from their views on tasers, that is: Sheehy supports them, Mandelman does not; and SB 827, which Sheehy liked but Mandleman didn’t.)
But come the night of June 4, as voters sit down with laptops and voter guides and try to figure out what’s what before heading to their polling stations, it’s Mandelman’s name that’s going to come up again and again. Chances are, that alone is enough for him to sweep this race.