Class of 2010: Malia Cohen

Can a winner who lost the first-place vote in D10 be a bridge builder?


It took two weeks and 19 updates of San Francisco's ranked-choice voting system before Malia Cohen, a former Mayor Gavin Newsom staffer and partner in a firm that helps businesses and nonprofits create public policy, was declared the winner of the hotly contested race to represent District 10, which includes Bayview, Hunters Point and Ingleside. The nail-biting time lag was a byproduct of complex calculations that involved 22 candidates, no clear front-runners, and a slew of absentee and provisional ballots.

But when the RCV dust settled, the results proved that the D10 vote continues to break down along class, race, and gender lines. These RCV patterns personally benefited Cohen's success in picking up second- and third-place votes.

But they also helped D10's African American community, now smaller than its growing Asian community but still larger that the black community in any other distinct in the city, send an African American supervisor back to City Hall. And it avoided a run-off between Lynette Sweet and Tony Kelly, who won most first-place votes.

Some chalk up Cohen's victory to her polished appearance, the middle-of-the road positions she took on the campaign trail, and an impressive list of endorsements that include the San Francisco Democratic Party, the Labor Council, the Building and Construction Trades Council, state Sen. Leland Yee (D-SF), Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Fiona Ma (D-SF), Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, SF Democratic Party Chair Aaron Peskin, and BART Board President James Fang.

But Cohen told us she thinks coalition building was the key. "Endorsements only account for a quarter of the reasons why you win," she said. "It's all about building an organization, a net that goes deep and wide."

Some progressives were alarmed by a Dec. 1 fundraiser to help settle Cohen's campaign debt whose guest list included Newsom, former Mayor Willie Brown, Sup. Sean Elsbernd, Ma, Building Owners and Managers Association director Ken Cleaveland, Kevin Westlye of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, and Janan New of San Francisco Apartment Association.

Cohen dismissed concerns over this conservative showing of après-campaign support. "Fear not," she said. "It is a fundraiser event. And now that I'm a newly elected supervisor, I look forward to meeting everyone. And I will do a great job representing everyone.

So what should we expect from Cohen, who ran as a fourth-generation "daughter of the district from a labor family" on a platform of health, safety, and employment — and will soon represent the diverse southeast sector, which has the highest unemployment, crime, recidivism, foreclosure and African American out-migration rates citywide and is ground zero for Lennar Corp.'s plan to build thousands of condos at Candlestick and the shipyard?

"I'm a bridge-builder," said Cohen, who attributes her surprisingly tough but open-minded edge to being the oldest of five sisters.

So far, she's not going out on a progressive limb. She told us she favors a caretaker mayor: "I'd like someone to maintain the business of the city, someone who has zero political ambition," she said. "That way it creates an even playing field for the mayoral race."

Cohen says she is determined to address quality of life concerns, including filling potholes, re-striping crosswalks and introducing traffic calming measures, and taking on critical criminal justice issues, including City Attorney Dennis Herrera's gang injunction in the Sunnydale public housing project in Visitacion Valley. She opposes Herrera's strategy but notes: "If not gang injunctions, then what? I can't dispute that they get short-term results, but what about the long-term impacts? We need long-term solutions."

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