The stealth candidate

Pub date October 28, 2008


Ahsha Safai is hoping to be elected to the Board of Supervisors without answering questions about his padded political resume of short-lived patronage jobs, greatly exaggerated claims of his accomplishments, history as a predatory real estate speculator, connections to and coordination with downtown power brokers, shifting and contradictory policy positions, or the many other distortions this political neophyte is offering up to voters in District 11, a crucial swing district that could decide the balance of power in city government.

Safai has refused numerous requests for interviews with the Guardian over the last two months. We’ve even left messages with specific concerns about his record and positions. But our investigation reveals his close political ties to the downtown interest groups that have spent close to $100,000 on his behalf and shows him to be a shameless opportunist who is apparently willing to say anything to achieve power.

There’s much we don’t know about Ahsha Safai, but there’s enough we do know for a consistent yet troubling portrait to emerge.

Safai moved to San Francisco from Washington, DC with his lawyer wife in 2000, and immediately began to ingratiate himself into the mainstream Democratic Party power structure, starting as a legislative liaison with the corruption-plagued San Francisco Housing Authority and joining Gavin Newsom’s mayoral campaign in 2003.

Safai became a protégé of Newsom’s field director Alex Tourk, who was a top Newsom strategist for several years until he abruptly resigned after learning that Newsom had an affair with his wife. With support from Tourk (who didn’t respond to our calls about Safai) and Newsom, Safai held a string of city jobs over the next three years, moving from the Mayor’s Office of Community Development to the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services to the Department of Public Works, all of which he touts on his Web ite, greatly exaggerating (and in some cases, outright misrepresenting) his accomplishments in each, according to those who worked with him. (Few sources who worked with Safai would speak on the record, fearing repercussions from Newsom).


One project Safai doesn’t mention on his Web site is his work spearheading Community Connect, the most disastrous of Newsom’s SF Connect programs. "It’s the one Connect that the mayor will never talk about," said Quentin Mecke, who participated in the effort, on behalf of nonprofit groups, to create a community policing system. "The whole thing just devolved into chaos and there weren’t any more meetings."

In 2005, Safai and Tourk convened meetings in each of the city’s police precincts to take testimony on rising violence and the failure of the San Francisco Police Department to deal with it. Ultimately Newsom decided to reject a community-policing plan developed through the process by the African-American Police Community Relations Board. That set up the Board of Supervisors to successfully override a mayoral veto of police foot patrols.

"Ahsha’s approach was consistent with the Newsom administration, with folks that talk a good game but there’s no substance behind it," said Mecke, who ran for mayor last year, placing second.

Another realm in which Safai has claimed undeserved credit is on his efforts to save St. Luke’s Hospital from attempts by the California Pacific Medical Center (and CPMC’s parent company, Sutter Health) to close it or scale back its role as an acute care provider for low income San Franciscans.

"When I looked at his campaign material and he says he was a leader who saved St. Luke’s, I thought, ‘Am I missing something here?," Roma Guy, a 12-year member of the city’s Health Commission and leader in the effort to save St. Luke’s, told the Guardian. "Nobody thinks Ahsha has taken a leadership role on this. This is a significant exaggeration from where I sit."

Nato Green, who represents nurses at St. Luke’s within the California Nurses Association, went even further than Guy, saying he was worried about Safai’s late arrival to the issue (Safai wasn’t part of the group that protested, organized, and urged CPMC to agree to rebuild the hospital) and the fact that CPMC appointed Safai to its Community Outreach Task Force as the representative from Distrist 11.

"From our point of view, he is the CPMC’s AstroTurf program, simuutf8g community participation," Green told us. "It’s critical to us that we end up with a supervisor who is independent of CPMC and will go to the mat for what the community needs."

CNA has endorsed Avalos in the District 11 race.

"John was the only candidate in District 11 who came out and spoke at the hearings, attended the vigils, and walked the picket line during the strikes," Green said.


Beyond his association with downtown power brokers and endorsement by Newsom, there are other indicators that Safai is hostile to progressive values. He said in a recent televised forum that he would work most closely with supervisors Carmen Chu, Sean Elsbernd, and Michela Alioto-Pier, the three most conservative members of the Board of Supervisors.

During an Oct. 14 Avalos fundraiser hosted by sustainable transportation advocates Dave Snyder, Tom Radulovich, and Leah Shahum, attendees expressed frustration at Safai’s tendency to pander to groups like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, taking whatever position he thinks they want to hear without considering their implications or consistency with his other stands.

"It was a no-brainer for the Bike Coalition to endorse John," Shahum, SFBC’s executive director, said at the event, noting Avalos’ long history of support for alternatives to the automobile.

Avalos, who had been hammered all week by mailers and robocalls from downtown groups supporting Safai, said he was frustrated by the barrage but that "we can fight the money with people.

"Ahsha has done everything he can to blur the lines about what he stands for," Avalos said. "Whoever he’s talking to, that’s who he’s going to be. But we need principled leadership in San Francisco."

One area where Safai doesn’t appear to be proud of his work is in real estate, opting to be identified on voting materials as a "nonprofit education advisor." One of his opponents, Julio Ramos, formally challenged the designation, writing to the Election Department that the label "would mislead voters and is not factually accurate, the term ‘businessman’ or ‘investor’ denotes the true livelihood of candidate Safai."

Safai responded by defending the title and writing, "My dates of employment at Mission Language Vocational School were from August 2007 through February 2008." So, because of his seven-month stint at this nonprofit, voters will see Safai as someone who works in education, even though his financial disclosure forms show that most of his six-figure income comes from Blankshore LLC, a Los Altos-based developer currently building a large condo project at 2189 Bayshore Blvd. that is worth more than $1 million. (That’s the top value bracket listed on the form, so we don’t know how many millions the project is actually worth or how much more than $100,000 Safai earned this year).

But we do know from city records that Safai has personally bought at least three properties during his short stint in San Francisco, including one at 78 Latona Street that he flipped for a huge profit after buying it from a woman facing foreclosure, who then sued Safai for fraud.

The woman, Mary McDowell, alleged in court documents that real estate broker Harold Smith, "unsolicited, came to plaintiff’s residence and offered assistance to her because her homes were in foreclosure … [and said] she would receive sufficient money after sales commissions to reinstate the loans on the four other properties."

The legal complaint said Smith then modified those terms to pay McDowell less than promised and arranged to sell the home to Safai and his brother, Reza. "Plaintiff is informed and believes and thereon alleges that defendants did not promptly list her residence on the multiple listing service to avoid larger offers on the home and conspired with the other defendants to purchase the home at a far less than market price," reads the complaint.

The case was originally set for jury trial, indicating it had some merit. But after numerous pleadings and procedural actions that resulted in the plaintiff’s attorney being sanctioned for failing to meet certain court deadlines and demands, the case was dismissed.
But whatever the merit to the case, records on file with the county assessor and recorder show that Safai and his brother flipped the property for a tidy profit. They paid $365,500 for the place in December 2003 — and sold it two year later, in December 2005, for $800,000.
Labor activist Robert Haaland told us that Safai can’t be trusted to support rent control or the rights of workers or tenants: "At the end of the day, he’s a real estate speculator."