I’m in the control room of Live 105, an alt-rock radio station near the Embarcadero, watching one in a long line of the city’s colorful, and probably doomed, mayoral candidates make his pitch.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a blogger, author of books on living frugally, and self-promoter par excellence. He is explaining why he should replace the city’s incumbent mayor, Ed Lee, when voters go to the polls on Tuesday. Lee, a Democrat and tech industry ally, is expected to coast to victory. He is not unpopular, but he is not beloved.
Five underfunded candidates are challenging Lee. Schuffman, 34, is the best known of what must be considered, at best, a protest slate. His slogan on campaign posters that have popped up all over town: “Go for Broke.”
Schuffman, whose previous elective experience was vice president of University City High School in San Diego, is a Democratic socialist who wants more affordable housing, more public toilets, higher taxes on developers, fewer tax breaks for tech companies and more civic engagement by the people benefiting economically from the tech boom.
When you take an Uber to work, work a million hours, get your food at work, take an Uber home ... You are opting out of being a San Franciscan.
“There’s nothing wrong with moving to a wonderful city for a great job,” Schuffman told me. “The problem is the culture around tech. It’s so insular. When you take an Uber to work, work a million hours, get your food at work, take an Uber home and on top of that you’re wearing clothes the company gives you? You are opting out of being a San Franciscan.”
At this moment, it is an argument that seems to resonate. Schuffman has raised only $30,000, but he has a much higher profile than his meager coffers would suggest.
“He has caught fire because he has emerged as a leading voice of opposition to the mayor, but that’s due to the failure of progressives here to mount a real challenge,” said political scientist Corey Cook, who recently left the university of San Francisco for Boise State. “Into that void has stepped a very different kind of voice who has been effective at capturing the essence of what San Franciscans are concerned about.”
After Schuffman’s radio interview, I drove him to Vesuvio, the famous saloon next to City Lights bookstore in North Beach. It was early, and as we chatted, there was only one other patron, a dashing fellow wearing a black top hat over a flowing mane of silver hair, a black pirate’s waistcoat with silver buttons, black boots and round black sunglasses. His black cane sat on the table. I did a double take.
“Oh, that’s Capt. Cool,” Schuffman said. “He always looks like that.”
God love the techies who have invaded this city, but I can’t imagine any of them stepping onto a Google bus in a top hat and a pirate coat.
The tech boom has slashed unemployment but has also led to the second-largest wealth gap of any American city. A stubborn homeless rate and lack of access to public bathrooms means parts of the city are awash in urine or speckled with feces. Quiet residential neighborhoods are being invaded by visitors using the estimated 5,400 short-term rental units purveyed by websites such as Airbnb.
Two San Francisco residents told me this week the sound of suitcases rolling on concrete has become the new, annoying soundtrack of their lives.
Last week, in a remarkable display of cluelessness, Airbnb ratcheted up the tension with a passive aggressive billboard campaign aimed at defeating Proposition F, a measure that would impose severe restrictions on its business.
Lee, whose campaign chest is awash in tech money, opposes the measure, as does the San Francisco Chronicle. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor, supports it.
“The mayor points to Airbnb and Uber and says, ‘How tech goes, the city will go,’” Cook said. “But it’s difficult to find someone who will tell you the tech companies have been as civic-minded as they ought to be. Even when they contribute, they contribute reluctantly. The billboards are a good example.”
“Dear SF Tax Collector,” said one, “You know the $12 million in hotel taxes? Don’t spend it all in one place. Love Airbnb.”
“But,” said another, “if you do spend all $12 million in one place, we suggest burritos. Love Airbnb.”
“Airbnb’s ads make them fools in national news,” said the S.F. Examiner. Airbnb yanked the ads and apologized for “the wrong tone.”
Schuffman said he will consider his campaign a success if he and two other protest candidates with whom he is aligned garner 30% of the vote.
That could embarrass the mayor into a more aggressive stance against homelessness. And possibly help Schuffman sell a travel TV show he’s pitching.
“Yes,” he admitted, “I am a shameless self-promoter. But I am also giving voice to people who might not have one otherwise.”
He’s sick of the libertarian view embraced by so many of the city’s new elites: “If you can’t afford San Francisco, move out.”
“I’m like eff you,” he said. “If you don’t like progressive values, you move out.”
That message is not likely to soothe the city’s rifts. But I like his attitude.