The easiest part of Daniel Lurie’s campaign to be the next mayor of San Francisco will be pointing out what’s wrong. Look at people shooting up in the streets! Look at the empty office buildings! Look at the homeless! Did your car get broken into today?
But running against San Francisco’s Doom Loop won’t be enough.
The hardest part of Lurie’s campaign will be explaining how a political novice — an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune — can steer San Francisco away from the abyss. Lurie, 46, has to be more than a blank slate upon which voters can design their dream candidate.
“(Mayor) London Breed is vulnerable,” San Francisco State political science professor Jason McDaniel told me. “But he can’t run on just being ‘Not London Breed.’ ”
That is one of many hurdles that Lurie faces in taking on an incumbent who has been mayor or a member of the Board of Supervisors for the last decade. He’s also got to convince people that he’s not just a rich guy who thinks he can run government like a business.
Former Democratic strategist Darry Sragow knows how that goes. He managed the 1998 California gubernatorial primary campaign of wealthy airline executive Al Checchi, who spent a then-record $40 million of his own money, only to finish second in the Democratic primary to future Gov. Gray Davis.
“The first hurdle that every very wealthy candidate for public office has to clear, especially if he or she is going to be largely self-funded, is convincing voters that their interest in holding political office is more than a whim because they’ve made so much money that they don’t know what else to do with their time,” Sragow said.
Lurie’s desire to help others is unquestioned. In 2005, he created Tipping Point Community, which has raised over $500 million to help fund and support nonprofits focused on providing housing, early childhood support, education and employment. Last year, Lurie said, the organization helped 6,000 people with “services that either helped them transition out of homelessness or prevented them from being in it in the first place.”
Born and raised in San Francisco, Lurie said the city has more than enough money to tackle its myriad problems.
“This is not a crisis of resources. This is a crisis of leadership,” Lurie said Tuesday at his kickoff rally at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. “We don’t have a mayor who’s challenging the system. We have a mayor who’s entrenched in it … (instead of) solutions, we can have excuses and finger-pointing.”
But while raising money from wealthy individuals and corporations and redirecting it to people facing poverty is noble, it’s not the same as running a city with a $16 billion budget and intractable problems — plus Fox News waiting for you to fail.
Here are other challenges Lurie will face in his quest.
This isn’t rookie camp: Vice President Kamala Harris was among those who have described San Francisco politics as “a knife fight in a phone booth.” She emerged from the same political octagon that birthed the careers of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. No wallflowers in that bunch.
Lurie knows the city’s power players, but has never held elective office. People invariably describe him as “a nice guy.” One of his challenges will be to see how he takes political punches on the trail.
Campaign life will be a lot different than Tipping Point, when he was bringing people joy by handing out other people’s money. There’s a lot less joy-delivering at City Hall and a lot more political knife play. Can he demonstrate that he’s up for it?
“San Francisco politics,” McDaniel said, “is not the minor leagues.”
He won’t be able to pivot the city’s billion-dollar bureaucracy as quickly as his small nonprofit staff. Then there’s the Board of Supervisors. Some might be with him. Some will definitely be against him. And, unlike the business or nonprofit world, he won’t be able to fire any of them.
“I’m not naive,” Lurie said Tuesday. “I know that challenging bureaucracy is a tall order. But we’re never going to turn around the city unless we have the courage to try.”
Assembling a coalition: Lurie hopes to overcome his inexperience with bold promises that tap into the collective frustrations San Franciscans feel.
One of his biggest ovations Tuesday came when he urged San Franciscans to be “fearless.” “Fearless in our belief that no one has the right to smash our car windows, pillage our stores, shoot up drugs where our children play or prey on those suffering through addiction,” he said. “My administration will finally slam the door shut on the era of open-air drug markets and the perception that lawlessness is an acceptable part of life in San Francisco.”
The challenge for Lurie is to be able to secure conservative voters who want law and order (he is promising to fully fund the Police Department) while appealing to enough progressives who might embrace him as an “anybody but Breed” candidate, McDaniel said. Without a progressive candidate in the race yet, the 35% to 40% of voters who generally fall into the progressive camp have to go somewhere, right?
“Can he say enough of the things that the progressive groups want to hear in order for them to consider endorsing you, without pissing off people who are more into public safety?” McDaniel said.
A rich white guy: Lurie is the son of Rabbi Brian Lurie, who was the executive director of the Jewish Community Federation, and Mimi Haas. They divorced when he was 2 years old. After the divorce, his mother married philanthropist Peter Haas — the great-grandnephew of Levi Strauss — who controlled 11% of the company’s shares, as of 2021.
“From an early age I was afforded opportunities and a level of privilege most people were not,” Lurie said Tuesday.
After working for former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign — which focused on an anti-poverty message, Lurie moved to New York, where he worked for the Robin Hood Foundation. The 35-year-old group is the city’s largest poverty-fighting organization, supporting low-income families by funding nonprofits to help them. That inspired him to return home to San Francisco to create Tipping Point, which has a similar mission.
Several in the crowd Tuesday compared Lurie to Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor who has also been a longtime philanthropist. One difference: Bloomberg wasn’t born into money.
It’s not that San Francisco is averse to electing wealthy candidates. Feinstein, Pelosi and Newsom either came from wealth, married into it or had supportive rich friends. The crowd that attended Lurie’s campaign launch Tuesday was largely white and more than a few rolled up in Escalades and other high-end vehicles.
But the three speakers who preceded Lurie on stage Tuesday were all people of color — including San Francisco 49ers Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, who has worked with Lurie on various projects over the years.
“Trust me,” Lott said, almost whispering to an audience that was pin-drop quiet. “Trust me.”
Battle of the bios: Lurie and Breed’s biographies couldn’t be more different. Breed was born and raised in public housing in San Francisco. Lurie is a scion of one the city’s wealthiest families.
Breed’s supporters will make that distinction loud and clear. Outside of Lurie’s launch Tuesday, a Breed supporter waved a sign that said “Malibu Dan.” It is a reference to something San Franciscans will surely hear a lot about over the next year: He bought a $15.5 million home in Malibu in 2021, while much of the rest of California was dealing with COVID restrictions. Lurie spokesman Max Szabo said Lurie’s family only vacationed there and did not move there during the pandemic.
But what may blunt that stark comparison of personal biographies is that Breed’s record in City Hall is what she is best known for now among many voters — not her upbringing. A May San Francisco Chamber of Commerce survey found that 77% of respondents say the city is on the wrong track.
Still, said McDaniel, the political scientist, Breed’s background will make it harder for many voters who grew up in a similar way to turn on her.
“It does matter, because it gives her that sense of authenticity,” McDaniel said.
Nadine Burke Harris, California’s former surgeon general, introduced Lurie Tuesday. The two have known each other for more than a decade and Lurie was an early supporter of the clinic she founded, the Bayview Child Health Center. Burke, who is Black, said Tuesday that Lurie wasn’t just a check writer. He would often travel to the neighborhood to learn more about how the clinic operated.
“Soon enough,” Burke said, “people started saying, ‘Hey Dr. Burke. I was at this meeting the other day and there was this white guy in the back of the room with his sleeves rolled up.’ ”
Burke would reply: “Yeah. That’s Daniel. He’s legit.”
Burke said that Lurie “not only gave his time and his resources, he used his privilege to open doors and inspired so many to invest in the fight against poverty in San Francisco.”
As Lurie said Tuesday, “The end game for me is not a life in politics. It’s a better life for all of us.”
He’s got a little more than a year to convince voters of that.
Reach Joe Garofoli: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @joegarofoli
Written By Joe Garofoli
Joe Garofoli is the San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer, covering national and state politics. He has worked at The Chronicle since 2000 and in Bay Area journalism since 1992, when he left the Milwaukee Journal. He is the host of “It’s All Political,” The Chronicle’s political podcast. Catch it here: bit.ly/2LSAUjA
He has won numerous awards and covered everything from fashion to the Jeffrey Dahmer serial killings to two Olympic Games to his own vasectomy — which he discussed on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” after being told he couldn’t say the word “balls” on the air. He regularly appears on Bay Area radio and TV talking politics and is available to entertain at bar mitzvahs and First Communions. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and a proud native of Pittsburgh. Go Steelers!
©2023 Hearst Communications, Inc.