The last Republican holding office in San Francisco, until recently, was James Fang, a 24-year incumbent of the powerful board that oversees the Bay Area’s regional public transit system. Fang was part of a local dynasty. His family, one of the most prominent in the city’s Chinese-American community, at one point owned both the San Francisco Examiner and Asian Week. His mother, Florence Fang, was close to President George H. W. Bush, who appointed her to serve on the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Fang’s skill and connections allowed him to handily defeat all his challengers until his race against 31-year-old Nick Josefowitz, a political neophyte born in London who’d lived in San Francisco just three years. This wasn’t just a David-versus-Goliath contest. It pitted a traditional machine politician against a rookie with a modern campaign arsenal.
BART’s decision-making body is made up of nine board directors who represent different parts of San Francisco and its surrounding communities. Unsurprisingly, the BART board races are generally low-profile affairs that draw little attention from pundits, insiders or voters. Josefowitz’s underdog campaign last fall changed that.
How much of an underdog was Josefowitz? He was up against a Republican so influential that much of San Francisco’s Democratic establishment, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, supported him in each of his five previous reelection bids. Not only did Fang possess the support of the Democratic establishment and the labor community, but his district’s demographics highly favored him.
The BART board’s 8th district includes nearly all of San Francisco’s heavily Chinese-American neighborhoods — from the Sunset and Richmond Districts on the city’s west side to the iconic Chinatown. This meant approximately 37.7 percent of Fang’s voters were Asian-American. Moreover, the vast majority of them were Chinese-American voters. Josefowitz, meanwhile, was a Jewish guy with a British accent and few connections to the Asian-American community. It was difficult to see how he could overcome such a dramatic demographic challenge, even though registered Republicans were only 12.2 percent of the electorate.
Josefowitz did have some bonafides. For starters, he founded a successful solar company and was established within the environmental community, sitting on the board of the California League of Conservation Voters and receiving an appointment to San Francisco’s Environment Commission from Mayor Ed Lee. Josefowitz also came to the race with the financial resources to run a strong campaign.
Josefowitz used his resources — the campaign’s total budget was roughly t $400,000 — to hire our firm, San Francisco-based 50+1 Strategies. Our shop offers strategy, paid communications, campaign management, digital and field organizing, fundraising, treasury and design under one roof. This allows us to run streamlined, integrated campaigns in the most efficient and cost-effective way for our clients. After two cycles of using this approach, we have a 100-percent success rate in the 10 races we have run in San Francisco.
We knew that Josefowitz had to run a tight, strategic campaign to unseat Fang. The BART board race wasn’t going to be water-cooler conversation for most voters so we needed to offer a simple message. We settled on: “Clean Up BART.” It resonated because it acknowledged the frustration San Franciscans felt from the BART labor dispute without running an anti-labor campaign. The slogan also reminded people of the need to address the lack of cleanliness in some of the BART stations and trains. Finally, it invoked the need to fight the corruption that had defined much of Fang’s tenure.
To drive it home, we distributed 60,000 sponges to voters with the message: “Democrat Josefowitz, Clean Up BART.” We sent mailers featuring Josefowitz holding a broom in BART stations and pieces focusing on the details of Fang’s shady deals. We took out Facebook ads that showed photos of dirty BART stations. Facebook ads were approximately 5 percent of our total paid communications budget and about 25 percent of our ad budget (exempting mail). We targeted by geography and keyword to show interest in San Francisco politics or transit. The campaign also did targeted messaging around Josefowitz’s support for late-night BART service.
To overcome Fang’s strong support within the Chinese-American community, we spent about 20 percent of our paid communications budget on reaching the Chinese community. We produced bilingual literature, doorhangers and signs. We communicated on Chinese TV, radio and in Chinese-language newspapers. Moreover, we utilized Josefowitz’s cousin, who is Chinese-American, in an ad talking about why he was the right choice for the Chinese community. Josefowitz also won the support influential Chinese-American local politicians.
Still, we also had to make sure that San Francisco voters knew that they had a Republican representing them, which many voters didn’t, in part, because Fang’s previous opponents didn’t have the resources to tell them. We made sure to change that. We got substantial earned media in our race and referred to Fang as “Republican James Fang” whenever we mentioned his name. It worked. More than half of the 25 San Francisco Chronicle articles referencing Fang in 2014 included the word “Republican.” Since 1994, that number had never risen above 10 percent.
In addition to our communication effort, we ran a robust field operation led by manager Alyse Opatowki and canvass director Blake Kopcho. Over the course of three months, paid canvassers knocked on more than 85,000 doors across the district using the Organizer app and data from L2. While they walked, organizers used electronic devices to upload the data. On Election Day, we had staff and volunteers at more than 50 polling locations with signs that highlighted the need to oust “Republican James Fang” and “Clean Up BART.”
When the votes were counted, Josefowitz surprised the local establishment by beating Fang by 9.5 points.
Nicole Derse is the principal & co-founder of 50+1 Strategies LCC.