Coleman is the council’s first openly LGBTQ member, its first democratic socialist and the youngest individual ever elected to the seat.
This past autumn was a blur for James Coleman.
A senior at Harvard University, Coleman was spending his first semester of the year 3,100 miles away at his home in South San Francisco. He would tend to his biology coursework and classes during the day; at night, he and a faithful cohort of volunteers — including campaign manager and childhood friend Franchesca Buendia — worked to promote Coleman’s campaign for a seat on South San Francisco’s city council.
Together, Coleman and Buendia led efforts to reach his district’s constituents by phone, by mail and over social media. They ordered lawn signs, designed advertisements and orchestrated email campaigns. The goal, Coleman said, was to engage with each of his voters.
This month Coleman, at 21, became the youngest person ever to assume a seat on South San Francisco’s City Council. Councilman Mark Addiego, first elected in 1980 at the age of 24, previously held that title, according to South San Francisco City Clerk Rosa Govea Acosta. (Addiego took a break from local politics and returned to the council in 2005.)
“(James) has that willingness to dive right in and build a better city. He truly believes he can accomplish great things at the local level,” Addiego said, adding he had met with Coleman for an hour this week and been reminded of himself as a young councilman.
Coleman, who will serve alongside Addiego, attributes his campaign’s success in part to its broad and consistent outreach.
“There was one constituent I called — she picked up, and said, ‘This is the second time you’ve called me, I got your mailer yesterday, I got two fliers today and I see your ads everywhere on social media,’” Coleman recalled. “She said, ‘I’m already voting for you.’”
In the end, Coleman believes, they reached every voter in the district multiple times.
South City strategy
There was a “stark difference” between Coleman’s strategy and that of his opponent, South San Francisco Mayor Richard Garbarino, according to Buendia. Though Garbarino had been a member of the city council for 18 years, many of Buendia and Coleman’s peers had never heard of him, Buendia said. Their campaign focused in part on mobilizing that base of young voters.
“(A city councilmember) should be someone whose name you know if you’re a community member,” Buendia, a junior at the University of California, Irvine, added. Coleman, she said, made it a point throughout his campaign to be approachable — to make his voters feel heard.
Coleman’s own campaign was born out of a desire to feel heard — to have South San Francisco’s elected officials take comments from even their youngest constituents seriously, the councilmember-elect said in an interview in October.
In the spring, Coleman joined his fellow South City residents in protesting the death of George Floyd and calling for police reform; he helped organize CHANGE SSF, a grassroots advocacy group whose mission centered around South San Francisco’s own history of police misconduct. (In 2012, the city’s police department came under scrutiny after Officer Joshua Cabillo shot and killed 15-year-old Derrick Gaines. The city later settled a civil suit with Gaines’ family for a quarter of a million dollars, admitting fault. Cabillo is now a member of the San Francisco Police Department, where he again came under scrutiny in 2018 for shooting a fleeing suspect in the back in the middle of a crowded street. No charges were ultimately brought against him.) Coleman joined the chorus of voices asking for transparency from his hometown police department — and he felt largely shunned. Shortly thereafter, he made the decision to run for office.
His campaign for city council was an “unapologetically progressive” one, Coleman said. He will be its youngest member — but also its first Democratic Socialist and first LGBTQ member, Coleman, who is openly bisexual, said.
“We didn’t hide any of our policy positions, and most people were happy about them,” he added. “When it comes to having more candidates similar to myself — whether my identity or my politics — it’s really important to see firsts in your community, and in the larger Bay Area.”
Left-leaning politics & a 12-vote lead
Coleman’s platform centers on an expansion of South San Francisco’s existing city-funded preschool (the waitlist is currently four years long, according to Coleman); building more affordable housing; police oversight and reform; and addressing climate change.
While issues like those have historically been tenets of left-leaning politicians, conservative voters he engaged with along the way were receptive, Coleman added. Many of Coleman’s younger peers — regardless of political leanings — were excited about adding a younger voice to the council’s seats, he said.
“It’s impactful when we see young activists show up, wanting to have their voices heard,” Councilman Mark Nagales said of Coleman’s rise to politics following the spring’s protests. “His volunteers organized and mobilized for his campaign. They were energetic, obviously, and now he’ll be able to legislate.”
When Nagales, then 38, was elected to the council in 2018, he was its youngest member, he said. He’s made it a point through his two-year tenure to serve as an advocate for the city’s young families — many of whom, Nagales knew, were too busy tending to their jobs and their children to themselves become involved in local politics. Coleman will likely serve as a voice for the younger demographic of voters who helped elect him, Nagales said, as well as his older constituents who align themselves with his progressive values.
“It is nice to see young people coming out for the first time,” Addiego added. “We needed a little boost. It’s kind of got me excited about the job (in that same way) again.”
Buendia, who had no previous experience working on political campaigns, said she believed Coleman would be in touch with the city’s “working class.” Besides, she added — even years of service at the local political level could not have prepared any of the city councilmembers for the pandemic and its ripple effects.
“James grew up in public school, surrounded by working-class families — he has direct insight into people’s (lives),” Buendia said. “Knowing what people need now (amid a pandemic) — that’s different from what might have been established from those years of political experience.”
On election night, initial results had Coleman leading Garbarino by 55 votes — a count that later in the night sank to just 12 votes, the councilmember-elect recalled. Slowly, though, his lead surged — as of last week, he led Garbarino, who conceded to Coleman during a city council meeting, by almost 250 votes. (Coleman’s was the only contested election in the entire city, he said.)
“It’s been inspiring,” Coleman said. “I’m ready to work. I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues on getting things done.”
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