Lateefah Simon (middle), (Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

January 30, 2024   5 mins

“This district is the birthplace of the Black Panther Party,” Lateefah Simon proudly narrates, as she walks past murals of black nationalists. The camera then pans to shots of the University of California, Berkeley campus. “We taught the nation how to fight for freedom,” she says. “And I’m going to be the one to fight this hard fight.” Simon is a congressional candidate vying for one of the most Democratic open seats in the nation — and she’s a shoo-in.

Her portrayal of the district, which overlaps with much of the East Bay, a region connected by bridge to San Francisco, is a throwback to an idealised past. In many respects, it is the cradle of Californian radicalism and those New Left identity politics that have come to define modern progressivism. But it is also home to extreme inequality and sprawling homeless encampments, with carjackings, shootings, and rampant theft part of daily life. The “most dangerous square mile” in America lies right at the heart of this district.

The revolutionary symbolism of Simon’s campaign also betrays a murkier reality: one that has both reshaped the East Bay and reflects the future of the Democratic Party. For all her trumpeting of social mobility, Simon, who previously worked as an aide to Kamala Harris, is a party operative on the payroll of the wealthiest donors in the state — a self-appointed clique of philanthropist benefactors who have ripped apart the social threads of the region with their extreme policies designed to remake policing and criminal justice. In Oakland, for instance, burglaries are so common that the police department encourages homeowners to warn one another of break-ins with airhorns. Inevitably, the wealthy live cloistered behind gates with their own private security.

Faced with such disorder, one might expect Simon to view fixing crime as a priority. And yet, there are no crime policy positions or any policy platform listed on her campaign website. The local media, parts of which have received funding from her work in philanthropy, haven’t done any significant reporting into Simon’s background or her tenure managing BART, the local train network that has fallen into severe fiscal decline and where violent incidents for passengers have become routine. And in a year since announcing, she has refused to debate any challengers.

This isn’t to say that Simon has shied away from discussing the issue on the mind of every East Bay resident. Following the death of George Floyd, Simon said she would focus on a “complete shift” in policing — an institution “riddled with anti-blackness”. As a BART director, she led the push to shift funds to new programmes that use social workers to respond to the problem of widespread mental illness, homelessness and drug abuse on trains, rather than police. She hired a DEI firm, Be the Change Consulting, to institute her “de-emphasising police” reforms.

“If there is a man who is houseless, and he has no clothes and he has no shoes, we are in conversations and in some agreement that his first interaction may need to be with an outreach worker,” Simon told reporters. “Not a man or a woman trained to take down a soldier.”

The results, it’s safe to say, have been disastrous. It’s common to see passengers smoking fentanyl and meth openly on trains, and violent incidents occur nearly every week. Last year, there were more than a dozen overdose deaths on BART, as well as a dramatic drop in ridership: one survey found that only 17% of riders feel safe on BART. And this is as much an economic as a security problem. After federal relief funding dries up, the train system, which connects the entire San Francisco region, is on track to run operating deficits of more than $300 million next year.

Simon, however, has stepped down from the BART board to focus on her congressional campaign — though with her backers encompassing the moneyed Silicon Valley elite and political establishment, it’s starting to feel more like a coronation.Nearly every local Democratic leader and interest group endorsed her; Gov. Gavin Newsom, the attorney general, local mayors of the major cities, the abortion rights and environmental nonprofits, and California’s largest unions have all blessed her campaign. When I spoke to her after a recent event, she noted that she was on her way to move into a campaign office with Rep. Barbara Lee, the retiring lawmaker who previously held this seat for more than a quarter century.

Simon has easily outraised the combined fundraising of the other Democratic candidates by a factor of eight and her donor list is a who’s who of liberal nobility, featuring Jurvetson, Haas, and Pritzker. Michel Krieger, the co-founder of Instagram, Rebecca Prozan, Google’s chief lobbyist in California, and Tony West, who oversees Uber’s global lobbying operations, are also contributors.

Even though, in many respects, Simon embodies this East Bay radical chic, she takes care to conceal it. Her stump speech focuses on humble beginnings, her struggle as a young single mother and in the juvenile justice system after an arrest for shoplifting. She sought elected office, she says, as just another citizen without a voice.

That story contrasts dramatically with Simon’s more recent history. She currently advises the charity endeavours of Patricia Quillin, the wife of billionaire Netflix founder Reed Hastings, receiving a $557,700 salary in just one year. She also earned roughly $2 million between 2016 and 2022 as the president of the Akonadi Foundation, a liberal group backed by real estate investor Wayne Jordan. From that perch, she doled out dozens of grants to “abolish the police” activists and decriminalisation initiatives in the region.

Under Simon, for instance, Akonadi gave routine grants of $40,000 and $50,000 to the Anti-Police Terror Project, an Oakland-based group seeking to “radically transform — and eventually abolish — police and policing”. They led the initiative to cut $18 million from the Oakland Police Department, a force that faces persistent shortfalls in the face of escalating violence.

Simon is also largely responsible for the push to remove police officers from guarding public schools. Tax records show that the campaign was powered by more than $300,000 of Akonadi grants to multiple overlapping organisations that successfully lobbied Oakland for the change in 2020. Black Organizing Project, one major recipient of donor money under Simon, claimed that police officers do nothing to improve safety and instead place minority students in danger.

Since the removal of officers, however, Oakland students have contended with multiple school shootings. In 2022, a mass shooter at King Estates School killed one student and left five wounded, and the previous month, gang violence at Oakland Technical High School injured three students. Last year, the violence continued with multiple school shootings.

Under Simon’s leadership, Akonadi also gave funding to media outlets now covering her campaign, including KQED and Oaklandside. Shortly after announcing her congressional bid, KQED, the local PBS affiliate, produced a hagiographic 30-minute programme introducing Simon as a “nationally recognised” civil rights leader with an impressive list of accomplishments.

What little national media attention Simon has received has been overwhelmingly supportive, describing her as the “West Coast answer to AOC”. That may well be the case: Simon has signed onto a pledge to enact reparations, including the “distribution of funds to Black-led organisations serving Black populations”.

Finding an opportunity to talk to Simon has proved difficult. At a routine campaign stop earlier this month in San Leandro, a working-class suburb in the district, I tried to speak with her. Only minutes into our conversation, her staffer, Han Zou, interrupted and promised an interview later. That staffer, it turned out, was on loan from Gov. Newsom’s consulting firm, Bearstar Strategies, which manages the campaigns of much of the California Democratic establishment.

Before Simon was whisked away, I asked if she would agree to a single debate before voters are mailed a primary ballot in a few weeks. “Absolutely,” she responded. As for Zou, he never returned my emails for a promised interview. And Glenn Kaplan and Jennifer Tran, two of the other candidates in the race, say Simons snubbed their plans for a debate. For a district known for its Leftist radicalism, and its Sixties-era mantra “democracy in the streets”, a competitive election is conspicuous by its absence.

Lee Fang is an investigative journalist and Contributing Editor at UnHerd. Read his Substack here.