Malia Cohen, 38, was first elected to the District 10 Board of Supervisor’s seat in 2010. She was reelected in 2014. The district includes Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, Bayview-Hunters Point, and Visitacion Valley. Cohen’ll be termed out in 2019, which has prompted speculation about what political position, if any, she’ll seek in the coming years, with rumors that she’s planning a bid for San Francisco Treasurer in 2017.
During her campaigns Cohen pledged to foster a district that’s economically vibrant, affordable, and safe for working families. According to Susan Eslick, a Dogpatch Neighborhood Association (DNA) member who has worked with Cohen on community initiatives, she’s generally done a good job. “I’ve known her for a really long time,” Eslick said. “She is always available and personable and is very aware of the different issues faced by the Dogpatch and how they are different from issues in Potrero Hill. She always listens. People have a lot of expectations of their supervisor, so it’s a very difficult and complicated position. Given where San Francisco is and all that is going on, she has done an admirable job.”
Eslick, who was recently elected to the board of the newly created Green Benefits District (GBD), said that Cohen was highly supportive of forming the GBD, and understands the importance of it. As reported in last month’s View (“New Board Members of Green Benefit District Excited for 2016), the GBD invests property assessment revenues in green public spaces located in Dogpatch and Northwest Potrero Hill.
While agreeing that Cohen supported GBD creation, Ron Miguel, past San Francisco Planning Commission president and a GBD formation committee member, noted that the supervisor’s staff didn’t participate in the implementation stages. “I understand that staff requirements are tight, but these are the active people and organizations in this area of District 10. I’m not sure why her staff have been absent from the meetings.”
Miguel stated that Tony Kelly, who ran against Cohen in 2010 and 2014, has remained active in community organizations, such as the Potrero Boosters, DNA and the Potrero Democratic Club, while Cohen and her staff have been absent from most meetings. For his part, Kelly, who serves as vice president of the Boosters and Democratic Club, believes that Cohen has supported neighborhood interests, but echoed Miguel’s observation that she hasn’t been visible in the community.
“The most public examples are her standing up to the SFPD during their latest scandals, supporting Sanctuary City policies, and voting against wasting public money on a new jail,” Kelly said. “But Supervisor Cohen is in a position that can do much more. As chair of the Board’s Land Use Committee and a resident of a rapidly developing neighborhood, she has an opportunity to take a leading role addressing our affordable housing crisis; instead, other supervisors have taken that initiative. As president of the City’s Retirement Board, she has missed chances to invest our $21 billion pension fund more responsibly, and to help address the foreclosure crisis that still threatens many District 10 homeowners. She serves on Caltrain’s Board of Directors, but has been largely silent on desperately needed improvements in local and commuting transportation. And I think she should be more involved with the Sheriff’s Re-Entry Council, given the number of ex-offenders returning to District 10 neighborhoods each year. No supervisor can do everything, but if you pursue leadership positions you should know what you want to do in those positions. These are all significant missed opportunities that have consequences for the district.”
Miguel, who has worked with Cohen and her staff on a number of land use issues, believes she’s receptive to neighborhood concerns while trying to balance the needs of San Francisco as a whole. “She or her staff have always followed through and kept in touch with me until problems were resolved, I think she has done a good job,” Miguel stated.
Cohen was born, raised and attended Lowell High School in San Francisco. According to Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of public policy for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Cohen’s local background helps bring a sense of history to the Board of Supervisors. “I’ve known her well, including her life before supervisor, and we have had a good relationship during her terms in office. Although she’s not 100 percent pro-business, you don’t expect that in San Francisco. She’s always supportive of policies that involve bringing jobs to District 10. There are concerns due to there being more unemployment in 10 than in the Richmond District or Telegraph Hill, for instance, so her work has been important. There’s a gentrification and affordability issue across the City, but there are more opportunities to manage it in Potrero Hill and the Dogpatch. We have to balance growth with gentrification and Cohen has been aware of this.”
Cohen’s 2015 legislative attendance exceeded 95 percent. Considered to be politically centrist, she’s supported legislation to tighten firearm regulation, reduce barriers to employment and housing for Californians who have served time in prison, and expand homeownership by increasing public sector investments in the Downpayment Assistance Loan Program (DALP), which provides loans to moderate-income San Franciscans purchasing their first home, with no repayment for 40 years.
“She’s not center-right or center-left, she takes things issue by issue,” said Lazarus. “She has a wealth of knowledge and experience.”
Cohen holds a bachelor of arts in political science from Fisk University, and a master in public policy and management from Carnegie Mellon University. Before winning office she served on Mayor Gavin Newsom’s executive staff for two years and did a brief stint as chief legislative aide to San Mateo County Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson.
In the 2010 election, Cohen initially placed third among twenty-two candidates, but won the race under the ranked-choice voting system, in which voters identify their top three choices.
Though Cohen’s term as supervisor won’t conclude until 2019, given sparse options for political office San Franciscans are already speculating about her future. “I don’t know about her plans,” said Miguel. “She could stay local, but you have to look at what’s available and there’s not much. City Treasurer is always a possibility. It has been a jumping off place from time to time for local politicians who want to run for something on the state level. She may also go up to Sacramento, but San Francisco politics is very different from Sacramento.”
“There are eleven Supervisors at any time with various terms and not many make the transition to the state level,” said Lazarus. “The state is limited because there are only two jobs and I don’t know how often they will open up.”
Cohen declined to speak with the View about this article, maintaining a near media blackout against the community newspaper that she’s held throughout her tenure.