Mayor London Breed has tapped Matt Dorsey, the openly gay director of strategic communications for the San Francisco Police Department who has also struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol, to fill the Board of Supervisors District 6 seat left vacant by the election of Matt Haney to the state Assembly.
“As a longtime public servant, Matt Dorsey knows how the city works, and as a member of the recovery community, he can bring new energy and commitment to the crisis of addiction that is fueling our overdose crisis and impacting neighborhoods throughout this city,” the mayor said in a written statement.
In choosing the relatively moderate Dorsey, the mayor will likely get a more reliable ally on the board than Haney, who often criticized Breed’s management of the city. But she also runs the risk of alienating constituents who will see Dorsey’s relationship with the SFPD as a liability.
Others, including Assemblymember Haney, were hoping Breed would appoint Honey Mahogany to lead District 6. Mahogany served as Haney’s chief of staff and would have been the first transgender member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
“I do understand why she would want to appoint someone maybe that was closer to her,” Mahogany told KQED. “But I think that the residents of District 6 actually need someone who knows what they’re doing, who has experience.” She cited her work in Haney’s office on behalf of issues including public safety and homelessness.
The appointment of Dorsey sets up an electoral conflict for November with Mahogany. But as some have noted, it may also serve as a proxy battle between Mayor Breed and the newly elected Haney, backing Dorsey and Mahogany, respectively, at a time when Breed is gearing up for her own election. Breed appears to be banking on the electorate’s mood shifting to favor a candidate with strong ties to the police, like Dorsey.
Dorsey, who has experienced decades of substance use disorder and recovery, hopes to use that experience in his new position.
“I’ve been open about being in recovery before, but I never thought to be this open about it,” Dorsey told KQED. “But at this moment with the public health crisis that we have, I hope I can make a difference,” he said, referring to the relentless numbers of overdose deaths on city streets.
San Francisco recorded 640 accidental overdose deaths in 2021, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Roughly 20% of those deaths were in the South of Market neighborhood, which Dorsey will now represent.
Dorsey sees a direct connection between rampant open-air drug dealing, addiction and overdose deaths in San Francisco and some of its other most vexing challenges.
“I think when you consider things like homelessness and street conditions and theft and recent auto burglaries, a lot of this stuff, if we can make progress on drug use, getting more people into recovery, I think we’ll see progress on a lot of things. I’m optimistic about what we can do,” Dorsey said.
While not well known to the general public, Dorsey has been a fixture in San Francisco politics, campaigns and government for decades. He spent four years on the San Francisco Democratic Party board. After 14 years as press secretary to City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Dorsey became a partner in a local communications company. He returned to the public sector in 2020 to head the SFPD’s strategic communications.
The appointment of a former SFPD staffer comes at a time of rising fear of crime in San Francisco, leading to contentious debates over whether increased policing is needed in the city. And from smash-and-grab robberies at luxury stores in Union Square to high-profile attacks against members of the Asian American community, that debate is taking place in neighborhoods Dorsey will represent, including downtown, South of Market and Mission Bay.
“There’s obviously some concern around Mr. Dorsey and some of his work for the police,” said former San Francisco Police Commissioner John Hamasaki. Hamasaki referred specifically to a public relations campaign to discredit District Attorney Chesa Boudin while Boudin’s office was prosecuting a police officer for excessive use of force. The SFPD alleged that Boudin’s office had violated a memorandum of understanding between the police and the DA.
Hamasaki, who is a critic of the SFPD, said “it created this aura that the district attorney was cheating in this case. But the facts that it was based on were misrepresented. It called into question, you know, what the police were doing with their taxpayer money and the resources in the media unit, and then also how that ultimately affected the trial.”
Among those who worked with Dorsey in the City Attorney’s office is state Sen. Scott Wiener, who called Dorsey “a rock-solid choice” for the job. Wiener, who like Dorsey went to the Board of Supervisors from the City Attorney’s office, said it’s useful experience for a supervisor to have.
“I can say that being in the City Attorney’s Office, you see how city government works and how it’s not working,” Wiener said. “You’re involved in every aspect of city government, and you truly see the good, the bad and the ugly. So Matt is not going to need a huge education in terms of how the different departments are functioning and what needs to be done better.”
Dorsey, who said San Francisco must do more to address the lack of affordable housing in the city, said he’ll bring his own experiences as a resident to help prioritize the issues he’ll emphasize. “I choose not to own a car. I commute generally by Bikeshare. I am a renter, so I think transportation will be important,” he said.
Dorsey, who also is HIV-positive, sees a resemblance to the city’s drug problems with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s. “The stigma of who is dying is masking the horror of how many are dying,” Dorsey said. “And as somebody who remembers what those days were like, I just keep thinking that this is where a voice from this recovery community is needed.”
As expected, Dorsey is a staunch defender of the SFPD, saying that under Chief Bill Scott the police department has made tremendous strides implementing reforms that have reduced unlawful use of force and policies and practices that landed the previous police chief in hot water.
“It is a better police department than people think it is,” Dorsey said, adding that the rank-and-file officers don’t get the credit other first responders have gotten during the pandemic. “They were making a lot of the same sacrifices that nurses and firefighters and EMTs and others were — just not being appreciated.”
But just last week, Dorsey’s future colleagues, led by Supervisor Dean Preston, criticized the media relations job Dorsey’s office is doing, saying the SFPD was highlighting information that made the police look good with the goal of getting more city funding, while underplaying persistent problems.
“We need to understand to what extent taxpayer funds are being used to help shape media and public narrative on these controversial issues,” Preston said.
Preston’s comment came at a meeting of the Government Audit and Oversight Committee that he called to explore issues related to the SFPD’s communications operation.
Police Chief Bill Scott has often sparred with District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who is facing a recall election. Asked whether he supports Proposition H, the June 7 measure to recall Boudin, Dorsey hedged, saying he is “authentically undecided,” adding that “I have some complicated issues around my [SFPD] department’s relationship with the district attorney. And, we’ll see.”
“I’m going to give some thought to it and pray on it and talk to the DA and talk to some others and hear from my residents,” he added.
In the meantime, Dorsey’s opponents are already gearing up to face him in his first election.
Haney, who said “I have nothing bad to say about Matt,” noted that Mahogany was better suited to represent the district given her experience dealing with issues like affordable housing, homelessness and public safety.
“He [Dorsey] writes press releases for the police and for a lobbying firm,” he said. “That’s very different than someone who has been in the trenches working to keep a community safe, to build housing. I think that’s the kind of person that we need in office.”
Mahogany, who is transgender, will run for the seat in November, setting up a lively debate over who can best represent the district. She seemed to take Breed’s decision in stride.
“I think that [the voters] are going to definitely see the depth of my experience. And you know, I think they’ll make the right decision in November,” she added.