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California’s elite crowns its own AOC Is Lateefah Simon the West Coast's answer to the progressive firebrand?

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

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.

lhfang

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Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
2 months ago

The U.S. is slaloming to a relatively low-tech Philip K. d**k dystopia, something like Running Man.

Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago

Ugh. No wonder California is such a craphole. Very discoursing to read how corrupt and undemocratic the political system is in California.

Steven Targett
Steven Targett
2 months ago

I used to enjoy visiting California and especially San Francisco. Not any more, its a dystopian hell hole and Democratic progressives are entirely to blame. No idea what they are trying to achieve.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven Targett

Their achievement is laid out for all to see. There is no other explanation that makes sense. It is not possible to reach these results until it is intentional.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
2 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

You underestimate the human capacity to rationalize facts to fit their ideology and overestimate the ability of humans to think independently of their tribe/social groups. It is very possible for all this to be unintentional. I say we leave them to it.
Let them make their blessed city upon the hill of progressive policy. Let them show us where the path of progressive utopia leads. Let all the world witness the fruits of their tolerance, their compassion, their social justice. Let us hold them up for all to see as a monument for all to see, to see, and to judge for themselves. Nothing more is required to defeat them.

J Dunne
J Dunne
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Whether the world sees it or not will make no difference to these self-righteous cranks. They are incapable of introspection, instead simply choosing to believe they are right and the problems are all someone else’s fault.

After all, even after 100 million deaths they still believe that communism works.

Pyra Intihar
Pyra Intihar
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven Targett

I used to enjoy vacationing in California and spent a great deal of time in the Bay Area. However, in 2016 I determined no more of my vacation dollars would be spent in that state. That means I’m not giving sales tax dollars to a corrupt state. We boycott products, so we should also be able to boycott the tourism industry.

Paul T
Paul T
2 months ago

Grifters gonna grift.

0 0
0 0
2 months ago

Just another token minority social climber coasting of neurotic guilt and narcissism of her wealthy white supporters. If AOC and her were to meet, they would probably hate one another out fear of having compete with with one each other.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
2 months ago

she would do well as university administrator – or airline CEO. United may have opening when that drag Queen they have now is head hunted by NASA

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
2 months ago

“California’s elite crowns its own AOC
Is Lateefah Simon the West Coast’s answer to the progressive firebrand?”

Can’t understand why this is the headline… Nearly stopped me reading the article.

Andrew Wise
AW
Andrew Wise
2 months ago

I’ve missed something, what or who is AOC?

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Wise

Alexandra Ocasio Cortez. Congresswoman for Brooklyn. Billed as a radical progressive, but turned out to be a woke grifter.
The low point came two years ago when she was photo-oped in the Met Gala, swanning maskless past a row of dystopian, black-attired, mostly minority masked servants, while she herself was wearing a designer dress on which was splattered in chic-graffiti ‘Tax the Rich’. The dress, it turned out, had been made by a millionaire designer who was facing indictment for non-payment of income tax.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
2 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Thanks, i usually associate AOC as a wine classification

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Wise

You are very right to retain that association. Santé!

Hans Daoghn
HD
Hans Daoghn
2 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Please: AOC’s district is parts of Queens and Bronx – not Brooklyn. We in nextdoor Brooklyn try to maintain some standards. Other than this quibble, your points are well taken.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago
Reply to  Hans Daoghn

How lonely do you feel having this viewpoint toward AOC (and other progressive causes) whilst living in ny? Honest question

Graham Stull
GS
Graham Stull
2 months ago
Reply to  Hans Daoghn

Oops, sorry. Got me burroughs muddled. Thanks.

J Dunne
J Dunne
2 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

That may have been her lowest point but the fake parking lot blubbering photo-op has to be the funniest.

Graham Stull
GS
Graham Stull
2 months ago
Reply to  J Dunne

Emphatically agree.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
2 months ago

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 reality of the left’s record says there is no “but” to be included. The inequality, crime, and homelessness are as much a part of modern progressivism as the relentless fixation on identity. There are too many examples for this to be coincidence. Her own record shows failure, but in typical fashion, she’ll be rewarded for that.
How wonderful to know that another grifter is going to join our illustrious Club 535, otherwise known as Congress. More taxpayer money to be squandered on a know-nothing who chooses to be stuck in a bygone era.

Margie Murphy
MM
Margie Murphy
2 months ago

Everything she has put her hand to she has failed. Yet she is lauded. A perfect example of black.privilege and why the west is falling.

Margie Murphy
MM
Margie Murphy
2 months ago
Reply to  Margie Murphy

Black.progessive priviloge I should say. BLack conservatives are demonised beyond words by these awful.people.

0 0
0 0
2 months ago
Reply to  Margie Murphy

Its California, competence is not important, it ones wiliness to serve power is all that counts, its why people like her fail upwards.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 months ago

“Humble beginnings” are an arrest record and teenaged single motherhood?
With more people like this is positions of authority, California will look like South Sudan by 2030.

Howard S.
Howard S.
2 months ago

Zimbabwe, South Africa, Haiti, Detroit and Chicago have all freed themselves from rule by their White oppressors. How well has that turned out?

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 months ago
Reply to  Howard S.

Ditto Baltimore & Washington DC…places now governed solely by blacks which are ridden with crime, disorder and decay.

Howard S.
Howard S.
2 months ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

And the victims of the out-of-control crime are overwhelmingly black, which explains why the white power structure and white media owners don’t care.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
2 months ago
Reply to  Howard S.

I mean the USA is a democracy and the popular will should be respected. If people in certain areas or certain ethnic groups prefer chronic out of control crime and urban decay to police forces and the rule of law, why not just let them be?

Carl Valentine
Carl Valentine
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I sort of agree, but in a democracy people are fickle and the less educated are duped by demagoguery and social media, also it is in the interests of the elite to sow discord, if the people are divided they are safe (the elites), throwing the people scraps to keep them happy, scraps that they can write of as tax breaks whilst investing in lobbying to improve their power base.

Chipoko
C
Chipoko
2 months ago
Reply to  Howard S.

Lowest common denominator.

Howard S.
HS
Howard S.
2 months ago

Alexandria Ocasio-Torres. A member of the United States Congress from Queens, a borough of NYC. Elected in a complete surprise victory over the years-long elderly, absentee occupant of that position. She had previously worked as a bartender. Well-endowed, very attractive young lady with a drop-dead figure that doesn’t stop, (unlike most Democrat female politicians, who look like out of shape, overweight middle-aged white guys). A member of the far left, pro-Palestinian wing of the Democrat Party. She grew up in an upper middle-class white neighborhood in trendy Westchester County. Well to do parents, excellent education. Keeps her pasty-white, red-headed fiancé (of Scottish origin) away from the cameras when she is attending pro-Hamas and BLM rallies as a fellow Person of Color.

Alex Lekas
AL
Alex Lekas
2 months ago
Reply to  Howard S.

In other words, Sandy Cortez is a fraud, which makes her perfect for the modern-day Dem Party.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 months ago
Reply to  Howard S.

You forgot to mention that Cortez auditioned fir the gig and got the part.

David B
David B
2 months ago
Reply to  Howard S.

Occasional-Cortex is her correct surname. Otherwise a good post.

Steve Jolly
SJ
Steve Jolly
2 months ago
Reply to  David B

I’ve always like Occasionally Coherent better.

Carl Valentine
CV
Carl Valentine
2 months ago
Reply to  Howard S.

That sounds sexist Howard, hence the unherd upticks…?

Agnes Aurelius
AA
Agnes Aurelius
2 months ago

California has become like a corrupt third world state.

Barry Stokes
Barry Stokes
2 months ago

Oh no, not another bloody grifter…what an unholy mess California has become due the so-called Progressives. Regressive would be more to the point.

James Love
James Love
2 months ago

Bombast is not competency. I use to get angry about thus nonsense; now I just laugh.

Jerry Mee-Crowbin
Jerry Mee-Crowbin
2 months ago

With a name like ‘Lateefah’ (so VERY non-chique!) how could she possibly fail to be a Democrat or even fail at all?
By her actions shall you know her… or possibly inactions.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago

As a new subscriber to UnHerd I thank for your courage and excellent journalism. Now I can skip The New York Times story celebrating Ms. Simon as a brave leader dedicated to dismantling systemic racism, fighting misogyny, and giving voice to the oppressed.

Howard S.
Howard S.
2 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

The hereditary publisher of the New York Times, the third in his family to hold the top job (just as in North Korea), lives in a heavily guarded New York City luxurious apartment complex. Burly liveried doormen guard the entrance, attend the residents, and walk them to and from their vehicles: equally imposing elevator operators man the building’s elevators. No pushing buttons to get to your penthouse for the Elite, someone pushes the buttons for you. The publisher travels with an armed driver and armed bodyguard when around and about. Has no idea of what New York City’s peasants, or L.A.’s peasantry have to go through to make it alive to the end of the day.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago
Reply to  Howard S.

Not to mention that members of the other founding family of The New York Times, the Ochs family, supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. Oh what a tangled web these hypocrites weave.

Aidan A
Aidan A
2 months ago

Great work Lee Fang. As usual.

J S
J S
2 months ago

Thank you for this. Local mainstream American reporters would never report like this. My state of California is a squalid, tragic shambles of its former self, and these destructive policies are squarely to blame.

james elliott
JE
james elliott
2 months ago

“We taught the nation how to fight for freedom,”

Quite stunning ignorance.

The US fought the War of Independence, the Civil War, both World Wars and numerous other conflicts….

And this idiot thinks that the ridiculously pompous low IQ morons with a fetish gor ersatz paramilitary gear, the Black Panthers, taught the US to fight for freedom?

My, my, my…….

starkbreath
starkbreath
2 months ago
Reply to  james elliott

They were especially good at fighting (and killing) among themselves.