Fiona Ma for State Assembly

The face of a new political era

A month into the new term, many plugged-in San Franciscans still can’t believe what Malia Cohen pulled off, beating out lefty fave Tony Kelly by 442 votes—not to mention 20 other candidates—to snatch the District 10 supervisor’s seat (Potrero Hill/Dogpatch/Bayview Hunters Point). She did it the old-fashioned way—by busting her ass—and the new-fashioned way, by figuring out how to make the most of ranked-choice voting (hint: It means shamelessly campaigning to be everyone’s runner-up). With our other stars off to Sacramento, she has arrived just in time.

Let’s start with the basics. How old are you, anyway?
Why is everyone so fascinated with my age? Everywhere I go, people want to know. Seriously, help me understand why. I turned 33 in December.

Maybe because you’ve just won this big upset and you look as if you could be 18?
I could possibly be 26, but certainly not 18. Let’s see what I look like in four years. Let’s see how many gray hairs I get.

You’ve had your eye on the Board of Supervisors since third grade?
Since I met Dianne Feinstein on a school trip. Imagine being eight years old, walking into the city hall rotunda—the majesty of it.  

There’s a definite resemblance to Kamala Harris.
Kamala absolutely is a role model, but a little bit from afar—it’s hard to catch up with her these days! The person who has been really critical to my development is Assemblywoman Fiona Ma. She’s the one who returns my calls the same day; she’s the one who’s coaching me on how to deal with the media, with sexist comments, with the lies and the rumors that I had to deal with during the campaign. Fiona has also really helped me build strong relations in the Asian community, along with Leland Yee and David Chiu.

Which was key, because although District 10 is historically black, Asian voters are its fastest-growing bloc. At a forum last fall, you were the only candidate besides Marlene Tran to introduce yourself in Chinese. I was successful because I was able to cross over and appeal to both the African American and the Chinese communities. I grew up in San Francisco. I’m not encumbered by ethnicity or race. I’m comfortable whether I’m in a temple with my Jewish friends or in a Baptist church. I can play blackjack and mah-jongg. Most important, I know District 10 through and through. I’ve lived there, shopped there, taken the bus there, worshipped there.

What was the secret to understanding ranked-choice voting?
So many other politicians were clueless. It’s a system that favors candidates who build coalitions instead of tearing each other down. Maybe I wasn’t their first choice, because of my age or experience, but I’d tell people, “I’d love to be your second or your third choice.” Instead of pointing out the differences between myself and the other candidates, I’d say, “Tony Kelly and I see eye to eye on these issues; Steve Moss and I see eye to eye on these issues.” I gave them a reason to support me.

Now, suddenly, you’re the highest-ranking black politician in San Francisco. How does that manifest itself?
In a lot of demands and requests for me to speak! And I’m not great at it, so I need the practice. No, really, it’s been awesome and very humbling. I understand when I talk to young people the seed that I’m planting in them.

Has Willie Brown given you any advice?
Everyone gives me advice—Willie Brown, taxi drivers, homeless people, everyone!

Tell me some other things about yourself. I’m a classically trained violinist. My favorite job in my whole entire life was during college, when I taught gymnastics to toddlers. I have four younger sisters. One of my favorite places in District 10 is Heron’s Head Park—it’s not very well known and a little windy, but gorgeous. Oh, and I love red velvet cake.