Engardio readies to take San Francisco supervisor seat

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday January 4, 2023
Share this Post:
San Francisco District 4 Supervisor-elect Joel Engardio, left, and his husband, Lionel Hsu, visited Japan during a recent holiday vacation to see Hsu's family in Taiwan. Photo: Courtesy Joel Engardio
San Francisco District 4 Supervisor-elect Joel Engardio, left, and his husband, Lionel Hsu, visited Japan during a recent holiday vacation to see Hsu's family in Taiwan. Photo: Courtesy Joel Engardio

After his stunning victory in the November 8 election, ousting an elected supervisor in San Francisco for the first time in more than two decades, Joel Engardio took a well-deserved vacation with his husband, Lionel Hsu. In mid-December they traveled to Japan for a few days before spending the holidays with Hsu's parents in Taiwan.

It had been a yearly tradition for the couple to head overseas around Christmas until COVID brought an end to most international travel in 2020. Hsu returned alone in 2021 to see his family for the first time since 2019.

"He endured the quarantine," recalled Engardio. "I stayed behind."

The couple, having rung in the new year in Taipei, returned home January 2 to prepare for Engardio taking his oath of office as the new District 4 supervisor representing the Sunset district and the Lakeside neighborhood where they own a house. Engardio is hosting an RSVP-required affair Saturday at the Irish Cultural Center, due to the limited space of the venue.

The pomp will harken back to his marriage to Hsu. Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), one of two elected officials in the city who endorsed Engardio in his race, and former District 4 supervisor Katy Tang, now executive director of the city's Office of Small Businesses, will make remarks. They had presided over the couple's 2015 wedding ceremony.

"Scott presided in English and Katy did it in Mandarin so Lionel's mother — who flew from Taiwan to San Francisco and knows zero English — could fully experience her son getting married," noted Engardio, 50, a journalist turned editorial writer and columnist.

Mayor London Breed will also make remarks. City Administrator Carmen Chu, also a former District 4 supervisor, will administer the oath, while Hsu will hold a Bible owned by Engardio's grandmother, who was raised Protestant but converted to Roman Catholicism after she married an Italian Catholic.

"I thought it would be nice to have that historic passing of the baton, so to speak," Engardio told the Bay Area Reporter during a virtual interview last month while he was overseas. "I thought it would be nice to have the former supervisors I know well to be there."

As for his own family members being present, Engardio said they would not be attending. His father abandoned him and his mother when he was 6 months old, and the two have only interacted a few times since.

Engardio did learn his father had another son, and they connected with each other. But his half-sibling doesn't live in the Bay Area so will not be attending his swearing in.

"There is another brother and sister I have not met yet. I know they exist but haven't reached out to them," said Engardio.

His mother will not be at the swearing in. Due to her being a Jehovah's Witness, she is not allowed to be involved in politics and doesn't vote. Raised Roman Catholic, she converted when Engardio was a child and they were living in Michigan. He doesn't belong to any faith, whereas his husband is Buddhist.

"I am spiritual but not religious," said Engardio, who directed and produced a PBS documentary about the Jehovah's Witnesses called "Knocking" that came out in 2007 and won several film festival awards.

Right before the pandemic, Engardio moved his mother, now 74, to the Bay Area as she is dealing with some health issues, he explained. While she has embraced Hsu as her son-in-law, she did not attend their wedding.

"My mom's religion doesn't accept same-sex marriage. She loves Lionel and accepts us, but she drew the line at not attending our official wedding ceremony," said Engardio.

His mom, who cleaned houses, and his grandmother, who taught piano lessons to make money, co-raised him. He credits his mother bringing him along to knock on people's doors to proselytize about her newfound faith for teaching him how to door-knock later in life as a political candidate.

Engardio told the B.A.R. those early experiences "with slammed doors and people yelling" at him and his mom to get off their porch trained him well for the difficult work he chose as an adult as a journalist, civil rights advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union, and running for elected office. He ended up knocking on 14,000 doors while seeking the supervisor seat last year.

Seen as an underdog

Having lost three prior bids for the Board of Supervisors' District 7 seat, Engardio found himself redistricted last year into District 4. With the former supervisor, Gordon Mar, up for reelection to a second term on the fall ballot, it offered Engardio a fourth chance to seek a supervisor seat.

Yet, his being white and running in a predominately Asian district against a sitting supervisor, Engardio was initially seen as an underdog in the race. Then a second Asian candidate was disqualified after questions were raised about her not residing in the district, turning the contest into a two-way matchup between Mar, a progressive, and Engardio, a moderate.

Following his defeat in 2020, Engardio had continued to lay the groundwork for another supervisorial bid. He took on leadership roles in community groups focused on public safety and crime issues, which became a focal point in last year's local races.

Engardio was also a vocal supporter of the successful recall campaigns last year against three of the city's elected school board members and former district attorney Chesa Boudin. Those efforts paid off with voters in the more suburban neighborhoods on the city's westside.

"My campaign activated and energized many residents who volunteered their skills and talents to fix San Francisco. This largely parent-powered effort is about ensuring our city is a safe and joyful place for everyone," wrote Engardio in a celebratory email he sent to his supporters. "Our best San Francisco is a place where streets are safe from crime and safe for pedestrians and cyclists. Where we make room to house the families, workers, innovators, and artisans that define a city. Where we celebrate the joy already in San Francisco as we fix things."

His victory means, for the first time in the city's history, three gay men will be serving as supervisors at the same time. It also marks the first time in a decade that there will be a trio of LGBTQ supervisors on the board.

Engardio will serve alongside gay Supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Matt Dorsey, who are moderates like Engardio. They both won election to full four-year terms, Mandelman in District 8 and Dorsey in District 6, in November.

As the B.A.R.'s Political Notebook reports this week, Engardio has yet to come out publicly in support of Mandelman becoming the next board president. Prior to departing on his vacation, Engardio reached out to meet with, or talk by phone, with nine of his soon-to-be colleagues on the board, as he doesn't know most of them well. (He didn't speak with District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani since he has known her for some time.)

Lionel Hsu, left, and his husband Joel Engardio, were married in 2015 in a ceremony officiated by state Senator Scott Wiener and then-District 4 supervisor Katy Tang. Photo: Courtesy Joel Engardio  

Working collaboratively
None brought up the board presidency election, said Engardio, adding that he is entering City Hall with a mindset to work collaboratively with his fellow supervisors.

"We need to get beyond this internal strife and focus on making the city better and making things in the city work better," he said.

One issue he has already addressed via his social media is the future of the Great Highway, a main thoroughfare through his district that runs along Ocean Beach. The defeat of a ballot measure in November means a large stretch of the roadway will remain closed on weekends to serve as a pedestrian promenade but be opened to car traffic during the week.

"I didn't want the weekend park to go away. It is absolutely reasonable to let people use it to commute on during the week and let it be a park on weekends," said Engardio. "Now the future of the Great Highway is being a permanent park. That is where things are headed. We have to acknowledge that and accept that and plan for it."

Since the city reverted to electing supervisors by district in the early 2000s, there hasn't been an LGBTQ supervisor from the city's westside until now. As home prices there had remained more affordable than other parts of San Francisco, the last two decades have seen more LGBTQ people and couples move into that part of the city.

Among his four legislative aides Engardio has hired Jonathan Goldberg, who is gay and worked five years at San Francisco Public Works as a community programs manager.

"There are a lot of LGBTQ people who live in the Sunset, so I obviously will address LGBTQ issues both citywide and for actual residents of the Sunset," said Engardio. "A lot of same-sex couples live in my neighborhood in Lakeshore and throughout the Sunset. I met many while knocking on doors during the campaign."

He recalled meeting a lesbian in her early 80s in the Outer Sunset who answered her front door when he knocked and shared her experience of what it was like being a resident of the area for the past 50 years and seeing how it had changed for the better.

"I saw how happy she was at seeing an openly gay candidate for supervisor who was viable and she could vote for," recalled Engardio. "And then I won."

UPDATED 1/5/2023 to clarify Joel Engardio was 6 months old when his father left him and his mother.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.