In his May 28 column, “low-key Ed Lee gets criticism from all sides,” the SF Chronicle’s C.W. Nevius observed “there were boos and catcalls” when the mayor took the stage at the Hillary Clinton rally at the Tenderloin’s Hibernia Bank last week. I heard the same. It got me thinking about who was doing the booing, and what it says about perceptions of San Francisco politics.
I could not make out who in the audience booed Mayor Lee, but I can state with certainty who did not boo: Chinese-Americans (aka the mayor’s core political base). I was enjoying the spectacularly dolled out Hibernia for three hours before Clinton spoke and was struck by how few Chinese-Americans were present. The crowd, which came from the entire Bay Area (I was sitting next to a Latino family from Modesto), was quite diverse in most ways but not in its Chinese-American representation.
Why so few Chinese-Americans? I don’t know. Event attendance was primarily first come, first serve, and the line began forming before noon for a 4:15 pm speech. The crowd was primarily made up of fanatical Clinton backers, challenging claims that Clinton suffers from an enthusiasm gap.
None of the Clinton diehards behind the speaker’s podium booed. And once Lee began tearing into Donald Trump and hailing Hillary Clinton, cheering dominated (Lee was also savvy enough to keep doing call outs for the Warriors).
Booing SF Mayors
Booing San Francisco mayors is a long tradition. Mayors simply make too many decisions that alienate one constituency or another, unlike U.S. Senators or State Legislators who operate above the fray.
Willie Brown would get large boos, showing that people will jeer mayors who, unlike Lee, are not low-key. And while Gavin Newsom was warmly received when he introduced Clinton, I heard him booed when he was San Francisco mayor.
Booing is an easy way to express displeasure with politicians. But what struck me about the booing, like the intense media coverage of five hunger strikers demanding Lee’s resignation, is how minority perspectives routinely skew coverage of San Francisco politics.
Whose Voices Are Heard?
The constituencies that twice elected Ed Lee as mayor—particularly Chinese-Americans and homeowners—have become part of the new “forgotten majority” of San Francisco. Their voices are infrequently quoted on police, neighborhood safety, public health, the housing crisis or other general issues—and their impact on the city seems to be primarily demonstrated in election results
Who does the media quote on these issues? Critics of Mayor Lee. In fact, for some reporters criticizing the mayor is how they define news in San Francisco.
I understand that conflict drives news, and a press conference of those who support the mayor on an issue in the Sunset or Richmond sounds boring by comparison. But if we want to understand where most San Franciscans are on an issue, there is no excuse for focusing on those parts of the city where a politician is less popular while excluding their political base.
I made this point two years ago about the media’s obsession with Valencia Street. I wrote, “it’s no mystery why reporters flock to Valencia Street for stories on how tech has transformed San Francisco. Putting aside the fact that Valencia became a hotbed for bars and restaurants prior to the 2011 tech boom, a very different portrait would result if the media sought to depict a changing San Francisco by measuring the transformation of Clement Street. Or Irving Street. Or Ocean Avenue.”
The media’s disproportionate coverage of mayoral critics confuses city politics. That’s why a media that defined Mayor Willie Brown as the incarnate of wrongdoing had a hard time reconciling this with his landslide, 19% re-election victory in 1999 over Tom Ammiano. It took the objective measure of an election to offer a reality check on the city’s alleged widespread opposition to Mayor Brown’s policies.
I think the media’s inflated coverage of mayoral critics has also hampered progressives efforts to win mayoral elections. Since Agnos’ win in 1987 Matt Gonzalez is the only clear progressive to come close to winning a San Francisco mayoral election, and Matt was also the unique progressive who actively courted input from Westside homeowners and other traditionally “moderate” interests.
The vast majority of those who supported Mayor Ed Lee in 2011 still do. That’s why he won re-election without major opposition and would defeat any recall attempt in a landslide. And unlike one-term mayors Agnos and Jordan, Lee’s base remains strongly loyal to the mayor despite the crises impacting all major cities today.
The media would strengthen the critiques of opponents of the mayor by making them address the views of his supporters.This approach would also enhance the media’s own credibility with the elected officials it criticizes. After all, when a politician feels that a media outlet is relentlessly negative toward them, they stop listening.
Elections are the only objective political reality check. That’s because a vote carries a lot more weight than a boo.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He will be discussing city politics with Alex Clemens, Melissa Griffin-Caen, Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, and David Latterman at the RFK Democratic Club on June 2 from 7-8pm at Laborer’s Local 261: 3271 18th St. (the event starts at 6pm).San Francisco News