Progressive SF Picks a New Mayor
How did London Breed sweep nine of eleven supervisor districts to win San Francisco’s mayor’s race? And why did Mark Leno not do better in the moderate parts of the city where he had past electoral success?
I find the answer to both questions in an exchange I had with Willie Brown when he was starting his mayoral run in 1995.
Seek Votes Everywhere
During a meeting I told Brown that I could get him the endorsement of a politically influential figure but that this might alienate some of his other backers. I said that due to that potential backlash he might not want my allies’ support.
Brown displayed pure incredulity at my political naiveté. He looked me in the eye and said forcefully, “I want everyone’s support and everyone’s votes.”He told me that you win elections by securing support from everywhere.
I saw Willie Brown’s “seek votes everywhere” approach in London Breed’s campaign. Breed won votes across the city because she campaigned across the city. She insisted she would be everybody’s mayor. She compensated for being little known on the Westside by seemingly spending every weekend campaigning there.
And she campaigned among voters, not just prominent political endorsers. There was also an independent firefighters’ campaign for Breed which had longtime activist David Ho running a Westside phone bank targeting Chinese-American voters.
In contrast, Leno’s Westside campaign seem to consist of photo ops with Phil Ting. He may have done house parties there but I kept hearing reports both pre and post-election about his lack of Westside visibility.
No wonder Leno did so poorly in District 4, losing to Breed 32% to 18%. He didn’t fight for votes out there.
Instead of seeking votes everywhere, Leno relied on combining huge support in D8 with piggybacking on Jane Kim’s grassroots mobilizing via her second choice votes. He would have succeeded had Breed not aggressively campaigned for votes in every nook and cranny throughout the city. This brought her enough first place votes to overcome the Leno-Kim tag-team strategy.
Did Gentrification Remove Leno Voters?
Some claim Leno lost because his progressive base had previously been displaced from the city due to gentrification. I hear this a lot after mayoral elections, and it speaks to a disconnection from the reality of San Francisco politics.
When Kim’s avalanche of second choice votes propelled Leno to the lead after the first night count, everyone talked about how the massive pro-Leno vote in District 8. This vote from a completely gentrified and overwhelmingly white district suddenly became “progressive.”
Normally, progressives define “progressive” candidates by looking at the voting preferences of low-income people of color, particularly African Americans. But London Breed overwhelmingly won these votes (she got 46% of the D10 vote compared to a combined Leno-Kim of 37%). So some redefined the votes from one of the nation’s wealthiest political districts into a “progressive” voter base for Leno.
District 8 has long been ground zero for Ellis Act, OMI and speculator evictions. The hyper gentrification of the Castro is certainly not news. Only the rich can buy a home and only the upper middle-class can afford to rent a vacant apartment anywhere in the district. This means that Leno’s prospects were not only not being denied by the absence of a pre-gentrified voting base, but the D8 gentry propelled his prospects.
San Francisco’s Progressive Electorate
I look at June 2018 voters passing tenants’ right to counsel, funding for childcare, a parcel tax for teacher salaries, a ban on flavored tobacco and rejecting regressive Taser reforms as clear signs of the city’s still progressive electorate. I also think most voters saw electing an African-American woman raised in poverty to the mayor’s office as very progressive, and viewed the platforms of Breed and Leno as equally progressive.
When did this fondly remembered pre-gentrified, super progressive electorate ever exist in San Francisco? Never.
It was not in the pre-gentrification election of 1975, when a right-wing Republican— John Barbagelata— narrowly lost the San Francisco mayor’s race. The leading Republican in 2018 race did not get even 5% of the vote.
Nor was it during San Francisco’s 1979 and 1983 mayoral races, when despite ongoing gentrification there was not a major progressive candidate running in resistance. And after progressives elected Art Agnos in 1987, he was defeated in 1991by the most conservative mayor (Frank Jordan) that the city has since seen. The 1991 election preceded the dot-com boom by five years, so those displaced by that economic upheaval were still part of the electorate that picked a pro-landlord police chief to lead the city.
If the city’s increasing wealth made it less progressive, we would not have seen Matt Gonzalez’s remarkable success against Gavin Newsom in 2003. That election, which followed the massive gentrification and displacement of the dot-com boom, brought the best progressive mayoral performance the city has seen since. It took a 10-1 spending edge and visits from Bill Clinton and Al Gore for Newsom to defeat the charismatic Gonzalez, showing the continued attraction of progressive ideas (and Newsom was an unusually strong candidate soon be California’s next governor).
The truth is that despite rising affluence San Francisco policies have moved steadily to the left in recent years. From its $15 minimum wage to free City College to its strong rent controls and eviction protections, San Francisco’s progressive agenda leads the nation’s big cities.
Could Jane Kim Have Won?
Jane Kim nearly beat Leno and exceeded expectations. She beat Leno in districts 1, 4, 5, 9, 10 and 11and tied him in 6 (Breed won Kim’s district).
That only 50% of Leno’s second choice votes went to Kim prevented her from potentially using ranked choice voting as a springboard to victory as Leno tried to do (he got over 70% of her votes). But a different mix of candidates and a greater progressive focus on electing Kim might have given her a chance to win the mayor’s race.
Now that the mayor’s race is finally over, the contests for November are already taking off. People are already talking about who Breed will appoint in D5, and who might run in Katy Tang’s now vacated D4.
I know this may not be popular for some to hear, but for those not running for office I have a proposal: How about actually working to get positive new programs and policies instituted in San Francisco—-rather than focusing on the next election or next appointee?
We have a lot to do in San Francisco. Elections are a means to implementing policies, not an end in themselves.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. For fun summer reading (and 118 vintage photos), pick up his book The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.
Filed under: San Francisco News