Who Runs San Francisco?

by on August 23, 2016

Mayor Lee, Jane Kim and the public backed the Mid-Market tax incentive that some progressives opposed.

In his August 21 SF Examiner column, labor activist Nato Green offered a popular left analysis of who runs San Francisco: it is “the Realtors, Airbnb and sundry like-minded oligarchs who govern San Francisco through their avatar Mayor Ed Lee.”

I’ve heard similar sentiments on the left, with many including Ron Conway and Willie Brown among those allegedly pulling Lee’s strings. Like Trump backers who blame his declining poll numbers on a “rigged” election, Green’s focus on oligarchs ignores that Lee’s policies are simply more popular with San Francisco voters than those many progressives espouse.

Ed Lee’s Political Base

Mayor Ed Lee easily won election in 2011 because he had the overwhelming support of the Chinese-American electorate.  Mark Leno and other potential candidates did not  challenge Lee in 2015 because polls showed that Lee’s huge support among this constituency and other moderate voters made an election challenge to the mayor unwinnable.

Chinese-American voters are roughly a third of San Francisco’s electorate. No candidate can win a contested citywide race without winning a good share of this powerful voter base. This has been true at least since Art Agnos won in 1987. In the 1995 mayoral election people marveled at how Willie Brown secured the support of fiercely rival factions in the Chinese-American community; he did so because he recognized the importance of these votes.

Nato Green is a very smart guy who understands city voting patterns. Yet it is easier  to blame a cabal of “realtors, Airbnb and oligarchs” for city policies than for progressives to accept that San Francisco voters favor Ed Lee’s policies on key issues over their own.

Notwithstanding the electoral evidence, progressives remain convinced that their staunchly anti- development views and skepticism about economic growth are backed by a majority of the voters. They believe this even though in every San Francisco mayoral election since 1967 voters elected a candidate  who favored development and  economic growth more than the progressive left (Agnos’ 1987 victory was seen as a progressive win but he soon ran afoul of the city’s left over his support for a new Giants stadium, Underwater World at Pier 39 and other development issues).

Many San Francisco progressives are as immune to the electorate’s positions on development and economic growth as national Republicans are to majority public support for comprehensive immigration reform.

It’s not a small cabal to whom Mayor Lee is beholden, it’s to the majority of voters. These voters gave the mayor the two easiest back to back mayoral election wins any San Francisco mayor has enjoyed since George Christopher in 1955 and 1959.

Matt Gonzalez and Jane Kim

If you want to understand how progressives can win citywide races, check the approach of Matt Gonzalez and Jane Kim. They are San Francisco’s two most successful progressive candidates in high-level citywide races over the past 25 years. Gonzalez narrowly lost to Gavin Newsom in 2003 despite being outspent 10-1 and having the daily newspapers become campaign literature for Newsom’s campaign (we started Beyond Chron in response to the Chronicle’s one-sided coverage of that race). It likely took visits by Bill Clinton and Al Gore to give Newsom his winning margin.

Why did Gonzalez do so well? He avoided the typical left weakness of being perceived as anti-development and anti-economic growth. He did that by building alliances with the Residential Builders Association, Walter Wong and other development-oriented interests, which refuted the Newsom camps claims that Gonzalez was anti-business. Unlike many progressives, Gonzalez staked out his own views rather than merely espousing a progressive party-line (Chris Daly did the same, and Aaron Peskin often still does).

How did Jane Kim defeat Scott Wiener in San Francisco in the June State Senate primary? A race nobody gave her a chance to win? Kim is immune from attack as anti-development by her support of 5M and other projects. Nor can she fairly be portrayed as anti-business, as she was a sponsor of the Mid-Market tax incentive strategy that has helped revive the entire Central City area.

In contrast to Kim and Gonzalez, David Campos’s opposition to the Mid-Market deal left him vulnerable in his race against David Chiu for the State Assembly. That Campos could not win in a district that excludes most of the city’s moderate-conservative voting neighborhoods should have alerted progressives that they were out of touch with voters on development and economic issues.

But it did not. Instead of accepting that the electorate rejected their views, it proved easier to blame a cabal of oligarchs for circumventing the popular will.

Green’s belief that realtors control Mayor Lee is especially wrong.  The real estate industry certainly doesn’t think the mayor is on their side. After all, Lee aggressively pushed for state Ellis Act reform, signed every pro-tenant legislation passed by the Board, and has stopped the Ellis eviction of dozens of longterm tenants through spending millions on his Small Sites Acquisition Program and funding Ellis Act eviction legal defense. Lee was also the driving force behind the voter’s backing of a 1.3 billion Housing Trust Fund and a $310 million affordable housing bond.

Mayor Lee has the strongest pro-tenant record of any mayor in San Francisco history. Progressives should see the mayor’s electoral success as confirming that voters back this pro-tenant agenda.

As we head into San Francisco’s November elections, progressives are backing some ballot initiatives and candidates that are unlikely to win. I certainly hope we do not hear progressives claim post-election that these races were “rigged” by a cabal of oligarchs who they believe run the city.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses George Christopher’s San Francisco in The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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