Why Wiener Won

by on November 14, 2016

Scott Wiener will be heading to Sacramento

All of my San Francisco election predictions proved correct—except for Scott Wiener’s victory over Jane Kim in the State Senate race.  While votes remain to be counted, Kim has not made up much ground since election night. It appears clear that Wiener not only won, but the race was not as close as either side expected.

Wiener was always the favorite in this race. I was among the few pundits who even gave Kim a chance. But despite Wiener’s big money edge and relentlessly negative campaigning since the June primary, I still thought on election eve that Kim would win.

Why did I get this race wrong? Three reasons.

Misreading the Nov. 2015 Election

I argued in June 2015 (“Why Mayor Lee is Running Unopposed”) that progressives were misinterpreting the San Francisco political landscape. By focusing on the Peskin-Christensen D3 Supervisors race as a defining point for city politics, they ignored the larger political message of Mayor Lee running without major opposition.

After Peskin’s victory, progressives doubled down. They contrasted Peskin’s D3 win over the mayor’s candidate with Lee getting “only” 56% of first place votes in his re-election campaign; this led to their conclusion that the city was moving left.

This conclusion belied the fact that no progressive challenged the mayor (and Mark Leno planned to run before concluding he couldn’t win), leaving Lee not running a vigorous re-election campaign because victory was assured. Nevertheless, progressives used the November 2015 election to launch an ongoing narrative of Lee’s alleged unpopularity, a position bolstered by the mayor’s reduced approval numbers in a poll during the height of the Division Street encampment crisis.

Convinced that Mayor Lee was “toxic, ” progressives decided to make the November 2016 election a referendum on the mayor. They did this by placing four measures—D, H, L, M—on the ballot, each of which reduced the mayor’s power.

Scott Wiener opposed all four; Jane Kim supported all of them. All lost. None even came close to winning.

2016 marked far and away Jane Kim’s biggest policy disputes with Mayor Lee.  Her support for four measures seen by Lee backers as an attack on the mayor made it harder for Kim to win the moderate Asian-American voters Kim needed to defeat Wiener. These voters were on the mayor’s side on D, H, L, M and other policies.

There was no particular urgency behind any of these four initiatives, and timing them with the Kim-Wiener race pushed Wiener into a closer political relationship with Mayor Lee. Lee endorsed Wiener early on but the two have never been close. The mayor was irate when Wiener backed the transit set-aside in 2014 (Prop B) that the mayor strongly opposed, and Wiener was not seen as a team player.

But Kim’s sharp policy divergence from the mayor in 2016, perceived alignment with Peskin against the mayor, and support for Props D, H, L and M joined Wiener to Lee as never before. This led Lee’s moderate Asian-American voter base to back Wiener more than I anticipated. I had thought these voters would relate better to Kim regardless of their more moderate politics.

Would Wiener still have won over these voters if D, H, L and M were not on the ballot? All I know is that a lot of money came in to defend the mayor’s power, and this money often found its way into promoting slate cards and campaign mailers also backing Scott Wiener.

Big Soda

I did not call out this issue in analyzing the State Senate race, but my biggest election eve concern about Kim’s winning involved her alignment with campaign material funded by Big Soda and Wiener’s corresponding support for Prop V, the Soda Tax.

A lot of voters passionately support the soda tax. These voters likely saw a candidate’s position on Prop B as determining their vote. Prop V got over 60% of the vote and Wiener was for it while Kim was opposed.

Think about it: on the five most contested and high profile ballot measures (D,H, L, M, and V),  voters strongly supported Wiener’s side over Kim’s.

That Kim’s Props W and X won while Wiener’s Prop R lost does not alter the fact that these measures, unlike the soda tax, were not litmus tests for voters. Kim’s opposition to the soda tax clearly cost her votes.

Moderate Turnout

I also got the race wrong by ignoring my longstanding assessment of presidential elections cycles.

I have frequently noted that San Francisco’s presidential election cycles are not the most progressive. These super large turnouts bring out a lot of voters who only know San Francisco politics via mailers and slate cards, with most not funded by progressive interests.

After Kim won a surprising June victory, I assumed that she would do better with a larger turnout because the influx of new voters would be tenants, her core base. I did not give sufficient consideration to the more moderate presidential election turnout.

Roughly 10% of voters skipped the State Senate race, a higher percentage than in most contested supervisor races. That means that while this was a marquee matchup for political insiders, for many voters it got lost among the presidential race and everything else on the ballot.

I saw Kim’s identification as the candidate with the best record on affordable housing—the top city issue –as attracting these presidential-cycle only voters. But Kim’s message was drowned out by everything else on the ballot, so the larger November turnout did not benefit her.

Wiener’s Agenda

Wiener’s election marks the likely death of Ellis Act reform. His victory will be seen as San Francisco electing the real estate industry-backed candidate to replace Sacramento tenant leader Mark Leno. Ironically, Leno’s misleading promotion of Wiener as a tenant’s advocate no doubt contributed to Scott’s victory.

Wiener’s victory does improve chances for housing advocates to work out a housing deal with Governor Brown. This deal involves passing some form of “as of right” housing in exchange for the Governor spending state money on affordable housing.

Wiener’s relationship with the building trades and environmental groups, as well as his close connection to David Chiu, who has championed housing funding in the Assemby, perfectly positions him to lead this effort. I hope the many pro-housing groups that backed Wiener convince him to make working with the Governor on housing his top priority.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.


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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