Lacking (Progressive) Definition

Lefty factions and a phony convention do not an effective political party make

If there's one thing that a certain development lobbying group representing the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Wells Fargo Bank, Lennar Communities and other pro-growth outfits is certain of, it's that Supervisor Chris Daly is a hero.

"Pragmatically, we said, 'Let's recognize when someone delivers,'" said Tim Colen, executive director of the Housing Action Coalition, an organization that lobbies San Francisco government to allow new apartment buildings. "Daly is recognized as having been far more effective than any other supervisor, particularly when it comes to market-rate housing."

In honor of a string of last-minute deals consummated during the past couple of years — in which Daly has promised not to thwart permits for high-rise condo towers, sometimes in exchange for payoffs to nonprofit groups that support him politically — the Housing Action Coalition will present Daly with its "Housing Hero" award at its annual fundraising dinner this July.

I don't usually lead this column with piffle such as fundraising dinner awards. But Chris Daly's Housing Hero prize, which came about as the result of a suggestion from a lobbyist for developers, is a perfect lead-in to discuss another piece of flapdoodle: the mayoral political convention Daly convened this weekend to choose a candidate representing San Francisco "progressives" — the city's self-styled left-of-the-left.

Daly is right to urge San Franciscans to think seriously about replacing Mayor Gavin Newsom, who, I've argued, has been a gaseous do-nothing at a time when the city has urgent problems.

But by holding a quasi-political convention under the meaningless and misleading rubric of San Francisco "progressivism," the left-posturing South of Market supervisor all but guarantees Gavin Newsom another four years on the job.

For one thing, the idea that Newsom is not leftist enough sounds like a weak neenerneener taunt against the mayor who bathed the city in the good feelings of same-sex marriage, recruited idealists to work on his Homeless Connect program, and has made public gestures toward every known leftist ideal. Sure, these were all political-consultant-conjured pantomimes. But token genuflection is what S.F. progressivism most loves. And the ease with which Newsom maneuvered past the not-progressive-enough criticism that plagued the first months of his administration illustrates what a bereft "movement," "coalition," or "philosophy" San Francisco progressivism really is.

Daly's own rise to office as an anti-apartment-construction activist, and his subsequent transformation into San Francisco developers' best friend is an apt illustration of the incredible lightness of being an S.F. progressive. I applaud the hundreds of desperately needed market-rate apartments Daly's dealing has helped create. But this accomplishment isn't part of a philosophy of green urbanism or anything else. (Daly's office did not return a call requesting comment.)

Indeed, Daly's accomplishment of allowing South of Market to turn into a modern, environmentally friendly center of high-rise apartments has met with murmurs of disapproval from his progressive allies. When I told Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who's been touted as a progressive mayoral hopeful, about Daly's Housing Hero award, he grumbled at the height of the new Daly-backed SOMA apartment buildings.

The fact is, San Francisco progressives are not a group gathered around a set of coherent ideas or policy objectives. Rather, they're a loose and meandering political faction, allied around financial interests, old personality disputes, long-forgotten turf battles, all joined by rhyming rallying cries. The idea that shutting a crowd of these people in a room could possibly threaten the employment of our current incompetent mayor is a leftist utopian fantasy.

Sunday, April 22, New York City's first sunny 2007 weekend, was also bathed in warmth from another source: a remarkable speech by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He laid out an ambitious set of specific initiatives for addressing threats to cities, such as increases in population, energy demands, transportation needs, and global warming. He said he would plan for the additional infrastructure to accommodate 1 million new residents in a city already four times as densely populated as San Francisco. He would impose a fee on motorists driving into and within the city in order to clear automobile congestion. He would invest a fortune in upgrading the city's already world-beating transit system.

These were remarkable steps coming from a Republican, a designation that usually involves ignoring environmental problems.

The steps were more astonishing still coming from a big-city mayor. That's because during the past three generations big American downtowns have contentedly gone from being a font of solutions for needs such as housing, transportation, jobs, education, and quality of life to a source of problems. Witness the traffic nightmares of new urban giants such as Houston and Atlanta, or the corruption and incompetence quagmire of post-Katrina New Orleans.

With its stratospheric housing costs, typical half-day-long commutes, fitful economic growth, failing schools, unabated violence, and systematic corruption, the San Francisco Bay Area is a poster child for the modern impotence of American cities.

If our mayor's inattentive press release-based governing style is part of the problem, his progressive opponents' tangle of petty, personal agendas is a caricature of a solution. S.F. progressivism is a coalition of convenience containing so many cross-purpose private agendas that it's helpless to address city needs.

This dissonance has manifested in the listlessness with which progressives have approached the Nov. 6 mayoral election.

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