Progressively Worse: The Tumultuous Rise and Acrimonious Fall of the City's Left

Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen

Chris Daly was belittling his allies. His disgust was palpable. That could have been any Tuesday at City Hall, but moments later the lame duck supervisor would utter the words that serve as the YouTube epitaph to his political career: "It's on like Donkey Kong."

People remember that one. Nobody remembers the line that came before it, bemoaning progressive supervisors' inability to unite on a mayoral candidate instead of "caretaker" Ed Lee: "This is the biggest fumble in the history of progressive politics in San Francisco."

Having Chris Daly as the face of your movement has its benefits and its detriments.
Kelly Nicolaisen
Having Chris Daly as the face of your movement has its benefits and its detriments.
John Avalos was left to build a citywide movement from scratch during his mayoral campaign.
Courtesy of John Avalos
John Avalos was left to build a citywide movement from scratch during his mayoral campaign.

History has proven Daly a potty-mouthed Cassandra.

Even last year, people were talking about the city's "progressive machine." The welcome mat to City Hall was crafted locally, out of hemp. Progressive supervisors held a legislative majority and controlled the agenda. At last, crowed the Bay Guardian, progressives could install a mayor espousing "San Francisco values," now that Gavin Newsom was off to become Lieutenant Governor and look busy.

Nobody talks like that anymore.

Between lost elections and internal defections, the progressive bloc has been reduced from a reliable six-to-eight supervisors (a majority and occasional supermajority) to a solid three or four — John Avalos, David Campos, soon-departing Ross Mirkarimi, and Eric Mar. They lost control of legislative committees. Board President David Chiu is a progressive apostate who despises them only slightly less than they despise him. In this month's mayoral election, progressives were beaten by Lee, the man they helped put into power, but they are thrilled — thrilled — to have placed a distant second. Losing by less than you thought you would is the new winning, for progressives.

Daly was right. But the progressive fall from power was more than just a fumble. The whole playbook was flawed.

Ten years is a long time to hold a coalition together. Progressives' decade dominating the board was a hell of a run. While it's easy to focus on their foibles, progressives pushed through major changes that altered many aspects of city life. Even their opponents concede they could be effective legislators with big ideas.

But as the city changed, progressives didn't. Astoundingly, the city's dominant political coalition never developed an effective fundraising apparatus, never engaged in outreach beyond catering to the supporters it already had, and never created the kind of organization needed to run an effective citywide race. For a movement stocked with community organizers, they did remarkably little organizing. Avalos is just the latest progressive mayoral hopeful who "rallied the base" — and lost. But it's not Avalos' fault his predecessors didn't build a citywide organization on the way up, which would have made his run so much easier. Now, they're all on the way down.

So, yes, progressives fumbled. But their real problem was running only their favorite plays, in front of their own cheerleaders, not realizing they wouldn't win without moving the ball across the entire field.

Most political movements experience an identity crisis when they lose an election. Contemporary San Francisco progressives had an identity crisis when they won their first elections in 2000, and it's only gotten worse.

That's why, when you ask 10 different politicos "what's a progressive?" you'll get 10 different answers, depending on what day it is, who David Chiu had lunch with, and what Supervisor Jane Kim is wearing.

"Progressive" is a brand, a loose ideology, rather than an agenda or consistent set of beliefs, says Jim Ross, a moderate consultant who ran Newsom's 2003 mayoral campaign. It's also a recent coinage: Art Agnos is known as San Francisco's last progressive mayor — but back in 1987 he was a "liberal Democrat." Progressives "are a movement that would be called 'liberals' in other places," says Eric Jaye, Newsom's former longtime strategist. "But they don't want to be called 'liberals' here because liberals are the establishment."

That Democratic establishment was — and is — personified by former Mayor Willie Brown, and the blowback against the cronyism and runaway development of his administration united an odd coalition. Neighborhood-based politicians were backed by activists, most unions, and the city's endemic nonprofits. Serving as the movement's cajoling ward boss, kingmaker, and sounding board is the Guardian.

This is an eclectic group, one often bound not by mutual interests as much as mutual enmity — toward Brown, his successors, and the corporate interests of "downtown." As a result, progressive principles are often wildly inconsistent.

Progressives favor more government control over people's lives for their own good, as when they effectively banned McDonald's Happy Meals. But sometimes progressives say the government needs to let people make their own choices, as when they opposed Care Not Cash — which steered homeless people into social services and housing instead of doling out money. Progressives believe government should subsidize homeless people who choose to drink themselves to death, while forbidding parents from buying McNuggets because fast food is bad for us.

Neighborhoods weighing in on development is progressive. Neighborhoods weighing in on school choice is not. We can't explain that, and neither can they. "They never really wanted to line up an agenda," says Ross. "Because once they did, people would line up to oppose it."

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