By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
Without consistent principles, it's easy to associate progressives with the craziest ideas to come out of City Hall, and the movement's bad ideas are memorable. Gerardo Sandoval insisting the United States doesn't need a military is a great bar story. Daly's pledge to say "Fuck" at every public meeting makes a killer Internet meme. Hey, let's legalize prostitution and outlaw plastic bags!
But when the progressives came into power in 2000, they weren't casting about for ideas. They had ideas. Big ones.
The legions of live-work lofts that transformed longstanding middle-class San Francisco neighborhoods into playgrounds for dot-com millionaires have been curtailed. Hiring the right permit-expediter used to allow a developer to build whatever, wherever. Now, the Market-Octavia and Eastern Neighborhoods plans have helped rationalize development. Supervisors make appointments to key bodies, such as the planning and police commissions, which were once stocked solely by the mayor. Limiting chain stores and mandating that developers fund or build affordable housing were controversial ideas a decade ago. Now they're as much a part of the city as clam chowder in a bread bowl. (Progressives also championed ranked-choice voting. Seemed like a good idea at the time.)
Yet today's San Franciscans do not view progressives' achievements as progressive accomplishments — because they're not remembered. They're so transfused into the city's lifeblood, it's as if citizens have forgotten someone had to put them there. Who remembers a zoning plan after a proposed moratorium on selling hamsters?
Progressives weren't consistent, but as long as they had a common enemy, they could stick together — and as long as they could stick together they could get things done.
"Each member of the class of 2000 came in as a pro-neighborhood, anti-Willie Brown candidate, and then we each also had our own ideas and areas of expertise," says former board President Aaron Peskin. To be a progressive, then, didn't mean that every supervisor — Peskin, Daly, Sandoval, Jake McGoldrick, Matt Gonzalez, Tom Ammiano, and, on a good day, Sophie Maxwell — agreed on everything. They just had to agree to support one another on the board through great ideas, average ideas, and some of Sandoval's ideas, too.
By 2010, however, there was no sticking together. Progressives had tackled nearly every issue that spurred voters to choose them a decade ago. But instead of uniting the movement, its success tore it apart.
The paradox of a progressive political agenda is that a city must be rich to support the poor. By the onset of the 2000 "progressive revolution," San Francisco was in the throes of its most superheated economy since Sam Brannan shouted "There's gold in them thar hills!"
It took work not to find work. "Jobs were not on the agenda because jobs didn't have to be on the agenda ," recalls Peskin. The unemployment rate hovered at 3 percent.
By 2010, not only had the tech bubble burst, but the economy had collapsed. Unemployment in San Francisco has tripled; web developers moved back to their mothers' basements. "No mayor, no board of supervisors created the economic collapse of three years ago," Peskin says. "But that has had an impact on an electorate that is now financially frightened."
Even if progressives could convince voters worried about their jobs that this is the time to establish affordable-housing subsidies or make Muni free for kids, San Francisco's bloated budget and the economy's precipitous decline have formed a projected five-year shortfall exceeding $700 million — and that's the optimistic projection. All that's left to pay for big ideas are good intentions. City workers' pension and health care costs are soaring toward $2 billion a year, and good intentions aren't legal tender.
Progressive issues appeal to people concerned with gentrification or carbon offsets. But focusing on those sorts of issues is a luxury; today's electorate has more immediate concerns, like "Will my company go under?" or "Can I afford to live here?" Fairly or unfairly, most voters don't see a movement that talks about "economic justice" as being able to provide economic solutions.
"I don't think the city will elect someone they don't think will handle fiscal matters," says former mayoral candidate and board President Matt Gonzalez. "Anyone who will give labor anything it wants isn't deemed to be an appropriate candidate for mayor." Crossing labor is the closest progressives come to a cardinal sin. Despite Jeff Adachi's liberal laurels, championing pension reform earned him the eternal hatred of a unionized army, and progressive political exile.
San Francisco's "moderates" don't have a cunning plan to restore America's economy. But in politics, perception is reality — and whether they're talking about corporate tax breaks or luring new development, the things the Chamber of Commerce and the Committee on Jobs wanted to do all along are more closely associated with the issues that voters cling to in a time of economic crisis.
This is a serious problem, but not necessarily a permanent one. When the economy improves and the cry of "jobs, jobs, jobs" can't be used to justify anything, anything, anything, political observers say the progressiveswill be back.
But will their voters?
If the economy is the terrible shrimp cocktail served aboard the progressive Titanic, the city's shifting demographics are the iceberg.