"The left in San Francisco has a real disadvantage against the glacial forces of demography that are reducing the support for a progressive base," said S.F. State professor emeritus Rich DeLeon, the dean of local political scientists. "The progressive base in San Francisco is now a lot smaller than people still think it is."

Between 2000 and 2010, the city grew older (every age group over 50 increased), wealthier (there are now 58 percent more households earning $125,000 or more), and more heavily Asian (up from around 30 to nearly 35 percent of the city's population): exactly the groups progressives don't win with. These voters don't respond well to campaigns against developments or for city services, because they're often living in those developments and don't need city services.

Meanwhile, progressives' go-to voters went. Black people now make up barely 5 percent of the city; large swaths of the south of the city are heavily Asian. The number of San Franciscans aged 25 to 39 has plummeted; the iconic overeducated young people who knocked on doors for Gonzalez's 2003 mayoral campaign while living off their severance pay from TerribleIdeaForACompany.com are a distant memory. Many have gone elsewhere to raise families — or occupy something. When San Francisco priced out its working class, it priced out activists, too.

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.

Progressives were relying on short-term residents as part of their long-term political strategy. Every year for the past decade, upward of 30,000 new residents moved here, yet the city's population has only grown by 28,000 during that time. Perhaps 20 percent of San Franciscans weren't here five years ago. The voters who remember the Willie Brown administration may not even crack 50 percent. They have no clear sense of what inspired progressives in the first place. To them, progressives are people wearing bicycle helmets in awkward Guardian cover photos.

Of course these new people are liberal — they moved to San Francisco. But for progressives, they're not the right kind of liberals. DeLeon says their liberalism is expressed through environmental concerns like global warming and local farming. They bring their own bags to the store and sip out of reusable bottles: They do their part. "They're out of sync with the core progressive values [like] homelessness and affordable housing." Gavin Newsom seems just as progressive to them as Chris Daly. And Newsom doesn't yell as much.

If not for Brown's overreaching, the city might have reached this political juncture long ago. "San Francisco may now be moving back to the point it was destined to go, driven by demographic change," DeLeon concludes.

Perhaps most ominously for progressives, these trends are about to be codified for the coming decade, as the city draws up new district lines. If progressives hope to avoid slipping into truly marginal status, you'd think they'd want to appeal to voters who live in today's real San Francisco, instead of an idealized version of yesteryear's.

But you'd also think they'd have done that during the 10 years they were in power.


Just before election day, voters in the Outer Sunset received calls from the David Chiu mayoral campaign.

"Did you know," a volunteer gushed, "that David doesn't own a car?"

People in the Outer Sunset own plenty of cars. What was this about? Did Davidneed a ride?

Progressives don't make it out of their neighborhoods much. Talking to new people is a work in progress. For the past decade, progressives have made attempt after attempt to assert San Francisco's role as a shining example to the nation's Midwest without ever bothering to win over the city's Midwest.

"No, traditionally, there has not been a lot of work that has been done out in the Sunset. That wasn't ground zero when it happened in 1999," Avalos says. It hasn't been on the radar since.

"You don't see them at the West of Twin Peaks Improvement Council. John Avalos is an earnest young fella — but you never see him here!" says former longtime westside Supe and state Sen. Quentin Kopp. Progressives "are too parochial. They are interested primarily in the district each represents."

"Rallying the base" of a minority movement can only take you so far; you have to reach out if you want to win new territory and its voters. Progressives didn't. In '99, Ammiano won Districts 5, 6, 8, and 9 in the mayoral race. In 2003, with four years to organize and build support, Gonzalez won Districts 5, 6, 8, and 9. Gonzalez won by much larger margins — the base was rallied — but the movement failed to make inroads into new territory. Avalos, for a change, won only Districts 5, 8, and 9 this year.

Progressives have long known that they can't ignore large swaths of the city in a mayoral race. Yet October's "Everywhere for Avalos" campaign blitz held virtually its entire cavalcade of events in Districts 5, 6, 8, and 9. The Richmond, the city's swing district, wasn't touched at all. Perhaps the mountain was supposed to come to Avalos.

Progressives "like hanging out where it's safe. That is their fundamental error," says Gonzalez. "I failed to reach out to a significant number of constituencies. Ammiano failed to do that. It's a lot easier staying in your comfort zone with people who think like you. John [had] a lot of fun talking to people who agree with him. It may feel good, but you don't cross the finish line in first place."

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