By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
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By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
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Asked what the key issues for progressives are in the coming decade, progressive godfather Ammiano answers "housing, health care, and schools, not necessarily in that order." But weren't those the key progressive issues of the last decade? "Yeah, that's right," acknowledges the assemblyman and former supe.
Rhetorically, the progressives are stuck on a three-hour tour. The Guardian has been flogging public power since Tesla invented the alternating-current generator. It stays on the progressive agenda because they put it there, along with taxing the rich, tapping downtown to subsidize Muni, and other measures aimed at helping San Francisco's increasingly imaginary working class. None of these are necessarily bad ideas, butelevating them into the Progressive 10 Commandments makes an infidel out of anyone who doesn't agree with you all the time. It doesn't age well, either. Proposing the same old solutions to every new problem turns policies into punchlines.
Voters aren't laughing. In 2000, polls indicated some 30 percent of the electorate chose the Guardian's "Clean Slate" candidates. This year, just 6,300 voters — 3.4 percent — voted the paper's 1-2-3 mayoral endorsements. This isn't just a pattern with citywide elections — last year only 890 voters followed the Guardian's proscribed 1-2-3 in left-friendly District 6. That's 4.2 percent.
Every newspaper in the country has less influence now than a decade ago — but not every newspaper is the explicit flagship of a political faction. Preaching to the same voters about the same issues, whether it's 2001 or 2011, is hardly "progressive." But, hey, did you know David Chiu doesn't own a car?
Expanding the base would have been easier when progressives had more to offer. For 10 years the city's left held firm legislative control of San Francisco — and, not insignificantly, voters of the day actually remembered Brown's tenure as "juice" mayor. It's a lot harder now that progressives can't shape the legislative agenda, and the city's pressing issues — jobs, pensions, deficits — are subjects that politicians beholden to labor and nonprofits would rather not broach.
Short of resurrecting Harvey Milk and teaching him Chinese, no progressive was going to win the mayor's race this year. Instead of being handed the keys to any sort of organized, citywide political network, Avalos was left to start one on his own. "Coulda, shoulda, woulda," he says gamely. "That organization either didn't exist or needed to be rebuilt."
It always has. Every few years, progressives realize that they don't have a citywide organization. Campaigns are organized, work is set in motion — and no significant progress is made. Then, after a few years, it happens again. "There is no sustained organization," notes DeLeon. "They do voter registration drives, they do it — and it's gone."
If progressives ever were to reach out — to westsiders or tenants politically right of the Tenants Union — what would they have to talk about? Quite a lot, actually: While in power, progressives achieved a number of important legislative successes and drove a vital conversation about how government in San Francisco should operate.
That could — even should — have translated into a growing movement. But during their time in power progressives repeatedly failed to capitalize on their own successes. Other people were better at claiming credit for progressive accomplishments.
"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" didn't appeal to Mayor Gavin Newsom. Rather than join the progressives, he took their best ideas and ran with them. The bête noire for the progressive movement is now best remembered for passing its agenda.
"Partially as a matter of strategy and partially as a matter of who Gavin was, the so-called moderate mayor co-opted most of the issues progressives used as their banner," says Jaye, Newsom's former Svengali. He smiles as he reels off the progressive positions that now highlight Newsom's resume: "Moderates as champions of marriage equality, moderates as champions of universal healthcare, moderates driving aggressive environmental legislation." Progressives couldn't win a mayoral election, "but they dominated the clash of ideas."
That's something they could have crowed about — "look, he's doing everything we stand for!" — but progressives never saw Newsom's plagiarism as a bragging point. Instead, they acted like the perpetual opposition. They sought to tussle with Newsom, no matter how trivial the subject. Low-level legislation — citywide WiFi, green building ordinances — was sunk or delayed interminably simply because it was Newsom's.
"Their mindset is oppositional. It's hard for them to declare victory," Jaye continues. To voters, it appears progressives would rather fight injustice than stop it.
Newsom and Jaye were happy to exploit that dynamic, and it was a fight progressives couldn't win. Newsom loosed a pack of spokesmen to savage progressives in public — and disseminate juicy tidbits on background — keeping the boss' hands clean. Peskin and Daly spoke for themselves — and sometimes too much. Few recall Newsom tweaking progressives by slashing funding to drug treatment facilities in 2007. But Daly responding with unfounded allegations about Newsom being a coke fiend? That got some press.
"A lot of times before [progressives] went off, I was poking them. That they took the bait 300 times in a row, that's on them," Jaye recalls. Voters "ascribed that drama more to progressives than to moderates, sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly."