These slugfests rallied the progressive base — apparently in constant need of rallying — but repulsed others. Today it's reached the point where Ed Lee's mediocrity gets a pass because he doesn't argue in public. Progressives helped Newsom pull off the neat trick of leading a city that accepted progressive ideas while rejecting progressive politicians.

Some people, however, became attracted to the progressive movement — ambitious people.

By 2006, when progressives had proven they could get even Daly re-elected, candidates for supervisor in San Francisco were coming out of the woodwork to say they were "progressive." For this new crop of candidates, progressivism was a means of ascent.

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.

That was a significant change. Politicians unconcerned with higher office have incentive to stick together to get things done; politicians who see their current job as a stepping stone have incentive to pull away to look distinctive. The supervisors elected alongside Peskin, he says, were "not on the hamster wheel of political advancement. [But] the 2008 and 2010 classes are politically ambitious. All of them."

A movement at a loss to define its ethos and principles was put in the hands of careerists without ethos or principles. David Chiu was excoriated in the Guardian for bucking the progressive line on appointing Lee, the Park Merced project, the massive Bayview/Hunters Point development, and the Mid-Market "Twitter tax break." But without a clearly defined agenda, to what principles are Chiu and others supposed to swear allegiance? Is demanding unity for unity's sake good enough? Evidently not.

Peskin recalls: "After the '08 election, before they took office, I sat all of four of them down" — new progressive Supervisors Chiu, Campos, Avalos, and Mar — "and said, 'The four of you need to stick together.'" They didn't. "Choose your vote; someone's always getting peeled off. The blame on that does not just rest at David's feet. It's on all of them."

If you're scoring at home, progressives' ideas were appropriated by the mainstream, their identity was appropriated by their most divisive leaders, and their future was appropriated by a new kind of progressive — strivers.

All they knew how to do was rally that shrinking base.


In politics, it's easy to mistake winning elections for competence. The progressives' collapse seemed so sudden because a string of electoral victories masked their growing vulnerability.

When progressives captured control of the Democratic County Central Committee in 2008, it was seen as the final cog in the movement's machine. In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-to-1, awarding favored candidates the official party endorsement makes a difference. In '08, if you were a progressive, you won.

But rather than the dawn of a new era, it was a last hurrah. First-time voters infected with Obama-mania punched the straight Democratic ticket — which was also a straight progressive ticket. It's a turnout of the like San Francisco may never see again. But the progressives' unity evaporated, and without a battalion of "surge voters," every DCCC/progressive candidate lost in 2010. Then came the ascension of Lee, the biggest fumble in the history of San Francisco progressive politics.

Progressives aren't toxic — Ross Mirkarimi eked out victory in the sheriff's race. But Mirkarimi was an established politician, with name recognition and major endorsements, facing two relatively unknown opponents in a down-ticket race. It was also a Pyrrhic victory; the moderate Lee will appoint Mirkarimi's successor as supervisor of District 5 — the most progressive in all San Francisco.

At the end of 2011, progressives are facing an existential challenge. The economy is brutal, demographics bode poorly, and identity politics is resurgent in San Francisco. A decade ago, ideology trumped identity — a downtown slate of gay and minority candidates was demolished by the mostly white, male progressives. That's history. If progressives have trouble articulating their message to each other, it's even harder in Cantonese.

Progressives have two choices. Either they can learn new tricks, reach outside of their comfort zone, and create a stable organization — or they can wait and hope that history repeats itself. If the economy improves and Ed Lee really is Willie Brown 2.0, San Francisco voters may rise again.

Is the mayor the progressives' last, best hope? It remains to be seen if Ed Lee gets it done.

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