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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.