Key Takeaways From Local and State Elections

The people have spoken. What did they say about their values and priorities?

Over the course of the campaign, now-President-elect Joe Biden constantly reminded voters, “Character is on the ballot.” 

Well, in San Francisco and California, voters had to decide on a lot more than that. With 13 local and 12 state ballot measures, in addition to several competitive races for political office, voters revealed their true preferences on a host of issues. 

The bottom line? San Francisco is still a lefty political outlier, even in the deep-blue state of California. 

Across the state, voters rejected high-profile measures on affirmative action, rent control, and commercial property taxes, while affirming an Uber and Lyft-sponsored gig-work bill. In San Francisco, voters overwhelmingly went the opposite way on the aforementioned ballot initiatives, and approved all four local tax measures before them.

When it comes to City Hall and the State Capitol in Sacramento, San Francisco’s incumbent politicians cleaned house, mostly preserving the existing political dynamics. Although big wins for state Senator Scott Wiener and Supervisor Dean Preston could embolden each of them to push their respective agendas even more aggressively. And newcomers like Myrna Melgar could shake things up on the Board of Supervisors. (For a full list of local and state election results, click here.)

While 86 percent of San Francisco voters chose “character,” they also had a lot more to say. We break down some of the key takeaways from state and local elections below. 

Tax measures: SF willing to spend

Despite a barrage of negative advertising, San Francisco voters are poised to approve every single tax measure before them this year. That includes Prop F, a business tax overhaul, Prop I a real estate transfer tax increase on properties over $10 million, Prop J, a parcel tax for SFUSD, Prop L, a tax on companies with highly paid CEOs, and Measure RR, a sales tax increase for Caltrain. Voters also approved new spending on Supervisor Matt Haney’s initiative that will create a new Department of Streets and Sanitation. 

These tax measures will help keep the city budget (and Caltrain) afloat in a very challenging economy. In fact, the city’s budget was actually contingent on the passage of Prop F, along with Prop A, a bond measure. However, the taxes are not a forever solution, with elected officials warning that budget cuts or layoffs could still be in the offing if the economy remains glum. 

Critics of these measures, especially Prop I, argued that new taxes will harm the city’s economic recovery. According to Mission Local, independent expenditure groups and the Chamber of Commerce spent more $5 million opposing Prop I. But clearly, voters didn’t buy their message. 

That could be because voters have heard a similar refrain before. “Whether this might actually, really, and we’re not kidding this time, cause more businesses to shutter… and the city’s economy will be wounded and may not recover, that’s a story I’ve heard repeated all the way back to when I wrote Left Coast City,” says Richard DeLeon, emeritus professor of political science at SF State, whose book came out in 1992. 

San Francisco’s economy seems to be like a “cat of nine lives,” DeLeon says, and voters appear content to treat it that way, no matter how many doom-and-gloom mailers they receive. 

District 5: Preston wins big, despite big money 

It’s a similar story to San Francisco’s tax measures: Despite a massive negative ad campaign, Dean Preston cruised to victory against Vallie Brown by a much larger margin than when the two faced off last year. Some of the same donors who led the charge against Prop I, which Preston introduced and championed, also wanted to take out the man himself.

The often offensive and misleading ads didn’t work, and Preston emerges stronger than ever. Sure, like all incumbents, he had an advantage. But Preston’s decisive win feels significant because, like Jackie Fielder, he’s an unapologetic socialist. He is sure to continue being a pain in the neck for the Chamber of Commerce, and a headline grabber at City Hall, championing policies that might even be too far left for his colleagues on the progressive wing of the Board of Supervisors. 

Early on the agenda is what to do with that Prop I money. Preston has said it will be used to provide rent relief for tenants who lost jobs during COVID, and eventually to build city-owned and operated social housing, which this year’s Prop K authorized. 

District 7: Is the West Side ready for change? 

Former Planning Commissioner Myrna Melgar, got the third-most first-place votes for District 7 Supervisor. But after second-place votes were counted, Melgar came out decisively on top. 

Melgar, who positioned herself ideologically between fellow frontrunners Joel Engardio and Vilaska Nguyen, was able to take advantage of the city’s ranked choice voting system. She may not have been everybody’s first choice, but plenty of her opponents’ supporters liked her well enough. 

Now, voters will have to see whether Melgar brings that centrism, for lack of a better term, to City Hall. Melgar was in the unique position of being endorsed by several progressive politicians and organizations as well as Mayor London Breed and SF YIMBY, the standard bearers of the city’s moderate faction. She could be a wild card on key votes. (While she might be close to the middle of the San Francisco political spectrum, Melgar is pretty far left for her district, which has traditionally been one of the city’s most conservative.) 

As an urban planner, Melgar knows District 7, the most suburban part of the city, is not exactly the most transit-oriented, high-density, mixed-income part of town. She’s already signalled that she’s hoping to change that. The question is, how much will she be willing to stand up to her wealthy, change-averse constituents? 

Also of note, Melgar is the first Latina ever elected supervisor without previously being appointed, and also the first woman to represent District 7. 

State Senate: A win-win

State Senate District 11 could be the happiest political ending of this election cycle: in a way, both candidates won.  

Incumbent Scott Wiener proved that, despite his polarizing image in local politics, he is a broadly popular politician, earning 57 percent of the vote share in the district. That’s a big difference from his first state Senate run against Jane Kim, which was a real squeaker. It’s yet another sign — in addition to multiple opinion polls — that a significant majority of voters support Wiener’s signature housing-near-transit bills, which he has been trying, unsuccessfully, to pass for the past three years. Voters know what they’re getting with Wiener, and with their votes they gave him a mandate: Finish what you started in the state Senate.  

As a result, the Board of Supervisors’ repeated, resounding rejections of Wiener’s previous housing proposals look increasingly out of touch with what San Franciscans actually want. With this vote of confidence in Wiener and his agenda, the BOS will be in a tricky spot when his next housing bill inevitably arrives.

While 57 percent is an objectively strong showing in a high-profile, two-candidate race, 43 percent is equally impressive for a 26-year old activist with no name recognition six months ago. 

Wiener is no Joe Crowley, but Fielder just might be an AOC. In her campaign she gave voice to a growing coalition of San Franciscans who identify as democratic-socialists, and expect their representatives to push for radical changes to the economy. That coalition isn’t going away, and neither, it would seem, is Fielder. 

Roisin Isner, Fielder’s campaign director tells me several supporters have reached out saying they’re not taking Fielder’s (really lovely) campaign signs down, and others have already asked about volunteering for her next campaign, whatever that might be. 

Now the speculation begins: If Fielder stays in her current home in District 8, she could challenge Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, a Wiener supporter, in his 2022 reelection bid. That also happens to be the year 80-year old Nancy Pelosi next comes up for reelection.  

Statewide: Voters reject progressive ballot measures

Affirmative action, rent control, ending cash bail, taxing large commercial property owners, turning gig-economy workers into full-time employees. This laundry list of progressive policy goals was uniformly rejected by voters statewide — although the results are not quite final thanks to California’s sluggish vote-counting process. 

Election post-mortems have posited several theories as to why these bills failed, or passed, in the case of the Uber-sponsored gig work bill, Prop 22. Perhaps people were too distracted by the presidential election and the pandemic to pay much attention to so many ballot propositions on such complicated issues, like dialysis clinics and internet privacy. Progressive infighting on certain issues, including the bail reform bill, and other campaign stumbles probably played a part, too. All the while, big-money ad campaigns on rent control, commercial property taxes, and gig work bombarded voters with easy answers.   

Prop 22 could end up being the most consequential statewide ballot measure this election. It emerged as a result of AB5, a state law that required gig-economy companies like Uber, Lyft, and Doordash to classify their workers as employees, with unemployment benefits and healthcare. Those companies then teamed up to write and push Prop 22, which exempts their workers (“app-based drivers”) from AB5, while providing some new worker protections. The companies spent over $200 million on their campaign, the most money ever for a statewide ballot initiative. 

And it worked, at least across the state. (While these companies are all based in San Francisco, the city roundly rejected their initiative, just as they decisively favored the other progressive measures that California voters rejected.)

The law will allow Uber, Lyft and Doordash to operate much as they already do, whereas if 22 had failed, there would have been major changes to their businesses. Prop 22 itself will be nearly impossible to amend: the measure requires that all changes be approved by a seven-eighths majority of the state legislature, a threshold that would be hard to reach for a referendum on the beauty of Yosemite Valley. 

Beyond its immediate impact, Prop 22 has labor leaders concerned about the precedent it creates. The law might embolden other companies and industries to follow Uber and Lyft’s lead by writing their own regulations, and getting them on the ballot through California’s citizen initiative process. Already Uber and Lyft execs are saying that Prop 22 can be a template for a “third way” for employment, neither contractor nor full-time employee, in other states.  

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