Unpacking SF’s Moderate/Progressive Divide

In our one-party city, this divide has become the organizing principle of local politics. But what does it really mean?

Three weeks before the election, Mayor London Breed appeared on the popular NPR program Freakonomics Radio and publicly called out some of her colleagues. 

“San Francisco has a very, very extremely left group of people on the Board of Supervisors,” Breed said. “And I think, in some instances, their focus is to not necessarily do what’s best for people in San Francisco, but do what’s best to stay in the good graces of this whole lefty movement.” 

The mayor was voicing a common critique among political moderates like herself (probably in Trumpier terms than her allies would have liked) that the city’s progressive politicians are more ideological than practical, blocking necessary changes in areas like housing policy. Progressives typically counter that moderates’ supposed pragmatism is a cover for serving the interests of the tech industry and developers, instead of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

In our one-party city, this progressive/moderate divide has become the organizing principle of local politics. And while the specific policy differences between the two sides are widely disputed, the progressive/moderate formulation remains salient in the local media and in the deep network of political clubs and mutual endorsements that help determine elections.

On Nov. 3, voters opted to largely keep the existing political dynamics in place, reelecting every incumbent, and preserving progressives’ veto-proof supermajority on the Board of Supervisors. However, beyond the election results, shifting political tides related to housing and land use could be moving in the moderates’ favor, while democratic socialists like Supervisor Dean Preston and Jackie Fielder could be breathing new life into the progressive movement. 

Looking back at how this divide emerged, and how it has manifested over the years, can help explain the direction San Francisco’s current leaders hope to take the city in the future. 

Downtown vs. Neighborhoods

In San Francisco, everything exists in four dimensions: space as well as time. The progressive/moderate divide evolved out of debates about how the city should use its limited dry land, and how quickly, and for whom, it should be allowed to change.  

Even in the ’70s and ’80s, when living, breathing, conservatives and Republicans were a standard feature of San Francisco politics, fissures were already forming within the city’s increasingly powerful Democratic party. The most polarizing issue was development, encompassing everything from urban renewal projects that leveled much of the Fillmore and SoMa, to the “ticky-tacky” apartment buildings replacing single family homes across the city, to the growing forest of corporate office towers downtown and the BART system that made it possible. Many voters felt these changes only made the city uglier, and couldn’t see how they helped existing residents. 

Thus began the epic power struggle between “downtown” — big business, city planners, and their political allies  — and “the neighborhoods” — a grassroots collection of aging Summer of Love radicals, diverse anti-gentrification activists, historical preservation enthusiasts, and other incumbent residents concerned with traffic, parking, and views. This conflict, dramatized for decades in the pages of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, laid the foundation for today’s moderate/progressive divide. 

However, this framing represented just one part of a more complex sorting — rooted in personality, race, geography and economics — of Democratic voters and politicians over the final decades of the 20th century. Downtown moderates, represented by leaders like Willie Brown and Dianne Feinstein, tended to win over African Americans, Chinese Americans, and older white West Side homeowners, as well as the ultra-rich business class. The progressive coalition, represented by leaders like Art Agnos and Tom Ammiano, tended to be concentrated on the East Side, including many Latinos, renters, ex-hippies, and younger people.

Throughout San Francisco’s modern political history, moderates have largely controlled the Mayor’s office. (The one exception was Agnos, “the last progressive mayor of San Francisco,” in his own words, although back then he referred to himself as a liberal.) The force behind moderates’ dominance, according to critics like the Guardian, was the “Brown-Burton machine,” led by Willie Brown and Phill and John Burton, who seemed to always find a way to install their preferred candidates in Room 200 at City Hall. 

A Progressive Machine

While they have yet to recapture the mayoralty, progressives, now self-identified as such, have become more organized and more successful over the past two decades. In 2000, with the return of district supervisorial elections (supervisors had all served the entire city on an at-large basis for the previous 20 years) progressives won a supermajority on the Board, shifting some of the geographic and demographic trends that previously characterized the city’s political divides.  

“It was a real lurch to the left,” says Richard DeLeon, emeritus professor of political science at San Francisco State and the author of Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco 1975-1991. “They really clipped Willie Brown’s wings, trimmed his sails, and took more control of the planning bureaucracy.”

In the early 2000s, there were signs that San Francisco’s progressives might actually emerge as a distinct political party. Rising stars like Matt Gonzalez and Ross Mirkarimi were registered Green Party members, and the former made a big splash by starting a new political coalition to unify diverse progressive groups called the San Francisco People’s Organization.

After Gonzalez narrowly lost his 2003 mayoral bid against moderate Gavin Newsom, and the Green Party and People’s Organization fizzled, “Class of 2000” progressives sought to build something of a political machine to match Willie Brown’s kingmaking power. In 2010 progressives Aaron Peskin, Chris Daly, and their allies took control of the Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC), which makes endorsements on behalf of the San Francisco Democratic Party. However, in their attempts to build a machine, they didn’t always pick the right champions. 

After Peskin termed out in 2008, David Chiu, Peskin’s former aid, was the consensus progressive pick to replace his former boss as District 3 Supervisor. (Peskin, who was just elected to his fourth term as District 3 supervisor, was eligible to run again because his first two terms were non-consecutive with his next two.) But as Chiu rose to Board of Supervisors President, and then to his current position in the state Assembly, he became identified with the moderates, embodying the conventional wisdom that only moderates can advance to higher office. 

On the other hand, Jane Kim (Chiu’s former roommate) was opposed by Peskin, Daly, and the DCCC in her 2010 supervisorial race, which she won anyway. She would go on to become one of the city’s highest-profile progressives, narrowly losing to Scott Wiener for state senate, and London Breed for mayor.

Still, progressives’ organization and mobilization efforts eventually paid off. After a brief lull in power, progressive supervisorial candidates would once again surge in the 2016 and 2018 elections, establishing a progressive supermajority that will persist until at least 2022. 

DeLeon, who is working on a new book about “the coevolution of the progressive movement with the city’s tech industry” from the ’90s through 2016, says the timing of these two progressive surges is significant. The 2000 elections “erupted from a backlash against the dot-com bubble,” while more recent progressive victories seemed to come in response to the inequalities resulting from the second tech boom. 

Differences of Opinion

Each faction’s relationship to the tech industry has emerged as one of the key ideological and strategic differences between them. By now, tech is essentially synonymous with downtown big businesses, which is typically allied with moderates. In the eyes of progressive critics, Willie Brown has been replaced at the levers of the moderate machine by tech billionaire Ron Conway, a major supporter of Ed Lee and London Breed’s mayoral campaigns, and perhaps more recently, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. 

As such, moderates are typically less amenable to corporate tax hikes, like 2018’s Proposition C, or this year’s Proposition I. Moderates also tend to keep a closer eye on budgets, sometimes fighting against social spending they say the city can’t afford. 

Homelessness is another dividing line, albeit an even fuzzier one. Moderates typically support more enforcement against setting up tents, and stronger power for the government to compel people into mental health treatment. 

This summer, when police reform became a major political issue, progressive Supervisor Shamann Walton and Mayor Breed, both of whom are Black, jointly proposed reinvesting funding from the police in the Black community, receiving support from leaders on both sides of the divide. 

On the majority of issues, most San Francisco politicians are similarly aligned, according to DeLeon. “At some level, they’re all progressive,” he says. Referencing Kim and Wiener in particular, he adds, “You put them anywhere else, I don’t care where, L.A., Chicago, even Seattle, they would be considered lefties.” 

The differences they do exhibit are a matter of degrees. While more friendly to business, moderates frequently support tax increases and regulation. Likewise, in tough economic times, progressives will pass tax breaks and other pro-business or pro-development measures, like Kim’s support of the so-called “Twitter tax break” in 2011. Bond measures for affordable housing and other services, like this year’s Prop A, are common areas of agreement. 

A Widening Divide? 

In local elections, what voters tend to care about more is each candidate’s personality and specific campaign promises, says Nicole Derse, a political consultant who has worked with both moderates and progressives. “As much as political insiders like to believe that everybody falls into these buckets, I think they overestimate how much people really see themselves as ideologically in one camp or another, or that they could even identify who’s in what camp.”

Eric Jaye, another political consultant who has worked across the San Francisco political spectrum, believes that “this language of progressive versus moderate is basically masking a certain sameness… At the end of the day, the city family always wins,” he says, using Willie Brown’s term for the universe of city employees and city-funded non-profits that have been criticized for prioritizing their own self-interest. “Both sides want you to focus on issues that distract you as a voter from foundational issues, like competence and outcome.”

However, Jaye thinks the city’s political divides have widened in recent years with the appearance of politicians and candidates who self-identify as socialists, including Supervisors Dean Preston and Hillary Ronen, District Attorney Chesa Boudin, and Jackie Fielder. 

At the same time, both Derse and Jackie Fielder campaign director Roisin Isner noted that city politics in general has moved left along with the rest of the Democratic party in the Trump era. “Among moderates, there has been a dramatic leftward shift,” Isner says, noting how a few years ago, moderates were much more comfortable being explicitly pro-police and embracing tough-on-crime rhetoric. “The divide remains because the progressive faction has become increasingly democratic-socialist.”

Even as intra-Democratic struggles dominate the headlines, conservatives and Republicans still play a role in local politics, Isner says. “Somewhere where the furthest left person would be a very moderate Democrat, that would not be a popular ally for Republicans, but in San Francisco, where that’s the only game in town, that is where the Republicans will ally.”  

That tracks with a sideshow of this year’s local election, where shadowy PACs funded in part by Republicans ran multi-million dollar negative campaigns against progressive supervisorial candidates like Dean Preston and tax measures like Proposition I. At least some of those efforts appeared to have backfired, with Preston beating Vallie Brown by a bigger margin this election than when the two faced off last year, and all of the city’s tax measures passing comfortably. 

Elephant in the House

There is one policy area where the moderate/progressive divide seems to have sharpened in recent years. Nearly every academic and political insider contacted for this article highlighted housing and land use as the biggest cleavage between the two camps. 

“That is the seminal issue in San Francisco that divides all politicians,” says Agnos. “It’s not the environment. It’s not healthcare. It’s not homelessness. It’s not voting rights. It’s not any of the traditional issues that we see in this country that define progressives or moderates. It is land use.”

“The moderates will look to the market more for solutions,” Agnos adds, “whereas the progressives will look to government more for solutions,” emphasizing that it’s not zero sum. 

Historically, progressives have distinguished themselves in this arena by playing hard ball with the builders of downtown skyscrapers and mega projects like the Giants’ Mission Rock development, pushing them to include as much affordable housing and community benefits as possible.  

But as Wiener, Breed, Chiu and other leaders call for more new housing to be built throughout the city’s existing single family home neighborhoods, not just in vacant industrial areas on the East Side, this issue is hitting closer to home. Last month, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Trisha Thadani interviewed 22 candidates running for the Board of Supervisors on housing and identified “political lines” between “[t]hose who would oppose projects that are not 100 percent affordable vs. those who insist market-rate housing is crucial to bring down the overall price of housing and fund affordable units. Those who would bristle at the idea of a taller, denser city vs. those who want to bring multi-family buildings into mostly single-family neighborhoods.” 

These opposing views didn’t align with every moderate and progressive candidate — it’s difficult to find perfectly consistent policy positions on any issue across the two factions — but they came close in many races. 

Housing is also where the mutual “strange bedfellows” critique emerges, making it harder to map each sides’ voting bloc. By opposing policies that would allow new housing to be built throughout the city, progressives are accused of allying with wealthy homeowners who don’t want their pristine neighborhoods to change. In their quest to make housing more abundant and, hopefully, more affordable, moderates are accused of running interference for billionaire developers and supporting gentrification. 

The rise of the “yes in my backyard” or YIMBY movement, which advocates for more housing of all kinds in every neighborhood, has turbocharged the housing debate. As it has grown into a significant political force in the city, YIMBY has become politically toxic among progressives. This summer, the Board of Supervisors rejected Jane Natoli, a bike advocate and SF YIMBY member, for her nomination to the SFMTA Board, seemingly because of her YIMBY affiliations and her support of “for-profit mobility devices” — that’s e-scooters, not cars, in San Francisco speak. 

In the recent book Golden Gates, a tour through housing politics in California, New York Times economics reporter Conor Dougherty describes the city’s moderate/progressive divide in terms of each side’s relationship to change. “As the tech boom grew in intensity and the battle lines hardened around housing,” Dougherty writes, “it was clear that moderates were the tribe of people who were comfortable with the pace of change, and progressives were the tribe of people who wanted it all to stop.”

Taking Risks

Agnos sees things quite the opposite way. The former mayor, who lost his 1991 reelection bid to police chief Frank Jordan in large part because of his commitment to removing the damaged Embarcadero Freeway and his refusal to roust the homeless tent encampment that had sprung up in Civic Center Plaza, says being a progressive is all about taking risks for what you believe in. 

“When you try to be a progressive, forward thinking person, sometimes you are ahead of the community, and they have to catch up,” Agnos says. As for the safe sleeping site for the homeless the city set up this spring right in front of City Hall, for Agnos it “feels like we’re going back to the future.”

While it’s true that many of the most consequential, boundary-breaking pieces of legislation passed in San Francisco over the past two decades have been introduced by progressives, moderates have usually been willing to shepherd them along. Conflicts are as often about who gets the credit as the actual substance of the matter at hand. Through this give and take process, San Francisco has set the progressive policy agenda nationwide.  

Healthy SF, the city’s universal healthcare program, for example, was long championed by progressive Tom Ammiano before being embraced by Mayor Gavin Newsom. In 2014 voters overwhelmingly approved San Francisco’s $15 minimum wage measure after it received unanimous support from the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee. Like other tenants rights initiatives, Proposition F in 2018, which provides legal representation to every evicted tenant, saw some squabbling over details in the lead-up to its introduction, but never generated real political opposition. More recently, after some more squabbling, Mayor London Breed  eventually came around to Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney’s Mental Health SF program, funding for which is included in this year’s Prop A.  

That’s how a bill becomes a law in San Francisco: progressives push the envelope, and moderates stamp it. Especially in light of national politics, the net result is a fairly functional factionalism, a system of checks and balances where things actually get done — although, as Eric Jaye emphasized, certain policy areas remain sacred cows that neither side is interested in changing. 

But the push-pull isn’t one-way. Just like moderates, progressives have vested interests to protect and coalitions to hold together. There are some arenas where they’re not the ones taking risks. 

And today, in San Francisco, pushing for new housing across the city’s single family home neighborhoods is a political risk. It challenges a half century of political power built by “the neighborhoods” — a movement that has done a lot of good for its core constituencies, including longtime homeowners, rent control tenants, and historical preservationists concerned with the visual character of neighborhoods. But this political movement has likewise helped make the city inaccessible to all but the wealthiest newcomers, and inhospitable to those who grew up here and wish to stay and start families. It has also made it harder to get people out of their cars and reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

Picking Sides

Looking at who is best served by each side’s policy agenda is yet another way to characterize the progressive/moderate divide. “I think progressives would say that what makes them different is that their primary concern is the people who already live in San Francisco and are struggling to stay here,” Derse says. “And then I think moderates would say that their primary interest is making the city work the best it can for everyone, both people who currently live here and people who want to live here, all walks of life.” 

Derse views these characterizations as “a false divide,” but one that that helps explain why progressive supervisors tend to win elections when the economy is booming and low-income people are getting squeezed, and moderates tend to win when the economy is in trouble and small businesses are struggling. Leading up to this election, when the tech economy is still booming, but unemployment is sky high and countless businesses remain shuttered, it was anybody’s ballgame. 

Ultimately, the status quo remained largely intact with progressive and moderate incumbents all fending off their challengers. But once vacant seats are taken into account, moderates, or more accurately, Breed allies, appeared to gain at least some ground. Newly elected District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who was endorsed by several progressive politicians and organizations as well as SF YIMBY and the Mayor, could be a sign that the people want leaders who can straddle the city’s ideological divides, Derse says. 

“There’s a saying about how there’s nothing in the middle of the road except  yellow lines and dead armadillos. It’s a lonely place to be a lot of times, but I think it’s where the voters are.”

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