How SF Progressives lost in 2015

San Francisco Progressives got routed in the 2015 election, but have gained power through some poor tactical choices by the Moderates in one race.

I’ve read quite a few pieces from San Francisco Progressives over the past week about how they ‘won’ the election that happened last Tuesday November 2nd. While I do think they’re going to more successful at blocking progress with their presence on the Board of Supervisors, it’s hard to see last Tuesday as anything but a ringing defeat across almost all the important contests.(1)

Before we begin, it’s probably helpful to define who calls themselves “Progressive” vs. “Moderate” in San Francisco. The landscape is incredibly, unbelievably left — even compared to other liberal urban centers. That’s one of San Francisco’s defining characteristics, but it also means that the Moderates are already very liberal & that the Progressives are out on the fringe. In terms of social policy there isn’t much daylight between the groups: everyone is in agreement on gay marriage, abortion, drug laws, criminal enforcement, etc. Progressives in San Francisco are primarily defined as generally hostile to new market rate housing; the tech community; and the market economy in general. With that in mind, let’s look at the 2015 election.

What did the Progressives lose?

The Progressives lost nearly every race they contested, backing a Sheriff convicted of domestic violence & failing to even put someone forward for the mayor’s race.

Mayor’s race: Ed Lee won. There’s been some grousing that he only got 57% of the vote, but given that he had no real opposition & that he did not campaign, there’s really not much information to be gained here. The interesting point here is not the ratio of votes. It is that the Progressives *could not even field a candidate* that they could rally support behind.

Sheriff’s race: The Progressive Ross Mirkarimi was defeated almost 2:1 by Vicky Hennessy. Ross was convicted of a domestic violence charge at the beginning of his term, so it’s not terribly surprising that he was voted out. It’s a victory for the Moderates, but embarrassing that the Progressives got behind him at all for a second term & that four of the more Progressive Supervisors voted against impeachment in 2012 when it came to the board.

Proposition A (affordable housing bond): I’ve seen Progressives take credit for this, but the proposition was driven by Ed Lee — a good win for more affordable housing.

Proposition D (Mission Rock development): The second housing-related win. Progressives remained silent on this proposition that will create significant affordable and market rate housing and which will replace a parking lot.

Proposition F (The anti-AirBnB proposition): A lot has been written on this measure, but in the end it was defeated.

Proposition I (The Mission Housing Moratorium): This was the centerpiece of the Progressive efforts, spearheaded by David Campos. Despite non-partisan analysis from the city showing that Proposition I would make the housing crisis worse, by immediately halting the production of ~1,500 units of housing, including hundreds of affordable units, Progressives got behind this measure in a big way. Its failure is a Progressive victory only in the sense that they were saved from their own bad policy.

What did the Progressives win?

They won a single race: the Board of Supervisors contest for District 2 (which covers North Beach and Chinatown). This was pretty important since it helped tip the balance of power towards the Progressives. So, what happened? How did the Moderates lose?

The seat was vacated by Supervisor David Chiu when he defeated Supervisor David Campos last fall to go to the California State Assembly. Ed Lee appointed the interim supervisor, and chose Julie Christensen. Running against her was Aaron Peskin. He termed out of the Board of Supervisors after eight years of service from 2000–2008, but came back to run again this year. While Christensen was an activist in the neighborhood for two decades, she was not the preferred candidate of Rose Pak — a very influential activist in Chinatown. Pak was upset enough about the appointment that she threw her muscle behind Peskin, someone who had publicly accused her of representing the Chinese Communist Party’s interests in San Francisco and helping broker illegal campaign contributions (starts at 10:45 in this video) Ultimately, Peskin prevailed by about 1,200 votes.

This is a long way of saying that the race was more about Rose Pak’s influence in Chinatown, Ed Lee taking a gamble in his interim appointment & Peskin’s fame as a past supervisor than it was about the politics of the candidates, or even the reported voter fraud on Peskin’s behalf.

What does this mean?

Sadly, that single race means that the Progressives have even more power on the board of supervisors than they did before. It may not matter that Prop F & Prop I failed because they may have enough power to push through legislative restrictions just as onerous. We should expect to see more obstructionism blocking the creation of housing, more efforts to lock San Francisco into its current state rather than having a conversation about how the city ought to evolve.

(1) I’ve left out the contests that received less attention & weren’t featured on many mailers. Ballot issues B, C, H, J, and K were primarily opposed by conservatives (Terrence Faulkner or the SF Taxpayers Association). G was withdrawn, and E was a question about how public meetings are held.