This Election Year, A Battle for the Soul of San Francisco Lies At The Ballot Box, And In a Few Hundred Voters’ Hands

Last week, I attended a party organized by The Internet Archive, and I reveled in spending time with many of the attendees there — earnest change-makers each of whom have worked to make positive differences in thousands of people’s lives, whether it be finding creative ways to hook up low-income residents of the city to broadband, or founding organizations to help the city’s parents make the most out of their kids’ public school educations.

Hundreds of people of all ages attended the party. Internet Archive Founder Brewster Kahle described several initiatives that the Archive is undertaking, including the creation of “digital lockers” for books in library collections. He also presented the first Internet Archive Hero award to Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. (The Grateful Dead enforced their copyrights vigorously, but nevertheless encouraged their fans to tape their concerts, understanding that cassette tapes were a form of viral marketing at the time. Today, The Internet Archive hosts a large collection of these recordings online, which are made available for non-commercial use.)

At the event, I bumped into Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Sandra Halladey, a co-founder of Parents for Public Schools in San Francisco, writer and media archivist Rick Prelinger, and Lisa Petrides CEO and founder of ISKME (Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education), among others. I also met several of the Archive’s staffers, one of whom wrote a complex piece of software that powers the Archive’s digital scanning efforts. In my mind, like the Grateful Dead, these Bay Area residents are pioneers in their respective fields.

Despite the inspirational vibes from this and other events I’ve attended in the city recently, I keep wondering whether many of these people could afford to live in the city were they to start their careers in San Francisco today (some of them don’t live in SF in fact*.) It’s true that many of the people in attendance at the events are millionaires who’ve benefitted from the tech boom, but there were dozens of others I’ve met in the past few weeks who are playing important roles in the city and state, but who are probably not enjoying the comparable incomes of those in the tech world. (In fact, former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos told documentary-maker Alexandra Pelosi in “San Francisco 2.0” that he wouldn’t be able to afford his house were he to buy it today.)

That’s what makes the upcoming local election in San Francisco so compelling in my eyes. How can San Franciscans make electoral choices that preserve the character of the city, and prevent it from turning into a hollowed out theme park for the wealthy and tourists? Proposition F, a controversial initiative that would significantly curtail the activities of AirBNB and its users has hogged everyone’s attention this election cycle. But another electoral choice that will shape the answer to this question is the Board of Supervisors race for District 3.

Technically, the district encompasses the Northeast part of San Francisco that includes downtown, Chinatown, Union Square, Telegraph Hill, North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf and the “Barbary Coast.” But politicos all the way up from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to the progressive political action committee Democracy for America have stuck their oars in. Aaron Peskin, a former city supervisor and a progressive politician, has received an endorsement from DFA, and a donation from Reid. He’s running against Julie Christensen, a designer and local politico who Mayor Ed Lee appointed earlier this year to serve as a stand-in for outgoing District Supervisor David Chiu. Christensen has been endorsed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and has also received financial contributions from several tech company luminaries, Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and even Medium co-founder Biz Stone — basically the “friends of Ron” club.

As The San Francisco Examiner’s Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez put it in a recent column, the 11­-member Board of Supervisors is locked in a 6­-5 split on many controversial issues. This one vote could end up significantly blocking or enhancing Mayor Lee’s agenda for the city in the next few years. But more broadly, it will shape the ability of the city’s political leader to execute an agenda that tries to balance economic prosperity and technological innovation with necessary steps to keep San Francisco affordable.

In this race, Peskin is seen as the one representing the “progressives” in the city, and someone who would often potentially vote against the Mayor’s initiatives, and Christensen is seen as the one who would probably always side with the Mayor.

I take a particular interest in this turn of events because I’ve been watching/experiencing the city’s transformation since I arrived as a resident in 2007. My first up-close-and-personal encounter with the city’s polarized politics came when I wrote about a wireless broadband project in the Western Addition. At the time, Google and EarthLink were trying to provide the city with “free” WiFi, which then Mayor Gavin Newsom supported enthusiastically. However, after numerous objections were raised by the Board of Supervisors, the project eventually died. The city has since worked to provide several housing developments with access to the Internet through its own fiber network.

I’ve also been tracking angel investor Ron Conway’s tireless efforts to “reclaim the city” from Progressives. If Christensen wins this race, it would seem that he will have achieved that goal. She would be the latest candidate backed by Conway to take office.

I came across Conway many times through my job as a reporter and writer for techPresident, a news site about politics, government and technology. Conway is involved in many projects that try to use technology to address serious urban issues. He’s also very involved in shaping tech policy issues that affect his investments. And, he is an energetic and enthusiastic (and sometimes scary sounding) political organizer on many levels. Though many in the city vilify him, I get a sense that he truly believes that the policies and people he advocates for are common sense and good for the city. (Why else would someone like him spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon locked up inside with a bunch of young programmer types giving a speech about local political issues and urging them to become active members of his civic engagement group SF Citi?)

Conway’s blunt mannerisms, combined with the many hapless, tone-deaf incidents instigated by people in the startup community has bred a kind of cynicism among some San Franciscans. When I recently pointed out the condescending AirBNB ad campaign about its $12 million tax bill in San Francisco to a friend, a long-time San Franciscan, she wearily told me she found it insulting, but wasn’t surprised at all. When I asked another long-time San Franciscan what he thought of Ed Lee, he said:

“He’s an empty vessel for the venture capitalists and their investments in startups using the city as a petridish.”

(At the same time, some of the attention-grabbing tactics used by a few of the progressive activists just seem counter-productive.)

I guess I don’t believe in stereotypes, which is why I’m a reporter. I’m hoping that whoever wins District 3 won’t be an inflexible, stick-in-the-mud ideologue, but also won’t be an “empty vessel,” and won’t be afraid to challenge the Mayor.

I hope that they will route around factional politics, and like the people at the Internet Archive party and other residents of the city eschew rhetoric and grandstanding. As a leader of a city that’s the innovation capital of the world, I hope they will set an example for other cities to find pragmatic ways to work with their colleagues to make life affordable again for people from all walks of life, and not just for millionaires and their private schools and their dogs.

After all, it’s the Left Coast’s earnestness, diversity, and focus on solving problems rather than on rhetoric is what attracted me and thousands of people like me to come here in the first place. ###

*I lived in San Francisco until last year. I had to move out due to family logistics.