Winners and losers in San Francisco’s election

July 3, 2018

San Francisco’s municipal elections were a mixed picture for progressive initiatives and campaigns. Julien Ball considers some of the reasons why.

IN SAN Francisco’s June 5 election, progressives scored a number of key victories around ballot initiatives, while the corporate-friendly candidate president of the Board of Supervisors London Breed eked out a win in a tight mayoral race.

The election comes as San Francisco continues to endure skyrocketing rents amid a tech and real estate boom that has increased inequality and led to growing displacement, homelessness and violence directed against the city’s poor.

These concerns showed in the election results. The most significant victories were on campaigns spearheaded by the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

DSA members mobilized hundreds of volunteers to knock on doors and phone-bank in support of Proposition F, which guarantees tenants a right to legal representation in eviction cases, and against Proposition H, which would have allowed the powerful Police Officers Association (POA) to define when and how police are allowed to use Tasers.

Members of the Democratic Socialists of America in San Francisco campaign for a pro-tenant ballot initiative
Members of the Democratic Socialists of America in San Francisco campaign for a pro-tenant ballot initiative (DSA San Francisco | Twitter)

Prop F passed with 56 percent of the vote, while more than 60 percent of voters rejected Prop H.

PROP F is especially significant in a city that averaged 3,275 evictions per year between 2014 and 2016, according to the tenants’ rights organization Tenants Together, as real estate speculators and unscrupulous landlords capitalize on skyrocketing rents to replace lower-income tenants with higher-income ones. Prop F is the first ballot initiative in the country that guarantees a universal right to counsel for tenants facing eviction.

“One of the reasons DSA took on Prop F is it’s about what should the government provide,” says Jen Snyder, campaign manager for the Prop F campaign. “It says, ‘Housing is a human right.’ It doesn’t matter if you’re a citizen. It doesn’t matter if you live in private or public housing.”

New York City passed a similar law through the legislative process, but the right only extends to low-income tenants, whereas in San Francisco, it is now universal.

Since funding for legal representation began ramping up in New York City in 2013, evictions have decreased by 27 percent, as landlords pursue fewer frivolous cases against their tenants. Given the more expansive version of San Francisco’s legislation, we can hope it will have an even greater impact.

Tenants’ rights groups will have to continue fighting, however, as the measure does not mandate any particular level of funding to make the right to counsel a reality.

DSA used the campaign to mobilize an activist base that can contribute to future fights.

“DSA is new in San Francisco,” Snyder says. “This was a lot of people’s first election. We had hundreds and hundreds of people from DSA alone, and we hit 50,000 doors.”

Snyder said mobilizations drew between 35 and 90 people, and phone banks drew between 10 and 30 people. DSA members were joined by volunteers from the San Francisco Tenants Union, the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco and Causa Justa/Just Cause.

She said that DSA members are heading back to regroup and talk about tenant organizing against abusive landlords. They have also endorsed the Affordable Housing Act, the November ballot initiative that would repeal statewide restrictions on local rent control, allowing San Franciscans the ability to pass legislation limiting rent increases on vacant units, single-family homes and construction built after 1979.

WHILE PROP F will curb the worst abuses of speculators and landlords, the defeat of Prop H is a defeat for the powerful San Francisco Police Officers’ Association (POA).

Prop H would have given the POA control over when and how Tasers are used. The police commission earlier in the year had already caved after years of pressure from the POA, which had pushed for years to be allowed to use a “less-lethal” alternative to weapons.

Ironically, it was a federal audit of the police after several fatal police shootings that led to the police commission allowing Tasers.

The Department of Justice recommended 272 mostly mild reforms aimed at better training police and restraining their use of force. While the POA resisted most of the reforms, they enthusiastically embraced one — the use of Tasers.

There is no evidence that departments that have adopted Tasers shoot fewer civilians. However, there have been more than 1,000 documented deaths caused by police use of Tasers.

When the police commission adopted Tasers under POA pressure, however, the POA still chafed at the relatively mild restrictions on their use. They sponsored Prop H, which would have allowed police to use Tasers “for the purpose of resolving encounters with subjects who are actively resisting, assaultive, or exhibiting any action likely to result in serious bodily injury or death of another person, themselves or a police officer.”

As written, the measure would have been so broad that it would have allowed officers to use Tasers in almost any circumstance. And it would have meant that the policy could only be changed by ballot initiative or a supermajority of the Board of Supervisors, rather than by the police commission.

The grassroots campaign allowed voters to oppose the POA’s power-grab, and showed that years of police shootings have led to voter opposition to unchecked police power.

Other important victories on the ballot include Prop C, which taxed commercial property owners to pay for universal child care for low- and moderate-income San Francisco families.

This is despite a cynical maneuver by neoliberal politicians to create a rival ballot measure for housing (Prop D) with a “poison pill” that would have invalidated Prop C had it received more votes. Prop D was more palatable to commercial real estate interests because the tax imposed on them would have been half the amount levied by Prop C.

Prop G, meanwhile, also passed in a landslide. It levied a $298 parcel tax on San Francisco property owners to provide a 7 percent annual pay increase to all San Francisco educators.

Sponsored by United Educators of San Francisco, the pay hike comes in addition to the 11 percent increase the union won at the bargaining table. While the raises were desperately needed to keep educators living in San Francisco, the parcel tax unfortunately taxed wealthy and working-class homeowners alike.

WHILE PROGRESSIVES scored victories around a number of ballot initiatives, they didn’t translate into success in the most-watched campaign — the mayoral race.

Board of Supervisors President London Breed squeaked out a victory in the mayor’s race over rivals Mark Leno and Jane Kim, the favored candidates of progressive Democratic clubs and coalitions of community groups and unions. More than a week after the election, just 1,861 votes separated Breed and Leno after taking account San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting system, but with under 7,000 votes left to count, Leno conceded.

Breed is the latest in a decades-long succession of San Francisco mayors — all Democrats — who are backed by corporate, tech and developer interests.

Her campaign received more than $3 million, including $1.3 million from independent expenditure committees (sometimes called SuperPACs), which are allowed to raise unlimited money from individual donors for candidates but are not allowed to coordinate directly with the campaigns.

In a city dominated by powerful tech companies that have reshaped the local economy, Ron Conway — a billionaire venture capitalist and early investor in companies like AirBnB, Google and Facebook — and Twitter co-founder Evan Williams were major contributors to Breed’s election.

Conway in particular has been a major player in local politics for several election cycles, helping to put business-friendly politicians into office and funding attack ads against more progressive candidates.

Meanwhile, Kim received $422,054 from independent expenditure committees, and Leno received just $173,788, mostly from unions and community groups. Despite the significant spending differences between candidates, labor and community coalitions kept the race close using a ranked-choice strategy.

San Francisco has a form of instant runoff voting in which voters are allowed to mark their first, second and third choices in candidate elections. Where no candidate receives 50 percent of first-choice votes, the second- and third-choice votes come into play. When a voter’s first choice is eliminated due to lack of votes, their second and third choices are apportioned to those candidates, until one candidate has 50 percent or more of the vote.

Community groups and unions rallied around Jane Kim, a member of the Board of Supervisors backed by Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution, and former state Sen. and Supervisor Mark Leno.

Electoral coalitions like San Francisco Tenants and Families encouraged Leno voters to choose Kim second, and Kim voters to choose Leno second. Eventually, the Kim and Leno campaigns joined forces as well and endorsed each other as their second choice.

The strategy nearly paid off. When first-choice votes were counted, Breed had a more than 10 percentage point lead. But because of the groups’ success in getting the word out, 77 percent of Kim voters chose Leno as their second choice, and Leno and Breed were neck in neck.

WHY DID efforts to elect Leno or Kim fall short when the ballot initiatives favoring tenant rights succeeded?

Breed has been on the Board of Supervisors for six years, and president of the Board for much of those. In that time, San Francisco’s affordability and homelessness crisis has only gotten worse, and the city now has the third-most billionaires (74) of any city in the world.

Breed repeatedly voted or introduced amendments to weaken tenant and affordable housing protections, while usually siding with the police in failing to hold officers accountable.

One reason many voters could not distinguish Breed from Leno or Kim was that their campaign programs were similar.

Despite some rhetorical differences — Leno and Kim claimed they wanted to “take back San Francisco from the billionaires,” while Breed offered the more conciliatory slogan that she would be a mayor “for all San Franciscans” — Breed often tacked to the left compared to her actual record, while Kim and Leno sometimes tacked to the right to chase votes.

All candidates called for affordable housing, addressing homelessness and clean streets as some of their main talking points. The rhetoric around “clean streets” was particularly opportunist, designed to appeal both to left-leaning voters appalled by the conditions homeless people are forced to live in, and to right-wing voters who favor sweeping homeless people off the streets.

When, barely a month before the election, interim Mayor Mark Farrell ordered sweeps to dismantle tent encampments and confiscate homeless peoples’ belongings, none of the candidates made a peep.

While there are differences in the candidates’ voting records, there are more similarities than Kim’s and Leno’s supporters care to acknowledge.

For example, while Kim successfully passed stronger legislation for stronger tenant protections and introduced ballot initiatives for taxes on wealthy property owners to fund child care and free City College, she also has a record of working with developers by “up-zoning” her District — which includes some of the poorest, but also some of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in the city.

Kim also helped sponsor the notorious “Twitter tax break” that allowed Twitter and other corporations that moved to the mid-Market area she represents to avoid paying $34 million in city taxes.

Leno, meanwhile, was on the left wing of the state Senate in corporate-controlled Sacramento. While he was a sponsor of progressive legislation for same-sex marriage, a higher minimum wage and the “Homeowner Bill of Rights” to help homeowners during the foreclosure crisis, until he began his run for mayor, he endorsed a number of centrist, corporate-friendly candidates in San Francisco politics.

So despite a progressive voting record, his commitment to building a progressive movement or legislative voting bloc — even inside the Democratic Party — is questionable.

THE PROGRESSIVE standard bearers’ histories of embracing corporate-friendly, neoliberal solutions and politicians, and their similar programs to Breed’s meant they did not present a clear alternative.

That left the door open for other criteria to be used in evaluating candidates. From early on, the candidates’ identities filled the political void and became one of the major issues in the campaign.

The June 2018 campaign was sometimes billed in the media as an election of “firsts.” London Breed is being celebrated as the first African-American woman elected mayor of San Francisco, and her campaign stump speech highlighted her background growing up in public housing.

The irony, of course, is that the achievement of her election comes as San Francisco’s Black population now hovers at around 5 percent due to decades of disinvestment in jobs, services and housing, followed by years of mass displacement — the past six of which Breed has been on the Board of Supervisors.

Jane Kim, meanwhile, would have been the first Asian-American woman mayor, and Mark Leno the first openly gay mayor.

The progressive bloc on the Board of Supervisors especially opened the door to framing the contest in racial justice terms when, in January, following previous Mayor Ed Lee’s death, they voted to replace Breed as interim mayor with Mark Farrell, a white, conservative venture capitalist from the wealthy Marina District.

While they did so on the grounds that to leave Breed in office would give her an unfair advantage and name recognition to run her campaign, this move tarnished any progressive claims to stand for equity or racial justice.

Breed capitalized on this, as one of her campaign mailers asked “Why did the political establishment oust San Francisco’s first African American woman mayor?” And when, early in the campaign, Breed’s critics began attacking her for her ties to Ron Conway, Breed shot back that she was “nobody’s slave — no white man millionaire’s slave.”

Breed’s appeal to her base also felt more plausible given the historic neglect of the Black community by all sides — moderate and progressive — of the political establishment.

AS LONG as the challenge to the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party and its corporate backers is left to progressive Democratic politicians, it will be inconsistent.

While they often bloc together to vote against moderates or sometimes sponsor progressive legislation, many of the progressives embrace neoliberal solutions — like building more market-rate housing or accommodating tech-industry dominance.

In a city with 74 billionaires and some of the most powerful Wall Street companies, they accept that it is impossible to fund social services or human needs without public-private partnerships that allow corporations to make a profit.

Almost always, local progressive and “moderate” politicians have ambitions of higher office and use local office as a launching pad, providing the state and national Democratic parties with fresh faces and perpetuating the stranglehold of the two-party system.

If we want even progressive Democrats to challenge the status quo, it will take independent movements that don’t rely on them to make change, and ultimately, a party of our own.

In the immediate future, it will be important to build on the movement’s successes in June — like the DSA-led grassroots mobilizations on Prop F and Prop H — and translate this activist energy into campaigns in the streets to stop evictions, jail killer cops and more.

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