I am increasingly coming to believe that San Francisco is now a two-party city – and oddly, we are seeing that reflected in the race to determine who will run the Democratic Party.

Republicans are almost entirely irrelevant in San Francisco (the last GOP office holder, BART Board member James Fang, lost his seat two years ago. There hasn’t been a Republican in any significant elected office in years). There’s a modest Green Party, which at one time counted among its members Sups. Matt Gonzalez and Ross Mirkarimi. Mirkarimi later became a Democrat.

Mayor Ed Lee has left this town so divided that we have two political parties
Mayor Ed Lee has left this town so divided that we have two political partiesa

But the real two-party system right now is between the progressive party and the Ed Lee/real-estate/tech mogul party. And this city has become so deeply divided that there is no room for anyone in the middle.

I give the mayor full credit for that.

In times of severe crisis, and this city is in a severe crisis, people don’t want to spend a lot of time on the nuances of political positions. They want to know – and they should know – whose side are you on?

Once upon a time there was a broad spectrum of Republicanism; there were relatively liberal Republicans and very conservative Republicans and plenty in between. That’s mostly gone now. But there are still very left-leaning Democrats and very conservative Democrats, and that’s the case with the two parties in San Francisco today.

Some of the people who are on the progressive Reform Slate for DCCC are very much on the left, and some are more in the center. There are some Ed Lee/real estate/tech mogul Party members who sometimes disagree with the mayor.

But overall, they are two very distinct parties – and you aren’t going to see much crossover in endorsements, political activism, or political fundraising this fall.

The various groups that are endorsing candidates for DCCC, and later for supervisor and state Senate, have interviews, questionnaires, and a wide range of issue discussions, but in the end, almost all of these decisions are going to come down to that same question: Whose side are you on?

At the DCCC, the organizers of the Reform Slate had exactly two questions for the candidates: Will you vote to remove Mary Jung, a lobbyist for the Board of Realtors and an Ed Lee Party member, from her position as chair (and replace here with one of the Reformers) – and will you agree to endorse the progressive candidates for supervisor in the fall?

There are no “maybes” in this race, no “I’ll support some of the candidates but not all of them,” no “well, I’ll give the party chair position all due consideration at the time.” You’re on the team, or you’re not.

I don’t know exactly what questions Jung asked the people she has lined up to run but I imagine, seeing the list, that it was pretty much the same: You going to keep the real-estate industry in charge of the Democratic Party, or not? You going to support the mayor’s choices for supervisor, or not?

Again: I suspect people who waffled weren’t selected.

We used to get all sorts of candidates at the Guardian who come in and tell us that we should endorse them because they’d vote our position “most of the time.” That’s fine – you want people who think for themselves in public office, not people who just follow a script.

But when it’s more and more likely that the San Francisco so many of us care so much about is going to be gone in a few years, when the displacement of people and community-serving businesses and nonprofits has been unlike anything any of us have seen since the worst days of Redevelopment half a century ago, it’s hard to find compromise and middle ground.

That’s why there were so many 6-5 votes on the Board of Supes last year, before Aaron Peskin won and created a progressive majority. There are fewer 6-5 votes now, in part because it’s an election year and Sup. London Breed, who is facing a challenge from the left, has moved away from the mayor on some issues. (We’re going to see eight votes in favor of declaring a housing emergency, enough to override a mayoral veto).

But the board will be deeply divided again next year; we just don’t know who will be in the majority.

Progressives are often fractious, and that’s fine – we argue, we care about policy, we aren’t afraid to disagree. But right now, the progressive community is pretty unified around the June and November elections.

People who call themselves “moderates” are going to find a harder and harder time in this city. It’s understandable – how can you be in the center in a city under this much pressure? Do you believe things are going terribly, and need to be fundamentally changed (as, by the way, a growing number of San Franciscans believe according to a recent poll) – or do you think the current trends are even tolerable?

There’s not a lot of middle ground there.

If both sides are reasonable in the legislative arena, and for the most part they are, then they can agree on lots of things that need to happen to make the city run. This is not Obama and the GOP. Lots of routine supes votes are unanimous.

But when it comes to endorsements, to the discussion of who should be running the city in the future, there are two sides.

This is, of course, a result of Mayor Lee devoting so much energy to one part of the city (tech companies that “create jobs”) that he seems not to care about the rest of the people who live here. (He won’t even support a declaration of emergency on homeless policy – the area where most San Franciscans are now most concerned.)

As I often say about class warfare, it’s not our fault: We didn’t declare the war. The one percent, the Republicans and Wall Street Democrats declared war on us. We’re just fighting back so we can survive.

The left didn’t create the division in this city; the mayor did that. Now people who can’t stand it anymore are responding.

  • Foginacan

    Hold on now. As someone who feels alienated by both sides, and tends to sit in the middle on issues, this whole “We didn’t start the fire” attitude about the Left, doesn’t help things. The radical Left thrives off division, and creating “for us or against us” arguments is pretty common in SF. Candidates like Peskin, who if he can be called a Progressive, absolutely thrive off division. The David Talbot, Cleve Jones types, live off it. The spectrum has shifted, but what’s lost is that many of the very Left don’t have very Left values….it’s more like a Left persona instead. Nobody is happy with the current state of affairs. I think Tim’s hit on something here, but he’s too close to it to truly diagnose what’s happening.

    If you’re genuinely pragmatic, or simply see the problem, but then disagree with the solutions thrown around (ie. housing problem today, solved by tearing down, and rebuilding the city in 8 years), you will hear a lot of people that think like you, but none are in power.

  • I will be SAN FRANCISCO first Republican mayor

    • curiousKulak

      … in 50 yrs.

    • Pvt. Hudson

      We’ve had a Republican Mayor as recently as 1964.

    • hiker_sf

      WHY are you a Republican?

  • Andy M

    This is a pretty weird “hot take.” I don’t disagree with the thesis, that this is a two party town, but I think it isn’t just because of Ed Lee. The phenomenon we’re living through is pretty well described in the end of Left Coast City. There used to be a whole swath of issues that divided San Franciscans, but Progressives, rightfully, successfully moved the need on lots of them (criminal justice, gay rights, homeless policy, immigration, guns, etc.), such that they aren’t really issues any more. Even the issues that over which there’s some division, like transit-impact, homeless policy, and inclusionary housing aren’t really that divisive.

    The only real division left is the pro-growth vs. anti-growth issue. Progressives lay all the blame on “tech oligarchs” and moderates lay all the blame on “NIMBYs.” We’ve seen this dynamic at the ballot box over the last few years, where almost every Prop relates to growth.

    The pro-growth set believes we can get prices under control by eliminating zoning and doesn’t really care about the impact on neighborhood character. The anti-growth set believes we should get prices under control by destroying one of this city’s major industries and leave neighborhoods intact. What we have is a very pro-growth economic initiatives which was driven by the moderates in the aftermath of the great recession coupled with very anti-growth zoning policies, which were driven by Progressives in the era immediately post-Feinstein.

    Honestly its the worst of both worlds. I know you see it as a fight for your survival, but so do people your demonizing who have come here, like so many before, to make their way in the world. This kind of “you’re either with us or against” rhetoric gets us no closer to any kind of meaningful reconciliation.

    • hiker_sf

      I agree with everything you wrote. I also think the ‘power disparity’ between the increasing wealthy population and those who are not wealthy causes problems. Anyone with $$$ seems to be able to get the mayor’s ear and those without feel powerless and often resort to severe tactics out of frustration or feeling that there are no other options. I know that Lee is being hounded out of every public appearance by protests. But he is partly to blame for this as he abandoned the community.

  • Y.

    It’s a good and clear analysis, and I’ll add that if the Republican Party ever manages to cough out its extreme conservative hairball and allow for a moderate wing, it would be a natural fit for the folks who vote for Ed Lee or even Jerry Brown.

    • chasmader

      Jerry Brown, a Republican?? You are in the “San Francisco Bubble”.

      • Y.

        Jerry Brown today is pretty corporate-friendly and not much of an environmentalist. On economic issues he’s not that different from a centrist Republican of a few decades ago.

        • chasmader

          Methinks you are either under 30 or new to California.

  • Angela M. Alioto

    My Father use to say that sometimes the Left goes so far left they are Right..that is so true. Great article Tim.This division is a huge issue..it needs to be stopped…I have no doubt that both sides love this City….so for the good of the City the division should stop…plus lit mist test went out a long time ago….there are many common group issues between these sides and again for the good of the city we need to focus on the common ground not the uncommon ground and vindictiveness should never be a part of the equation!

  • sebra leaves

    The pro-growth SPUR and SFMTA supporters are being used by their masters to clear the decks of San Francisco citizens who live in the path of their destruct and re-build plans. There is no other way to put it. As Tim said, we were here and minding out own business when a foul wind swooped down on us and started to blow. Either we dig in our heels to stay or we will be blown away.

    • Bob

      so, according to you, we cannot build new housing – and we cannot remake our roads to move all forms of transit along.
      I love that what SF considers an “activist” is someone who agitates for no change whatsoever.

    • rkgwood

      The “threat to Polk Street merchants”? Your supposed enemy Ed Lee already gave you a hand with that one, by vetoing bike lane expansion at the behest of his eye doctor. This makes my daily commute more dangerous.

      And what about the threat to the very lives of pedestrians and cyclists, 25-30 of whom are killed on our streets every year? I don’t want my tax dollars spent on handouts to private car owners. True progressivism means investing in public transit, which is accessible to everyone and significantly reduces greenhouse emissions per person.

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