The 2016 election may well be a turning point in our national and local politics. The problem is that it’s unclear what direction the politics will take.
At the national level, at no time in our recent national history have both parties proved to be as inept as was shown in the election. The Democratic Party lost significant portions of its base both by defection and disaffection and didn’t see it coming. The Republican Party lost a significant portion of its established leadership and didn’t see it coming.
The result of that blindness of the national political class is sobering: We have a political party in control of all three branches of the national government that is at best under inexperienced leadership (and at worse with no leadership at all) and an opposing party unable to act effectively because it simply has no idea of who the hell it represents.
Locally, the situation is, if possible, worse. Here, the Republican Party is a joke that is no longer funny and the Democratic Party is simply for rent. Neither party has an independent capacity to conduct politics. And the people are worse off for it.
Locally, we have the plutocracy of tech money seeking allies with old corporate power and disreputable socialites in order to influence political factions at City Hall. The factions dominating City Hall politics are the Mayors Men (not the mayor himself but the “two baldies” — Steve Kawa and Tony Winnicker — as the late Rose Pak dismissively referred to them) and the “progressive” supervisors and their consultants (now lead by Aaron Peskin and Jane Kim with David Campos, John Avalos, and Eric Mar termed out).
Both are factions of elected officials having no enduring political organization each is potentially vulnerable to reverses of fortunes from election to election. Both practice reactive and are generally unable to marshal support for issues or programs not devised and supported by others. And it is this inability of either faction to devise policy and mobilize support that empowers community and neighborhood activists, labor and urban environmentalists — the left-liberal troika of San Francisco politics — who do have that ability in narrow areas to have significant political impact in San Francisco and give the city its progressive reputation. That’s why, with few exceptions, San Francisco politicians elected to state or national offices are rarely seen as left-liberals or particularly skilled.
The problem is that the troika is always outspent by the plutocracy and must be absolutely united among itself, and then with the progressive City Hall faction, to prevail. Without that unity, electoral defeat is almost certain.
And that’s what happened this year in key issues and races for supervisor.
It’s important for our future, and what needs to be done now, to look in some detail at what happened in these races so that we can attempt to correct these political errors — because if we are to prosper as a city, we need as never before an era of “error free politics.”
Before dwelling on our errors, however, we need to celebrate our victories because at the local level, at least, left-liberal political forces prevailed in important races and issues.
Unity Brings Victory
The victories for supervisor in D1 of Sandra Fewer, in D7 of Norman Yee and in D9 of Hillary Ronen were important and prove the point that when the community-neighborhood, progressive labor, and urban environmentalists are united — first among themselves and then with progressive elected officials — the political power is able to overcome the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised and spent by tech and corporate San Francisco. These three wins, coupled with Peskin’s easy victory in D3, gave four of the six seats to the left-liberal majority.
The heart-breakingly close defeats of Dean Preston in D5 by the slimiest margin against an incumbent (fewer than 1,800 votes to Breed) and the razor thin D11 loss of Kim Alvarenga (by fewer than 500 votes) show that even when the critically important unity was not present — in both cases progressive labor and progressive elected officials failed to unite behind each candidate — victory was almost won.
Important victories were also achieved by left-liberals in turning back the real estate brokers attack on affordable housing in Proposition P and U (P would have made affordable housing development virtually impossible for homeless San Franciscans and U would have rolled back the June vote requiring low and middle income limits on inclusionary zoning). Both measures were heavily funded and backed by real estate and developer forces. SFBARF, opposed to all “needless regulations” on market rate housing endorsed the very epitome of “needless regulation” on affordable housing in Prop. P.
Proposition C, the $270 million bond issue for small-site affordable housing acquisition and rehabilitation, was another major victory for the left-liberal alliance. Devised and advocated for by Council of Community Housing Organizations members, it was the second general obligation bond for affordable housing passed by voters in consecutive years, bringing the total to $580 million and showing San Franciscans will put their money where their mouths are in keeping this an economically inclusive city.
Also of significance were the victories for increasing the transfer tax on “mansions” (Prop. W), which Mayor Lee failed to endorse (as did BARF and its Big Tech funders), and Prop X, aimed at protecting light industrial, arts, and non-profit service uses threatened by new market rate housing development in the South of Market and the Mission.
The pro-market-rate development Housing Action Coalition and its allies at BARF and the Chamber of Commerce actively campaigned against the measure, doing mailings and cable TV ads. The 60-40 Yes vote showed how out of step these marketeers are with their neighbors, who, after all, they are eager to see gone.
The passage of Proposition N, which allows non- citizens to vote in school district elections will have a major impact in keeping public education relevant to the needs of immigrants no matter what status of their parents are, can only be seen as a defining left-liberal victory in this election which elected Trump.
Finally, Bevin Dufty’s near 2-to-1 thumping of Gwyneth Borden in the BART D9 race has to be counted as a significant victory for left-liberals as Borden is a pro market ideologue and is a board member of RISE SF, Big Tech’s front group. Dufty was endorsed by every left-liberal organization, making endorsements and must be seen as the text book example of left-liberal unity.
Ed Lees Big Mistake: Abandoning Muni
A characteristic of this election, which contributed to long vote count, was the length of the local ballot, some 25 propositions. This too, was not a record. In 1993, some 28 measures were on the local ballot, all put there by the Board of Supervisors.
In this case, the supervisors put on a total of 18 of the measures (of which 10 passed). Four others were placed on the ballot by petitions (only one passed) and the other four were placed on the ballot by other government agencies: The School Board, the Community College Board, the Ethics Commission and BART, all of which passed.
Still smarting from a dismal political re election showing in which he got fewer votes than the first-time candidate for sheriff, failed to win a majority vote in three supervisor districts (5, 8 and 9) and had his hand-picked candidate in D3 lose to his arch enemy Aaron Peskin — and seeing his allies at the DCCC defeated in the June primary — and paralyzed by both runaway housing and development pressures and a seemingly endless number of police shootings, Ed Lee and his staff showed little leadership in shaping the November ballot with programmatic initiatives.
No candidate for supervisor, either incumbent or challenger, sought his endorsement. Neither Jane Kim nor Scott Wiener presented themselves to the voters as the ally of the mayor, although both had been at various times. Indeed, both sought to politically distance themselves from Lee, Kim with two ballot measures (Props W and X) that Lee did not support and Wiener with two ballot measures (Props Q and R) that were objective attacks on Lee’s attempts to address homelessness.
The Mayors Men faction made a huge mistake in this election in concentrating the Tech Plutocracy campaign donations on four of the six charter amendments affecting the power of the mayor — and not in devising a transit funding measure able to be supported by San Franciscans and having the plutocracy fund that campaign.
That mistake was nearly equaled by the City Hall progressives’ insistence on putting four charter amendments on the ballot without either the capacity or, in turned out in some cases, the political commitment to campaign for them. Prop. D, requiring an election for vacant supervisor positions, might have won if it had been on the ballot alone. Prop. H, which would have created a public advocate, had a serious campaign backed by Campos who raised money and worked for its passage.
The other two measures, creating a commission for the Mayor’s Office of Housing and reforming the makeup of the board the runs Muni, had no coherent campaigns behind them. So the mayor’s team were able to lump all four together and defeat them (with huge amounts of tech money).
Two other measures, Props Q and R, were actually far more direct attacks on mayoral power.
With the dispersal of homeless people by the city to improve its image for the Super Bowl into neighborhoods in D6 (Jane Kim’s district) and D9, a new wave of anti-homeless sentiment was produced among potential voters. By the summer, it became clear to at least two politicians — Mark Farrell who wants to be mayor and Scott Wiener — that an anti-homeless measure would make good political sense allowing them to mobilize key constituencies and money behind key candidate races: for Farrell a set of Board allies to propel his “leadership” on the board and for Wiener an issue to hit Kim with.
With two board allies, Malia Cohen and Katy Tang, the measures went on the ballot. Prop Q, which banned already-banned sleeping on sidewalks, and Prop. R, which would remove cops from neighborhood beats and place them in a central units run from 850 Bryant to enforce “quality of life” laws.
Prop. Q was an assault on Ed Lee’s new Homeless Office and its plans for new Navigation Centers. By mandating housing for a specific portion of homeless San Franciscans not in the centers, it short-circuited the data-driven plans and put these folks at the head of an already long line.
Filling up navigation centers was guaranteed, since there was never a dime of new money for new housing.
Prop R. would have simply stripped the mayor of any role in police staffing of an entirely new unit, enshrined in the City Charter. Its commander would be answerable to no one.
But Q and R came from the mayors allies and were seen as wedge issues aimed at their (and perhaps his) political enemies: Kim for sure, and perhaps Ronen in D9 (key allies of her main opponent endorsed both Q and R). The campaigns played these measures as not being anti-Mayor and the press mainly went along with that framing.
What the Mayors Men faction did not do, with profound municipal budget impacts, was to pay consistent attention to what is emerging as the second most important structural problem of the market-oriented policy to maximize private development in San Francisco: the failure to grow a robust public transit system which meets the needs of the city.
This was similar to the mayor’s failure to recognize the necessity of a massive public investment in an affordable housing development program — remember the Lee administration only proposed a single $250 million dollar bond, although it supported the other $330 million bond proposed by advocates and passed by the voters.
The administration prefers a market-based approach to urban mobility. Enabling luxury corporate coaches and vans and the facilitation of private car-share programs and Uber seems to be an equal in priority with full funding of Muni. Without major public funding, Muni would be unable to compete and slow the alarmingly rapid expansion of the automobile and private transit as the preferred form of urban mobility by the tech gentry, leaving public transit only the poor to transport. That’s the very definition of the gentrification of urban transit.
After a small step of a $500 million bond in 2014 to meet a known $10 billion need for public transit, 2016 was to be the year that Muni was supposed to get healthy with a major infusion of local funding. But a funny thing happened on the way to that election: The mayor disappeared.
It was the Board of Supervisors, namely Avalos and Wiener and County Transit Authority, that worked out with community based transit activists in the Transit Justice Coalitions (CCHO, Human Services Network, Senior and Disability Action, SF Transit Riders, SF Rising and the SF Bicycle Coalition) and hammered out a division of the funds far more favorable to transit, bikes and pedestrians. The Board voted to place K on the ballot with little or no meaningful involvement from the Mayor’s Office.
But on what became Prop. J, the revenue part of the transit package, the Mayor’s Office showed up talking smack.
Armed with polls no one else ever saw, the mayor’s people argued against a vehicle license fee, the assumed source of the revenue to implement the policy of Prop. K, and for a steep increase in the sales tax, the most regressive of all taxes. Arguing that the polls were very good if funding services for homeless people were added, Proposition J was born. So confident were the mayor’s staff that they actually budgeted the projected revenue from the sales tax in the 2016-17 City budget.
The cynicism was so thick three supervisors — Peskin, Kim and Yee — voted no on J (and, to be consistent, they also voted no on K, spurning the hard work of their ally Avalos and the community coalition that helped write it).
After the Mayor’s Men got a sales tax revenue measure. they quietly departed, not to be seen in the subsequent campaign. One, Winnicker, actually took a leave, not to campaign for the critical Muni funding, but to head up the campaign to “hippy slap” the four politically defenseless progressive charter amendments!
Homeless service providers were left holding the bag for Prop. J, having to campaign for it with little money and no real support from the Mayor’s Men faction at City Hall. Desperate for their own funding that was in the budget but dependent on the passage of J, they ignored Q and R and concentrated on J — causing tensions and splits between homeless advocates and service providers reminiscent of the bad old days of the Newsom administration (from which both Kawa and Winnicker came).
With the community base split and over extended, it’s not surprising that Q won and J lost, blowing a $50 million hole in the 2016-17 city budget, with homeless service providers now looking at the new revenue from the soda tax and the mansion tax — earmarked for health programs and City College — to fill the gap, setting up a fight that need not to have happened if the Mayors Men actually gave a damn about the future of the city as opposed to their personal careers, which was the basis of Rose Pac’s anger at Ed Lee for handing over his administration to these Newsom retreads in the first place.
Paying the Price of Disunity: Losing D 5 and D11 and Prop. O
The surprisingly narrow passage of Prop Q was not the only price paid as a result of splits between City Hall Progressives and among the left-liberal troika. Control of the Board itself was lost with the narrow defeat of Alvarenga in D11 and Preston in D5. Labor played a role in both races, refusing to endorse in D11 and openly breaking with community and environmental allies in endorsing Breed in D5.
City Hall progressives also played a role. Peskin privately committed to Preston early and then stayed neutral when the Democratic County Committee endorsed Breed, unwilling to even make an effort for a second place endorsement for Preston to his newly elected “pro-tenant” committee members on behalf of a candidate unanimously endorsed by every tenant group in the city. Was the Labor Council and the County Committee endorsement of Breed worth a thousand-vote swing in pro-labor and heavily Democratic D5? Probably. Had Preston been elected, with Kim’s defeat, the Board would have a solid six vote left-liberal majority
Alvarenga faired a little better; her opponent was not endorsed by either the Labor Council nor the County Committee. Would either endorsement meant a 400 vote swing in D-11 giving her a victory? Probably. With her joining Preston, the Board would have a seven vote Left liberal majority making a automatic mayor veto a little less powerful and would have fundamentally changed the dynamics for the next three years at City Hall.
It is a well know secret to those dealing in development policy in urban America that “Trumpism,” the “power of the deal,” is the usual, de-facto policy. Major developers, usually allied with Democratic Mayors and building trade unions, seek and get tax breaks, land-use concessions, and cheap public land for massive private development projects. These projects off load infrastructural costs to the public sector while keeping the profits private. That’s how Trump says he operates and that is how urban America operates.
And that is how Lennar operates at the Bayview Shipyard. Willie Brown intervened and gave Lennar the deal when the Redevelopment Commission and staff were looking at other, more forthcoming developers. The public is paying to remediate the considerable toxics on the site, without which it would be worthless.
City studies indicate that transit impacts and affordable housing needs of the proposed workforce of the proposed offices far exceed what Lennar is offering to provide, leaving the city holding the bag. It is a classic Trump style “art of the deal:” public costs, H-U-G-E private profits.
The only existing limit on the deal is the 1986 annual limit on commercial office development aimed at limiting the pace of growth so that the city can make the investments in transit and housing needed to offset the demand of the new office workforce since the developer never, ever pays the full costs of such critical urban infrastructure.
Lennar wanted out from under that limitation. It approached Aaron Peskin and offered to pay for the DCCC slate card for which Aaron had no money. Aaron’s consultant was hired by Lennar to run the campaign. Lennar agreed to pay for other slate cards recommended by the consultant.
A “win- win” for everyone at City Hall. The only losers were existing tenants who would face steep rent increases as the office workforce bid up rents in the surrounding neighborhoods — and anyone seeking a ride on public transit within miles of the project (or anyone trying to drive or even ride a bike; read the EIR on the transit impacts, including bike lanes).
Tenant and environmental groups opposed the project. Unions and key “progressive” slate cards supported it. The vote was very close, just as in D5 and D11. Folks close to the project opposed it, folks far away from the project supported it because Democrats and Labor supported it.
Trumpism without Trump. Now we have Trump. What’s Next?
What is to be done? Two suggestions:
All Politics are Local So Lets Start Talking with Each Other (and forget the Democrats for Now)
The reality is in this a “one party city” and there is no Democratic Party. It simply does not exist at the local level.
Its national parliamentary leader is a locally elected San Franciscan, but Nancy Pelosi is simply invisible at the local level with no local organization, no local leadership and most importantly no local political program. She has never raised funds for the local party, never staffed it and never built new local leadership using local party building activities. She is a fundraiser for the national party and could still be in Baltimore for all that she has to do with San Francisco.
The County Committee, even with a “reform” majority, is ignored by most Democratic elected officials and thereby is unconnected to either national or state funding and is simply an endorsement-card hustle forced to use deep-pocket local ballot measure campaigns to pay for its mailings.
The three key building blocks of left liberal politics in San Francisco are:
Community and neighborhood advocates centered on affordable housing and lan- use issues aimed at neighborhood preservation and anti-displacement policies;
Urban environmentalists organized around local policies aimed at addressing climate change: sustainable energy production, sustainable transportation systems and sustainable development policy;
Progressive trade unions including both private and public sector unions concerned with not only workplace issues of pay and conditions but also affordable housing, immigration, and health and child care.
In San Francisco (and the Bay Area) none of these entities can ignore issues of race and gender both in the formulation of public policy and internal leadership, nor do they. Like all Americans of this date and time, these organizations at times fail to fully resolve these issues internally or in policy, but one would have to be deaf and blind not to see that struggle taking place in each and a determination to continue that struggle until they are fully resolved.
The current Democratic Party is neither open to nor friendly with any of these sectors. Indeed, its concern with maximum fund raising often has it seeking the support of interests directly opposed to these constituencies. This is the case both nationally and locally.
This is not to say that the Democratic Party does not contain the most progressive, the most liberal, the “left most” elected officials in government and that these office holders deserve support. It does say that as Democrats they can’t deliver their party and should be seen as individuals.
We need then to seek venues — places and times — and issues that bring these three key elements together. I think Trump will provide the issues. We need to provide the places and times.
Note should be taken of the success, statewide, of the Bernie Sanders campaign successor organization “Our Revolution.” It endorsed ten candidates for local office state wide, two in San Francisco (Jane Kim and Dean Preston). Six of them won, including the mayors of Berkeley and Stockton and a City Council member in Richmond. Three others won in Southern California, including a new Congresswoman. They were nominated based upon recommendations from local organizations and supported by the state and national Our Revolution organization, unlike the top down style of the rest of the Democratic Party
From the Bottom Up : Crafting a Program of “Inclusive Localism” (Then Talk to the Democrats)
A major lesson from the 2016 election is that people do “act local” and are willing to channel their growing despair over national political gridlock (and state indifference) into meaningful local action by passing local laws to protect them from market forces that displace them and electing local officials that are willing to advocate for their needs not corporate donors demands.
Voters in Bay Area counties voted to tax themselves – more than a billion dollars in local bond and sales taxes — to build more affordable housing, an unheard of response showing real openness to sustaining economic diversity. Berkeley, Oakland, East Palo Alto, Mountain View, Richmond and the City of Alameda passed rent control or strengthened existing proposals showing wide scale voter support for market controls applied at the local level. San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa voters passed a $3.5 billion BART bond by a combined majority of 70% showing a commitment to transit mobility for the region. Again, a vote showing a willingness to pay for social inclusiveness if it is targeted to meet local needs.
In short, there are signs this November that across the Bay Area, people are willing to accept an increased tax burden, new housing and new neighbors if they meet local needs and controls market conditions, especially rents, that threaten them.
This “Inclusive Localism” is an authentic grassroot movement in direct distinction to the tech financed “astro turf” movement of SFBARF and its latest iteration “RISE SF” incorporating old line pro-corporate players such as the bay Area Council, the Chamber of Commerce and the Golden Gate Restaurant Association with new tech players and BARF. This new “Yes In My Back Yard” (YIMBY) front posez as legitimate voices for “inclusion” in local land use and planning policy when in fact they are advocates for high income market rate housing and commercial development that displace communities and small businesses seeking legitimate “inclusionary” housing and land use policies that offer protection from un-regulated market forces.
The defeat of the YIMBY /RISESF slate of candidates for supervisor across a diverse set of neighborhoods in D1, D7 and D9 shows the broad rejection of its phony “inclusiveness” line masking policies of “economic cleansing” of neighborhoods and small businesses across the city. Voters saw through it and sought true inclusiveness in supporting the policies of Fewer, Yee and Ronen.
As assaults on trade unions, climate change policies, immigrants and health care tumble down from the national level and on local control over housing and land-use policy from the state the stage will be set for the formation of a powerful coalition of community and neighborhood activists, progressive trade unions and urban environmentalists. Taking local needs as the basis for their unity, new joint efforts can be crafted first at the local and then at the regional level. And if we are to effect state and then possibly national policy we must learn to take the regional step.
It will not be enough simply to say no but to use the attacks to craft a positive set of comprehensive proposals aimed at transforming the real life conditions facing real people in real communities and neighborhoods.