Who Really Runs San Francisco?

by on February 6, 2018

It’s Not a Handful of Rich White Men

In Matier & Ross’s  column  highlighting Mark Farrell’s financial connections to Ron Conway, Supervisor Hillary Ronen admitted to “hypocrisy” in backing Farrell but said the city needs someone   “independent — not only from Ron Conway, but from people who have had undue influence over the policy direction of the city for the last two or three mayoral administrations.”

Who are those people? According to Ronen’s January 24 SF Chronicle opinion piece  they are  “the same handful of tech moguls and real estate billionaires.”

Is Ronen correct? Has the most progressive big city in the United States actually been run since the 1990’s by a small group of rich white men? An elite cadre whose values conflict with those of San Francisco voters?

Those are serious charges.

And they are false. Here’s why.

How Ed Lee Became Mayor

Let’s recall how City Administrator Ed Lee became Acting Mayor.

Five people collected the Supervisor votes for Lee: Rose Pak, Gordon Chin, David Ho, Malcolm Yeung and Willie Brown.

None were white men.

None were “tech moguls or real estate billionaires.”

I’ve recently described Willie Brown’s enormous influence over San Francisco politics for over forty years. Brown is an African-American male who has never been a tool of “rich white men.” Only one white man has had major influence over Brown’s career: Phil Burton. Burton did more for progressive interests than any politician of his generation, and he never became rich.

Rose Pak likely had the biggest role in getting Ed Lee into Room 200. A Chinese-American woman, Pak played leading roles in electing Mayors Agnos, Brown and Lee.

I know from talking to Pak that she had as much scorn as Ronen does for “rich white men” and “tech moguls.”  Probably even more. But Rose delighted in outfoxing those folks. Her political base was not dependent on, and had nothing to do with, tech moguls or rich white men.

Pak’s role in San Francisco politics is curiously absent from Ronen’s account.

Gavin Newsom: A Rich White Man

The only rich white man backed by his fellow rich white men who became mayor of San Francisco was Gavin Newsom. And it was  striking about Newsom’s rise how the media ignored his economic relationships with the Getty family, among the wealthiest in San Francisco.

Reporters justified this lack of coverage on the basis that they did not see Gordon Getty as seeking favors from City Hall. Newsom’s backers, which ultimately included Bill Clinton, Al Gore and the entire Democratic Party in his runoff against Matt Gonzalez, represented a far whiter and wealthier electoral coalition than brought Ed Lee and Willie Brown to the mayor’s office (Newsom’s primary mayoral legacy, the implementation of Care Not Cash, benefited homeless single adults, a far different constituency than that which elected him).

Willie Brown’s Progressive Base

In 1995, Willie Brown was backed in that campaign by longtime progressive supervisor Sue Bierman, housing activists like Calvin Welch and by myself and most tenant activists.

In his 1999 campaign against Tom Ammiano, Brown retained the support of Welch and Bierman. He also had the support of every major labor union, including SEIU 790 (now part of SEIU 1021) and the city’s most progressive union, UNITE HERE Local 2.

Under Ronen’s analysis, unions and activists backing Brown’s re-election were actually controlled by “rich white men.” That, of course, is nonsense.  Brown’s support from multiracial activists, unions and working people overall reflected their recognition that his election was their best strategy for boosting their own political and economic power.

Brown won in a landslide in 1999. He won not because that outcome was dictated by elites but rather because he delivered for a broad swath of San Francisco. Brown twice assembled the broad and diverse coalition that, like the Agnos campaign in 1987, is a model for a winning mayoral campaign.

2018: Three Outsiders

London Breed, Jane Kim and Mark Leno all get donations from “rich white men,” “real estate billionaires” and “tech moguls.” But all three built their political careers by challenging the establishment.

If London Breed were controlled by the same core political supporters as Ed Lee, why did she run against Lee’s appointed supervisor in 2012? Breed won office by running against the mayor’s candidate.

When Jane Kim ran for D6 supervisor in 2010 the San Francisco Democratic Party—-headed by Aaron Peskin—spent $200,000 to defeat her. The SF Bay Guardian regularly attacked Kim as a “moderate.”  Kim’s supporters in that 2010 race included Rose Pak and Willie Brown, both of whom backed the progressive Kim when prominent white progressives did not.

Mark Leno was appointed to the Board of Supervisors by Willie Brown and was part of its “moderate” faction through the 2000 election. He ran as the moderate for Assembly against progressive favorite Harry Britt in 2002.

But Leno defied the establishment when he challenged Carole Migden for her State Senate seat in 2008. Willie Brown and other powerful figures have never forgiven him for violating longtime protocols about not challenging incumbents (Leno got his start raising money for Migden so there was also a feeling he had been personally disloyal).  Leno’s willingness to challenge the establishment brought San Francisco  a much more effective State Senator.

The People Have Power

Landlords, developers, real estate interests and tech leaders all contribute money to San Francisco political campaigns. And this translates into influence at City Hall.

But many progressives ascribe far too much electoral power to these donations.

Ed Lee won two elections handily. He won not because he was backed by “tech moguls” but because Chinese-American voters and most others in the city backed the mayor’s housing and economic development policies.

I understand why progressives like Ronen prefer not to believe that San Francisco voters legitimately supported Lee’s housing and economic policies. It’s more comforting to argue that a backroom group of “rich white men” run the city.

But Lee, like Mayor Brown, won two elections handily because he had broad support. Neither could achieved such electoral success by primarily catering to “rich white men”  and the 1%.

San Francisco has the nation’s strongest tenant and worker protections. That doesn’t happen in a city run by billionaire landlords and the wealthy elite.

As excitement grows over San Francisco’s 2018 mayor’s race, it does not boost grassroots activism for progressives to claim the game is rigged.  The winner will be the candidate whose vision for the city best aligns with the electorate, not one chosen in a backroom by a handful of “rich white men.”

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses San Francisco’s mayors in The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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