At Ted Gullicksen’s November 18 memorial, former Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez offered the crowd an astute assessment of San Francisco politics. Refuting claims that progressives are on the decline, Gonzalez observed that the progressive agenda was adopted often in total by those identified as moderates.
As he so often did during his too brief stint in politics, Gonzalez got the point exactly right. Since the late 1970’s San Francisco policies have moved steadily to the left despite the “moderate” identification of mayors or Supervisors.
In 2014, San Francisco adopted the nation’s highest minimum wage. It allocated over $2 million for legal defense for undocumented Central American immigrants, increased eviction defense funding by over $1million, and granted new protections for chain store workers.
The city continued to move forward on the nation’s most ambitious plan to save public housing, a strategy that keeps thousands of low-income families in San Francisco. This is while most cities across the U.S. are trying to eliminate such housing.
San Francisco passed landmark tenant protection laws regulating tenant buyouts and raising Ellis relocation payments. And that’s after voters passed a $1.3 billion affordable housing trust fund. Legislation will soon be introduced that dramatically increases new inclusionary housing units.
San Francisco adopted its own universal health care program, Healthy SF, years before Obamacare. Initially conceived by then-Supervisor Tom Ammiano, it was among many progressive ideas adopted by moderates, in this case Mayor Gavin Newsom.
We have one of the nation’s strongest wage theft enforcement authorities, and San Francisco was the first city to mandate paid sick leave.
Bicycle lanes used to be a radical idea in San Francisco. In the 1980’s I used to (foolishly in retrospect) ride my bike to work down Valencia Street and when I would ask why the city didn’t make bike lanes on that very flat thoroughfare I was told that politically it would never happen.
Today, thanks to the SF Bike Coalition, bike lane expansion is everywhere and there is broad political support for even transforming Market Street into a bicycle thoroughfare. San Francisco voters backed transit big-time in the recent election, while sending pro-car Prop L to a big defeat.
Isn’t SF More Pro-Development?
But isn’t the city more pro-development? The defeat of 8 Washington says otherwise. The pace of San Francisco development has always been a function of the number of proposed projects; even the allegedly slow-growth Agnos Planning Commission approved all development projects that came before it, including the controversial Underwater World on Pier 39.
If developers believed San Francisco was becoming more conservative they would have gone to the ballot this past November with a repeal of the 1986 growth-restriction measure, Prop M. After all, the San Francisco Business Times was in a frenzy about Prop M’s growth limitations kicking in this year. Yet downtown interests are still not pushing for a voter-backed repeal.
The Warriors sought to avoid voter disapproval of their waterfront arena plans by relocating to a site that had broad political support. They certainly didn’t feel the city had become ardently pro-development.
What a Real Conservative Shift Looks Like
In San Francisco, a conservative victory is stopping a progressive policy. Or, more typically, watering it down.
A real conservative shift is what we see nationally, when Republicans roll back environmental or worker safety regulations, cut spending on domestic programs, or restrict abortion rights. We don’t see locally initiated policy rollbacks in San Francisco’s hard won progressive reforms.
The chief political debate in San Francisco is over the pace and scope of progressive reform, not whether to return to conservative policies. So the city debates how much to increase the minimum wage, not whether to do so. Or argues over what percentage of a market rate housing project should be affordable, not, as in most cities, whether developers’ have such an obligation.
“Progressive” San Francisco
I was struck this fall by the progressive outpouring of support for Senator Dianne Feinstein’s criticism of the Airbnb legislation. Her October 20, 2014 op-ed, “Don’t Hand San Francisco Over to Airbnb,” echoed claims many of us had made to supervisors, to no avail.
Dianne Feinstein is no progressive. Yet in San Francisco politics, opposition to land use changes often crosses political lines. That’s why nearly all Supervisors back restrictions on chain stores, and why conservative Westside homeowners are as passionately opposed to 365-day tourist rentals of residential housing as are progressive tenant activists.
That’s why the labels “progressive” and “moderate” seem to confuse more than illuminate current San Francisco politics. Even those wrongly claiming a progressive decline must concede that San Francisco’s policies are more directed toward social and economic fairness than in any other major city in the United States.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He analyzes San Francisco politics in The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st CenturySan Francisco News