Are SF Politics More Divisive?

by on October 31, 2016

Kim v. Wiener race has biggest divisions, highest stakes,

Election Day’s approach has increased testiness and anger in San Francisco’s political scene. The Kim-Wiener race went negative after Kim’s surprising  first place June finish, and the tone has only gotten worse.   Negative campaigning is in all of the contested supervisor races, with most  coming from independent expenditure campaigns and through social media.

Does this combative tone mean San Francisco is more politically divided than ever before? I don’t think so. In fact, a case can be made that San Francisco is much less politically divided than in the past, and that the smoke and fire among rival supervisor candidates— particularly in D9 and D11— masks small policy differences.

The Kim-Wiener race may well be the only contest in which two starkly different political approaches are at stake.

Let’s start by reviewing San Francisco’s much more divisive political past.

The Feinstein Years

Dianne Feinstein’s mayoral tenure (1979-1987) was dominated by conflict over rent control laws and downtown development. The stakes were far higher for San Francisco’s future than they are today.

David Talbot’s bestselling book Season of the Witch cast a rosy nostalgic light on Feinstein, of whom he said “in any other city in America, Dianne Feinstein would have been considered a raving liberal.” I seem to have been the only reviewer in the country who noted that Talbot ignored that “on key progressive issues of the time, the ones that truly define what most see as “San Francisco values” – homeless policies, tenant protections, and development – Feinstein was on the wrong side.”

So if you weren’t in San Francisco during the 1980’s, you might not realize how sharply divided the city was.

Downtown v. Neighborhoods

San Francisco’s  “Downtown v. Neighborhoods” split dominated the 1987 and 1991 mayoral elections. The pro-neighborhood, pro-tenant Art Agnos won in 1987, and then Frank Jordan ran as the “pro-neighborhood” candidate in 1991 and upset Agnos. San Francisco politics from 1988-1995  was far more bitterly divided than today.

The Willie Brown Years

Due to the messaging magic of Willie Brown’s campaign manager Jack Davis—and the genius of the candidate– Brown ran in 1995 as both the candidate of downtown and the person who could best serve the neighborhoods. It worked.

But when the dot com boom began in 1996 and sparked Ellis evictions and tenant displacement, activists blamed Brown. This led to the 1999 mayoral runoff between Brown and Tom Ammiano, which was as much a “Tale of Two Different City Visions” as we’ve seen in San Francisco.


The divisions seen in the Brown-Ammiano race intensified four years later in the 2003 Newsom-Gonzalez mayor’s race.  This was likely the most exciting mayoral election in San Francisco. We had two charismatic candidates with large field campaigns and a support base that saw the election of the rival as a catastrophe for San Francisco.

There was a world of difference between Democrat Gavin Newsom and Green Party leader Matt Gonzalez, and a far greater ideological gap than between Ed Lee and Aaron Peskin.

The Ed Lee Years

Like Dianne Feinstein and Willie Brown, Ed Lee handily won two mayoral elections. The 2012 tech boom revived the dot com era’s fears of tenant displacement, intensifying concerns over the staying power of San Francisco’s middle-class.

For all of the progressive anger at Lee over his support for tech, Jane Kim and Eric Mar both backed the Mid-Market/Tenderloin net new jobs payroll tax exemption. And all of the Board’s progressives voted to waive stock options from payroll taxes, which accounts for most of the money critics claim the city lost from the so-called “Twitter” tax deal.

Nor is there as much division over development as the campaign rhetoric would have you believe. Kim and Aaron Peskin have backed most market rate housing projects, and both support Prop O, which waives the city’s 1986 limits on office development.

Some see Airbnb as a key dividing point, but the company lost its last big vote on the Board of Supervisors, and the new limits were not vetoed by Mayor Lee. And while her critics question her timing, “moderate” London Breed has joined Campos and Peskin in recently sponsoring very restrictive limits on short-term rentals.

The fight between “progressives” and “moderates” over housing policy really comes down to a difference in inclusionary housing rates and density bonuses. These are hardly game changers in the grand scheme of San Francisco’s housing crisis.

For all the fury, passion and apocalyptic rhetoric, there is no single issue like rent control on vacant apartments that clearly divides the electorate. In fact,  most voters could not identify a single piece of legislation that separates the candidates in these supervisor races.

The Jane Kim-Scott Wiener race does involve dramatic differences on such key state issues as Ellis Act reform. I wrote when Kim announced her candidacy on October 14, 2015 that “while some see the Peskin- Christensen race in D3 as a fight for the city’s “soul,” that election covers only a single district. In contrast, Kim-Wiener is a citywide race whose outcome will shape San Francisco politics for years to come.”

It’s the State Senate race (which includes part of San Mateo County) where San Francisco’s divisions are strongest, and where the city’s political future will be decided.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.


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's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior 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. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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