The Real SF v. LA Battle

by on September 12, 2016


When people talk about the competition between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it’s Giants v. Dodgers or 49ers v. Rams. But there is a far more important rivalry, and Los Angeles appears to have a major edge: the competition for power in Sacramento.

For decades, San Francisco had outsized control of the state legislature.  Assembly Speakers Leo McCarthy and Willie Brown enabled San Francisco to effectively run the legislature from 1974-1995. After they were gone, State Senate leader John Burton kept San Francisco’s power in place.

But now the Assembly is led by Anthony Rendon and the Senate by Kevin de Leon, both from Los Angeles County.

24 members of the 80-member Assembly represent Los Angeles County. Two Assembly members (David Chiu and Phil Ting) represent San Francisco.

Los Angeles long suffered from political disorganization at the state level. But those days are gone. Rising Latino and labor power in the city has put Los Angeles’ interests in the drivers seat.

Here’s a great example of what this means.

$2 Billion Homeless Bond

At a January 4, 2016 press conference on Skid Row in Los Angeles, California State Senate leader Kevin de Leon unveiled bipartisan plans for a $2 billion state homeless bond. As I wrote then (“$2 Billion Homeless Bond: Great for LA, Not SF,” January 7, 2016), the formula used to distribute the funds (roughly $200 million a year) is a per capita allocation that benefits large counties like Los Angeles. The formula fails to reward counties like San Francisco that have stepped forward with local funds in the absence of state and federal support.

The media event unveiling the homeless proposal involved Los Angeles officials. Neither Mayor Lee nor any San Francisco representatives appeared despite the event promoting statewide legislation.

The leveraging of Prop 63 mental health bond funds to add more money to address homelessness is a great idea. And San Francisco will get some benefits. But funding formulas that reward counties who have not done little or nothing is not a good way to incentive local contributions. It is far better for funding formulas to include a matching component, which rewards cities like San Francisco and Berkeley that spend local dollars to do their share.

Money v. Votes

In the past, San Francisco made up for its smaller population through its politicians cultivating big donors whose funding could be reallocated across the state. Willie Brown was a master at this.

But those days are gone. Now special interest groups directly fund state legislators from Los Angeles and the Central Valley, bypassing Bay Area representatives.

This new funding dynamic explains the defeat of Ellis Act reform in both 2014 and 2015. Even though the measure would only have impacted San Francisco, Southern California Democrats—some with 100% pro-labor voting records—- were directly funded by real estate interests and killed the bills. With Democratic legislators no longer dependent on getting money from San Francisco politicians, they defeated Ellis reform and even chid the city for having such state-caused eviction problems in the first place.

It’s now clear that Ellis Act reform requires Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti making its passage as much of a priority as San Francisco’s Mayor Lee has.

On labor and many other social and economic issues, the power of the Los Angeles legislative delegation is a tremendous progressive asset. And in the big picture its a welcome change. Until Latino voting moved Los Angeles politics to the left, Bay Area activists used to constantly bemoan how Southern California Democrats killed progressive legislation.

But on housing funding and tenants’ rights, San Francisco’s need for state help is being undermined and/or ignored by Los Angeles’ competing priorities.

Unfortunately, the prospects for enhancing San Francisco’s state power in the near future are not good. Jerry Brown is a Bay Area guy who while Oakland mayor and Attorney General regularly went down to LA to raise campaign money; he saw before most others that Sacramento’s power has shifted south.

The San Jose Mercury news had an Sept 10 article arguing that the Bay Area dominates state politics. But it based its conclusions on the home base of winning U.S. Senate candidates (Boxer, Feinstein and soon Harris) and on other individual politicians; this has no impact on Los Angeles’ growing hold on state government.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses the Brown family’s Tenderloin legacy 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'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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Filed under: Bay Area / California