Some Thoughts on District Elections and the New Progressive Majority

Urbanist Article January 1, 2001

In the city’s first round of district elections since 1979, San Francisco voters elected what one victor boasted was a “progressive super-majority” to the Board of Supervisors and decisively thumped Mayor Willie Brown’s anointed candidates in one district after another, wrecking his vaunted machine. As establishment leaders lament their defeat and business elites despair, there is joy among progressives in our left coast city this holiday season—a joy I share to some degree. As advocates of district elections had promised, not even an avalanche of soft money could save targeted incumbents from the wrath of long-neglected neighborhood communities. The winners who will replace them on January 8 all strike me as smart, talented, and public-spirited—not the small-minded “crazies” Mayor Brown worried about in his last state of the city address. The victory was great and sweeping, and the city’s left has earned the right to celebrate. At the risk of playing the Grinch, however, I’d like to offer a few sobering thoughts about the problems that lie ahead and about the uncertain future of district elections.

First, a winning electoral coalition does not easily convert into an effective governing coalition. Those on the left who supported George Moscone in 1975 learned that the hard way, as did those who backed Art Agnos for mayor in 1987. Winning an election and governing a city are two different things, especially in a city as complex, diverse and dynamic as San Francisco. There is heady talk that the December 12 run-off vote expressed an overwhelming mandate for aggressive reform and social change. But I see no such mandate in the results beyond a stunning rejection of Mayor Brown’s pro-growth policies, of his coterie of city hall allies and downtown business backers, and of his imperious leadership style. The message, a familiar one in this city, was “stop” and “no” rather than “yes” and “go.” To the extent there was positive support shown for initiatives such as public power, comprehensive health insurance, stricter caps on growth, tougher rent controls and the like, it rests on an average of 7,900 votes cast for winning candidates in the nine run-off districts and on a measly 30% turnout. (Winning a seat on the board required an average of 95,000 votes in the November 1998 citywide election.) To claim a mandate for an ambitious progressive agenda, the victors will have to earn it by articulating exactly what it is, agreeing on it among themselves, and then working hard to sell it to a public considerably broader than the oversized blockparties that elected them to office.

Second, there are structural and institutional obstacles the progressives must overcome to build an effective governing coalition. Apart from the inevitable clashes of egos and personalities, there are latent conflicts within the progressive coalition that have caused it to self-destruct in the past and may do so again—especially around issues of land use and development, neighborhood preservation, cultural issues, and affordable housing. Many business leaders, cast once again in the role of villains and destroyers of communities, won’t stick around for long when they see a red-green flag raised over city hall. Some of them won’t be missed—especially those who believe that profits alone should rule, that trickle-down actually works, and that the law of supply and demand should not be bent for public good but only obeyed. To them: good riddance. But the others are needed and must be persuaded to make a vibrant local economy better serve progressive goals. The threat of more red and green tape and of wholesale expropriation will send them packing, too, leaving a void that the mom and pops alone can’t fill. And finally there is Willie Brown, chastened but still formidable, who was re-elected citywide, governs the bureaucracy, knows better than anyone that interest rather than ideology is the real glue that holds coalitions together, and has a lease on the mayor’s office that doesn’t run out until 2003. Willie needs new friends, not new enemies, and those on the left who don’t see that will miss a great opportunity to advance their progressive agenda.

Creating the capacity to govern, and to govern well, under these conditions will be difficult, take time, involve compromise, and require a new kind of pragmatic political leadership informed by the progressive agenda but not controlled by it. In 1980, following tragedy, the voters repealed district elections before the system could lock in and be given a fair try. They could do so again if all they get this round is gridlock, acrimony, and a mess of ideological pottage. The current district boundary lines will have to be redrawn soon, and disappointed leaders and citizens might pause before approving that step to consider other options, such as choice voting and the old at-large. We will all see after January 8 whether the new board majority has the right stuff— and the right amount of left stuff—to move the city further in a progressive direction without tearing down the foundations.SPUR logo


About the Authors: Rich DeLeon, Ph.D. is chair of the Department of Political Science at San Francisco State University. He is the author of Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco.

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