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The Gangs of City Hall

After a few years of relative quiet, San Francisco’s progressives and moderates are at war again. May the sharpest elbows win.

Battling it out, from left to right: Supervisor Mark Farrell; Supervisor London Breed; Tech financier Ron Conway; Former congressman John Burton; Supervisor and state senate aspirant Jane Kim; U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein (on screen of phone); Mayor Ed Lee; Former mayor Willie Brown; Supervisor Aaron Peskin; Supervisor and state senate candidate Scott Wiener; Chinatown power broker Rose Pak


Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about politics that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the October 2016 Democracy Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

1. The gatekeepers to the gatekeepers

Ed Lee, whose workday is booked by his staff in precise, 10-minute increments, was a few increments late for his own breakfast meeting. And well before the coffee cooled inside the conference room at the Hotel Whitcomb, some attendees at the March gathering of major city developers were convinced that the mayor’s tardiness was no accident.

In Lee’s absence, mayoral chief of staff Steve Kawa assumed his place at the head of the table, surrounded on both sides by some of the city’s biggest land barons. Kawa, a City Hall fixture since he was installed as a top lieutenant by Mayor Willie Brown two decades ago, controls many of the autonomic functions of the Mayor’s Office. He negotiates the city’s labor contracts. He oversees both “government people” and “political people,” having long ago “neutered the political staff,” according to one insider. He is unironically referred to as Mayor Kawa by longtime City Hall dwellers, and, in contrast to the affability of our actual elected mayor, he is renowned for his bellicosity. “Steve’s job is to scold us,” said one of the developers present at the breakfast. “It’s normal. It’s part of the dance.” 

Kawa’s beef on this particular day: Some of the developers in the room had sidestepped the Mayor’s Office, instead looking to do business with number-one pain in the mayoral ass Aaron Peskin. The shrewd North Beach supervisor and his colleague and state senate candidate Jane Kim were putting together a plan to double the city’s affordable housing requirements, and the city’s savvy builders were trying to get ahead of the game and exempt their forthcoming projects. “I know you’re all off making deals with Peskin,” attendees recall Kawa growling, quietly but with evident anger. “This has got to stop. You are undermining the mayor.”

Faced with the wrath of Kawa, the tableful of movers and shakers was neither moved nor shaken. One builder turned to the mayor’s whip and noted that his first allegiance was to his projects’ investors. “I have a fiduciary obligation to get them the best possible deal, independent of my political views,” he purportedly said to Kawa. “So don’t tell me how to be a fiduciary.” In short: Back off. When Lee eventually ambled in, half an hour late, Kawa shifted his seat so that he and the mayor could both sit at the head of the table. While the ensuing conversation was less dramatic, the developers reiterated that it was their job to develop things—not neutralize Peskin and Kim on behalf of the mayor.

In the weeks that followed, the Mayor’s Office took a strong role in shaping the affordable housing ballot measure that ultimately passed in June. But Lee’s gang had clearly been outflanked by Peskin and Kim, and the cold shoulder offered by the blue-chip developers on that day in March was a sign of political turmoil to come. Ever since Peskin returned to the Board of Supervisors late last year after being goaded back into public life by Lee’s appointment of Julie Christensen to the vacant post of District 3 supervisor, the conflict between the political gangs of San Francisco has gone to the mattresses. “We heard what Kawa was saying,” recalls one of the breakfast’s attendees. “But we couldn’t accept that. We had to accept what Aaron was dealing, because he had all the cards.”

With San Franciscans preparing to weigh in on some two dozen ballot measures, potentially remake the Board of Supervisors, promote favored politicos to Sacramento, and set the tone for the next three years of jockeying to succeed Mayor Lee, the city’s deck could be reshuffled again this November. But voters aren’t just being asked to check a few (or many) boxes. Knowingly or not, the body politic will be conscripted into deciding a political war.

For the purposes of clarity—and sanity—the political combatants here are often described, and self-described, as “progressives” and “moderates.” But these designations were not carried down on tablets from Mount Sinai. Who is with whom—and why—is neither binary nor static. The gangs of San Francisco less resemble the Jets and Sharks of West Side Story than they do the crazy quilt of bat- and machete-packing posses in The Warriors. Each group is driven by disparate motivations, and each is united by mutual enmity as much as mutual cause. Back the successful candidate who’s simpatico with your goals, and not only do you gain a friend in high places: You also win his or her ear. Unions, developers, lobbyists, activists, captains of industry, and myriad other establishment interests are supporting the representatives most amenable to them in order to become the gatekeepers to those gatekeepers.

And what does all of this behind-the-scenes jockeying mean in real terms for real candidates, real companies, real citizens? It means knowing whether a supervisor is more likely to answer a phone call from Airbnb or from the hotel workers’ union. It means the ability to reward or stiff politically aligned nonprofits. It means holding wedge-issue debates over whether to, say, crack down on tent encampments or tax wealthy tech firms. It means knowing whether a majority of the board is sympathetic to developers’ lamentations about rising affordability requirements, or convinced that they’re shedding crocodile tears. In short, it means a lot, and this election is shaping up to be more epochal than most.

But if contemplating all of the above leaves you feeling exhausted, take heart: You’re not alone. A responsible voter might read the fine print on four or five ballot measures. But 25? Forget it. The more there is to vote on, the less we can be counted on to understand what we’re voting on. Which is a big reason why the gangs and Manichean labels of “progressive” and “moderate” exist in the first place. “Part of the appeal of these teams, or gangs,” says a longtime city official, “is that you don’t really have to think. It’s not easy to vote against your friends or reexamine your positions. Thinking is hard.” Or, to amend the president’s directive: Don’t think. Vote.

2. It’s complicated

Not far from where former congressman John Burton enjoys his morning coffee, the American Can Company used to fill the air around 3rd and 20th Streets with a 24-hour machine-shop staccato—the sound, says Burton, of blue-collar jobs. That backbeat hasn’t been heard here for quite some time. Blue-collar employers, blue-collar workers, and a blue-collar voting bloc now exist only in sepia-tone photos and flickering memories. “I worked at United Parcel and made a buck-oh-nine an hour, and it was a union job,” Burton says. “People could support a family on that. A goddamn bartender could own a house out in the goddamn Excelsior.” He takes a sip of coffee. “Things change. I don’t have to like it.”

For Burton, a mounting displeasure with San Francisco’s trajectory coincided with a unique opportunity: the June election to stock the Democratic County Central Committee, the center cog of the only party in town, with new members. Burton was one of a troop of aging left-leaning politicos who were elected to the DCCC, part of a progressive coup that wrested the body out of the hands of moderates like former chair Mary Jung, a government liaison for PG&E and a lobbyist for the city’s Association of Realtors. (Another bitter pill for Mayor Lee: Jung was forced to cede the gavel to Cindy Wu, the young Rose Pak protégé whom Lee bypassed for that District 3 seat in favor of Christensen, who lost her ensuing election to—that guy—Aaron Peskin.) Whether voters in June truly opted for the left-leaning DCCC candidates or simply picked people with names they knew—Burton, Peskin, Tom Ammiano—is hard to say. Regardless, elections have consequences, a truism that became apparent at the first meeting of the newly installed DCCC in August when progressive politicians or measures won nearly every endorsement for November’s election. (DCCC backing is perhaps most crucial at times when the ballot is longer than an Icelandic saga, leaving voters desperate for a Cliffs Notes cheat sheet like the party slate card.)

San Francisco politics, it should be noted, have always been complicated. But not complicated in the manner they are now. Sixty years ago, when Burton was himself a political comer, you were either for building freeways or against it. Fifty years ago, you were either for redevelopment of the Fillmore or against it. To those who lived through those times, today’s issues seem more complex and intractable and our conflicts more petty. The literal wrecking crews of redevelopment have given way to the invisible hand of the free market. And the market has displaced far more souls than the bulldozers ever did.

Despite the scope of our plight—average apartment rents leaping from $1,700 to $3,600 in the past 10 years; median home prices rocketing from $665,000 to more than $1.1 million in the last 4 years; a population that grew by 60,000 souls between 2010 and 2015—San Franciscans are not being offered solutions to their city’s existential problems. “We are fighting on the trimmings,” says former board president Matt Gonzalez, “rather than on the deeper things.”

And the reason for this is that the deeper things, like thinking, are hard. The most pressing issues in today’s San Francisco—the issues politicians of all stripes bandy about to entice us to the polls—are homelessness, affordability, housing, development, and transit. But these are regional, if not state and federal, issues. San Francisco cannot on its own solve the Bay Area’s affordability or transit problems—not when, to give just one example, San Mateo County has added some 54,000 jobs since 2010, but only 2,148 new homes. And the city cannot solve America’s homeless problem. This year’s most audacious anti-homeless measure, Supervisor Mark Farrell’s Proposition Q, would allow the dismantling of homeless encampments when residents could be offered housing. But this housing doesn’t exist. There’s no money for it.

The shortcomings of San Francisco’s political actors are not a strictly partisan matter; nobody on either side of the aisle has managed to solve the city’s existential problems. The mantra of Gonzalez’s ’03 mayoral campaign was “Our ideas are better.” And considering how many progressive ideas were subsequently appropriated by moderate mayor Gavin Newsom, that slogan offers a credible thesis. But it also presupposes that “ideas” are the overriding determinant of whom we vote for. In San Francisco, that ain’t necessarily so: In tenant-heavy areas, “all that matters is, who do you trust to ensure your landlord is not fucking with you?” notes a longtime campaign operative. 

There’s a reason some supervisors bemoan this city’s spate of evictions while others choose to highlight the plight of hypothetical landlords saddled with hypothetical rent-controlled tenants paying a dollar and a quarter a month. If voters are more moved by the former than the latter, then it’s likely an endorsement from the San Francisco Tenants Union will mean more to them than the official Democratic Party imprimatur. As such, in June’s state senate primary, Kim overperformed in renter-heavy districts; opponent Scott Wiener overperformed in home-owning districts. The Tenants Union is endorsing Kim; the state Democratic Party—and, by rule, the local DCCC—is backing Wiener. 

“Our ideas are better” also sidesteps the specter of identity politics. Race-based voting was a long-standing San Francisco tradition well before the days when the Burton Machine (“New Irish”) supplanted the Malone Operation (“Old Irish”). But now xenophobia has, by and large, given way to the ascension of groups formerly targeted by xenophobia. “In my day, we had no Chinese in elected office. None. Zero,” says Art Agnos, mayor from 1988 to ’92. “Look at today, 24 years later: We’ve got a mayor, an assessor, two assemblymen. On the Board of Supervisors, the whole western side of the city has Chinese representation. The next generation of Chinese voters are looking for a hell of a lot more from their elected representatives than a speech at a Chinese New Year’s banquet.”

And nobody has benefited more from this new reality than the mayor himself. Despite his plummeting popularity and the incessant low-level chatter of a recall, Lee, San Francisco’s first Chinese American mayor, maintains a baseline of support because his winning electoral map “generally ties to race and home ownership,” says a City Hall staffer. “It doesn’t tie to his ideology on positions. He does extraordinarily well with Asian Americans of all ideological viewpoints.”

And just as Asians are wont to back a man whose ideas may or may not be “better,” so too do many San Franciscans’ political preferences depend less on ideology than on geography and tribe. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of housing. While moderate supervisors bemoan the city’s reactionary and onerous attitudes toward development, the city’s most moderate-leaning districts have also been the least amenable to actual development. SoMa, which tenuously sways to the progressive side, is now a realm of shimmering skyscrapers, with 1,525 additional housing units popping up there in 2015 alone. Meanwhile, the moderate-voting Sunset—both Inner and Outer—added exactly five new homes last year. In the Marina, the overall tally for 2015 was negative two. 

After all, as politicos as adversarial as Peskin and Farrell could tell you, San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods. And any citywide movement that ignores too many neighborhoods is doomed to fail. The city’s more progressive areas are to be found in what political junkies call “the doughnut hole” in the city’s geographical center: the Castro, the Mission, Bernal Heights, Hayes Valley, the Haight. The city’s geographical “crescent” neighborhoods—many of them west of Twin Peaks—are bastions of the moderates. The crescent pushed Newsom to victory in 2003 and did the same for Lee in 2011. Voters there validated Airbnb in 2015 and shot down the so-called speculator’s tax in 2014. Gonzalez, by comparison, won only the districts in the doughnut hole in ’03—which were also the only districts Ammiano won in his 1999 run for mayor against Willie Brown. “There is higher voter turnout and bigger margins inside the doughnut hole,” says a longtime progressive organizer. “But the crescent is where we lose. You see that pattern repeated again and again.”

Again and again, largely white progressives have failed to reach out to the largely ethnic inhabitants of the city’s outer neighborhoods. Again and again, spending discrepancies are offered as an excuse for coming up short. Things change in San Francisco, as Burton would hasten to tell you, but this thing hasn’t.

3. Follow the money

Being a progressive or a moderate isn’t like being a Democrat or a Republican—or, for that matter, like being a mammal or a vertebrate. There isn’t a definitional charter so much as guidelines and tendencies. Moderates tend to embrace private-enterprise solutions to the city’s problems; progressives tend to be suspicious of the motives of private enterprise. Moderates tend to be sympathetic to market-rate developers’ pleas about project feasibility and enthusiastic about development (albeit in someone else’s district). Progressives tend to view developers’ pleas as bluffs and counter with calls for more affordable housing. Progressives advocate for more rent control and more restrictions on landlords and home sharers. Moderates don’t. Perhaps the easiest rule of thumb is that a progressive is whoever is supported by both the Tenants Union and SEIU Local 1021—and moderates are everyone else. 

Viewing San Francisco as a liberal city, or even the most liberal city, misses the point. By and large, every big city is now liberal. San Francisco’s obsessions are municipal—and how someone behaves regarding a quality-of-life concern does not correlate with his or her position on reproductive rights or gun control. In this way, San Francisco’s version of conservatives are not fiscally conservative: It’s moderates who are pushing for soda taxes, set-asides for parks, and funding for street trees. Turning semantics on its ear, moderates are often the ones looking forward, toward accommodating hypothetical future San Francisco residents and businesses (perhaps at the expense of the city’s current ones), while progressives are focused on preserving the status of those current residents and businesses (perhaps at the expense of hypothetical future ones). Maybe the best way to define “progressives” and “moderates” is not based on principles but on who forms their coalitions and funds their campaigns; as Deep Throat instructed, “Follow the money.”

Progressives, then, tend to be politicians backed by lower-tier public sector workers, nonprofit developers, and community groups; moderates are supported by the police and fire unions, the building trades, market-rate developers, and downtown business interests. “Downtown” has changed over the years, both physically and metaphysically: At the very first meeting of the moderate stalwart Committee on Jobs, the assembled San Francisco business titans of 1992—Chevron, Wells Fargo, Bank of America—implored newly elected mayor Frank Jordan to leave them alone. “Don’t tax us. Don’t regulate us. Don’t give us anything,” recalls an attendee. “Just leave us alone.” In contrast, the tech companies and investors who’ve supplanted downtown’s traditional powers don’t want to be left alone. They want tax breaks. They want ex post facto laws validating potentially illegal business models. “Tech is neither doing anything novel nor organized,” sums up a city lobbyist. “They’re just dumping money.” Most of this cash dump is going toward moderate-leaning politicians and hobbyhorses; venture capitalist Ron Conway has literally bought a place at Lee’s table.

Then again, the city’s large public sector unions aren’t shy about throwing around money or influence either. Despite the long national decline of organized labor, it continues to play an outsize role in San Francisco: The three open supervisorial races—in Districts 1, 9, and 11—are, in fact, proxy labor battles. District 1 progressive standard-bearer Sandra Lee Fewer, a school board member, is the choice of the left-leaning San Francisco Labor Council, largely because of the influence of the city’s teachers’ union. The San Francisco Building & Construction Trades Council, however, is backing Marjan Philhour and David Lee; the tradesmen were less than enthused with how Fewer handled construction contracts during her time on the school board. In District 9, progressive Hillary Ronen is backed by SEIU Local 1021, which represents most city workers, while moderate Joshua Arce is a card-carrying member of Laborers Local 261, a building trades union. And in District 11, progressive Kimberly Alvarenga is the political director of SEIU Local 1021, while moderate Ahsha Safaí is the political director of SEIU Local 87. That’s about as internecine a labor battle as you can get: “I’ve been in the San Francisco labor movement for over 30 years,” says Labor Council president Mike Casey, shaking his head. “I haven’t seen this.”

Expect placid District 11 to be a hotbed of money and unionized foot soldiers this fall. In order to merely maintain control of the board, Peskin’s faction must win five if not all six supervisorial races (unseating board president London Breed in District 5 is a stretch). And, after all that, if Kim bests Wiener in the race for state senate, Lee will name her successor. “We just need to win one!” crows a prominent moderate backer. “We just need to win one.”

4. “I would not want to rob a bank with these guys.”

Hovering above all of these races and debates is the specter of a single man—Aaron Peskin, whom the political press has taken to portraying as something of a City Hall Rasputin. This, like so much written about San Francisco politics, is overstated. In Sacramento, notes a city lobbyist, party bosses can (and do) foist bills penned by special interests upon elected underlings in a topdown routine. But that’s not happening here. Peskin, per a City Hall observer, “is organized.” He’s “organizing the people around him. It’s a delicate symphony. He’s conducting it.” 

Aside from his ability to “count to six,” enabling majority votes on an 11-member board, Peskin has additionally benefited from plenty of questionable moves by his political opponents. “Our team is not as good as their team,” complains a moderate operative about the mayor’s inner circle. “I would not want to rob a bank with these guys.” Take, for example, formerly tough to pin down but now reliably progressive Norman Yee. The District 7 supervisor has, over time, chafed at what he’s considered to be slights by the mayor’s team. He wasn’t thrilled, for one, to be left off the guest list for a May public safety meeting in his own district with Mayor Lee, then–SFPD chief Greg Suhr, and district activists. And Yee certainly wasn’t pleased to learn that Ben Matranga, an erstwhile mayoral adviser running to unseat him, had been invited. “And guess what?” cackles a longtime city political organizer. “Norman was a swing vote on how many issues on the left?” (In fact, if not for Yee, four measures that reduce mayoral power would not be on November’s ballot.) Or consider the fact that when Lee endorsed Wiener over Kim early in the election cycle, “he freed her to do whatever the fuck she wants,” notes a local political consultant. One day after Lee’s endorsement of her rival, Kim became the first supervisor to call for Suhr’s ouster. She subsequently topped that publicity coup by gallivanting about with Bernie Sanders while the mayor found himself being lustily booed at a Hillary Clinton whistle-stop. In June, Kim jolted Wiener, topping him in the primary.

San Francisco fancies itself a smart city, but this is how campaigns are being run. The coming election is being cast as a referendum on Lee—and, for a politician whose poll numbers are plunging into the toilet, that wouldn’t appear to be a good thing. And yet, because so many of us vote based on gang identities and endorsements, and because of the high hurdles that progressives face to even maintain their current status, the mayor may yet come out as the man with all the cards, the big winner—the gatekeeper.

But for the time being, the movers and shakers will continue to hedge their bets. In the days and weeks after Kawa’s March tongue-lashing, developers continued to cut deals with Peskin and sidestep the mayor. “He is,” said one builder of Peskin, “the smartest guy there.” Still, said the developer, he was pining for the day when the winds would shift back in the mayor’s direction. When asked if he would be pleased to see a progressive derailment come November, he responded with peals of laughter. “Oh God. I hope so.”


Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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