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The voters are furious -- but are they madder at government or big business? That question could define the next political era

"One of the narratives now is where are the Obama voters and will they participate?" Jim Stearns, a San Francisco political consultant who works mostly on progressive campaigns, told us. "They still love Obama but they're not moved by him anymore."

Perhaps more important, they have lost the sense of hope that he once instilled. The Republican Party's descent into right-wing extremism and the strong anticorporate narratives that have emerged in the last year — from BP's oil spill to PG&E's political manipulation to Goldman Sachs' self-dealing to the prospect of unrestricted corporate campaign propaganda unleashed by the Citizens United ruling — have created the possibility that the negative narratives by the left may crowd out the positive ones.

"Meg Whitman is someone you can hate. She's the rich Republican CEO trying to buy her way into office," Stearns said. "But it's a depressing message."

But Stearns said there is another, most hopeful political narrative that is emerging in San Francisco, one that might eventually grow into a model that could be used at the state and federal levels. "We're lucky in San Francisco. Progressive voters are engaged."

He noted that San Francisco's voter turnout was higher than expected in the June primary, and far higher than the record low state number, even though there really weren't any exciting propositions or closely contested races on the local ballot — except for the Democratic County Central Committee, where progressives maintained their newfound control. And it's because of the organizing and coalition-building that the left has done.

"What you've seen over the last few years is a coalition of labor, neighborhood groups, environmentalists, and the progressives now operating through the Democratic Party. That's a great coalition with a lot for people to trust," Stearns said.

Meanwhile, downtown has all but collapsed as a unified political force. "They don't really have a political infrastructure," Stearns said of downtown. "Normally it would be the mayor who gets everyone in line and working together."

Even Latterman, the downtown-oriented consultant, agrees that the business community is no longer setting San Francisco's agenda because it's become fractured and unable to push a consistent political narrative: "There's certainly been a lack of coordination."

He also agrees that progressives have become more organized and effective. "Clearly, the Democratic Party of San Francisco has become a conduit for progressive politics and politicians, but not issues," Latterman said. "What a lot of people get wrong in the city is the difference between politics and policy."

Part of the reason is economic. With scarce resources, a high threshold for approving new revenue sources, and a fiscally conservative mayor unwilling to talk taxes, it's been difficult to move a progressive agenda for San Francisco. And in Sacramento, it's barely part of the discussions.

"The people of California have been held hostage by a handful of Republicans who are making us cut everything we care about," while in San Francisco "Newsom is taking an entirely Republican approach to the budget," Stearns said.

Looking toward the fall races, Stearns said the progressive coalition and majority on the Board of Supervisors will be tested on issues such as Muni reform, and the question will be whether fiscal conservatives like Sup. Sean Elsbernd can blame Muni's problems on drivers, or whether progressives can create and sell a broader package that includes new revenue and governance reforms.

"The drivers are going to get their guarantee taken out of the charter, that's going to happen. But people know that isn't all that's wrong with Muni," Stearns said.

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