Dodging bullets

SF progressives didn't do as well at the polls as in the last few election cycles, but it could have been worse

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Gavin Newsom is leaving for Sacramento, perhaps the best news of all
PHOTO BY LUKE THOMAS

steve@sfbg.com

Progressives in San Francisco dodged a few bullets on election night, which was the highest hope that many held in a campaign season dominated by conservative money and messaging. The Board of Supervisors retained a progressive majority, Prop B's attack on public employees went down, the wealthy will pay more property transfer taxes, and — perhaps the best news of all — Gavin Newsom is leaving for Sacramento a year before his mayoral term ends.

But economically conservative and downtown-backed campaigns and candidates scored the most election-night victories in San Francisco, killing a temporary hotel tax hike pushed hard by labor and several progressive-sponsored ballot measures, and winning approval for the divisive sit-lie ordinance and Prop. G, removing Muni driver pay guarantees, which had the widest margin of the night: 65-35 percent.

"Ultimately, downtown did well," progressive political consultant Jim Stearns told us on election night, noting how aggressive spending by downtown business and real estate interests ended a string of progressive victories in the last several election cycles. He cited the likely election of Scott Wiener in District 8 and the strong challenge in District 2 by Mark Farrell to perceived frontrunner Janet Reilly, who had progressive and mainstream endorsements.

A preliminary Guardian analysis of reported spending by independent expenditure committees shows that groups affiliated with downtown or supporting more conservative candidates spent about $922,435, the biggest contributions coming from conservative businessman Thomas Coates and the San Francisco Board of Realtors, compared to $635,203 by more progressive organizations, mostly the San Francisco Democratic Party and San Francisco Labor Council.

That spending piggy-backed on national campaigns that were also skewed heavily to conservative and corporate-funded groups and messaging that demonized government and public employee unions, playing on people's economic insecurities during a stubborn recession and jobless recovery.

Stearns said voters are having a hard time in this economy "and they don't like to see the government spending." He said national polls consistently show that people are more scared of "big government" than they are "big corporations," even if San Francisco progressives tend to hold the opposite view.

And even that narrow defeat came after an almost unprecedented opposition campaign that included every elected official in San Francisco except the measure's sponsor, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and both the labor movement and many moderate groups.

"The campaign on this was extraordinary and caught fire at the end," Alex Clemens, founder of Barbary Coast Consulting, said at SPUR's Nov. 4 election wrap-up event. In particular, the message about how much Prop B would increase the health care costs on median-income city employees seemed to resonate with voters.

"We are really happy that Prop. B is going down because it was such a misguided measure. It was not well thought through," Labor Council President Tim Paulson told the Guardian at the election night party labor threw with the San Francisco Democratic Party at Great American Music Hall. "San Francisco voters are the smartest in America."

Paulson was also happy to see those voters approve taxing the transfer of properties worth more than $5 million, "because San Franciscans know that everyone has to pay their fair share."