Lessons of the Avalos campaign

The mayoral candidate demonstrated what can be accomplished with a new kind of progressive leadership


By N'Tanya Lee

It's the middle of the night. His two kids and wife are home in bed. Supervisor John Avalos, candidate for mayor, heads downtown in his beat-up family car. He parks and walks over to 101 Market Street, and casually starts talking to members of OccupySF. He's a city official, but folks camped out are appreciative when they see he's there to stand with them, to try to stop the cops from harassing them, even though its 1 a.m. and he should be in bed.

John Avalos was the first elected official to personally visit Occupy SF. It wasn't a publicity stunt — his campaign staff didn't even know he was going until it was over. He arrived and left without an entourage or TV cameras. This kind of moment — defined by John's personal integrity and the strength of his personal convictions — was repeated week after week, and provides a much-needed model of progressive political leadership in the city.

John Avalos is more than "a progressive standard bearer," as the Chronicle likes to call him. He's also a Spanish-speaking progressive Latino, rooted in community and labor organizing, with a racial justice analysis and real relationships with hundreds of organizers and everyday people outside of City Hall. He's demonstrated an authentic accountability to the disenfranchised of the city, to communities of color and working people, and he knows that ultimately the future of the city is in our hands.

Some accomplishments of John's campaign for mayor are already clear: He consolidated the progressive-left with 19%, or nearly 40,000, first-place votes, despite the confusion of a crowded field; he came in a strong second to incumbent Ed Lee despite being considered a long shot even weeks before the election; after RCV tallies, he finished with an incredible 40% of the vote, demonstrating a much wider base of support across the city than he began with, and much broader than former frontrunners Leland Yee and David Chiu, who outspent him 3-1. He won the Castro, placed third in Chinatown (ahead of Yee), and actually won the election-day citywide vote. Not bad. In fact, remarkable, for a progressive Latino from a working class district in the southern part of town, running in his first citywide race.

I believe John Avalos demonstrated what can be accomplished with a new kind of progressive leadership — and suggests the elements of a new progressive coalition that can be created to win races in 2012, and again, in 2015.

It's Monday afternoon, 1:35pm, time for our weekly Campaign Board meeting. John rushes in, after a dozen appointments already that day. The rest of us file into the 'cave' — the one private room in Campaign headquarters, with no windows, a makeshift wall and furniture that looks to be third-hand. The board makes the key strategy, message, and financial decisions. There are no high paid political consultants here. Most of us are, or have been, organizers. Today, we need to approve the campaign platform. Finally. We've decided to get people excited about our ideas, an agenda for change. We leave the meeting excited and nervous, wondering if anyone will get excited about the city creating its own Municipal Bank.

We were an unlikely crew to lead a candidate campaign — even a progressive one in San Francisco. We come from membership based community and labor organizations, and share a critique of white progressive political players and electeds who spend too few resources on building power through organizing and operate without accountability to any base. We are policy and politics nerds, but we hate traditional politics. Seventy percent of us are people of color — Black, Filipina, Latino, and Chinese. We are all women except John, the candidate, and nearly half of us are balancing politics with parenting.


Interesting, not a word of critical introspection from N'Tanya after the campaign lost an election with fewer votes both before and after IRV than Gonzalez or Ammiano got both in their primaries and in their runoffs.

Look, I don't think that this mayor's race could have been won by any progressive because over the last part of the last decade, progressives had not governed in a way that gave a big enough winning electoral coalition reason to vote progressive.

The only way for progressives to win a mayor race will be for the two biggest, most organized and resourced components of the coalition, labor and the nonprofits, to put their immediate interests aside for the greater good of progressives meeting broader public service needs. That is not simply not going to happen.

Another step would be to welcome people into the coalition with policies that appeal to them instead of appealing to them by group membership, both organization and identity.

Identity politics went out of fashion in the early 1990s. We gave the "most vulnerable first" crusade a run increasingly over the past five years and that approach has failed us. Occupy is the exact opposite of identity politics and it is succeeding.

When Ronald Reagan used the term "the people," he meant big corporations, as in "get the guvmint off of the people's backs." When SF progressives use the term "the people," they mean the clients and employees of social services nonprofits and city human services as in "the people's budget."

Voters have grown wise to this semantic sleight of hand that deals most out. If progressives want to win the votes of "the people" then they're going to have to govern for enough of "the people" to build an electoral majority. It has to be about what the voters want not what the activists and organizers want.

The needs of the most must at least be at the same level as the needs of the most vulnerable if one expects to win citywide elections.

I really believe that many progressive nonprofiteers and activists fear the people, fear the voters, fear that their ideas won't win popular support. Thus the need for the sleight of hand so that they get what they want even if it foreshadows doom and proves fatal to the coalition.

I do not know if it is possible to play the hand progressives have been dealt (and helped deal ourselves) back to power within the next decade after redistricting. This has been seriously fucked up and reading this op-ed, there does not seem to be any introspection going on as to what went wrong on our end.

No responsibility, no accountability, no chance.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 23, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

All too true.

The 1980 Reagan win like conflation of anyone but a Willie Brown stooge and the regular 20% of progressive voters in the city resulted in some progressives winning for a few years, then some got a second term like incumbents always do.

After some time the citizens noted that the progressives didn't represent the people, but in actuality represented a narrow group of people, a very narrow group of people.

Reading the original article of things learned, that is like reading Ann Coulter complain that the republicans never nominate a real republican like Reagan. A Reagan who would energize the party and convince the masses through his oration of the rightness of the cause. This cause being "the people" who he wants to get the government off the backs of, big business.

Progressive work under the same flawed Reagan rah rah mantra orthodoxy, the people don't want a real progressive, just as they don't want a real Reagan conservative.

To rationalize the fact that the actual voting public don't want an Avalos or neo-Reagan, they need to blame everyone but their own agenda, the media, the big spenders, etc... The hemming and hawing as to why the actual people are too stupid to vote your way is pathetic.

Around 81 or so I was puzzled by the disconnect between Reagan's "get government off peoples backs" with the upping the ante of the drug war, his pro life statements, his appointing Rhenquist types to the supremes, the seizure laws, the eroding of various rights, his hanging out with religious nut cases, etc... Yup get the government off people's backs, and into the bedroom.

Progressive in the city are much the same with their petty laws and obsessions with perfecting man, while complaining about the state getting into people's business.

Reagan republican, "the people" = big business, religious clowns

progressive San Francsican, "the people" = a narrow group of union leadership, racial hucksters, non profit shouters.

Appealing to narrow demographics and a revealed world view is only going to win it seems when there is an "any one but ..." scenario.

Posted by Matlock on Nov. 23, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

I'd wager that people do want a city government that is free from corporate corruption and provides honest services including social services for the modt vulnerable and a fair deal for public employees. Professional progressives are too short sighted to put their self interested altruism aside for a moment to build such a coalition.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 23, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

less "corruption" and more "honesty" then, sure, people will agree. I don't think that has much to do with who they think best serves their interest. There isn't much difference between a Wall Street banker and a self-serving union activist in the eyes of many.

The only way "progressives" can win an election is by being a little less progressive and a little more in touch with the majority. The electors clearly said that "jobs" were the number one issue. Lee addressed that. Avalos really didn't because quite simply the private sector isn't of any interest to him.

We can't have a mayor who, like the SFBG, hates the private sector and any inward investment that is for profit.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 2:00 am

you want Lee to get rid of the 'illegal' 'hispanics' for you as well eh?

why don't you take your anti labor, anti immigrant, neo-fascism somewhere else

Posted by anonymous on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 4:19 am

The elections been over for weeks, calm down.

Most people are not anti-labor all that much, they are anti labor leadership. Labor leadership has moved way past representing and bullshitting the workers, that is boring for them, they have moved into all aspects of hounding government with their ravings. Just like those same bankers that people don't like much. Progressive are just the flip side of the coin.

And like many here you can't tell the difference between illegal aliens and actual immigrants, so your sour screaming is just quaint.

Posted by matlock on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 6:27 am

Now that sounds more like the 'real matlock'.

Posted by Patrick Monk. RN on Nov. 23, 2011 @ 9:07 pm

Marcos' comments are better than the original post, as per usual.

Posted by Proggy Boy on Nov. 23, 2011 @ 9:12 pm

For emphasis:
he drives a beat up family car - how novel!
he speaks spanish - how multi cultural!
his campaign office furniture appears third hand - how boho!

I guess I shouldn't have expected more from someone who features an apostrophe in their first name.

Posted by Guest on Nov. 24, 2011 @ 8:46 am

I still think he was a shitty president, no matter that progressives like him because he speaks Spanish.

Posted by matlock on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 1:50 am

Avlos is lauded as a friend of labor, except when he isn't. He gave a rousing speech at a Proposition C rally where he denigrated Wisconsin and Ohio labor members for fighting against takeaways. We, San Franciscans he said are different because we collaborate with the business community,the chamber of commerce including billionaires such as Warren Hellman. In other words we don't fight, we give in. Thus, a win for Proposition C which did little for Avalos' campaign but helped Lee win big. Avalos is also a big supporter of the Central Subway to nowhere and he will not be around when the bill comes due for the high cost of maintenance of the system and the reduction of Muni service plus endless fare increases. Maybe we need to change the definition of Progressive.

Posted by Guest Denise on Nov. 25, 2011 @ 10:23 pm

Is that you dahlink? If so respond privately, don't wanna mouth off and get taken off your "A" list.

Posted by Patrick Monk. RN on Nov. 25, 2011 @ 10:47 pm

and the vast majority of the funds for it are from the State or the Feds. We either build new infrastructure or some other city will take that money instead.

Lee understands that; Avalos does not.

Prop C won by a mile because it had wide support. The problem with it is that it doesn't go nearly far enough. We'll have to do it over next year and probably every year until the pension mess is finally addressed.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 2:03 am

According to an admittedly two month old piece by Will Reisman in the Execrable, this may all be much ado about nothing as there appears to be some doubt as to whether Federal funding will be forthcoming. In either case my advice to John Avalos would be to get off this ghost train as soon as possible as it could, rightly or wrongly, prove to be as divisive and damaging to his future prospects as the 'progressive leader' as Prop D was to Jeff Adachi.
Just my 2c.

Posted by Patrick Monk. RN on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 8:50 am

progressives obsessed with failure of SF's "big plans"

Central subway, transbay terminal - progressives openly love real, and fantasy failure

Posted by Guest on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 10:39 am

most densely populated and trafficked areas of the city - ballpark, caltrain, moscone, SOMA, market st., union square, chinatown and north beach. That's exactly what a transit system should be.

The real subway to nowhere is the T.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 10:43 am

you ignorant racist dipwad...

Posted by anonymous on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

You won't have to exit the system, which you even have to do when currently switching between bARt and Muni.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

Educate yourself on the reality, occupy that vacuum between your ears.

Posted by Patrick Monk. RN on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

and will require a huge underground walk (including up and down stairways) all the way from Union Square to get to Powell Street station.

What you are claiming is akin to saying that bus riders who take the 38 Geary to Union Square have a stop at Powell Street station on Market because they can walk there.

In other words, your claim is totally ridiculous.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

Union Sq. and Powell St., but it doesn't involve crossing a ticket barrier and is all undergorund. No differentf rom subway systems in nYC, London etc. that also grew piecemeal.

So it will still be a slick and convenient interchange, and will mean that many commuters won't need to take a filthy, slow bus at all.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 27, 2011 @ 6:26 am

You look more foolish with every response.

Posted by anonymous on Nov. 27, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

Anyone who has used a subway system in any other major city knows this is common. If you build an underground rail system at different times, you can't always overlay stations on top of each other.

But as long as you don't need to exit the barriers, or deal with surface traffic, it's really not an issue.

The whole current streetcar system goes east-west. We badly need to build up north-south access to complement that. It's the difference between a line and a network.

Once it's built, just like BART and the current streetcar system, everyone will use it, love it, and thank the lord that a few whiney nimby'ists didn't succeed in their luddite negativism.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 27, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

There is no reason why the Central Subway can't have platforms under Powell Station other than in order to save money, linking the network was sacrificed in favor putting a station closer to retail.

You lose.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 27, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

it makes perfect sense to put it near Macy's. Either way, the walk interchange will be just a few minutes - hardly a reason not to build a brand new transit line linking the most densely populated and trafficked parts of downtown.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 27, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

Is this idiot serious !! A justification for building this transit travesty is that it will get people closer to Macy's!! No wonder he/she wants to remain anonymouse.

Posted by Patrick Monk. RN on Nov. 27, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

It's a far longer walk than that and you know it.

And the -current- T Line connects with the entire Market street Muni spine all the way from the Embarcadero to Van Ness.

How does the loss of -all- of those Market Street connections (as will occur under the Central Subway extension) create -more- of a network?

It of course will do exactly the opposite.

The new extension and route will create a subway that runs between two communities of color (Chinatown and the Bayview) while completely cutting those communities of color -off- from direct access to the whole length of Market Street.

That is both stupid, and racist, planning.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Nov. 27, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

Nobody is being cut off from anywhere. It's a new line giving new choices. Nothing is being taken away.

People from Bayview will not have direct access to downtown stores while also having a quicker route to Market St. than the current ponderous detour via Embarcadero.

Everyone gains something from this new investment, which is why the voters just gave Lee a big mandate to continue with the project.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 27, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

First. The racist shoe fits. I'm making sure that you properly wear it.

Second, oh how wonderful it is that people from the Bayview, most of whom are low income, will have access to Union Square boutique shops selling useless incredibly expensive garbage to the ultra-rich...

Finally, the walk from Union Square to Powell Street Station will take just as long as the the loop from 2nd Street to Embarcadero Station.

Your arguments are as weak as wet tissue paper.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Nov. 27, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

deny them mass transit as petty revenge?

Looks like you're the only racist here.

The voters just gave over 60% support to a Mayor who wants this built. That's the only figure that matters.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 27, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

God, you're an asshole. Do you have any friends? I cant imagine you do.
If you were gay and completely promiscuous I'd say you could be Marco's bestie, but as it stands now I bet you are that guy at parties that talks louder than everyone else and misses all the cues to leave.

Posted by Guest on Nov. 27, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

I liked the Central Subway back when it cost half as much and was designed to do twice as much.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 10:54 am

Let's parse this gem of a sentence: "We come from membership based community and labor organizations, and share a critique of white progressive political players and electeds who spend too few resources on building power through organizing and operate without accountability to any base."

Very few of these nonprofits are membership based. Even fewer of these nonprofits are democratic, run by and for their members. The agencies are funded by either the City or grant making organizations fueled by rich people, their paid staff only accountable to the boards of directors. This statement is belied by the negative outcomes and by the lack of organization and mobilization of communities that these nonprofits claim to be based in.

How can accountability be claimed when, in the ashes of failure, remnants of the past five years of immolation, absolutely nobody responsible for leading progressives towards failure is being held accountable?

This sentence supposes accountability and base legitimacy amongst the nonprofits and labor that simply does not exist and, it does so in a way that alienates a good segment of the largest voting base in the City. Given the record of failure, how can one reconcile accountability with the lack of heads rolling?

Call me a sheet wearing racist, but disconnection from empirical political reality along these lines has sank the relevance of voting for people of color for me down from a +20% bonus to that of a mere tie breaker.

After Willie Brown as mayor, Barack Obama as president, David Chiu as Supervisor, that race dog as electoral determinant don't hunt. Race remains as paramount a wound in the US as class does. But these guilt and identity laden appeals do nothing to heal those wounds, and they ignore the fact that political players of color have done as much to diminish progressive power as white players and have failed to prevent further damage to those communities as well.

Say, how about we get rid of political players altogether and create democratic structures in our community to determine where our community stands? But then these leaders will not get paid to provide cover for power and we can't have that.

Progressive collapse means that we will continue to see accelerated gentrification of San Francisco's east side and the commensurate decrease in the number of poor people and black and brown people. Ain't nothing that the nonprofits are going to do to stop it because they'd be throwing away their meal ticket.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 9:07 am

Take the Filipino precincts surrounding and including the 6th Street corridor in the SOMA: 3625, 27, 29, 30, 36 and 38.

John Avalos got 220 first place votes to Ed Lee's 666.

Identity politics is not going to be able to dig you out of that hole.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 10:14 am

A foreboding number.

Posted by Patrick Monk. RN on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 11:02 am

And, no, I did not cook the selections to achieve that.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 11:15 am

not suggesting that you did, but if you had then it was a damn good recipe!! (.<)

Posted by Patrick Monk. RN on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

Have you been to Chinatown recently? Can't you all see the incredible need to get more tourists there faster? The Central Subway idea sucks, sucks money from an already cash-strapped Muni! I still don't understand how it could have been approved when the Muni budget is supposedly suffering. But hey, the ridership will not complain when they get even more fare increases (coming again in June I hear). After all, this stuff, including a $500,000 unnecessary severance package for another incompetent Nate Ford, has to be paid for by someone!

I am so tired of them not hiring from within, from bringing in these people from out of state to run our systems, and then when they continue to screw it up as bad or worse than their predecessor, we give them a huge severance package? WTF is wrong with this picture? WTF is wrong with the city I fell in love with and moved to 42 years ago?

And who are these "many people who support the Central Subway?" Do they ride Muni? I have not spoken to one Muni rider, and I being it up on the but often, who supports this subway!

Posted by GrannyGear on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 11:02 am

It's nearly all State and Federal money.

and anyone who has ever taken the 30 as it crawls it's way thru chinaTown understands the need for a sleek, state-of-the-art, faster and higher-volume solution.

Any other city in the country would love free money to build something like this. Only Sf with it's NIMBY'ist would whine

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

mr, I don't have any concept or concern for who lives at the end of the T line...

State and federal money helps build it and then we are left holding the bag for ongoing operations and maintenance to the tune of millions of dollars per year.

Posted by anonymous on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

Last time I checked, that was desirable.

And we won't need to run the 30 thru the Stockton tunnel any more, so that will speed up auto traffic as well


Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

Breda cars are not sleek. The Central Subway has been "value engineered" down to where it will never be a high capacity subway because its stations have been shortened and placed farther apart to save money.

But the colocation of transit investment will spur upzonings wherever possible, 4th street, whatever is not historic in and around Chinatown, whatever Rose and Willie want.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 27, 2011 @ 10:35 am

So we shouldnt build this because you personally think Breda cars are not sleek?
And dense infill housing shouldnt happen where there is added transit?

Where would you be without all the goings on in SF to pontificate on - besides the steam room in the local gym.

Posted by Guest on Nov. 27, 2011 @ 10:55 am

To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead. --Thomas Paine

Posted by marcos on Nov. 27, 2011 @ 11:45 am

If the subway to nowhere ever gets built you can be sure that Chinatown as we know it will disappear among the new high-rises. There is already speculation of up-zoning the area as well as speculators (developers) ready to ponce on any available Chinatown property.

Posted by Guest Denise on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

That sound will be Rose and Willie going ka-ching!

Posted by marcos on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 5:48 pm

Bullshit lies. The up zoning will be on fourth street not in Chinatown. Most of Chinatown is historic and therefore untouchable. What other lies can you make up?

Posted by Guest on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

Upzoning on fourth street? Really? Didnt they just get thru refining all that? Who on earth would they have left a donut hole on fourth?

When Rose and Willie want upzoning, they get upzoning.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 8:14 pm

Who on earth would they have left a donut hole on fourth?

I have no idea what this even means.

Posted by Guest on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 8:37 pm

Why, not who, on earth would re zoning the fourth street corridor have been held off, a donut hole of old zoning.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 26, 2011 @ 8:54 pm