Sorting out a strange election

What the Nov. 6 results mean -- and don't mean

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London Breed beat three flawed progressive candidates to win the D5 race.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY BETH LABERGE

steve@sfbg.com, tredmond@sfbg.com

The way the San Francisco Chronicle pundits put it, Mayor Ed Lee was the clear winner in a grand San Francisco election. "All his measures on the ballot won hands down," noted Willie Brown, the high-paid lawyer and political operative who also functions as a Chron columnist. "It was a great day for Ed Lee," proclaimed columnist C.W. Nevius.

Well, not really.

There are a lot of ways to explain and analyze the inconsistent results of one of the most heavily propagandized elections in recent San Francisco history. But no matter how you look at it, the election was at best a wash for the mayor. Indeed, we'd argue that voters rejected the basic premise of the mayor's political agenda – that tax cuts and favors for big business are the best economic policy – despite record-breaking outside spending selling that agenda and targeting those who stood in its way.

Let's take a look at the real facts:

• Every single initiative backed by the mayor, the ones he's getting credit for – from the City College parcel tax to the housing fund to the business tax – was either a compromise with progressives or a measure that originated on the left. There was nothing the mayor pushed that had any significant progressive opposition; his wins were equally, if not more dramatically, wins for the left.

• Both people the mayor appointed to office were soundly rejected by the voters. Rodrigo Santos, his high-profile appointee to the troubled City College Board of Trustees, spent almost $200,000 and finished a distant sixth. Sup. Christina Olague lost to the candidate Lee had rejected for appointment, London Breed, in a complicated race where the mayor's actual role was unclear (he never withdrew his endorsement of Olague even as his allies trashed her in nasty ways).

• A million-dollar effort funded by some of the mayor's allies to oust Sup. Eric Mar was a spectacular failure, suggested some serious problems in the mayor's political operation, and undermined his emphasis on "civility."

• The voters made clear on every level that they believe higher taxes on the wealthy and closing tax loopholes on big business are the right approach to the economy and to funding government. From Prop. 30 to Prop. 39 to Prop. A to Prop. E, the message was pretty clear: The tax revolt that started in California in 1978 may be winding down, and the notion of making property owners and the wealthy pay for education and public services is no longer a radical idea.

Robert Cruikshank, who writes for the Calitics blog, argues that the November election signals a major sea change in California. "[The] vote to pass Prop 30 -- by a larger margin than most observers expected -- does more than just provide $6 billion of badly needed funding to the state's public school," he wrote. "It brings to a close a 34-year long tax revolt that came very close to destroying California's middle class, locking its low income families into permanent poverty, and left the state on the edge of financial ruin."

That sounds like a progressive message. The agenda put forward by the mayor's closest allies, including right-wing billionaire Ron Conway, who played a heavy-handed role in this election, not only failed to carry the day; the big-money types may have overplayed their hand in a way that will shape the political narratives going forward.

A LOT OF CONSENSUS

Let's start with the ballot measures (before we get to the huge and confusing mess that was D5).

Proposition A, the parcel tax for City College, didn't come out of the Mayor's Office at all; it came from a City College board whose direction the mayor tried to undermine with the appointment of Santos, a pro-development engineer so conservative that he actually endorsed the Republican opponent of Assembly member Tom Ammiano.

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