The progressive challenge
Can disparate groups on the left finally coalesce into a unified front?

By Steven T. Jones and Tim Redmond

SOME SAN FRANCISCO progressive leaders have quietly spent the past year organizing a group they're calling the San Francisco Peoples' Organization (SFPO), with the goal of creating a powerful citywide umbrella for a wide range of political causes.

It's an ambitious undertaking and something the city desperately needs. And everyone involved agrees it won't be easy.

Twice in the past six years, progressives came together in exciting, groundbreaking – and ultimately fleeting – mayoral campaigns: for Tom Ammiano in 1999 and for Matt Gonzalez in 2003. In each case, the activists involved vowed to keep the energy going – and in some ways, they have. The San Francisco left is far healthier today than it's been in at least 20 years.

But in the end, progressives have still been unable to win big citywide campaigns and have been stuck in the mode of responding to the agenda of mayors they oppose instead of setting the agenda for the city.

The challenge facing the new group is both deceptively simple and alarmingly complex: Can anyone pull together all of the organizations, parties, identity groups, neighborhood constituencies, and assorted factions that are – or ought to be – part of a left-liberal-independent coalition and get them to agree on even a handful of issues and priorities?

Can the lively, wonderful, obstreperous, and constantly bickering crew of people who consider themselves the city's progressive leaders get along well enough to form a cohesive political operation?

Can the organizers heal some of the rifts with the queer community that are left over from the 2003 mayoral primary pitting Ammiano against Gonzalez?

Can a group of mostly younger activists work effectively with longtime progressive veterans?

It ought to be possible – because the whole progressive community has a stake in this group's success.

Meetings galore

The coalition that's coming together covers the political spectrum from Greens to left-leaning independents to liberal Democrats. "It's one of the things that has grown out of the Gonzalez experience," said Sup. Chris Daly, who has helped organize the group with Bruce Livingston of Senior Action Network (SAN); Michael Goldstein, former president of the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Club; Bradley Reeves of United Educators of San Francisco; and many others during biweekly meetings over the past year.

They haven't been the only lefties holding meetings. After the mayor's race, Sup. Aaron Peskin helped convene a series of meetings involving labor unions, neighborhood activists, and others – many of them, like Calvin Welch and Sue Hestor, longtime veterans of the city's political wars. Although Peskin quickly stepped back and let the meetings continue without him, it became known as "the Peskin Group."

Workers from the Gonzalez campaign also went on to form the Progressive Voters Project, while environmentalists and Green Party members formed a group called Next Steps, and progressive political activist Michael Borenstein created a group called Our City.

Daly told the Bay Guardian the idea was to try to bring these disparate but like-minded groups together. He's had some success, but the coalition is still in the early stages. So far, the only groups that have signed on and made funding pledges are PVP, SAN, and CodePink, but Livingston told us he expects commitments from a half dozen unions, while Goldstein hopes the Milk Club and other identity groups will sign on.

So far, Milk members are a bit cautious. "I think it's a great thing, and I plan to be involved, but they have to understand that there are real civil rights issues the queer community is facing right now, today, and that has to be part of the discussion," Debra Walker, a longtime Milk activist, said. Milk president Greg Shaw added, "If you're going to have a peoples' organization and it's in San Francisco, it has to push some gender issues."

The new group is very much organization-based, with a governance model created some four decades ago by legendary community organizers like Saul Alinsky and the early citizen-action groups.

A board of directors will include 20 or more members divided into caucuses representing labor and community-based organizations, youths, women, people of color, people of faith, seniors and people with disabilities, and the LGBT community, plus as many as five at-large elected members.

The final bylaws, goals, and strategies – as well as the job of filling board slots beyond the initial eight members – are being left for a daylong founding convention scheduled for June 11 and starting at 8:30 a.m. in the St. Mary's Cathedral Conference Room (go to www.sfpeople.org for updates and more information). The day will feature speakers including UNITE-HERE Local 2 president Mike Casey and Global Exchange cofounder Medea Benjamin, issues workshops, and plenary sessions designed to put the nascent group into motion.

"That's when we get put on the map as a new political force," Daly said.

Unifying and energizing

SFPO organizers intend for it to stand in for a political party of the left, something San Francisco has long lacked. It would serve as a permanent organizing tool for issues and candidates on the left and also an opposition party that would keep the pressure on those in power to remember our issues.

Livingston and others said the goal is to create a year-round political force. He decried how "we have to reinvent our campaigns every year from May to July." Or, as Sup. Ross Mirkarimi said, "When the progressive movement flails is between elections."

Jane Kim, an organizer for the Chinatown Community Development Center who unsuccessfully ran for the school board last year, is a founding SFPO board member. She sees the group as an ideal means of drawing on the talents of two key groups: neighborhood-based political activists and those who work on election campaigns.

But as the SFPO gains strength, organizers hope it will become a political force that can challenge not just moderates like Mayor Gavin Newsom, but also figures like Board of Supervisors president Peskin, whose political base is on the left but who has, at times, worked closely with Newsom on a common agenda.

"Aaron Peskin is a case study for why this thing has to happen," Daly said, noting that a strong progressive organization is needed to maintain consistent pressure on – and support for – leaders to do right by the issues the left cares about.

Peskin told us he's completely in support of the new organization. "Any movement is good movement," he said. "I'm with them on all the issues.... And if this is about making sure Aaron Peskin doesn't become too moderate or something, well, whatever."

Mirkarimi and Gonzalez have also pledged their support to the SFPO. "I want to see the S.F. Peoples' Organization succeed just like I do any movement to harness the energy, vision, and skill of progressives in a positive way," Mirkarimi said.

Rallying against Newsom

Part of the problem progressives face now in assembling and energizing a political movement is that it was easier to rally against Newsom the candidate than it is to challenge Newsom the mayor.

Two years ago, Newsom seemed to be nothing more than a protégé of Willie Brown, a pawn of downtown, and someone who had exploited the homeless issue for personal gain. Now he's cast himself as the champion of same-sex couples, hotel workers, and residents of Bayview-Hunters Point.

But neither Gonzalez nor Daly believes it. While Newsom got a lot of media mileage out of his efforts to legalize same-sex marriage and his decision to walk the picket lines with locked-out hotel workers, they point out that for the most part, Newsom has hewed to the centrist line he ran on by supporting the Chamber of Commerce's failed Workforce Housing Initiative and other pro-business initiatives, playing politics with the homeless issue, and pushing anti-labor initiatives like civil service reform.

Yet if progressives can get behind an aggressive agenda, they might be able to make the mayor show his true colors.

"Put public power in front of him. Make the guy show who he really is," Gonzalez suggested. "It's about making people take sides."

Thanks in part to the return of district elections, San Francisco's progressive movement is in far better shape than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. The city still lacks public power, a progressive tax system, a budget that covers essential services, an effective housing and homeless policy, and much more. But at least these things are firmly on the front-burner agenda. And at last people are talking seriously about how to take the gains of the past few years and turn them into a road map for the future.

The organizers of the San Francisco Peoples' Organization aren't going to have an easy time of it – but if there was ever an opening for this kind of move, now is the time.

E-mail Steven T. Jones and Tim Redmond