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Politics & Policy

Miserable together, happy apart: Why redistricting has grown so heated

Zachary Sexton, a USF students and volunteer with the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (center) protests proposed redistricting lines outside city hall on April 6, 2022. | Camille Cohen

During the city’s last redistricting in 2012, the average length of a meeting was about three hours. This time around, meetings during the final month of the process have regularly stretched into the wee hours, including a 20-hour marathon meeting on April 9 that ended in a meltdown

The tensions and rancor this time—marked by allegations of unfair practices and political meddling on both sides of the city’s partisan divide—reflect the stakes involved for incumbents, their supporters and the composition of the board in the future. 

The task force adopted a draft map in the early hours of Sunday morning after that fateful and fractious 20-hour meeting. A decision to move the Portola and Potrero Hill neighborhoods, which was subject to multiple votes, became a particular point of controversy: Analysis of the draft map ranged from Mission Local columnist Joe Eskenazi deeming it a “moderate fever dream” to the Chronicle’s analysis, which argued there was no major ideological shift. Subsequent commentary has accused members of the Board of Supervisors, along with Mayor Breed, of improperly putting their thumbs on the scale in the form of emails, collaboration with outside groups or other forms of pressure.

But at the most recent meeting of the task force on April 13, task force members decided to reject the more current map, and start with a new one based on an earlier draft. It’s been called the “blowup map” or the “healing map”—depending on whom you ask—but the official title is “Map 7.” It’s a controversial move that will push the task force beyond an April 15 filing deadline and could open the city to legal jeopardy.

Let’s look at the drafting decisions that have been particularly controversial with participants and how they might affect electoral outcomes. 

District 1: Seacliff & the Richmond

Since district elections returned to San Francisco in 2000, the Board of Supervisors’ District 1 seat has consistently been held by politicians supported by progressive advocacy and neighborhood groups. Since 2010, those figures have also been Chinese American: Eric Mar, Sandra Lee Fewer and Connie Chan. Chan is up for reelection in 2024.

The rejected draft map added the comparatively tonier Seacliff neighborhood to District 1, along with more of the Lake Street and Presidio Terrace neighborhoods. Chan’s supporters criticized the merging of those areas into the Richmond, arguing that the neighborhoods’ histories have led to different economic and therefore ideological makeups. Others supporting the change note that the differences aren’t that stark and that both neighborhoods rely on the same infrastructure and commercial corridors such as Clement Street.

Adding Seacliff and more of the neighborhoods on the southern border of the Presidio will at least increase the proportion of homeowners. That can’t be comforting to the progressive Chan, who won her 2020 election by only 125 votes. 

District 4: Join Lakeshore with the Sunset

Like District 1, District 4 has consistently been held by Chinese American supervisors, but not all of them identified as progressive. The current state treasurer, Fiona Ma, held the seat from 2002 until 2006. Carmen Chu, a former mayoral fiscal analyst, held the seat from 2007 to 2012; Katy Tang, a former aide to Chu and also a former mayoral fiscal staffer, had the seat from 2012 to 2018.

Two other holders of the seat–Leland Yee, who identified as a neighborhood progressive, and Ed Jew, who identified as a moderate–both went to prison during their political careers. The current incumbent, Gordon Mar, is a progressive who also happens to be the twin brother of former District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar. He is up for reelection this November. His 2018 run against Jessica Ho, a former Tang aide, was contentious. 

One proposed change on the draft map was to add the Lakeshore and Merced Manor neighborhoods to District 4. Lakeshore was one of two neighborhoods in San Francisco to actually lose some overall population in the 2020 census, and now has a majority Asian population. Lakeshore is overwhelmingly populated by renters; Merced Manor is mostly homeowners. But both are among the most conservative neighborhoods in the city. 

Such changes might or might not hurt Mar’s reelection chances, since he has pivoted on some public safety issues. Lakeshore and Merced Manor being removed from relatively conservative District 7 might also boost the reelection chances of center-left Supervisor Myrna Melgar there in 2024. 

Districts 5 & 6: The Tenderloin, Civic Center & the Western Addition

District 5 includes some of San Francisco’s most progressive neighborhoods, including Haight-Ashbury and the Western Addition. However, those two neighborhoods produce nominally progressive voters who might be concerned about different issues. This is reflected by its most famous former supervisors: the Green Party progressive and public defender Matt Gonzalez, and equity-focused but tougher-on-crime politician London Breed. The current supervisor, the outspoken Democratic Socialist Dean Preston, is up for reelection in 2024. 

Cole Valley and Ashbury Heights, the only neighborhoods where Preston opponent Vallie Brown won outright, were transferred to District 7 under the draft map. Even still, Preston’s victory in 2019 was narrow: Based on the November 2020 election figures as visualized by Election Map SF, adding the Tenderloin to District 5, along with farming out parts of the Panhandle and Inner Sunset to other districts, would likely make Preston’s re-election more difficult.

This move also had serious impacts on District 6. Moving the Tenderloin and the Civic Center away from neighborhoods like SoMa splits the major progressive constituencies—the affordable housing and other advocacy nonprofits—who now dominate the politics of that district. But with Supervisor Matt Haney potentially Sacramento-bound, his successor will be left to deal with the new landscape, which between the split and demographic changes, would be more centrist. 

Districts 9 &10: Portola vs. Potrero

The unspoken message behind some cryptic conduct at this week’s Board of Supervisors’ meeting may have to do with one of the biggest controversies in this process: what to do with the Portola neighborhood.

Portola is a growing community just north of Visitacion Valley, a neighborhood with whom it shares several commonalities. Both are served by the San Bruno Avenue and Bayshore Boulevard corridors. Settled first by Jews and Southern Europeans, it’s now a strongly Asian neighborhood and more than half homeowners. 

In the original map adopted when district elections were reinstated in 1995, Portola was divided up between Districts 9 and 10. After the 2012 redistricting, it was still mostly in District 9, separated from Visitacion Valley by the district line and separated from the rest of its own district by the 280 freeway. Redrawing the district maps to bring Portola out of isolation inevitably creates a domino effect forcing other neighborhoods to shift. And that’s what’s happened in District 10 under the draft map. 

When former District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen floated the idea of making Portola whole in D10 in 2012, she faced stinging opposition from activists based in Potrero Hill and the Bayview who wanted to see those two neighborhoods kept together. 

The rejected draft map placed the whole of Portola, along with allied neighborhood University Mound, in District 10 with Visitacion Valley. Something had to give, and Potrero Hill was moved to District 9. Many Bayview residents claim vital links to Potrero Hill, including those in legacy public housing, despite the gentrification of the neighborhood as a whole.

By taking out Potrero Hill and replacing it with Portola, the draft map essentially replaced white potential voters with Asian potential voters in District 10. Perhaps more importantly, Potrero Hill votes far more frequently and reliably than the rest of the district. It’s also reliably progressive: In the 2018 supervisor race, it cast the most votes for progressive candidate Tony Kelly. Since being elected in that race, Shamann Walton has proved to be a reliable progressive vote on the Board of Supervisors.

But if Portola and associated neighborhoods replace Potrero Hill, Walton’s position could grow more tenuous. Facing reelection this November, he could wind up the most left-leaning candidate in a district shifting to the center, leaving Walton as the odd man out. 

Correction: Supervisors Mar and Walton are up for reelection in November 2022.