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Politics & Policy

Frustrated San Francisco voters poised to flip the script this election

A man is filling out a ballot at a voting booth marked with an American flag and "VOTE."
San Franciscans vote at the polling station in City Hall voting center on Monday, June 6, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

It’s no secret that San Franciscans are fed up with local government. 

Voters have already hauled out four elected officials in two decisive recall elections this year—and are poised to shake things up further in a slew of competitive races on Nov. 8. 

The upcoming general election finds voters at a crossroads: The final heat of four elections this year, San Franciscans will make their voices heard on everything from housing and education to their elected supervisors. 

The results could have long-lasting implications for city governance, potentially reshaping the Board of Supervisors and the Board of Education. They could serve as a referendum on Mayor London Breed’s agenda on public safety, education and housing—or give voters a chance to hand her more power. 

“We’ve commissioned polls for the last 25 years, and I’ve never seen the San Francisco electorate so angry,” said longtime political consultant John Whitehurst, who’s run over 200 local campaigns. “The ‘right track/wrong direction’ numbers in every poll this year have been just horrific, worse than the depth of Covid.”

Just 13% of voters said they mostly trust local government, according to The Standard’s Fall 2022 Poll—and political groups advocating for moderate, common-sense governance appear to be gaining steam. And this year’s recalls of three school board members and former District Attorney Chesa Boudin dealt serious setbacks for the city’s progressive political faction. 

Here’s a look at the stakes on Nov. 8. 

Crime Looms Large

Pedestrians wait to cross the street as a San Francisco police officer stands guard on Grant Avenue in Chinatown. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Chesa Boudin, an activist public defender, rode calls for change to America’s criminal justice system to a successful election as district attorney in 2019. But voters soon lost confidence in Boudin’s ability to manage pandemic-enabled spikes in property crime and hate crimes against people of Asian descent

Brooke Jenkins, who Breed appointed after Boudin's ouster, has pledged to do better. 

Now, voters have a chance to weigh in on Jenkins’ tougher approach to crime—and, to some extent, their confidence in Mayor Breed. (Or lack thereof.) 

Jenkins' leading opponent, former Police Commissioner John Hamasaki, is betting on buyer’s remorse for the Boudin recall, impugning Jenkins’ integrity and nascent record—even to the point of risking trouble over his intemperate tweets again.

David Latterman, a veteran pollster, said that the election may have less to do with criminal justice ideology than voters’ desire for competence in local leadership. 

“I think in the big picture ideology hasn't changed a whole lot,” said Latterman, who helped develop San Francisco’s Progressive Voter Index. “No one ever liked crime—was there a point in which people wanted to be mugged? I think people are now realizing how inept our local government is.”

Supervisor Shakeup?

While hardly anyone in SF government is getting rave reviews these days, the Board of Supervisors is held in particularly low regard by voters: Just 23% of voters approve of the body’s performance, according to The Standard poll.    

The outcomes of two highly competitive races could shift the balance of power on the board back to the city’s moderate political coalition. 

District 4 was redistricted earlier this year, bringing challenger Joel Engardio into the district. Engardio, a public safety advocate, is looking to score a rare victory over an incumbent supervisor, Gordon Mar. 

In that race, Engardio has hammered Mar for his opposition to the recalls of three school board members and Boudin. Crime is a major issue for District 4, where strong Asian support for the Boudin recall has become a litmus test for Mar.  

“They threw the DA out. OK, so how else could they show their displeasure? They could throw Gordon out,” Whitehurst said. “He votes frequently against the majority of his district's point of view. So he may be out of ideological alignment, but he never was in alignment.”

District 4 includes the Sunset, which is hardly a progressive stronghold. But concerns about crime transcend neighborhoods, with voters broadly supportive of tougher tactics on crime and drugs.

San Francisco Supervisor Matt Dorsey speaks during a debate for District 6 supervisor candidates at The Standard offices on Oct. 5, 2022, in San Francisco. | Noah Berger for The Standard

In the race for District 6—which bears much of the brunt of the city’s open-air drug markets—appointed incumbent Matt Dorsey and challenger Honey Mahogany are offering broadly similar solutions to drug and housing problems

The two may differ more on style than substance, along with their political allegiances: Dorsey, a former police spokesperson, is closely allied with Breed while Mahogany, an activist who worked for former Supervisor Matt Haney, is aligned with the city’s progressive faction. 

Redistricting will make its mark here as well, with redeveloped neighborhoods in SoMa carrying more political weight. 

Back to School

Gabriela López, an SFUSD school board candidate who was recalled from her position as president of the SFUSD school board last year | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The unprecedented recall of three progressive school board members was driven by voters’ outrage over a performative equity agenda that seemed to neglect academic performance.

Chinese-speaking voters, who were instrumental in the school board recall this year, will also likely make their presence known in the decision whether to confirm Breed’s replacements on the board. Three progressive-backed challengers, including one of the recently recalled board members, are also running a buyer’s remorse play. 

School board member Ann Hsu during an interview with The Standard at Mountain Lake Park in San Francisco on Aug. 2, 2022 | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

It hasn’t necessarily been smooth sailing for Breed’s appointees. One appointee, Chinese American entrepreneur Ann Hsu, was censured over a statement that appeared to blame Black and Brown families for the school district’s “achievement gap.” 

Despite this controversy, Hsu continues to have visible support from the Asian community; most recently Sing Tao Daily, a popular Chinese-language news outlet, made her its sole endorsement in the race. 

The public school district is among the lowest-polling institutions in the city, with less than a third of poll respondents signaling some approval for the San Francisco Unified School District’s performance.

Housing Gridlock

Corey Smith with Housing Action Coalition attends a press conference at City Hall on Oct. 26. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

What’s the best way to make San Francisco affordable again? That question is playing out in the politics behind two rival propositions on the November Ballot. 

Propositions D and E both seek to expedite affordable housing—but differ greatly on the fine print, and in terms of who supports each.

Prop. D is supported by moderates and YIMBYs, who believe that more housing generally will raise all boats. Prop. E is supported by progressive nonprofits and activists who believe the solution is subsidized housing, and that uncontrolled construction will accelerate gentrification.

Poll respondents are somewhat divided on the question of what housing the city should build—affordable or market-rate—but the largest segment of respondents think we should do both. 

“If you take a look at the two housing measures, there's no difference in voters’ minds, there might be a thousand people, maybe two, maybe three that actually know and would categorize it as a left or moderate issue,” Whitehurst said. “It's dealing with nuances too granular to be an issue of ideology.”

Shades of Blue

Despite national thinkpieces to the contrary, San Francisco is not abandoning its deep-blue status. Not even close. 

San Francisco still leads California counties in registered Democrats. According to the California Secretary of State, 63% of SF voters are Democrats, 27% are no party preference and less than 7% are Republican. 

People listen as San Francisco Mayor London Breed delivers a speech during the Womens March at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco on Jan. 19, 2019. | Yalonda M James/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

It certainly lends some perspective to San Francisco’s factional moderate vs. progressive political battles.

“The core group of people that are frequent voters and distinguish in San Francisco terms what progressive is versus moderate is small,” said Whitehurst. “They do have feelings about issues, but they don't necessarily categorize it.” 

If anything, the Covid pandemic—and the economic and political upheaval in its wake—may have led to deeper soul-searching about what the city needs to chart a more sustainable path. 

“I guess you could say Covid has exposed a lot of the deficiencies that we've known about for a long time,” Latterman added.  “But the city's huge tax revenue has covered up a lot of problems. And now that money is starting to dry up Downtown. So there's a lot of things just being exposed.”