San Francisco has an outsized impact on the Democratic Party, but its own politics are less understood and more complicated than the national narrative would have one believe.
San Francisco native Lincoln Mitchell recently explored that dynamic in a Washington Monthly column that countered the national narrative on the city’s election outcomes.
The Standard caught up with him to hear more about where he thinks progressive politics in San Francisco should go from here.
Let’s start with your book San Francisco Year Zero, about 1978 in San Francisco and the Moscone/Milk murders, the eruption of punk rock and the Giants’ comeback. Do sports and music say as much about a city as its politics?
My colleague, Steve Goldman, the baseball writer, likes to say baseball is everything and everything is baseball. I don’t think they moved the city leftward or rightward or changed the nature of the regime. But they changed the feel of the city.
Sports teams are how a lot of people experience life. I have a friend—we grew up together then ended up in different places—and I would call him and ask, “How are you doing?” And he’d tell me how the Giants were doing. In that way, you get a real sense of the city.
One of the things about punk rock is that it rises out of post-industrial, urban America. You couldn’t do it today because there would be no empty spaces for bands to practice and people to squat, like in the ‘70s and ‘80s. So it reflects the political economics of the city.
The assassination of George Moscone brings in Dianne Feinstein as mayor, and on her first Saturday as mayor, Dec. 2, 1978, she sends cops to harass punks at the Mab [Mabuhay Gardens]. That really tells you something about the cultural direction of the city.
After 1978 we see the rise of a “moderate” politics that was nominally socially liberal, pro-business, eclipsing more reactionary voices. Would you say this is the dominant politics in San Francisco, rather than the radical left image portrayed in the national dialogue?
Not the radical left image, that's for sure. But I’m not comfortable with the word “moderate.” “Moderate” is where everyone wants to be in focus groups; it has no meaning.
San Francisco was a clear trailblazer on LGBTQ rights. Maybe not the cutting edge now, but it was a trailblazer, for which it deserves credit.
There really are conservative forces in San Francisco now. The Boudin recall wasn’t moderate. It was an attempt to put San Francisco well to the right of many American cities.
Housing disputes, I think those are hard to pinpoint. Labels don’t really work there because it’s much more multidimensional than that.
I would say moderate, what I call "hybrid" in Year Zero, forces have always been dominant. Feinstein created and exemplifies that hybrid, which is liberal on social policies and pro-business.
Before Covid, I did an event at Columbia; the moderator was a prominent professor of urban politics, a lifelong New Yorker and an advisor to Mayor Bloomberg during his first two terms. She said what Feinstein crafted here is a hybrid that Bloomberg used in New York.
That’s the way cities are governed now. So I prefer the term hybrid triumphing over progressive because it suggests some complexity.
San Francisco politicians often start as progressives when they run for school board or supervisor, but have to pivot toward the center in order to go further. Even Art Agnos did things that pissed off progressives, like trying to build a new Giants ballpark.
A lot of that is structural. I wrote a series about this for The Examiner and it was fascinating to hear locals’ feedback, mostly on Twitter when it was still a functioning social media site.
I’m a political scientist so I think about structures. The nonpartisan elections, with ranked-choice voting, produce winning coalitions of the more conservative third of the Democratic Party, the Republicans and everybody else in citywide races. Agnos and Moscone were exceptions.
It’s very hard structurally for progressives to win. Agnos lost his reelection in 1991. If that were a closed Democratic primary, he would’ve coasted to reelection. I’m not being an embittered progressive—it’s probably good that a mayor of San Francisco reflects average opinion.
The mayor in San Francisco is more powerful than a mayor in LA, but less powerful than one in New York. It’s easier for progressives to get enough power to stop that mayor. But it’s harder to get enough power to actually implement a vision of progressive urban governance.
On top of that, you have to worry about keeping the tax base here. You can talk to any mayor, current or former, of any major city, and they'll tell you that.
Which elected official would you consider the leader of the progressives now?
Two come to mind, and it’s striking that in this diverse city, they’re both straight white dudes: Aaron Peskin and Dean Preston. Aaron has, of course, much more seniority. If you asked 100 San Franciscans who are the top progressives, they would tell you those two.
Preston had a high profile this past year. He won at the ballot box on a number of issues. Many were really common sense things like Prop. H, which I think you wrote wasn’t exactly great for the progressives tactically.
I don’t think it’s great for them, but I thought London Breed’s criticism was very strange; it’s not some DSA thing. I understand why she wouldn't like it from a political angle. Preston also has the advantage of having a district he can win, where he doesn't have to worry.
There are other progressives, Connie Chan comes to mind. A very smart woman, who has really thoughtful ideas about San Francisco. But she’s got to be looking over her shoulder at what happened in District 4. GrowSF, all those folks are going to come after her next.
We have a more egregious housing crisis than other cities. And San Francisco’s progressives have traditionally allied with localist NIMBY groups. Isn’t that part of the problem?
I would reframe the housing issue as a more broad affordability crisis where housing is front and center. Part of the problem is that we take a very complicated issue and we force it into two camps: NIMBY and YIMBY. Both labels are misleading.
If you say San Francisco shouldn’t build any new housing, that’s not a serious position. I think most would agree. The question is what, where, how much? From there we get to an almost case by case level, with different political coalitions.
San Francisco politics have been defined for most of the postwar era as downtown versus the neighborhoods. Since the tech boom happened, that scale has been imbalanced by so much more money coming in.
Gordon Mar, for instance, would always be a supervisor who downtown interests wouldn't like. But there's enough money now that it’s easier to push him out now compared with 20 years ago.
So progressives naturally align with neighborhoods against downtown, it breaks like that. This goes back to the freeway revolts in the ‘50s. They brought in conservative neighborhood groups, too.
I don’t think that's what stops them from getting power here. What stops them is the demographics, which are very tough for progressives. Then there’s the election system, which, again, I’m not saying we should get rid of, but it’s very tough.
San Francisco voters have been targeted by disinformation, and the city’s been a whipping boy in the national dialogue, depicted as a grimy petri dish of socialist social experiments. Where are we in the larger scheme of things?
Well, not only am I a San Franciscan who writes about this city a lot, but I went to UC Santa Cruz, and my older son goes to Oberlin. So I feel like I’m surrounded by institutions that are kind of like Fox News whipping boys.
And I say that with a sense of pride. That's why I wrote this piece in The Washington Monthly. I really wanted to push back against that.
The right uses San Francisco to discredit progressive politics and solutions, and ultimately the Democratic Party. On Fox News, they depict the Tenderloin as 90% of San Francisco. What I don't understand is why the city leadership allows that to happen.
San Francisco is now a global city in a way that wasn't true when Agnos or Feinstein was mayor. You have to be a cheerleader for your city because you're competing with every other medium-sized city. They're not doing that. That's an enormous mistake.
Mike Ege can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org