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Politics & Policy

Voters empower cops, reform welfare: Is San Francisco still a liberal bastion?

Famously liberal San Francisco appeared to lurch to the right Tuesday, or at least move closer to the center, as frustrated voters approved two key propositions: one that increases police surveillance powers and curbs citizen oversight, and a second that will require some welfare recipients to be screened for drug use.

Polling has shown that San Franciscans are fed up with the record drug deaths, the bodies and needles strewn on sidewalks, the tents that dot their daily commutes, the retail theft and bipping—oh, the bipping!—and the shuttered businesses they once frequented.

But few could have predicted Tuesday’s results would be this decisive, elevating conversations of whether San Francisco is shifting away from being the beacon of liberalism that ruins Thanksgiving dinner conversations and gets Fox News execs sweaty.

In particular, Propositions E and F agitated the competing camps of the city’s Democratic Party. The measures pitted progressives—generally a mix of far-left activists, neighborhood preservationists and voters who prioritize social justice issues and affordable housing—against pro-business, pro-development moderates who favor tougher policies on crime.

This isn’t exactly new for San Francisco. Moderate mayors have been sparring with progressive boards for decades. Gavin Newsom most notably enraged progressives with his Care Not Cash program in 2002, which not only shifted the city toward a more services-oriented approach to homelessness but also gave him a platform to rise from a city supervisor to mayor and eventually California’s governor.

But in some ways, the city’s political discourse at this moment feels different.

Tech-aligned political groups are funneling millions into what they call commonsense campaigns and candidates, while progressives are calling these efforts a conservative push in which the city’s soul is going to the highest bidders. 

Grow SF co-founder Steven Buss holds a microphone and smiles in front of campaign signs.
GrowSF co-founder Steven Buss, whose political group has raised money from tech execs, announces election results at Tuesday's party at Anina cocktail lounge. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

“To be clear, I have been a leader around police reforms in San Francisco,” Mayor London Breed told The Standard after returns showed Prop. E with roughly 60% of the vote. “But in some instances, with this Police Commission, we’ve gone too far. We want people to have second chances—or to not commit the crimes in the first place—but we also need accountability for the greater direction of San Francisco.”

Results from Tuesday, and an even more consequential election in November, are raising the question of whether San Francisco’s vaunted reputation as a liberal bastion—home to the Summer of Love and the LGBTQ+ rights movement—is being hollowed out like an Ozempic patient. The answer, as always in this city, lies in the eyes of the beholder.

What policies constitute progress?

Propositions E and F were introduced on the heels of two recalls in 2022, which resulted in three progressive school board members and far-left District Attorney Chesa Boudin getting the boot.

Breed, a moderate Democrat who is facing a bruising reelection fight on the way to November, introduced the two measures—as well as Prop. C, which could help convert vacant office towers into housing—in what her allies called a necessary step to combat crime and the fentanyl epidemic. Meanwhile, the mayor’s progressive opponents have framed the proposals as cheap political ploys.

A bustling street scene in San Fran Francisco's Chinatown with people holding colorful protest signs with various text, including: "YES ON E FOR A SAFER SAN FRANCISCO."
People march down Stockton Street in San Francisco's Chinatown on Tuesday to encourage people to vote in favor of Propositions C, E and F. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Prop. E blocks the Police Commission from quickly passing new policies, relaxes rules on officers chasing suspects in vehicles and opens the door to police using drones. More than $1.5 million was spent in support of Prop. E, including more than $700,000 apiece from committees formed by Breed and mayoral challenger Daniel Lurie. Meanwhile, Prop. E opponents spent more than $216,000, with almost all of that coming from a committee run by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Northern California affiliate. 

Yoel Haile, who oversees the local criminal justice program for the ACLU, called Prop. E “a way to kneecap the Police Commission’s ability to institute appropriate reforms and solutions.”

He added, “It is absolutely rolling back some of the progress that has been made.”

Prop. F will require single adults who have no children and are suspected of abusing drugs to undergo drug screening and agree to some form of treatment. The money that went toward Prop. F was even more lopsided than Prop. E, with more than $478,000 spent by Breed’s committee to pass the drug treatment measure, while those in opposition spent less than $15,000, according to campaign records.

I think that the piles of money thrown into the more conservative positions and candidate’s campaigns this year serves to obscure what the true sentiment of the SF public is right now,” said Sara Shortt, who managed the anti-Prop. F campaign. “With such David and Goliath proportions in terms of resources, it’s impossible to know whether tides are indeed turning or if it is simply a result of massive marketing campaigns that have manufactured results.”

State Senator Scott Wiener speaks into a microphone at a campaign event with onlookers and cameras. Banners read "Grow SF."
State Sen. Scott Weiner delivers a speech celebrating Tuesday's election night results, which had moderate Democrats sweeping the ballot measures in early returns. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

State Sen. Scott Wiener, who won a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 2010 as part of a mini-moderate wave, said that San Francisco is “as progressive as it’s ever been.” He pointed to the 2002 Care Not Cash initiative as an example of the fine line San Francisco has walked between compassion and accountability for more than two decades.

However, the introduction of fentanyl to the illicit drug markets over the last decade has dramatically changed the state of city streets. Fatal overdoses went from 222 in 2017 to more than 800 last year. Despite not supporting Prop. F, Wiener suggested that Breed’s effort to clean up the streets is “bearing fruit.” 

Anger over performative politics

Most political experts in the city believe the full scope of San Francisco’s moderate turn may not be known until the end of this year, when the mayor’s race and key supervisor seats will be decided.

Polling by GrowSF, a pro-business and public safety political group in the city, suggests that more voters identify as moderate than progressive. Polling by the group in February found that voters identified as 21% progressive, 32% liberal, 32% moderate and 8% conservative. Those numbers remained relatively flat compared to polling done by GrowSF in 2022.

“The electorate hasn’t changed. It’s just that elected officials have stopped doing their jobs well,” GrowSF co-founder Steven Buss said. “Across the ideological spectrum, everyone is frustrated.”

A crowded indoor event with people looking attentively, some holding phones, under string lights at Anina cocktail lounge.
A crowd packs into the outdoor patio of Anina cocktail lounge to hear Mayor London Breed and others speak during Tuesday's election night party. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Todd David, the political director of the moderate, tech-aligned political group Abundant SF, suggested that Props. E and F are indicative of voters wanting elected officials to achieve results instead of focusing on “performative politics.”

“I do not see it as a change in philosophical direction or move to the middle,” David said. “What I do see is people want government services and outcomes to just be better.”

Even Supervisor Aaron Peskin, a potential progressive challenger in this year’s mayor’s race, doesn’t see signs of San Francisco abandoning its liberal values.

“I don’t think there have been any fundamental demographic or ideological changes,” he said. “I think that everybody—after eight years of Donald Trump looming over everything, after three years of Covid, after an insurrection and all of our local challenges—people are just cranky as all get out.”

Jane Kim, a former supervisor and now the California director of the progressive-aligned Working Families Party, noted that election trends are cyclical and ballot measures can be “more reflective of politics than actual policy change.”

“There are measures where San Franciscans have voted more conservatively around issues of poverty and homelessness,” Kim said. “We’ve seen many times, supervisors and elected officials use ballot measures that often have little to do with outcome but a lot to do with fundraising and raising name ID, giving an appearance like they’re doing something to address a major challenge in San Francisco.”

How much Props. E and F move the needle will come down to implementation, which is far from a San Francisco specialty. 

Joe Arellano, a spokesperson for Breed’s ballot measure committees, said the successful efforts should help the city move more to the middle, but it’s less about ideology than dealing with dynamic issues on the ground.

San Francisco’s police department is roughly 500 officers short of its required minimum staffing level, and recruitment efforts have fallen far short, with cadet classes numbering in the teens.

A group of riot police in gear stands ready on a city street, with a building labeled "San Francisco Chronicle" behind them.
San Francisco police officers will soon have greater powers to chase fleeing suspects after Proposition E passed on Tuesday. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

“It’s really less about a massive lurch in the other direction and more about giving officers tools that they can use to be more efficient,” Arellano said.

As to whether Prop. F actually compels more people into drug treatment, time will tell. Breed and others have argued that there is nothing compassionate or progressive about letting people remain trapped in the cycle of addiction.

San Francisco politics are rarely defined in black-and-white terms, so it seems apropos that a famously liberal city also known for its fog will continue to operate—for now—in the gray.