San Francisco Voters are Smarter Than They Look
By Benjamin Wachs
Last night's results are rolling in, and David Chiu, Eric Mar and John Avalos look to have pulled off the trifecta, while public power, the George W. Bush Sewage Treatment Plant and affordable housing die on the vine, and JROTC walked off with strong public support.
So let me get this straight: San Francisco voters strongly supported the most progressive candidates for office, while voting very conservatively on local ballot measures.
Huh. That’s different.
Though no one’s come right out and admitted that’s what happened – “conservative” being a word not thrown around this town lightly – most of the post-election analysis so far has been an attempt to explain this paradox.
Many of the analyses are good as far as they go: The Guardian’s Tim Redmond is doubtless right that a great deal of this is explained by district elections. Money can tip a citywide election, but has a lot less power in a district that a strong candidate can walk. Our own Will Harper is right to highlight the potent combination of "the Democratic brand" and labor support: the sweat of labor’s brow carried the day for candidates the two were aligned on, but there was nothing like that unified front on the ballot measures.
And Paul Hogarth’s contention – made on the most recent News & Booze – that the landlords vastly overplayed their hand trying to sink the progressive candidates, and it backfired, appears to have been vindicated.
These are all good points to make, but none of them really hit the key issue: Why would voters who strongly support progressive candidates not lend that kind of support to progressive ballot measures?
I struggled with this conundrum until it suddenly hit me: I was one of those voters. I’d voted (or, since I only live in one district, would have voted) progressive candidates down the line, and voted almost entirely in tandem (almost …) with the majority on ballot measures. And why had I done this? Well, the answers is so simple it should have been obvious to everyone months ago:
The candidates were good, the ballot measures were bad.
Shame on me, shame on us all, for thinking the voters were too stupid to pick up on that distinction.
The progressive candidates aren't perfect, but by and large they really do represent their districts, and they certainly have the veneer of competence. No one said these guys weren’t effective. In fact, the best the moderate opposition could come up with was a whiny cry: “They like Chris Daly! CHRIS DALY!” That’s weak tea whether you drink it on TV, Radio, or a brochure in your mail box.
Clearly the Progressives got the most important thing about district elections right: field strong candidates the voters can connect with. The moderates, by contrast, are still fielding citywide candidates in district elections: Joe Aioto Jr., Asha Safai, et. al. were great candidates for an election in which voters couldn’t possibly expect to get much personal time and attention from their candidates. But that ain’t this election. If the moderates want to be competitive in district elections, they’re going to have to get relevant in district neighborhoods – which is how it should be.
(To be sure, ranked choice voting could still throw an election to a moderate, but there's no question that the progressive candidates all ran the table for first choice votes.)
The progressive citywide ballot measures, by contrast, had to win their arguments on the merits – and on the merits they were all pretty bad laws.
A few examples:
Prop B – the affordable housing set-aside – isn't dead yet because the votes are still being counted, but as of this writing it's definitely down, which is tough for a proposal with virtually no organized opposition. Margins this tight highlight one of the bill's glaring failures: it would have passed if it hadn’t shut out the middle class. It also would have been a good law. Instead, by promising to take housing stock off the market, it threatened to raise the price of the remaining houses – thus kicking the teachers, police officers, fire fighters, and Joe Espressos who make up San Francisco’s desperately-needed middle class. They deserve affordable housing too, and it would be good city policy to help them. Prop B didn’t. So it failed.
Prop K – as I’ve written before – is an incredibly simplistic approach to a set of extremely complex issues. Not only is it unclear if prostitution even should be legalized (both from a public policy and from a moral standpoint), but Prop K ignored a fundamental reality: whether prostitution should be legal or not, illegal activities follow sex work like flies buzz around sugar. They’ve found this in the Netherlands; they’ve found this in Australia; they’ve found this in New Zealand; they’ve found this in Sweden; they’ve found this in Las Vegas. This doesn’t mean that prostitutes are criminals (aside from the obvious …) or encourage criminality (aside from the obvious …) – but it’s a clear reality that many of the same people who will try to profit from selling women’s bodies will try to profit from human trafficking, from narcotics, from violence. I don’t know how many people in this city care if two honestly consenting adults get it on for cash, but I do know that people across the city had nightmares of brothels opening up next door, hookers hanging out on their street corners, and the police being powerless to address it. Prop K offered nothing to allay these fears – it was a bad law. So it failed.
Prop V - How could a measure supporting JROTC pass in a city that is so anti-military and gay-positive? Simple. At heart, JROTC was never about these issues. It was about the school board deciding, on the basis of politics, to take away an effective school program that was popular students and families. The only arguments the board could muster were self-evidently untrue: JROTC in San Francisco wasn’t an effective military recruitment tool, and JROTC in San Francisco didn’t discriminate against homosexuals. I won’t go so far as to say Prop V was a good measure, because I can’t stand purely symbolic votes, but it won because it sprang from good arguments: schools should keep effective programs that are popular with students. End of story. So it won.
It’s this way pretty much down the line – with the one exception of Prop H, which was a good law disguised as a bad one.
The key proponent of Prop H, funding a study to determine the best way the city can transition to renewable power, makes no sense unless you understand just how deeply dysfunctional SF Government really is. Most people surmise, correctly, that you don’t really need a ballot measure to fund a study: the government can do that on its own. What they don’t understand -what I still to this day find hard to believe - is that even if the Supervisors vote to fund a study, and then override the Mayor’s veto, the Mayor can still decide not spend the money.
I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know how this works – it strikes me as a disgusting perversion of the democratic process – but I am assured that this is legal, and we’ve all seen it happen in other cases. PG&E backed Newsom simply wasn’t going to allow an independent study to happen, no matter what the legislative branch of government did.
So Prop H was needed, not because it’s a good approach, but because the rational, sane, approach has been consistently thwarted by City Hall’s irrational, insane governance.
Prop H’s supporters did a piss poor job explaining this, and so the voters didn’t pass it.
The only progressive measures that did well this election were not hot button issues - they were nuts and bolts measures like N and O, small tax inreases or policy decisions that would make the government more solvent and effective, and which were often backed by figures across the ideological spectrum.
Put it all together and, despite all the noise, it looks surprisingly like this election wasn’t really about the Progressive movement or repudiating Bush: it was about good government. Voters could get behind responsible changes that had a clear, practical justifications, and had little patience for much else.
And I must say I’m surprisingly proud of our voters. They're smarter than they look.