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The Progressive Capacity Problem

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The progressive ideas that are today derided by business lobbyists and moderate politicos are, in fact, time travelers from the future. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)


What follows is the latest installment in “San Francisco Progressives Are (Lovely But) Often Foolish, An Infinity-Part Series” …

San Francisco progressives accomplish many things, despite holding a minority on the Board of Supervisors and a statistically insignificant number of citywide offices throughout modernity. We have passed trailblazing legislation, improving lives locally and creating precedents that get replicated elsewhere in far more hostile political climates. San Francisco always has been — and I pray always will be — a safe harbor for policies born as crackpot fantasies that reach the American mainstream. The progressive ideas that are today derided by business lobbyists and moderate politicos for being reckless, irresponsible and impractical are, in fact, time travelers from the future.

Yet, progressives lose elections. A lot. A great deal of defeat is in the job description. When you take up the cause of social and economic underdogs, it is unavoidable to be buried in an avalanche of corporate campaign cash. Much of the media won’t give you a fair shake. Establishments will oppose you and tell you they’re doing you a favor. This is the price of being from the future.

Every election we lose, we applaud ourselves for almost winning despite being outspent. Almost is righteous, but useless. Since we know we will be outspent, how do we win despite being outspent eight- or 31-to-one?

I am not convinced that there is an insurmountable hurdle of electability. Too much is made of who is endorsing who, though it is an easy shorthand. Progressives could win more elections if we solve our problems of capacity.

In 2016, we learned that we are not able to run winning campaigns for state Senate, four contested supervisorial races, 5-10 contested ballot measures, and support state and national work. We don’t have enough volunteers, donors, campaign managers, paid organizers and pollsters to cover that much turf at once. And we don’t have structures to make decisions about prioritizing with limited resources so we don’t get spread too thin.

Progressives can win supervisorial races despite being outspent when we are united around a candidate who is relevant to the concerns of people in the district and the moderate candidate is weak. This combination accounted for the victories of supervisors Aaron Peskin, Sandra Fewer and Hillary Ronen. Today, we have supervisors London Breed and Ahsha Safai, who moved to the left to win elections, but now sponsor legislation to increase profits for developers who are unfairly prevented from making all possible profits by democracy.

It was predictable that they would slide back to the right, but they won because progressives weren’t united around their opponents. In District 5, the tenants groups were mostly left alone by the other main forces, and the hotel workers sat out District 11 to focus on losing the Senate race. Perhaps if we had been able to agree to focus on one race, we could have won one instead of losing several.

We don’t win contested citywide races. With five supervisor races next year and an open mayor’s race the year after, progressives only have a chance if we start building capacity now. We need fewer drop-dead litmus test issues. We’re tempted to kick people out of the tent over every disagreement. The right doesn’t because they know tax cuts win them abortion bans, or vice versa.

We need a lot more campaign managers, field organizers and volunteers. We need to be training and supporting a diverse bench of candidates to build a base in every district in The City. Expanding means being less clubby.

Oh, and we need a vision for governance. State law limits what local government can do, and progressives don’t have enough transformational ideas that could be implemented locally to solve the defining problems of the day. Instead, our policies mostly mitigate, and we could do better.

Otherwise, we unnecessarily surrender The City to the checkbooks masquerading as humans.

Nato Green is a San Francisco-based comedian, writer and activist. See him on Wednesday, March 22, for Riffer’s Delight, a Mystery Science Theater-style live movie mocking show. This month they ridicule “Top Gun.”

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