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SF’s new progressive era could come to a halt in November

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The San Francisco Board of Supervisors chamber at City Hall in San Francisco. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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San Francisco’s political progressive movement may continue to surge — or find itself checked come November.

With 64 days before voters head to the polls on Nov. 8 — early voting at City Hall begins on Oct. 11 — campaigns are expected to kick into high gear, as they traditionally do, after Labor Day weekend.

Adding to intensifying politics, the Board of Supervisors returns today from its four-week-long summer legislative recess.

Some nine months ago, Supervisor Aaron Peskin ushered in a new progressive era by defeating Mayor Ed Lee’s appointment to the District 3 seat, Julie Christensen, and taking over the seat he previously served from 2001-2009, another time the progressives dominated the board’s politics.

Peskin’s victory last year created a six-vote progressive majority voting bloc, after progressives had been in the minority, leading to a left-leaning agenda at odds with the mayor and his moderate allies.

The progressives succeeded in passing Proposition C at the ballot in June, which increased affordable housing requirements in new developments; placed a moratorium on converting single-room occupancy units; and passed tougher controls on short-term rentals, over which Airbnb is suing The City in federal court.

A handful of progressive-backed measures are also on the November ballot that take aim at the mayor’s power, such as the creation of a public advocate or splitting up the mayoral appointment power of the board overseeing the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

The progressive faction also “took back” the Democratic County Central Committee, or DCCC, in June, which makes some of the most influential candidate endorsements in local politics.

But with six seats on the board up for grabs in November, including three currently held by progressives who are termed out, there’s a chance the progressives could lose their board majority.

And in at least one contest, they may not be doing themselves any favors.

Progressive unity questioned

Supervisor John Avalos, a progressive, is termed out of his District 11 seat, and is supporting Kimberly Alvarenga as his progressive successor. Alvarenga is among five candidates vying for the seat, including Francisco Herrera, Ahsha Safai, Berta Hernandez and Magdalena De Guzman.

But the endorsements for this race have exposed a weakness in progressive unity.

“I am disappointed how progressives have some divided loyalties,” Avalos told the San Francisco Examiner in a series of text messages. “One of Peskin’s biggest supporters David Ho, who helped get him elected and who wields a considerably powerful electoral apparatus among Chinese voters citywide, is backing Safai and modulating the endorsements of several key people.”

Ho is a community organizer and former employee with the nonprofit Chinatown Community Development Center.

“Peskin has not endorsed; [Supervisor Jane] Kim has dual endorsed and [Supervisor Norman] Yee has either not endorsed or dual endorsed. The ‘no endorsement’ vote at the DCCC seemed to indicate that these elected were practicing some independence from Ho,” Avalos continued. “Safai is supported more strongly by the people whom Peskin, Yee and Kim have the most political battles yet they all want to be on David Ho’s good side.”

Ho rejected Avalos’ assertions. “Why put it on David Ho? I think people have their own political intentions and agenda,” said Ho, who confirmed he is backing Safai. “Does David Ho control Aaron Peskin? Come on.” In terms of the DCCC vote, Ho said, “If I tried, I failed spectacularly but I was there for Victor Hwang.” Ho is the political consultant for Hwang, a Superior Court judge candidate.

Peskin did tell the Examiner during a Thursday editorial board meeting that he will endorse in the District 11 contest but he would not say when or who. On Monday, Peskin denied he is being influenced by Ho and said Avalos “is welcomed to his opinion,” adding that the District 11 race is complicated because there is a “divided house of labor.”

Yee, who is up for re-election in District 7, and Kim did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Some progressives see District 11 as the one seat most at risk of causing the progressives to lose the board majority. .

Meanwhile, Peskin wouldn’t say Thursday whether he would endorse in the District 5 race, where board President London Breed is up for re-election against tenant advocate and progressive Dean Preston, who Avalos recently endorsed. Breed doesn’t expect Peskin to endorse Preston, she told the Examiner.

Should Breed prevail and the progressives lose the majority, there is some precedent for Breed to continue serving as president, as the previous two board presidents served multiple two-year terms. The board will vote Jan. 8 on who will be board president, arguably the second most powerful position at City Hall — for instance, the president assigns which committees board members serve on.

For what it’s worth, Peskin said he’s not interested in being board president next year. “Been there, done that,” he said. “I am sure should the progressives have a majority that there will be other alternatives to myself.”

Framing the stakes

As progressive interests seek to prevail this November, they are framing the debate, in part, around money.

“These past six years, San Francisco has seen the greatest shift of wealth to the upper income brackets,” Avalos said. “Overall, I am concerned that the powerful economic interests that have done so well these past few years while working people have fared so poorly, will continue to hold sway over our politics.”

Jim Ross is a political consultant for tenant advocates and labor unions backing progressive candidates in the open races in Districts 1, 9 and 11, that’s Sandra Fewer, Hillary Ronen and Alvarenga, respectively.

Ross cast the contests as less ideological and more about financial interests, putting developer, real estate and the tech community on one side and the labor and neighborhood groups on the other.

The divide, he said, is whether large companies and developers “should be dictating city policy around development, around regulation, around taxation or should there be at least a fairer system across the board.”

Board versus mayor

The mayor, whose popularity plummeted leading up to his re-election last November, is keeping his distance from the supervisor races. When asked which candidates the mayor is endorsing, mayoral spokesperson Deirdre Hussey said in an email that “the mayor has other priorities this November.” Hussey said the mayor has no comment on the board’s performance during the past nine months.

Ross said the lack of the mayor’s endorsement in those three races, that “are so important to the mayor, so important to his allies,” suggests his own poor political standing. “I can’t remember a mayor where basically the candidates he is supporting weren’t listing him [as an endorsement],” Ross said.

Peskin, who has blasted the mayor in the past for his cozy relationship with tech interests, took aim Thursday at the mayor’s chief-of-staff Steve Kawa, going so far as to say Kawa should retire.

“I think he has helped create this kind of politics of embattlement,” Peskin said. “It’s not an open, gregarious administration. It’s not like they want to partner with people or work with people. It’s very guarded, it’s very insulated”

Still, Peskin emphasized he has no issues personally with the mayor.

“Having said that, personally between the mayor and I, we are fine,” Peskin said. “But that doesn’t translate once his senior deputies get in the way.”

When pressed why Kawa, the largely behind-the-scenes figure who also served as chief of staff for former mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom, should resign, Peskin said, “I think it’s policy, I think it’s politics, I think it’s personality and I think it’s time.”

In response, Hussey, the mayor’s spokesperson, said, “The mayor has a delightful relationship with Supervisor Peskin and Supervisor Peskin is welcome to his opinions and expressing them fully and openly.”

Ross said Peskin’s characterization of the mayor’s administration was accurate. “The mayor’s office is as isolated from the rest of the policy-making world of San Francisco as I have ever seen it,” Ross said. “But I don’t know if Steve Kawa resigning changes that. You might need a new mayor to change that.”

Ross added that Kawa is effective at City Hall because it is largely a place built on relationships. “So many people know [Kawa]. He has an ability to get things done that would be hard to replicate in any other staffer,” Ross said. “When it comes to implementing policies there’s nobody’s better.”

Hussey defended the mayor as being inclusive in his decision making. “Like other strong leaders, Mayor Lee takes input from a variety of people” including former mayors and community leaders, while also drawing on his own past experiences, she said.

Breed, who ran on the moderate slate for the DCCC in June, acknowledged the frustration in The City.

“There is a lot of blame on the mayor for a lot of things. I’m not here to defend him.” Breed added, “Working with him and his administration, it can be quite challenging and frustrating.”

As for the board’s own dynamics, Breed said the progressive shift on the board with Peskin’s presence has created “some challenges.” For instance, the progressives used an unprecedented maneuver to call for a special board meeting in July.

“It was a sign of disrespect,” Breed said. “But we got that straight and moved passed it.”

She said that even with the current political dynamic, “I feel the things I want to do are getting done.”

Senate race

Another factor in the board’s power balance is the outcome of the state Senate race between the progressive Supervisor Jane Kim and the moderate Supervisor Scott Wiener. Whoever wins will leave a vacancy on the board that under current rules the mayor would appoint to fill.

If Kim wins, that means District 6 would likely be filled by a moderate politician. However, if voters approve Proposition D this November, the mayor could only appoint a placeholder who could not run in an election to fill that seat.

Mayor’s race 2019

As soon as November is over, the political focus will shift to the mayor’s race in 2019, when Lee is termed out of office. The board’s dynamics are expected to be greatly influenced by this race as at least three board members are rumored potential mayoral candidates: Breed, Peskin and Supervisor Mark Farrell.

Ross said that multiple board members vying for the top city post could blur the ideological lines as they would seek to build new political coalitions.

“The progressive-moderate split will become much murkier after this election,” Ross said. That means, he said, each board member will start as a “coalition of one” and have to figure out issue by issue how to achieve the six votes needed for passing legislation.

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