Progressives struggled in elections across the U.S. What does that mean for San Francisco?

City residents didn’t vote Tuesday, but they’ll be exceptionally busy in 2022

While national pundits puzzled over a dramatic swing to the right in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races following Tuesday’s election, observers of local races had to contend with a more complex picture. Big city progressive mayoral candidates didn’t fare particularly well as a group, but tenant activists notched big wins, and police reform efforts were by and large a wash. What it all means for San Francisco depends on your perspective.

Despite some unusual elections, and the ongoing debate on what “progressive” and “moderate” really mean in big city politics, farther left mayoral candidates struggled on the whole.

In Seattle, moderate Bruce Harrell is on track to beat progressive M. Lorena González in a landslide. Incumbent Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey fended off more progressive opponents in a ranked choice election. In Buffalo, incumbent Mayor Byron Brown will likely win a write-in campaign against his socialist challenger, India Walton, who previously defeated him in the Democratic primary. In New York City, Eric Adams cruised to victory against his Republican opponent, following a tight Democratic primary race where he was viewed as the moderate candidate.

These results were not exactly unexpected, says Randy Shaw, director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and an observer of local politics nationwide on his blog, Beyond Chron, since off-year, low-turnout elections like this one tend to be hard on progressives. Still, the outcome in Seattle, which is often compared to San Francisco politically, was particularly surprising for Shaw. “There’s no way to spin that, but as a very major defeat for progressive and housing interests and labor in that election.”

There was, however, a different story in Boston. Progressive Michelle Wu won a decisive mayoral victory there, on a campaign that included a municipal Green New Deal, making public transit free, and fighting to instate rent control in Massachusetts. Right next door, Cambridge retained its “pro-housing majority” on the city council, Shaw says, adding that the New England college town appears to be moving in a similar direction as Berkeley.

Róisín Isner, who runs a progressive group called Daybreak Pac alongside former state Senate candidate Jackie Fielder, says Wu’s focus on climate change helped make the difference. “Young people really care about climate justice, and they throw down for those candidates because this is our planet,” she said.

Wu’s support of increased tenant protections tracks with a larger trend: Voters in both Minneapolis and St. Paul authorized their city councils to instate rent control.

The election results in Minneapolis were particularly muddled. The city “went strong for rent control, and also went strong against police reform, and elected the more conservative incumbent mayor,” Shaw said. The police reform measure would have dismantled the Minneapolis Police Department, and replaced it with a new Department of Public Safety.

In Minneapolis and Seattle, which both saw extended protests as well as rioting following the killing of George Floyd, “the police issue really hurt progressive interests,” Shaw said.

In other cities, police reform measures were more successful. In Austin, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have required the city to hire at least two police officers for every 1,000 residents. Cleveland voters opted to create a powerful new police oversight body. And in Philadelphia, progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner, who is often compared to San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin, won re-election after a tough primary.

While San Francisco didn’t hold an election Tuesday, The City is on the brink of an exceptionally busy 2022, with as many as four elections coming down the pike. Next year, San Francisco voters will vote in recall elections against three school board members as likely one against Boudin as well. In addition, The City will likely see a primary and regular election to replace Assemblymember David Chiu, who was just installed as city attorney. The most well-known candidates in that election are Supervisor Matt Haney and former Supervisor David Campos, both of whom identify with the progressive wing of San Francisco politics.

With progressives facing headwinds nationwide, there could be a greater temptation for some candidates in next year’s elections to move to the center. At least that’s what Campos’ political consultant, Eric Jaye, believes about Haney.

“Matt Haney has made himself the candidate of the moderates. This past week, I think he made himself the candidate of the developers,” he said, referring to Haney’s support of a 500-unit apartment complex in SoMa that was delayed by a majority of the Board of Supervisors.

Ace Smith, Haney’s political consultant, did not respond immediately to a request for comment. In a previous interview with The Examiner, Smith rejected the notion that Haney was taking the moderate lane in this election, saying, “We see the race as Matt Haney is a progressive…. Voters are going to ultimately have to make a choice of who has a record of getting things done.”

Still, Jaye thinks Tuesday’s election holds lessons even for dyed-in-the-wool progressives. Economic issues, rather than polarizing policing and education questions, should be at the center of progressives’ message. “I don’t think the progressives should be fearful of the outcome (Tuesday); in fact, I think they should double down on their ability to speak for working voters who are being increasingly immiserated by an economy where costs are rising faster than wages.”

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