Opinion: Why S.F. seems impossible to govern, Part III

The nonpartisan system and quirky math of electing San Francisco’s mayors

One of the central paradoxes of San Francisco politics is that despite The City’s reputation for being far left, San Franciscans consistently elect moderate mayors who are firmly in the center of the Democratic Party.

During the last half century, only two San Francisco mayors, who served a total of seven years, could be described as progressive. George Moscone’s time in office was cut short when he was assassinated after only three years as mayor. Art Agnos failed to win reelection after one term.

San Francisco’s other mayors over the past few decades — Dianne Feinstein, Frank Jordan, Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom, Ed Lee and current incumbent London Breed — all got elected despite very limited support from progressives and all, except for Feinstein, faced a significant challenge from the left in at least one of their campaigns.

The paucity of progressive mayors in a place that is widely believed to be the most left-of-center big city in the whole country may reveal something profound about The City. But there is another, more technical, explanation: the electoral system itself.

San Francisco elects its mayor through nonpartisan elections rather than partisan primaries, like most Northeastern and Midwestern cities. For most of this century, San Francisco voters have used ranked-choice voting. But from 1975 to 2003, there was a runoff between the top two candidates if neither candidate got 50% of the vote. Before that, there was no runoff and whoever got the most votes on the first ballot became mayor.

The switch from actual runoffs to ranked-choice voting received a lot of attention. Yet it is the nonpartisan system that gives the advantage to moderate Democrats.

Nonpartisan elections are a Progressive Era reform intended to weaken political parties and ensure better governance. The extent to which that has occurred in San Francisco can be debated, but the difficulty this has raised for progressive mayoral candidates in San Francisco cannot be overlooked.

As anybody who has voted for mayor in San Francisco knows, all of the candidates are on the same ballot and every voter must rank or, before that, choose from among the candidates. This is an inclusive way to run an election, and makes it easier for some kinds of candidates.

In San Francisco today, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of about 10 to 1. The Democrats have been the majority party for decades, but the gap between the two parties has grown in recent years. Nonetheless, in many recent elections, solid support among Republicans — who are now about 6% of San Francisco’s electorate — has been the margin of victory for moderate Democrats over their progressive challengers. The latter may find people like Breed, Lee or Newsom too liberal, but prefer them to more progressive challengers like Mark Leno, John Avalos or Matt Gonzalez.

Thus for decades the winning coalition for mayor has almost always included moderate Democrats and Republican voters with progressives on the outside looking in.

This was the path for mayors like Jordan, Lee, and even Breed, all of whom would have struggled to win a closed Democratic primary in which only Democrats were allowed to vote. In 1991, for example, when Jordan narrowly defeated Agnos in a close runoff, it was apparent that if the election had taken the form of a closed primary followed by a general election between nominees, Agnos would have drubbed Jordan, a much more conservative Democrat, and gone on to reelection. A similar outcome might have happened in 2018 when Breed defeated by a very narrow margin the more progressive Leno, who was endorsed by the San Francisco Democratic Party.

There is ample evidence Democrats in San Francisco are generally progressive. For example, in the presidential primary in which only Democrats and those with no party were allowed to vote in 2020, Bernie Sanders won 34% of the primary vote in San Francisco, while Joe Biden won only 24%. Elizabeth Warren finished a close third with 20% of the vote. Similarly, the San Francisco Democratic Party, led by Honey Mahogany, is one very much on the left end of that party’s political spectrum.

So if San Francisco had partisan elections for mayor, it is likely an electorate that gave more than half of its votes to progressives in the recent presidential primary would nominate a progressive candidate for mayor. It is also very likely San Francisco, because of its huge Democratic majority, would then elect that candidate in the general election.

This is how cities like New York run their mayoral elections. Currently, New York is led by Bill de Blasio who campaigned, and to a lesser extent, governed as a progressive. David Dinkins, the last Democratic mayor of New York before de Blasio also was very progressive for his time. However, New York’s next mayor, Eric Adams, who will take office Jan. 1, is a moderate Democrat.

Ironically, nonpartisan elections also make it almost impossible for a Republican to get elected mayor in San Francisco because no Republican, even a hypothetical liberal one, would have a chance to beat out a moderate Democrat in The City’s current political environment. The last Republican to win election for mayor was George Christopher in 1959. The last Republican to even come close to winning was John Barbagelata in 1975.

Republicans rarely win in big, mostly liberal cities, but when they do, it is by running against a Democratic candidate seen as too liberal, or against a failed progressive incumbent. This is how Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg got elected in New York. The latter was also buoyed by his enormous wealth, which he has never hesitated to spend promoting his candidacies. However, nonpartisan elections mean Republicans generally must compete for voters with moderate Democrats, something Giuliani and Bloomberg never had to do until they were incumbents.

San Francisco’s nonpartisan election system, on the one hand, ensures that every voice is heard, even that of Republicans in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. Yet through the quirky math of The City’s election system, it means Republicans get their choice for mayor more frequently than the progressive Democrats who far outnumber them.

Read the series

Part I: The city administrator

Part II: The seven citywide elected officials

Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

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