Signs of a long winter ahead for San Francisco Democrats

With the midterm elections and changes in the House, progressive priorities are in peril

Washington, D.C. — The new year may be especially rough for San Francisco Democrats.

Progressive priorities are in peril coast to coast. The Democrats’ fragile majority in the House and Senate leaves them without the votes to expand the social safety net or protect voting rights. The Supreme Court appears poised to strengthen gun rights and weaken, if not overturn, Roe v. Wade.

And the Bay Area, with polls showing Republicans holding a large advantage as the election year begins, is primed to lose more influence in Washington following the 2022 midterms than any region in the country.

None of this is for certain. A decline in COVID-19, inflation and joblessness could change the electoral outlook. Donald Trump’s electoral success should have put a nail in the coffin of political punditry years ago.

Yet the conventional wisdom in Washington, supported by multiple polls, is that 2022 will mark the end of Nancy Pelosi’s reign as House Speaker and, along with it, the formidable influence of the Bay Area’s veteran congressional delegation.

Republicans have used “San Francisco Democrats’’ as a pejorative ever since U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick used the phrase at the 1984 GOP convention, predicting that Americans will reject the party for “treating foreign affairs as an afterthought.’’

San Francisco Democrats have enjoyed unprecedented national political success ever since. Combining liberal homogeneity, wealth and political talent, the region has produced some of modern history’s most historic figures.

California became the first state to elect two women to serve side-by-side in the Senate with the election of former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Marin County Supervisor Barbara Boxer. Former San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris succeeded Boxer for four years before becoming vice president.

Pelosi, elected just a few years after Kirkpatrick’s statement, is among the most accomplished — and first female — House Speaker in history.

The muscle extends beyond powerful and pioneering women. Bay Area Democrats over the past 20 years have chaired the House’s top panels on the environment, education, labor, the military, immigration and Social Security.

However, for the same reason San Francisco enjoys outsized influence when Democrats are in power, it is marginalized when Republicans reign. The same might be said for other Democratic strongholds, however none — with the possible exception of New York City — approaches San Francisco congressional muscle.

Today, of the 50 most senior House members, five are Bay Area Democrats, an enormous advantage in an institution that favors seniority. Eleven House committees or subcommittees are chaired by Bay Area representatives.

Democrats have demonstrated that a majority — particularly one as narrow as they now hold — is no guarantee of legislative success. However, the majority also determines the agenda.

Measures — such as one introduced last month by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), to terminate the government’s designation of COVID-19 as a public health emergency, or articles of impeachment introduced by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA) the day after President Joe Biden took office — never saw the light of day in Pelosi’s House.

That would change with a Republican majority.

Firebrands like Jim Jordan (R-OH) says Republicans would kill the investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection and replace it with hearings on matters such as Hunter Biden’s finances or Anthony Fauci’s role in creating the COVID-19 virus.

And for every headline-grabbing measure, there are scores of less inflammatory, yet just as substantive, policy matters whose fate rides on which party is in control.

Jackie Speier, a relative newcomer to the delegation arriving in 2008, chairs the Military Personnel Panel of the House Armed Services Committee where her focus on sexual harassment has prompted substantial reforms.

Speier announced in November that she will not seek re-election. And while there is no chance her Peninsula district will replace her with a Republican, if Democrats lose the majority her leadership role on the committee likely will go to Mike Gallagher (R-WI), who voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act as well as a measure to prevent sexual assault in the Armed Forces.

The House committee that oversees communications and technology, on which Rep. Anna Eshoo is a senior member, would be taken over by Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), who pushed for a nationwide ban on municipal broadband networks. While any Democratic president would veto such a measure, there is no guarantee a Democrat will occupy the office after 2024.

If there is a silver lining for Democrats, it is that a majority of Americans support their highest priorities. Polls consistently show Americans support stricter gun laws and legal abortions. A plurality say government should provide more assistance to those in need, and voting access is a bigger concern than voter fraud.

San Francisco Democrats have confronted — and survived — previous Washington shocks, from Newt Gingrich’s takeover of the House in 1994 to Trump’s election in 2016.

But as the year begins, there are signs of a long winter ahead.

Marc Sandalow is associate director of the University of California’s Washington Program. He has written about Bay Area issues from Washington for nearly 30 years.

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