San Francisco’s ruling elite was doing some intensive self-therapy the morning after Tuesday’s city elections. “OK, we’re good,” the pay-to-play crowd at City Hall anxiously reassured themselves. “We beat down Propositions F and I, we ousted Ross Mirkarimi and Ed Lee got 56 percent of the vote. That amounts to a mandate for more of the same, right?”
Of course, there was the unfortunate election of troublesome Aaron Peskin in the District 3 Supervisor’s race. But, hey, as the Chronicle’s C. W. Nevius — the voice of corporate San Francisco — wrote, it’s not “the end of the civilized world.” Aaron has mellowed, right? We can work with him.
But all this cheery self-affirmation is whistling in the dark. The truth is, Election Day was just the initial tremor of an earthquake that will deeply shake The City’s status quo. Even the mixed results of the low-turnout election on Tuesday contain signs of the revolution to come. Mayor Lee’s imperial rule at City Hall was exposed to have no coattails. The mayor and his rich tech friends put all their chips on Julie Christensen, but she lost decisively to Peskin, whose campaign was fueled by rising fear and anger over the growing inability of middle-class and working families to live in The City, and by Peskin’s promise to be a counterweight to the boomtown billionaires who dominate the Lee administration.
Meanwhile, Lee himself was not exactly given a resounding stamp of approval by voters, with 44 percent of the electorate casting ballots for the “anybody-but-Lee” underfinanced and little-known candidates who challenged him. And in beating back Prop. F with an obscene display of moneyball politics, Airbnb simply stoked the rising resentment in San Francisco against the arrogance of the tech elite.
Peskin has already signaled that, with a new progressive majority on the Board of Supervisors, Airbnb will be expected to abide by city laws.
While the election contained the seeds of the political and social upheaval to come, it did not fully reveal the enormous fury and desperation that is building in this city. Anyone who has eyes — and a heart — can feel it, simply by walking the streets. In the midst of the greatest explosion of wealth since the San Francisco Gold Rush, we are surrounded by misery and squalor. Skyrocketing evictions, out-of-control homelessness. A public school teacher in the Mission recently told me his school must now psychologically address the growing anxieties of the children who come to school each day not knowing how long their families will have a roof over their heads.
The skyline is filled with cranes, shiny skyscrapers and equally soulless Lego-like apartment buildings — signs of the new prosperity Lee likes to crow about. But this frenzied development, courtesy of our failed planning system, not only brings unbearable traffic congestion and urban chaos, it has left out the vast majority of San Francisco’s population from its bubble prosperity. The San Francisco tableau we see daily looks like this: Young masters of the universe tumbling out of the latest hot restaurant, eyes glued to their glowing iPhones as they step over the human wreckage in soiled rags at their feet.
This, of course, is an unsustainable state of human affairs, particularly in a city named for Francis, patron saint of compassion. You can’t throw people out of their homes and make them feel unwanted in their own city without some type of blowback. And we see it everywhere these days. The vandalized Teslas and shattered-glass exteriors of $500-a-couple restaurants. Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg, who built himself a palace in a formerly middle-class neighborhood, has to surround himself with 24-hour security. Is this really the way that even the insulated 1 percent wants to live? As I wrote in my book, “Season of the Witch,” the last time San Francisco went through major social convulsions, as it tried absorb waves of newcomers and new values, it was not pretty. There were assassinations, terror bombings, riots and mayhem. It was a kind of disruption that no tech investor would welcome.
But the election of Aaron Peskin and the revival of the city’s progressive movement gives San Francisco new hope. If the power elite does indeed decide it can work with progressives to find solutions to the city’s urgent problems, we can avoid the madness of the past. Our city needs to once again become a beacon of “San Francisco values” – diversity, social justice and creativity – instead of a symbol of runaway greed and selfishness.
David Talbot is the author of “Season of the Witch” and the recently published book “The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America’s Secret Government.” He is co-chair of VisionSF, a grassroots group seeking new solutions to the city’s problems.