The Progressives have left the building

Come January, the Progressive old guard on the Board of Supervisors — Class of 2008 supervisors David Campos, John Avalos and Eric Mar — will head for greener pastures, term limits showing them out. What have these three accomplished, what have they learned and what can we learn from their eight years of service?

Compared to Campos, Avalos and Mar, I am often on the other side of the nebulous line we draw in San Francisco politics between left and lefter. Each of them endorsed Board of Supervisor President London Breed’s opponent this year in Breed’s re-election campaign — but that only shows that good people can make terrible choices. I respect David, John and Eric, and interviewing them for this column helped me appreciate them even more.

David Campos

The bowtied firebrand from District 9 left his job as general counsel to the San Francisco Unified School District to become supervisor in 2008. He set out to be a “voice for the underdog” and now cites his successes on: due process for children, gender pay equity, free Muni for youth, health care reforms, Navigation Centers for the homeless, Airbnb regulations and saving St. Luke’s hospital. “Be busy,” he said. “Time is short.”

Campos likes the fight. He’s proud that Fox News criticizes him. His exchanges with former Supervisor Scott Wiener — I called it the “Harvard debate club” — easily added 20 minutes to every Board of Supervisors meeting. He’s gone toe-to-toe with Sean Elsbernd, Mayor Lee and really anyone foolish enough to testify at a board meeting.

I asked David once about his former Harvard law schoolmate Sen. Ted Cruz. “Oh, he was an asshole back then, too,” he said.

David knows his cause and he pursues it with passion and integrity. “This City is something special,” he said. “People should be proud.”

John Avalos

Avalos was a progressive organizer-turned-aide to Supervisor Chris Daly before becoming District 11 supervisor. He sought to empower communities, particularly in his often-overlooked district, and believes he’s accomplished all his 2008 campaign goals. He cites his: chairmanship of the board’s budget committee, redirecting millions back to communities, his push for equity in city services, local hire legislation, new revenue for infrastructure and housing, sanctuary city legislation and environmental victories.

There’s no pretense with Avalos, no political BS. He still seems like your Chomsky-reading friend from college. Avalos once honored the anarchist writer John Ross. Ross smoked weed in the board’s waiting room, then came to the podium to refuse Avalos’ commendation. “I got a sheriff’s reprimand for that one,” he remembered, laughing.

Ultimately, it’s John’s work on the environment that stands out for me. What we were able to achieve alongside him and his aide, Jeremy Pollock, is some of the most important work I’ll do in my career.

John Avalos could come over tomorrow and smash my Nintendo with a hammer, and I would still say, “You know that guy helped make CleanPower happen?”

Eric Mar

Mar taught ethnic studies and public policy at San Francisco State University before becoming District 1 supervisor. He wanted to follow his ideals and believes — rightly — that The City is healthier for his work. He cites: his nutritional standards, water access, healthy corner store and wage-theft laws, the Dignity Fund for seniors and scheduling standards for retail workers.

Unlike his colleagues Campos and Avalos, who ran for state assembly and mayor, respectively, politics has never seemed an obvious fit for Mar. He’s not a grandstander and doesn’t like to fight, quoting instead Bruce Lee’s philosophy to “be like water.”

During a tough re-election in 2012, Mar’s campaign staff had to harangue him not to take a week off for Burning Man. Daly once texted Mar to come to an important political event. “Leave me the [expletive] alone,” Mar wrote back. “I’m at the Treasure Island Music Festival.”

Eric is humble and contemplative. You can disagree with him, but it’s almost impossible to dislike him. “I and many others will be forgotten very quickly,” he said, “but the work will be remembered.”

The Class of 2008

Supervisors Campos, Avalos and Mar — the fighter, the regular guy and the professor — now leave behind their legacies. All of them loved the job. All of them forged surprising alliances with Supervisor Mark Farrell.

And all of them seemed to approach politics as an insurgency. Mar speaks of the sinister interests with a “stranglehold on City Hall.” Avalos describes “taking apart the master’s house.”

My concern is if you are constantly storming the castle, there’s not a lot of room for disagreement within the ranks, and it’s a little too easy to view everyone as either the victimized “us” or the oppressive “them.” We could use more of the politics of “we.”

Wherever you land on that question, though, David Campos, John Avalos and Eric Mar have served our city with honor. And they have earned our thanks.

Conor Johnston is the chief of staff to Board of Supervisors President London Breed, and co-founder of the East of Twin Peaks Neighborhood Association. The views here are his own.

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