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Is San Francisco Really Losing Its Liberal Values?

Scott Lucas | February 19, 2014 | Story Politics

Is San Francisco getting more conservative? That's the provocative thesis of a thoughtful piece that Salon published this weekend. According to author George McIntire (full disclosure: he's a friend and a former San Francisco intern), "in the age of the Google bus, [the city's] reputation as the beacon on the hill for liberalism faces the possibility of being relegated to the past." The story goes on to predict that as San Francisco voters get richer, San Francisco values will lurch rightward. Goodbye Happy Meal bans and rent control. Hello free market.

But while McIntire is right to worry that rising costs could run progressive ground troops—the tenant's rights fights, the union organizers—out of the city, the second half of his argument doesn't quite compute. The piece suggests that as lower-income voters are priced out, they will be replaced with conservatives, an assumption that isn't quite borne out by reality. Most San Franciscans, both politicians and voters, are pretty much all flaming liberals. And that's not likely to change with the economic tides.

What the article is doing is defining one particular–and out of power—faction with San Francisco values writ large, and then suggesting that because our progressives don't happen to control the mayor office's or the Board of Supervisors at the moment that San Francisco's resident's core political beliefs are withering. You may not agree with moderate politicians like Mayor Ed Lee or Supervisor Scott Wiener on development issues, which is fine, but it's a misstep to conclude from that they aren't flaming lefties.

Reality check: By and large, the city's current office holders are bleeding heart, Elizabeth Warren-style lefties. Only if you exist at the radical left edge on the political spectrum (hello, former Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond, whom the piece quotes heavily), could you believe otherwise. If anything, San Francisco is a city divided into Fidel Castros and Che Guevaras. Sure Che might be a whisker to the left, but Fidel isn't exactly Richard Nixon.

Take same-sex marriage. Who was it that engaged in civil disobedience ten years ago by allowing same-sex couples to marry? Whether you like it or not, that was moderate mayor Gavin Newsom. How about that proposal for a $15 dollar minimum wage that would put SF among, or maybe even at, the highest in the country? That's coming from Mayor Lee. A tax on sodas and sugary beverages? That's the proposal from supervisor Wiener. In what universe are these policy positions leaning conservative?

The point of this litany isn't to fluff the feathers of the moderates. They're hardly a perfect bunch. Furthermore, San Francisco progressives have accomplished some impressive victories in recent years. Progressive standard-bearer supervisor David Campos has made in-roads on immigration. His ally on the Board John Avalos has tightened tenant protections. They might not run the board anymore, but they're doing all right.

How does the tech industry fit into all of this? It remains to be seen. The article is correct when it says that "The full extent of the repercussions from this phenomenon won’t likely be known and understood for a significant period of time." But would any reasonable observer conclude that the effect of the tech industry is going to erode San Francisco's civic support of marriage equality, environmental protection, or open city data? It's not the techies who are marching in that Right to Life parade every year down Market, after all.

So what's this all really about? The substantive difference between the two camps, and the one, between the lines, that Salon is really worried about is housing affordability. One side generally wants greater tenant protections like rent control and anti-eviction laws, and the other generally speaking wants to increase the amount of new building. That's a good debate and there are worthy points on all sides. Welcome to local politics: The tempers are so high because the stakes are so low.

The development and affordability fight isn't a fight for the soul of San Francisco values. It's just a fight about development and affordability. It's hard enough to address it without throwing all that other stuff in the mix.

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