San Francisco's rightward turn: Why it may no longer be America's iconic liberal city

With an influx of rich people and exodus of poor and middle class, a less liberal San Francisco could soon emerge

Published February 16, 2014 5:00PM (EST)

     (<a href=''>IM_photo</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(IM_photo via Shutterstock)

The city of San Francisco holds a unique and storied place in liberal America. It’s the place where radically liberal ideas that never see the light of day in the rest of the county come to fruition. Ten years ago, the city became the first municipality in the country to issue same-sex marriage licenses. It has among the strongest tenants rights in the whole country, the highest minimum wage at $10.68, and universal healthcare. A list of banned items in the city include: happy meals, plastic bags, the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies, and the mixing of compostable trash with regular trash. It’s the home of the beat movement, the Summer of Love and Harvey Milk.

In the 2003 runoff mayoral election, Matt Gonzalez, the Green Party candidate, earned 47 percent of the vote and scared the opposition (Gavin Newsom) so much so that one of Newsom’s financial backers, Walter Shorenstein, personally flew in Bill Clinton to campaign for Newsom. This is a town where perennial right-wing boogeyman Nancy Pelosi is considered a moderate and in some circles, a conservative. And if you need more reason to be convinced why San Francisco is America’s most important and iconic liberal city, then let me ask you this: Have you ever heard the term “New York Values” or “Seattle Values”?

The reason why we have “San Francisco Values” is due to the scores of working-class activists over the years who fought long and hard for these values. Now in the age of the Google bus, that cherished identity, and reputation as the beacon on the hill for liberalism, faces the possibility of being relegated to the past.

The city is currently experiencing a massive and swift demographic change like nothing it has ever seen in its history. Hundreds of families continue to leave the city due to eviction and huge rent hikes. The Mission District saw the price for the average apartment rental go up by $591/40 percent between 2011 and 2012, in the Western Addition neighborhood those numbers were $958/53 percent. The tech-fueled rise in the cost of living has had such an impact on the city, we now use the term "hyper-gentrification" to describe it. In a recent interview with Time magazine Mayor Ed Lee defined middle class as between $80,000 and $150,000. In addition, even with its high minimum wage, you would still need to work at least three full-time minimum wage jobs to afford to live in a two-bedroom apartment in any neighborhood in the city.

The political conventional wisdom states that lower-income and middle-class people are generally more liberal and less conservative than upper-class people. After all, CNN exit polls from the 2012 presidential election indicated that Obama won voters who earn less than $50K by 22 points while Romney won voters who earn more than $100K by 10 points. Ergo, the San Francisco of tomorrow will be just regular liberal instead very liberal, right?

University of San Francisco politics professor Corey Cook, who says “there is definitely a shift going on in San Francisco’s population,” points out that “while we’re seeing a surge in jobs in San Francisco and increasing tech presence … there’s simply not a lot of evidence to suggest that electoral outcomes have been affected by the changing population.” Professor Cook believes that a rightward shift is happening in San Francisco regardless of the tech boom and population change: “Absent the tech boom and population change, we’re seeing a significant change in the local political context. The city has moved in a pro-growth, pro-business direction.” On the prospect of witnessing another 2003 Matt Gonzalez-type campaign, Cook says that is unlikely in this decade, given the mayor’s popularity and voters’ overall satisfaction with the city’s direction despite the increase in the cost of living.

There are of course special interests in the city that would love to see a less progressive and more business-friendly San Francisco. Former editor of the progressive alt-weekly the San Francisco Bay Guardian Tim Redmond says the idea of a moderate San Francisco is nothing new and has been an open agenda of downtown business groups for decades: “At least 10 years, there was a group called ‘Committee on Jobs,’ a downtown lobbying group, who said that one of the goals of the organization was to turn San Francisco into a city of more homeowners and fewer tenants and more wealthy people because they would vote in a more conservative way.”

In the discussion of whether a richer city means a less progressive one, Redmond highlights the Haight-Ashbury as the exception to the rule that says rich are more likely to vote conservative and poor more likely to vote liberal. “The Haight is the counterexample. It is one of the most progressive voting areas in the entire city. It has undergone extensive gentrification under the last 15 to 20 years.” currently lists the median home price for the neighborhood as $1,148,000.

This is certainly reassuring news for anyone concerned about the city’s identity, but what makes San Francisco liberalness isn’t the 85-15 votes for Democratic candidates, it’s the die-hard protesters, it’s voracious union rallies, and other forms of spirited activism. If all the ground troops needed to advance progressive causes are priced out of the city, who will fight for tenants rights and unions and against conservative policies? One longtime union organizer told Redmond, “I’ve got hotel workers forced to live in Contra Costa County. How am I supposed to get them to a rally after work? They’ve got an hour and a half commute, feed the kids, by then its 8:30 at night. We’ve noticed in the labor movement that as members move further away, it’s harder to organize events.”

Right now a good portion of people moving to San Francisco are tech workers, who work for the giants like Twitter and Google or fresh-faced start-ups like Lyft and Tinder. The tech-worker vote and its political identity have yet to materialize or be courted à la “Nascar dads” and “soccer moms.” Salon co-founder, San Francisco magazine executive editor and author of “Cool Gray City of Love” Gary Kamiya, who agrees with the idea the city will likely be less liberal on issues of rent and development, posits that “the new techies are not as a group really conservative. Many are fairly apolitical. They lean libertarian, more left-libertarian than right-libertarian.” As for the influx of the non-tech rich, Kamiya says that “there are other wealthy people coming in from all over the world who are probably traditional, vote-their-tax-bracket conservatives. No one knows how it will shake out, but mere wealth is not an infallible marker of political views or party affiliation anywhere, and definitely not in San Francisco.”

Almost every story about the city in the past couple of months in national publications like the New York Times have been solely about the tech boom backlash. Every time protesters stop a Google bus it’s national news and a trending topic on Twitter. A recent transportation board meeting — which is usually one of the most uneventful government functions — addressing whether to charge Google buses to use public bus stops attracted a swarm of reporters due to electrified tension surrounding the issue. The Google bus backlash itself is a subset of the overall tech backlash, which is also a section of the overall backlash against cost of living in the city and the Bay Area as a whole.

San Francisco is trending right but is it possible for the backlash to yank it back to its far-left position? Longtime community development activist and board member of the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council Calvin Welch strongly believes that San Francisco voters are becoming more progressive and more anti-market rate development. One difference, Welch notices, between today’s boom/backlash and the 2000 boom/backlash is the increased concern about gentrification from middle-class homeowners and residents: “The difference between now and 2000 is 13 years of stagnant middle-class income. In 2000 people were concerned with gentrification over there, ‘Gee, it’s too bad the Mission is experiencing gentrification’ Today the sentiment of middle-class voters is, ‘It’s happening to me! It’s happening in my neighborhood.’ This isn’t about gentrification happening over there, it’s about gentrification happening to me. It’s a tip of the wave and part of a national wave of a realization that the middle class are getting squeezed.”

An incredible political and economic experiment is playing out within San Francisco and its metropolitan area. The tech boom and the hyper-gentrification associated with it are testing the resolve and character of the city in a way the city or any other major American city has never experienced. The full extent of the repercussions from this phenomenon won’t likely be known and understood for a significant period of time. The race to replace state Assemblyman and progressive stalwart Tom Ammiano (a man who was in Harvey Milk’s inner circle) between city supervisors (San Francisco’s version of a city councilman) David Chiu, the deal-making compromiser, and progressive firebrand David Campos is perhaps the first big test of whether a less liberal city has emerged.

We could end up witnessing a San Francisco that reflexively tightens up its tenant protections and votes overwhelmingly against condominium development projects like the case of 8 Washington. On the other end, the city could become a Manhattan-esque playground for the rich of haute cafes that serve $4 toast, a place where community development centers get evicted and replaced by fusion restaurants catering to the whims of the latest food trends. It will be a sad sight in the city when labor rallies dwindle from the hundreds and thousands to the tens. The prospect of a less progressive San Francisco wouldn’t just mean more business-friendly policies coming from City Hall, it would mean the disappearance of one of American liberalism’s driving forces. What will it mean for “San Francisco Values” when the people who made those values can no longer afford to live there?

By George McIntire

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