Disclaimer: This essay is an analysis based on my experience as an observer and participant in the Yes on F and No on H campaigns, not a statement made in my capacity as a local leader in DSA SF or as a candidate for Steering Committee. I attended the strategy meeting where we endorsed F, but other than that, was not party to the organizing that DSA SF’s Electoral, Housing, and Justice committees did to make their campaigns successful; I hope I’m not too far off the mark. Also, as I’m writing this, the ballot tabulation in the race for mayor has London Breed about 1600 votes ahead of Mark Leno with only a few thousand left to count. Breed seems to be the mayor-in-waiting, though it’s not technically a lock and I wouldn’t be surprised by a recount effort if the margin is close at the end of things.
Even as the agonizing ballot-counting process continues in the San Francisco mayor’s race, the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America had 2 big reasons to celebrate the outcomes of Tuesday’s primary election. Our chapter’s organizing efforts around props F and H resulted in two decisive victories that can serve as solid cornerstones of future organizing, and they show how our organization can effectively mobilize both offensively and defensively in elections. The circumstances surrounding the measures couldn’t possibly have been more different. Prop F – a civil right to counsel in eviction cases – was a measure that we had been powering since its inception at an endorsement meeting. Prop H – a campaign by the reactionary San Francisco Police Officers Association to deregulate their use of Tasers and limit oversight power by the civilian Police Commission – arrived after a contentious police commission meeting brought San Francisco’s years-long struggle against Tasers to a bitter end, and the DSA SF Justice committee took it upon itself to be the organizational home of the opposition.
Prop F was DSA SF’s first homegrown electoral campaign in its modern history, brought forward by veterans of Dean Preston’s 2016 supervisorial bid at an endorsement meeting late in 2017 (DSA SF member and local writer Chris Roberts recapped this well over at Jewish Currents.) It aimed to fulfill San Francisco’s long-empty promise of a civil right to counsel in evictions, proposed by then-Supervisor David Chiu in 2012. From signature-gathering (which culminated in a dramatic delivery of over 22,000 signatures to City Hall back in January) to months of lit-dropping, door-knocking, and phonebanking, DSA acted as home base for this measure, though we found allies in San Francisco’s broad constellation of tenants’ rights organizations, particularly the San Francisco’s Tenants Union. Passing civil right to counsel wasn’t a fight likely to attract much organized opposition, though we did see the SF Apartment Association and the Chronicle (lmao) were opposed. Our main goal was turnout; to give politically dormant renters (turnout in primaries skews towards older, less progressive, and home-owning voters) a compelling reason to vote – and for a ballot prop, which unaware voters are usually reticent to vote for, especially if it means new costs for the city.
Aided by the Mayor’s race brought on by the passing of Ed Lee, turnout we got. While the ballots are still being tallied, projections put our final turnout in SF at over 50%, which is usually unheard of except for presidential elections. We had to have a smart ground game to reach the voters we would need to put together 50% + 1, considering we had a pretty small budget and a staff of one. We had to be able to utilize the volunteer resources we got efficiently, build our capacity quickly, and hit every neighborhood in our list once, since we couldn’t manage more than one mobilization in a weekend. We were fortunate to have allies in San Francisco’s Anti-Displacement Coalition that helped us with literature distribution and outreach.
We built capacity quickly. Experienced lit-droppers and door-knockers became canvassing trainers. Phonebanks regularly filled our office space, and we did internal outreach while we phonebanked voters, making sure we’d have enough people to cover our turfs that weekend, which we almost always did. We drilled scripts into our heads, and tweaked and tweaked as we built a base we would target. In the closing days of the election, we were the targets of a big ad buy by the SF Apartment Association, including on grindr (lol); we were the beneficiaries, conversely, of a progressive unity rally aimed at pushing a slate of candidates and ballot measures across the finish line. (There was a rad door hanger that I cannot find a single photo of online that said “FREE LAWYER FOR ANY EVICTED TENANT BUT ONLY IF YOU VOTE”, which is pretty tight.) And on election night, we won a civil right to counsel for all evicted tenants in San Francisco, which is already inspiring lawmakers across the Bay – and across the country – to enshrine this right for all tenants, not just the most needy. We may have passed the most important tenant protection in San Francisco since rent control, and though the implementation remains to be seen, we have a powerful tool that the most vulnerable tenants in San Francisco – like in Midtown, the public housing community that District 5 supervisor London Breed refused to meet with regarding the proposed demolition of their homes – can use to make their case. The organizing opportunities are plentiful here, but we can and should be out talking to folks about their rental agreements in the coming months, helping people understand their new right. The network we built to pass F is a part of the burgeoning tenant movement in California and the nation. I can’t wait to see what we do with it – and for other cities to try it as well.
Prop H was a different story, but DSA’s work with the coalition that has been fighting the SFPOA’s decade-plus-long attempt to arm SFPD with Tasers – San Francisco is one of the last holdout departments of any large city to not have them – along with our PAC, campaigning apparatus, and firm stance against police militarization set DSA SF, and the Justice committee, specifically, to be the home of the No on H operation. “Fuck yes on F!” was appended with “Hell no on H!” and with financial backing from the ACLU, we started to funnel our resources into defeating the SFPOA at the ballot box.
The POA may have overplayed their hand pretty badly with prop H. The police commission had already voted to give them Tasers, fast-tracking the one Department of Justice recommended reform that gave them a new weapon and ignoring hundreds of others, but the POA decided they wanted more. They sought a downgrade in their use-of-force policy that would’ve allowed them to use these lethal weapons on verbally noncompliant people, and they would’ve required another ballot initiative or an 8/11 Board of Supervisors vote to modify it. They got a comically misleading ballot question and funneled hundreds of thousand dollars into the campaign, and many opponents feared the challenge was insurmountable, that the deference to police that is so widely felt even in contemporary liberal society would allow the POA to stroll away with this one. Fortunately, we were very wrong. If DSA SF lore is to be believed, the Justice committee looked this threat right in the eyes and saw that they had to kill this measure because it wasn’t clear who else would.
The defeat of H showed that the once-powerful POA may be starting to lose its grip on local politics. Years of scandal, continued violence and brutality, and a population beginning to distrust police more and more in the years since Ferguson and the rise of Black Lives Matter may have given them a more unfavorable playing field than they expected. The near-universal condemnation of local leaders in political circles, activist groups, and faith communities left the POA with few institutional allies outside of SF’s more reactionary spheres. That DSA SF is actively involved in projects that seek to disarm, demilitarize, and disengage the police – from No on H dating back to the early work we put into the Good Neighbor Guide to Sweeps – is the foundation for what are hopefully lasting alliances against police and policing, against jails and incarceration. In San Francisco, we have income inequality that rivals developing nations. The class divide here is scarcely better illustrated than by the violence that is required to sustain it; to brutalize and dispossess the poor and homeless, to act as a well-armed buffer between gentrifiers and the gentrified. We saw their vision of public safety – for the compliant, for the beneficiaries of the status quo – decisively beat. Between F and H, I think it’s fair to say that after only a year and a half on SF’s political scene, DSA is leaving a lasting impression and providing organizational capacity for politics that are inconceivable in San Francisco’s Democratic political machine except for at its leftmost fringe. It’s not an exaggeration to say that prop F changed the game for tenants, and it’s not speculation to say that prop H failing will save lives. It’s political vision like this that will provide solid ground for us to stand on as the opposition to that machine.
Which brings me to the Mayor’s race. If the current margin holds, then we see yet another example of the city voting in favor of progressive policy but not its most outspoken progressive politician (prop C, the universal child care initiative brought forward by Jane Kim and Norman Yee, seems likely to pass, but Jane will not win the Mayor’s race; this is reminiscent of the 2016 November election that sent Scott Wiener to the State Senate while the voters passed Kim’s prop W to make City College tuition-free for SF residents.) However, with San Francisco’s top-3 instant runoff voting being utilized to its fullest potential yet, we came devastatingly, heartbreakingly close to beating Ron Conway’s political machine – he made no effort to conceal his preference for who would be the next mayor. And we saw the line between the city’s moderate Democrats and its small population of Republicans blurred; while Republican Richie Greenberg managed only a few percent SF’s votes for Mayor, Breed seeking the endorsement of former Reagan cabinet member George Shultz and the lion’s share of tech’s political expenditures makes it clear which side she was on. Ranked-choice voting makes it possible to analyze voting blocs that are appearing around political poles in local politics, ones that exist both within and beyond the local Democratic hegemony. While I don’t think breaking from the Democratic party locally is feasible at the time, I think we’ll start to see a base that engages in electoral contests strategically. In fact, I imagine that Kim’s base, which has sent second- and third- choice votes to Mark Leno over London Breed around 70%-20%, is a key part of that base.
DSA’s work continues into the next election cycle with both the Our City Our Home ballot initiative, the Coalition on Homelessness’ ambitious attempt to house 4,000 of our homeless neighbors permanently, and our endorsement of Tony Kelly, an esteemed local environmental activist who nonetheless faces an uphill battle against developer-backed candidates for Supervisor in San Francisco’s District 10. Organizing the forces that expanded Right to Counsel and defeated the POA into a political pole that is more explicitly and vocally anticapitalist than even the progressive wing of the local Democratic party is an onerous task, but one that we’ll need to accomplish if we want to seek political power – within or without the Democrats. And if we can effectively build and maintain that pole, then by the time London Breed is up for reelection, there may be hope to break the alliance between the moderate Democratic machine and big business in San Francisco for good. The key question is what happens between now and then – 18 months will be up before we know it.