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Nearly 81 percent of registered San Franciscans cast a ballot in 2016. And, as of Friday, 16,000 more vote-by-mail ballots had been received in City Hall this year than the total number of mail ballots four years prior. It’s not inconceivable that 85 percent of registered San Franciscans will vote in this year’s election.

Last week, I wrote about how Covid-19 restrictions have hamstrung traditional Get Out The Vote-type efforts, perhaps leaving an opening for big money ad campaigns of the sort this city has previously repelled. What’s more, altered voting patterns render it difficult not only to predict outcomes but to parse results as they come in on Election Day and thereafter. 

Regardless, people are voting here. In droves. 

The gravity of this year’s presidential election — with its front-end voter suppression, back-end efforts to discount legitimate votes and the ever-looming threat of armed yahoos — is more of a distraction than ever from the alphabet soup of propositions up and down the San Francisco ballot, as well as our citywide races. 

That’s understandable. There are nightmarish scenarios that could come into play in the coming days and weeks, let alone over the course of the next few years. But these are not insignificant local items. And, while this year may be the exception, by and large the outcomes of local elections will affect your life more than any other. 

The election — locally and nationally — may well turn out to be one of agony or ecstasy. A period we’ll look back on fondly or ruefully, but not in-between. A moment when we’ll wonder why we were so pessimistic or wonder why we ever held out any optimism at all. 

Locally, the measures meant to tax the wealthy and/or fund the government will either pass  — and everyone other than the folks paying those taxes will raise socially distant glasses and offer socially distant cheers, and get about to spending that much-needed cash — or they’ll fail and set off a wave of denunciations and bruising new rounds of budget cuts. 

There is quite a decent chance it’ll be the latter. The lines of recrimination are already being formed. And, no matter how the voting turns out, a report from the controller is scheduled for a week after the election to assess the city’s fiscal well-being. 

Here’s a preview: Not great! 

Paul Wells, producer of the Will and Willie Show, sported a parody MAGA hat. It was well received at the 2018 Election Day Party at John’s Grill. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez

There are a lot of revenue measures on the ballot this year, which has spurred a great deal of revenue being amassed to convince you to vote “no.” 

Prop. A is a $487.5 million bond aimed at obtaining housing or shelter for the homeless and mentally ill as well as working on roads and parks and other things that poll well; Prop. F is a consensus revamp of our city business tax system that will blow a roughly $135 million dollar hole in the budget if it fails; Prop. I doubles the transfer tax on the sellers of properties of $10 million or more; Prop. J is a parcel tax to fund the school district that nobody has much hope for — and, if it fails, the very real possibility is that the district asks the city for money and sparks a titanic battle between the board and mayor; Prop. L would tax businesses when their CEO earns more than 100 times workers’ median wage; and Prop. RR is a small sales tax to support Caltrain. 

Here’s the situation, in a nutshell: The city — and, especially, Mayor London Breed — want Prop. A badly and need Prop. F. But a wave of business and development money aimed at derailing Prop. I has induced an anti-tax conflagration — and Props. A and F are both looking pretty flammable. 

If Prop. A were to fail to receive the necessary two-thirds vote — and this could very well happen — it would not only upset the city’s fiscal apple cart but serve as a striking rebuke for Breed and an unsteadying of her political footing moving forward. She has fund-raised heavily for Prop. A and has become — rather literally — the face of the campaign. 

That’s a stark contrast from Prop. F, for which the mayor has raised hardly a thin dime and has minimally supported. And that’s a bit odd, because while it would be inconvenient if Prop. A fails, it would be fiscally calamitous if Prop. F did. And not down the road, like Prop. A, but — especially anticipating what the controller has in store for us — right now

The political burden of formulating a new, starker budget without the Prop. F infusion, meanwhile, will fall very largely upon the mayor — who is, again, not doing all that much to ensure Prop. F’s passage. If Breed was irritated by a platoon of Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrating in front of her home, one could only imagine the response to a battalion of laid-off unionized workers banging pots and pans. 

A new mural cropping up near 20th and Shotwell as election season ramps up. Photo by Annika Hom.

If you’re sympathetic to the mayor, here’s what you’d say if one or more of these tax measures goes down: 

Mayor Breed’s fundraising base was not amenable to Prop. F, and our city’s donor class and captains of industry were displeased that so many taxes were thrown on the ballot along with this so-called “consensus” measure. City workers getting raises while large numbers of San Franciscans leave town or hunt for work is a bad look. What’s more, there’s no small amount of irritation with Supervisor Dean Preston, who put Prop. I, to tax sellers of high-end real-estate, on the ballot — inducing a predictable and predicted anti-tax campaign. The likelihood of a big-dollar blowback endangering multiple tax measures was something Preston was warned about not only by the mayor’s people but by his progressive allies

If you’re less amenable to the mayor’s way of thinking, however, you’d say: 

Blaming Preston for the actions of the Chamber of Commerce and big-money developers is the political equivalent of “Well, what was she wearing?” The folks running the Bay Area-wide anti-tax drive are, in fact, the mayor’s ostensible allies and, far from horses’ heads being put in their beds, they seem to be operating with impunity. Finally, as recently as 2018, the mayor urged voters not to approve taxes on high-grossing businesses because she implied that her own government simply could not be trusted with the money — which, kinda sorta, undermines her ask today. 

It’s alarming how often the political atmosphere in this city inspires a comparison to the movie Rashomon, in which viewers were left to grapple with conflicting and incompatible versions of the truth. 

But, in this case, these arguments aren’t incompatible. 

Much or all of this can be true. Which arguments carry the day depends on the inclinations of the people hearing them. And, of course, the outcome of the election. 

Elections Department boss John Arntz, seen here in 2018, has developed a few more gray hairs coping with larger-than-normal turnout. But that, like high turnout itself, isn’t a terrible problem to have. Photo by Lydia Chavez.

Finally, there is one measure on your ballot that could provide a windfall for San Francisco — but has generated comparatively little local rancor or coverage. 

That’d be Prop. 15, which partially undoes Prop. 13 of 1978, and would open up large commercial properties to re-assessment. For a city like San Francisco, this is essentially a license to print money; it could generate perhaps half a billion or more dollars a year in the not-too-distant future. What’s more, since the city’s debt limit is coupled to its assessed property values, vastly augmenting the latter would result in swelling the former as well. 

So: We could be the beneficiaries of far more property tax dollars, and also see our bonding capacity vastly increased. 

But that’s a few years down the road — if it happens at all. In the meantime, voting ceases at 8 p.m. on Nov. 3. And, after that, it’s all over but the shouting and the counting — and, depending on how the counting goes, perhaps lots more shouting. 

Stay tuned. We are living in interesting times. 

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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  1. Joe,

    I believe it was Matt Taibi who named our new era last week:

    New era is …. da da da da …

    ‘!!The Post Truth Era’

    See Clemson game?

    Their potentially Heisman winning just turned 21 year old starter, Trevor Lawrence down w/Covid.

    They bring in an 18 year old true freshman.

    He’s better than Lawrence!!

    lol

    h.

  2. The idea that a city of 900k people has a budget of $12.6B; and planned to increase to $13.7B next fiscal year needs MORE of our money is just insane. That’s $15,000 in city spending for every woman, man, and child. It’s insane. Vote NO on every bond and every tax.

    1. Greg — 

      I’m sure there are plenty of people who feel this way but you must know that you’re advocating stickin’ it to the man by voting the straight Chamber of Commerce ticket.

      Also, it’s not “your” money unless you’re selling a $10M property, own a high-revenue business, etc. Bonds come from property taxes, but this bond replaces an expiring bond.

      Best,

      JE

      1. The $12,000 I pay each year in property taxes sure feels like my money until the city cashes my checks. Bonds and parcel taxes are my money. And until one of these hokey “tax the rich” plans comes with a dollar for dollar reduction in property taxes, I will be voting no.

        Go check out the new planning department building at 49 S Van Ness. That’s where our money goes.

        Great reporting as always, Joe!

    2. Thank you, Greg.

      But you forgot to mention that $13.8 B budget is a 10% increases, year over year. And that’s holding the wage increases.

      And thank you Joe for mentioning the Prop 15., and how locals seem to be secretly salivating over it While I’ve already filled out my ballot, haven’t sent it in yet. I was going to go to my polling place and request a new one – to alter my NO on Prop 15 vote. Now I’ve swung back again to opposing it.

      I’m particularly upset by the title: “increases funding for public schools, community colleges, and local govmint”. However, LAO sez the funding split will be 60% for local govmint and only 40% for schools (and some counties could actually lose revenue due to the change), I find the title misleading. And again puts the lie to “Prop 13 screwed public education”

      Psshaw

  3. Let’s be real: the city budget will be in dire straits regardless of what happens with these tax measures. Sure, the situation may be worse, but all the revenue estimates are based upon the old San Francisco (pre-COVID). You can’t tax businesses that don’t exist anymore, or those who have left all together. Those measures were never going to generate the estimated revenue they claim.

    The most important part of Prop F was the fist half: allowing the city to use Prop C monies while the measure was in litigation. Once the CA Supreme Court declined to hear the Prop C appeal, allowing the lower court ruling to stand, the first part of Prop F became moot. If the small businesses and restaurants who supposedly benefit from the tax cuts in Prop F can’t get together to support the measure, it could be that the tax does more harm than good.

    The city is going to need to address the budget holes next year, and no doubt a slew of new tax measures will result. Hopefully, with the updated economic impacts from 2020 in hand, the resulting measures will reflect a more thoughtful approach to business tax reform.

  4. I’m okay with Props I and K. Didn’t Preston have to convince 4 or 6 other supervisors to sign onto Prop I? It is not like “he put it on” by DSA decree.

    The hysteria over Preston and Boudin by the local right wingers, not to mention the maudlin performance of compassion for people with substance abuse challenges, as if they were new, has been quite shrill.

    But I’m not okay with giving Breed more money. She did not make tentative plans for spending Prop C money while the measure was in court. Now they’re starting from scratch and have presented nothing.
    C includes homeless housing dollars. Now she wants more bond funding for homeless housing? And what is with what appears to be bond funding patching the operating budget with Breed’s slush fund, Prop A?

    The Board put nothing on the ballot to even begin to address the structural defects in the strong mayor, system engineered for a corrupt Brown mayoralty, that perpetuate unchecked municipal corruption to this day. I am loathe to fill the bucket with more tax dollars only for them to service the corrupt social services and housing patronage systems.

    I’m voting NO on A and probably F to watch Breed squirm.

  5. Let’s be clear, the transfer tax has been raised four times in the past 25 years. The “downtown” folks, generally have’t waged any type of campaign against transfer tax increases in the past. This time, Sup. Preston is seeking to to double the tax and foks are fighting back. Keep in mind, 187,000 jobs were lost over three months earlier this year in the counties of San Mateo and San Francisco. Prop I, coupled with the three other tax/bond measures guarantee a windfall for city employees. How many of them lost their jobs this past Spring?

  6. The truth is that San Francisco spends far more per resident than any US city except NY City, Portland, and Washington, DC. SF doesn’t need more money. SF needs leaders who know how to effectively manage. See https://ballotpedia.org/Analysis_of_spending_in_America%27s_largest_cities.

    BTW, the mayor’s line that Prop A won’t raise taxes is a word game. Yes, it will replace expiring taxes. But the fact is if A doesn’t pass property taxes will go down. Therefore, in reality, Prop A does in fact raise taxes.

  7. The corollary of Taxation Without Representation is:
    Taxation Without Accountability.

    And that’s where we are at.

    Latest example is Micki Callahan taking an early pension/benefits powder.

    And Nuru will be collecting pension/benefits for years while his “case” winds on and on.
    And most likely after conviction/settlement.

    As reported by Mission Local – being a City employee is so desirable and lucrative that a tug boat Captain of many years at Foss Maritime ditched the job to become a Marine Engineer of Fire Boats.
    A step down in rank, no?
    In the process elbowing out a qualified black applicant courtesy of the conveniently retired Micki Callahan.

    Or how about today’s photo of Hillary Ronen campaigning for Jackie Fiedler and Dean Preston instead of campaigning for no appointment rapid COVID testing at 16th and 24th to try and stem the tide of the upcoming surge.

    I’ll have to agree with marcos on this one:
    “Fix the holes in the bucket and then we can pour some more water into it”.

    1. The Democrats claim that demands for governmental accountability and a refusal to throw good money after bad are a Reaganesque/Norquistian effort to shrink government down to the point where it can be drowned in a bathtub.

      That is how hacks bait and switch to deflect attention from their corruption in this system.

      At this point, if those with power to do so don’t check corruption, then the burden rests with voters to starve government of resources until the parasites begin to starve and die off.

      Imagine the desiccated political corpses of the nonprofit potentates, Calvin Welch’s amidst the human jetsam of the Upper Haight, Randy Shaw’s political cadaver bedecking the filthy streets of the TL and John Elberling’s agency remains draped over Howard at Moscone with the neon inscription: “This was MY Neighborhood, MY private property, I owned and controlled it! Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!!!”

  8. The city wastes Million $$$ every day due to inept management and corruption
    A muni line taking a decade + vs years to build , a transit center that cost more then a Billion $$$, Empty Hotel Rooms while the sidewalks are covered in tents , homes cars and garages bring raped due to criminals not being confined.
    It’s time for SF Gov to be put on a tight budget and it’s pension plan for non 1st responders eliminated !

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