Marjan Philhour
Connie Chan, right, seen here with Jackie Fielder on election day, eked out a win in District 1 on Sunday. Photo by Julian Mark

San Francisco is a city that too much enjoys being scratched behind the ears by an adoring world, while ignoring its endemic sclerosis, soft corruption, casual misery and fiscal ticking time bombs.

With that said, this city’s denizens turned out at something like an 85 percent clip to vote for rent control. We voted, overwhelmingly, to revamp Proposition 13. We voted to reinstate affirmative action. We shrugged off Big Tech’s quarter-billion-dollar misinformation campaign and voted against the despicable Prop. 22.

We were among the only counties in all of California to do this. In this state, overwhelming numbers of people voted against Donald Trump/for Joe Biden — but could not be counted on to advance the interests of renters or minorities, fund our schools and cities by modifying one of this state’s most destructive laws, or say no to Uber, Lyft, Postmates et al. in their quest to create a 21st-century version of 19th-century labor law which can only be overturned by a seven-eighths majority in our Legislature.

So, we earned this one: Scratch, scratch, scratch.

Locally, San Franciscans also voted in a manner many city residents could use to justify the drinking they were going to do anyway.

A cadre of swells, developers and business interests marshaled millions of dollars to combat proposed taxes on large companies and the sellers of high-end real-estate. Funneling money through a matryoshka-like series of Democratic clubs and anodyne-named organizations, they also funded vitriolic attack ads targeting progressive supervisor candidates and a litany of deceptive slate mail cards.

That money was essentially burned. And on Spare the Air Days, no less.

All of the tax measures passed — handily. Including the anti-tax forces’ bête noire, Proposition I, which will double the transfer tax paid by sellers of real-estate priced at $10 million or more. Proposition F, on which the city is counting to patch a $135 million hole in the budget, also passed easily. That was no sure thing.

The No on I campaign raised some $5.5 million. Yes on I didn’t crack $300,000. But that was enough; Prop. I, as of Sunday, had 57.6 percent of the vote.

And this illustrates the asymmetric nature of politics in San Francisco. There are some measures that won’t pass with all the money in the world. There are some candidates who won’t get elected with all the money in the world. With just one caveat: Their more grassroots opposition needs enough money to mount a campaign. They don’t need as much money. They just need enough.

So, a couple hundred thousand dollars was enough for the Yes on I campaign to make the argument that anyone pocketing $10 million or more by selling real estate ought to pay into a fund earmarked for rent relief and social housing (a club that, significantly, figures to soon include the co-owner of 555 California St.: Donald Trump).

Provided you had enough money on hand to disseminate this argument, it wasn’t going to be undone by almost any amount of cash, considering San Francisco’s demographics: “Won’t somebody think of the guy pocketing $10 million in a real-estate transaction?” isn’t going to cut it here.

Connie Chan, right, seen here with Jackie Fielder on election day, eked out a win in District 1 on Sunday. Photo by Julian Mark

Of the so-called “dark money” funding a cavalcade of caustic ads in candidate races, the most caustic were in District 5. Here Supervisor Dean Preston was pilloried as an enabler of violent and menacing homeless dope fiends; the sheer mass of mailers featuring tent encampments began to resemble a dystopian version of Painted Ladies postcards.

Preston won his race over Vallie Brown by a wide margin, which did not at all surprise politically knowledgeable observers.

So, why did so much money pour in here in what was ultimately a futile cause, and with other races being much, much closer? A few rationales come to mind — we’ll note the UC San Francisco connection in a moment — but the No. 1 reason may have simply been personal animus against Preston (who put Prop. I on the ballot).

Signing those checks must have felt good. Watching election returns didn’t.

Because when you mount a big-money independent expenditure campaign, you very clearly telegraph what big-money interests want. And District 5 voters may have said the same thing as my high school classmate Dave while he surveyed the dance floor at our long-ago five-year reunion: “Fuck these people.”

Planning Commissioner Myrna Melgar in 2017. She is now a supervisor-elect. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

The independent expenditure money funneled into District 7 sullied progressive candidate Vilaska Nguyen — a mailer had his face on a cartoon lion with the caption “The Lyin’ King;” we’re still waiting to see what the Disney people have to say about that.

Beating up on Nguyen may have ended up helping to tilt the race to former planning commissioner Myrna Melgar.

Melgar is on good terms with Mayor London Breed. But she’s also an ally of Mission District anti-gentrification and affordable housing groups, where she’s spent a goodly part of her career. Melgar will be the only Latinx person on a body that, currently, has none. She is a city lefty by any meaningful measure: If, two years ago, you told elements of the city’s lefty political establishment that Melgar would win District 7, they’d have likely had the same reaction as if you told them the Democratic presidential candidate would win Georgia.

In fact, the folks who anted up to throw firecrackers at Nguyen may have ended up blowing their fingers off here. As we wrote last week, the anti-tax, anti-progressive spending spree was larded with UC San Francisco mega-donors.

Tellingly, District 5 voters were hit with text messages lambasting Preston as being anti-healthcare. In actuality, this was a reference to UCSF’s planned expansion, which isn’t so much a matter of “healthcare” but a massive proposed neighborhood development and exactly the sort of issue neighborhood supervisors involve themselves in.

Well, it turns out that the incoming District 7 supervisor has every bit as much say in that coming development. And anyone expecting Melgar to disregard neighborhood input and capitulate to UCSF figures to be in for a rude awakening.

Rounding things out, in District 11, Ahsha Safai may not have needed outside help to win, but he got it anyway. And in District 1, moderate candidate Marjan Philhour said she didn’t want the Independent Expenditure money — but she, too, got it anyway. She was also the beneficiary of a litany of ersatz slate mailer cards, which was, at least, a semantic distinction. These mimicked both the Tenants Union card and Democratic Party card (in this high-turnout presidential election, as in the past, the party endorsement matters. “Bigly,” as a future one-term president might put it).

On Sunday afternoon, Connie Chan declared victory in a slim, 127-vote contest.

So, after all that, it was a near-zero ideological shift for the Board of Supervisors. And a near-total repudiation for this year’s most ostentatious donors.

It sure seems like they were given pretty rank advice on how to spend their money.

Mayor London Breed arrives at the Oceanview covid-19 testing site on September 18, 2020. Photo by Juan Carlos Lara.

It was a pretty good election for Mayor London Breed. Her pet bond, Prop. A, passed, providing $487.5 million for parks, homeless efforts, and other things that poll well. She fundraised heavily for this — to the exception of all the other revenue measures, which she also did not prevent her ostensible business and development allies from attempting to savage. This infuriated members of the board.

But, hey, those measures passed, too.

Not all of Breed’s preferred supervisor candidates won. But the ones she really didn’t want to win also failed.

It was a good election for Preston, who satisfyingly cruised to victory along with his Prop. I.

It was a pretty good election for Supervisor Matt Haney; voters approved his measures to split the Department of Public Works and tax companies with overcompensated CEOs. He burnished his status outside of City Hall. But, within City Hall, the candidates he and other left-flank progressives backed in District 7 and 11 failed. Neither Haney nor Hillary Ronen figure to be your next board president.

The mayor is going to be okay with that.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

And it was a great election for Supervisor Aaron Peskin — who backed the winning candidates in Districts 1, 7 and 11.

The next board president would figure to be Peskin or a progressive Peskin is amenable to. If someone else is up for taking on the burdens of that office and Aaron Peskin can continue to run around and do Aaron Peskin things behind the scenes, that’d probably be just fine with him.

Peskin and his board colleagues, meanwhile, do not appear to have lost any of the leverage they currently possess. Had Philhour bested Chan, it would have made it far easier for the mayor to count to four, and subvert a veto-proof majority. With the credible threat of a veto in play, the mayor can influence legislation as it’s being crafted, or make suggestions regarding amendments — suggestions the board would be inclined to take seriously.

But without that credible threat, the board can simply dump legislation on the mayor’s desk.

It remains to be seen what role legislative gamesmanship plays in the coming months and years — which figure to be  a very bleak and trying episode of San Francisco history. The numbers due from the controller even this week will likely point to the city’s distressed revenue being lower than the low anticipated numbers — by perhaps a nine-digit margin. And Covid-19 is always laying in wait to kick off its San Francisco comeback tour.

One City Hall denizen predicts the forthcoming months will constitute “managing an unpleasant series of disasters and difficult circumstances.” Because of how this city voted on taxes, it will be a bit easier. But only a bit.

So, scratch, scratch, scratch. But the endemic sclerosis, soft corruption, casual misery and fiscal ticking time bombs? They’re still here.

Tick, tick, tick.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. 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 editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. San Francisco has voted their way to into a dystopian nightmare of vagrants camps, shit filled toxic side walks and vacant store fronts everywhere. Such “progressive” progress ! Enjoy the fruits of your socialist fantasies !

  2. The D5 campaign, the hysteria over drug use exposes the “moderates” as the conservative they really are. The posture Susan Dyer Reynolds of the Marina Times in particular confirmed in this cycle that “moderates” are hard line conservatives masquerading as liberal Democrats. The hysteria over the wins of Preston and Boudin drove them to all manner of Fox News [sic] style propaganda against the “far, far left” in SF. That did not work.