Late in the 49ers’ 55-10 demolition of Denver in the 1989 Super Bowl, broadcaster Pat Summerall wryly asked his partner, analyst John Madden, “Not much left to analyze, is there?”
No, there was not. But, then, that was the final football game of the year and didn’t factor into future contests. In San Francisco, where Matt Haney this week similarly trounced David Campos for a spot in the Assembly, there are two more elections this year alone.
There are some factors that can be written off as unique to this week’s election: An extremely low-turnout affair, dominated by older voters, and featuring two very particular candidates. There are many ways in which this week’s Assembly race was sui generis.
But in many ways it was not, and the reaction from Campos and his surrogates has been anything but atypical. In the aftermath of his loss, Campos told his supporters that “Big money has figured out how to win elections.” His surrogates and backers chalked this up as a result of the corporate dollars poured into the race by outside interests such as the Realtors (who spent big, but not as big as labor).
Now, $1.7 million in Independent Expenditure money, which Haney benefited from, is not nothing. That buys a lotta pretzels (or, glossy mailers ballyhooing a candidate or cynically lashing his opponent to Chesa Boudin. Incidentally, the successful weaponization of Boudin — on the city’s more liberal east side — does not bode well for his citywide recall election in June).
You can’t claim $1.7 million, in a vote involving only half the city, wasn’t impactful. But you also can’t seriously claim it swung this election. Campos was heavily outspent, but he also raised damn near $1 million; if what he was saying had resonated with voters, he had the means to tell it to them.
This level of outside spending can, indeed, alter an election, but political professionals I spoke to estimated it could move the needle perhaps four to six percent. Campos, at last count, trailed by 26 percent. Even if “big money” swung the vote by an improbable 10 percent, this was still a crushing outcome; it’d be like the Niners winning only 41-10. What’s more, Campos lost big in districts of San Francisco where his ideological allies have recently won big. Campos lost by 10 percent in the Mission. Clearly there was much more going on here.
Finally, on a citywide level at least, “big money” has long known how to win elections; Gavin Newsom, in 2003, outspent Matt Gonzalez in the mayoral race by a factor of 10, and that’s just a relatively recent example. This is something progressive candidates have long had to factor into their campaigns as a given; to chalk up this week’s outcome to the Realtors/tech bros/media done us wrong reveals an unwillingness to learn from specific elements of this election and a staunch resistance to introspection.
Well, ever thus. Progressives, as ever, remain overly clubby and unwilling/unable to expand their base. Progressives, as ever, remain overly doctrinaire and all too willing to make an infidel out of individuals or groups who disagree with them on only a small minority of issues.
After a shellacking of this magnitude, introspection is due. The question is, do progressives do introspection?
“If you are going straight, hard progressive, you appeal to about one-third of this town. If you can’t swing that bridge to middle-class liberals, you are fucked,” sums up Supervisor Aaron Peskin. “And that’s what happened.”
You may recall national hot-take-meisters credulously claiming that San Francisco’s February recall of three Board of Education members was a death knell for Democrats in the forthcoming national midterms. Dios mio, man. Democrats may well take it on the chin (hard to see it not happening), but the former does not augur the latter.
So, before making any grandiose pronouncements about a political sea change based on this week’s election, it’s worth noting that, as of Thursday, some 62,000 votes have been tallied, just 23 percent of Assembly District 17’s 269,000 registered voters.
What’s more, data from the Department of Elections from earlier this month reveals that, among the first 50,000 of those voters to return their ballots — the vast majority of the votes so far tallied — a disproportionately high 62 percent were from San Franciscans aged 50 or older (voters of this age only represent 41 percent of the electorate).
So, yes, there is a hell of a lot to be gleaned from this election rout (or willfully ignored). But one cannot wholly write off that this is an infinitesimal turnout in an off-season, special election that was dominated by aging voters. That’s not a favorable field for most any progressive candidate — and, demonstrably, an especially treacherous one for Campos.
Candidates matter, and the Haney-vs.-Campos contest is a very specific matchup that led to very specific outcomes. Campos was always going to be facing an uphill battle, here: The demographics of AD-17 have not changed in his favor; he has been out of public office for years; and, to be frank, his comportment while in public office led to simmering resentments culminating in this week’s heavy loss.
In March, we wrote that Campos had a penchant for throwing political elbows that had led to decades-long political grudges. Among other telltale signs of this, he was not backed by a majority of LGBTQ outfits nor San Francisco labor unions (more on that in a moment).
And, while that was true, in retrospect we did not adequately articulate the point: Campos, in his time as a San Francisco public servant, picked up a reputation for oft-needless antagonism and had a propensity to wear on friends and foes alike. As a result, his coalition was weaker this time around (most importantly, again, with labor), and participants in the Independent Expenditure campaigns targeting him have described the time and resources put into sinking Campos as the settling of old scores.
This is, to put it mildly, not Haney’s M.O. In March, a longtime city political player told us that “Everybody who sits down with Matt Haney thinks that Matt Haney agrees with them. They may end up being surprised by how he votes. But he’s pretty nice about that, too.”
This resonated with city insiders. And it may come off as condescending, but the politicos I spoke to didn’t really mean it to be. There are worse things for a candidate than being likable — and being unlikable for the sake of unlikability is no benefit.
So, in addition to the demographics of this electorate, the demographics of the candidates were somewhat unique and not likely to be re-created.
But their platforms and campaigns? That’s different.
Haney’s “evolution” into a full-throated advocate for more housing construction opened him to charges of political opportunism. That’s to be expected, but it’s hardly revelatory for a left-leaning San Francisco politician to also be pro-development. Construction didn’t exactly stall in District 6 under Haney’s predecessors, Jane Kim and Chris Daly. Longstanding city politicos pointed out that, like Daly, Haney can claim to be 100-percent pro-renter and 100-percent pro-development, which is a useful trick in this city of ours.
And there is a precedent for a left-on-left battle of the sort we’ve just witnessed: Multiple longtime campaign operatives likened the Haney-Campos race (and outcome) to the 2003 contest when Matt Gonzalez outflanked Tom Ammiano in the mayoral race, and stormed into the runoff against Newsom. Ammiano was an older and more doctrinaire progressive than Gonzalez. And Gonzalez, like Haney, had a youthful vibe, an enthusiastic campaign — and developer backing in the personage of the Residential Builders Association.
On a local level, it’s still not a winning proposition for an aspiring Board candidate to call for more market-rate construction in their district (See: Josefowitz, Nick, 2018). On a citywide level, however, it’s a no-brainer: It’s hard to come up with counterarguments for broad, ambiguous calls for more housing. Haney read the room. Progressives will have to do this, too.
It is not enough to discount why construction is a negative. Progressives, on a citywide level, will have to have answers for the many city residents who, even with decent incomes, cannot dream of buying a home and cementing a future here. Progressive solutions will have to be that: Solutions. It’s not enough, anymore, to deflect.
When I asked leading progressives what they’d tell people who can’t plan for futures in San Francisco — people for whom the strident simplicity of “build more housing” holds a tantalizing appeal — I receive a barrage of responses.
Among them: Combat evictions, squeeze out inclusionary housing in any and all ways possible, establish a vacancy tax, and lean heavily into social housing.
None of these is as cogent as “build more housing.” In the case of social housing, it’s incumbent to explain how this can actually come to pass, rather than being the next iteration of a gas station or vacant lot left to molder for a decade in the hope of an elusive 100-percent affordable development.
There are many individual factors that went into Haney’s victory. Among them, his field director, Han Zou, who also helmed Haney’s 2018 evisceration of Sonja Trauss and Christine Johnson, is clearly a savant. But the broad strokes of his road to higher office are re-creatable. A citywide or state candidate could run on progressive issues, with a progressive-style ground game, and also call for augmented housing construction, leading to a broad coalition and across-the-spectrum labor support.
The role of labor in Haney’s victory has been deeply overlooked. It may be the most important factor of all. He rolled up backing from not only progressive-friendly unions like the SEIU, but the (intuitively) pro-construction building trades.
There were a variety of reasons for this. A number of union higher-ups had had less-than-thrilling relationships with Campos (See: grudges, longstanding). Haney was well-liked for his ability to amalgamate coalitions. He was seen as someone Gov. Gavin Newsom wouldn’t go out of his way to thwart. The money and resources and manpower from the city’s unions were a pivotal factor.
“We did not support Matt because of some pro-housing line,” said a political operative with close ties to the building trades. “That’s labor erasure. By virtue of his being in District 6, being heir to the projects approved by Jane Kim and, in a way, Chris Daly, you had a situation where he was going to be in the center of the development storm. He handled it well. He worked with us to ensure that when development happened, it was going to provide real benefits.”
Two of Campos’ key issues in this most recent race were enacting Medicare for All and ending hunger in California. Noble goals, but not what city voters are looking for in 2022. Future candidates, of all political stripes, would do well to listen to voters’ questions. And address them.
“We need to have a snappy answer to the vexing issues du jour: Those are housing/housing affordability and homelessness,” Peskin concedes. “It’s got to be better than ‘we’re trying.’”