AI artwork created using the DALL-E neural network using the keywords "angry San Francisco voters"

Forty-eight hours before Tuesday’s election day, 23 percent of San Francisco voters had returned their ballots. And, despite what you may have heard, that ain’t bad. 

That’s actually a shade more ballots returned than two days prior to Election Day in 2018 — and, four years ago, 74 percent of San Francisco voters eventually turned out.  

So, these next two days are going to be busy, and will make or break San Francisco politicians or measures. It also means that many of you (like me) seem to have been putting off participating in this city’s fourth election of the year — and, once more, being made to weigh in regarding kidney dialysis. 

We may yet see a fairly healthy turnout, if not 74 percent. But what will voters do? That’s harder to foresee. 

The narratives that workaday voters are spinning to pollsters seem to paint San Francisco as a city of Howard Beales: We’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore.

That’s understandable. Even justifiable. But, within the confines of a ballot, inchoate rage can lead to incoherent or even antisocial results.  

So, a bellwether to keep an eye on is Proposition L. This is the extension of a half-cent sales tax for transit, approved by voters in the 1980s and re-upped 19 years ago. If it fails to garner two-thirds of the vote, San Francisco transit will be hamstrung, and potentially billions in federal matching funds will evaporate.  

Polling indicates that this is likely. And it doesn’t help that anyone scanning his or her ballot won’t see any of the benefits of Prop. L listed, only its gaudy costs and borrowing limits. This is a losing setup, even when voters aren’t as mad as hell. 

But, you know, they are: And slapping the begging bowl out of the hands of our corrupt leadership and sclerotic bureaucracy is exactly the kind of thing that appeals to frustrated voters bombarded by reductive messaging that San Francisco is wasteful, dystopian, and awash in crime and filth. Voters, after all, spurned a Muni bond in June — and, unlike a bond, the sales tax authorized by Prop. L is regressive.  

As satisfying as that may be, life is more complicated: Many of the items funded by Prop. L would still be funded if it loses — only with the money coming from city sources, starving Muni, and making city transit even worse. A self-fulfilling prophecy, a negative feedback loop, a snake eating its own tail; choose your metaphor. Transit riders are living in it.  

Not that everyone cares about that. The flipside of righteous anger is selfishness. No city can be taken seriously without a working transit system, but an appreciable, and likely growing, percentage of city voters don’t give a damn. Riding the bus is for other people. And, we’re told, the polling is clear that the less often a voter uses Muni, the less likely he or she is to vote to fund it. 

A mural near 20th and Shotwell streets was completed in late 2020, as election season loomed. Photo by Annika Hom.

“In this city, people will vote for their own executions if you send them enough propaganda in the mail ahead of time.”

That was the valediction in 2008 from the frustrated head of the San Francisco Taxpayers Union, a surly bunch rendered only surlier by the behavior of their fellow voters. 

The city, it seems, has come to them. Glancing up and down this year’s ballot, it’s hard to predict dire trouble for Prop. M, the vacant homes tax; most of us don’t have a vacant home lying around. But other revenue measures would appear to be on thin ice. 

Prop. O, a parcel tax funding City College, is progressive — meaning that, for the first time, grandma and grandpa living in a bungalow in the Excelsior won’t pay the same flat rate as a big apartment complex owned by a corporation. That’s an idea whose time has come, but the smart money is on most voters not wanting to pay the money, period.

Meanwhile, the battle between the mayorally backed Prop. D housing streamlining measure and the Board- and labor-backed Prop. E is one of this election’s hardest-fought contests. But it’s not clear that voters will choose to pass either of them. 

Perhaps city residents are frustrated about being asked to parse two arcane, dueling housing measures when our executive branch has taken few substantive steps to fix the extant, dysfunctional city entities overseeing the planning and construction of housing and putting people into it

You don’t need voter approval to do that. 

Photo by Lydia Chávez.

While it’s difficult to predict candidate races and interpret what the results may mean, it’s not difficult to get a read on what appeals to voters now. “People are fucking pissed,” sums up one political field commander.  

As such, and despite a litany of self-made scandals that could undermine her in the future, it’s hard to see voters on Tuesday spurning DA Brooke Jenkins, who is not exactly facing varsity-level competition. It is more difficult to predict the outcomes of supervisor races, because the ground game is so pivotal in these district contests. 

In District 6, an advanced ground game would give an edge to Honey Mahogany over appointed incumbent Matt Dorsey, but this is by no means a sure thing. And, similarly, this is why, in District 4, Joel Engardio remains competitive vs. incumbent Gordon Mar. The tenacious Engardio has taken the Scott Wiener route of knocking on damn near every door in the district. Whether he can overcome the demographic disadvantage of being a white man in a heavily Asian district, and a gay man in a district with no small share of social conservatives, remains to be seen. But he may yet.

Mayor London Breed is not on the ballot. But the ballot is larded with her appointees — among them Jenkins, Dorsey, and three school board members — and her favored measures. 

In the same polls that have revealed the ugly mood of the electorate, the mayor rates about as well as stepping in dog excrement. Fortunately for her, the Board of Supervisors polls as well as stepping in human excrement; as long as Breed can blame the Board for the public safety concerns, housing intransigence, the Warriors’ poor start or anything else under the sun, she’ll be all right. 

This, however, is not a game one can play forever; Breed has been mayor since 2018, after all. And, while voters may, on Tuesday, give her much of what she wants, it’s hard to say they’d be doing it for her. And even if the electorate followed her every wish, but approved Proposition H, it would be a bitter night for Breed. 

Photo by Mimi Chakarova

Prop. H, a Dean Preston joint, would shift the elections of consequential citywide offices to even years instead of odd, ostensibly doubling the electorate and giving Breed and other elected officials an extra year in office. City Attorney David Chiu, Sheriff Paul Miyamoto and others haven’t voiced objections to this. Breed has. Derailing Prop. H is arguably the mayor’s top priority on this ballot, and big-money donors have been mobilized in the home stretch to assist with that. 

In public appearances, Breed has assured the populace that this isn’t about her best interests, but the city’s. Moving citywide elections would damage our ability to pass major bonds, she says. 

That’s fun. Experienced politicos tell me that what really damages the city’s ability to pass major bonds is unpopular mayors doing a half-assed job of raising funds and campaigning for them. 

If Prop. H passes, Mayor Breed would be on the dunk-tank seat for an additional year as this city’s entire economic M.O. unravels and its revenue is reduced alarmingly. And, right as revenue goes south, she’d be responsible for negotiating a litany of union contracts in the midst of a re-election campaign, when labor could side with an opponent if her offers were deemed too austere. 

Let’s say Breed has her eyes on Dianne Feinstein’s senate seat. If she were running for re-election as San Francisco’s mayor in 2023, she could run for Senate in 2024 and fall back on being mayor if she was unsuccessful. But if she were  forced to run for re-election as mayor in ’24, that comfortable fall-back is eliminated; she’d have to forego running for mayor to take that shot at the next big thing. 

But, no, surely this isn’t about her best interests. 

Come Nov. 8, we’ll begin to understand how a fearful, angry and less magnanimous San Francisco electorate will behave. It appears we’ll have a good deal of time moving forward to observe this again and again. 

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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. Prop A was badly written and ran a bad campaign, promoting unsexy (although undoubtedly necessary) projects like “renovation of SFMTA bus yards.” Prop L has a different (better) tone, and namechecks more services that the voter base uses (MUNI, BART and Caltrain). Plus Prop L materials specifically mention improvements to services that I think most SF voters are likely in favor of, like Paratransit.

    I’m assuming that most of the stuff that Prop A covered is also covered in Prop L, but Prop L seems to have a wider remit that is better explained to lay-idiot voters such as myself.

  2. I will not be supporting London Breed im any other public office role. She has shown her priorities as Mayor and it is not for the people of SF.

  3. This is an anti-voter initiative bill disguised as something else. If Prop H passes and the Mayor’s race draws more votes, the number signatures required to put a voter’s initiative on the ballot would be much higher than it currently is, making getting voter issues on the ballot twice as hard and expensive. The only solution to a leadership problem is to make it easier for good candidates to run.

    1. That doesn’t seem particularly accurate. According to the voter guide:

      “The Way It Is Now: […] To qualify for the ballot, the petition must include signatures from San Francisco voters equaling at least 5% of the votes cast for all candidates in the preceding election for mayor. As of July 2022, these petitions require a minimum of 8,979 signatures.”

      “The Proposal: […] Proposition H would also change the minimum number of signatures required for City initiative ordinances and declarations of policy from 5% of the votes cast in the last mayoral election to 2% of registered voters in San Francisco, which was 9,948 as of July 2022.”

      So unlike what you said, if the Mayor’s race draws more votes, the number of signatures required to put an initiative on the ballot wouldn’t change at all because the formula would change to instead be based on the number of registered voters. The signature requirement might increase modestly by 10% or so if Prop H passes, but it wouldn’t be twice as hard or expensive to qualify an initiative. It also seems more logical to use the number of registered voters, as that won’t change significantly, while the number of voters in the mayoral election can vary a lot depending on turnout.

    2. Sebra,

      Just for fun I put together a Petition to Recall Breed and at this point (2 weeks ago – DOE) you need 40,733.

      But, only 20 valid to get the thing started.

      I have 15 and will start passing my petition to start a petition around when I get back Thursday.

      Let’s see how far I get with this.

      h.

  4. Politics is just depressing. I wish we didn’t have to fight for the basic things in life. Surely we could do a lot better.

  5. Joe, your articles are delicious to read. Thank you for giving us a full picture on the state of things.

    Btw, every time I read your articles I hear Malcolm Gladwell’s voice. I don’t know why, lol.

  6. Seems like Breed taking Feinstein’s seat would be skipping a rung or three.

    What if Pelosi steps down once Dems get creamed and Wiener wins the special election for her seat. I would think Breed would be all about Wiener’s seat at that point.

  7. The cost overruns on the Eastern Span, the Central Subway, and BRT are enough to rationalize telling the backers of Prop L to fuck off, even if these issues are unrelated. I am at a loss for how to confront and reverse the overwhelming corruption at City Hall, and maybe that’s the problem. You end up voting emotionally rather than rationally, you’re incapable of building any kind of consensus, and you can’t point to that one thing that says, “here’s the first step in fixing this, and then let’s move onto the next thing.”

    — and I (astonishingly) happen to think that Tumlin is doing a decent job.

    1. Rick —

      Just to get this straight, you wish to punish the SFMTA for cost overruns building the Bay Bridge?

      Is that right?

      Yours,

      JE

          1. Rick — 

            Which is what I said.

            We can agree that SFMTA did not do much to ensure the bridge was built on time or on budget. We evidently disagree on how to process that fact, considering the SFMTA had nothing to do with the Bay Bridge and as is much to blame as J. Edgar Hoover.

            Best,

            JE

  8. The SFMTA is a corrupt, rogue agency that is an adjunct of the Mayor’s office. The SFMTA began to lie to voters and to electeds shortly after its inception 21 yr ago. The SFMTA dragged ass on simple but major capital projects, most likely to keep the game going and money laundered.

    One of those capital projects is going to bleed the agency dry as Mission Local has reported. And the SFMTA appears to be articulated to support Uber Oriented Development and cycling, quickly losing interest in make transit an irresistible choice for drivers.

    We’ve asked nicely. I’d asked nicely when I was on the MTA-CAC. Supervisors have asked nicely. Members of the public have asked nicely. The SFMTA has always balked unless you’re a Patagonia vested Rad Bike in the back of the SUV arriviste fixated on claiming play spaces on Golden Gate Park roads, in which case the SFMTA poses on bended knee.

    One might think that after getting whacked on the bond measure, SFMTA leadership would have “reached out” and come to the table. But they pretended that that loss was an anomaly.

    So if they’re not going to respond when asked nicely, if they’re not going to take a clue from a bond loss, then what else is there but to whack them on the sales tax to get their attention?

    It is not like the SFMTA can’t change their ways, dust Prop L off and run it by the voters in a subsequent election. A loss is not forever. Sadly, losing cash money is the only language that bureaucrats understand.

    And wait a sec, didn’t we “just” approve a transportation sales tax Prop K in 2016 that is to sunset in 25 years, in fiscal year 2040–41? Proceeds would continue to flow, expenditures of proceeds would limited according to the 2016 spending plan.

    Yes, perennially non-responsive Democrats engender an inchoate populist electoral rage. But there are objective instances of non-performance and incompetence from the SFMTA that the agency does not see as a problem. 1/3 of San Francisco voters saw it as a problem in June and might very well see it as a problem tomorrow.

    If the SFMTA does not see this as a problem, then that’s our problem too.

    1. “Uber Oriented Development”
      “Patagonia vested Rad Bike in the back of the SUV arriviste fixated on claiming play spaces on Golden Gate Park roads”

      Hah! – great stuff

    2. A few moments on Google would demonstrate that Prop K in 2016 was not approved at all, as that measure was defeated: https://ballotpedia.org/San_Francisco,_California,_Sales_Tax_Increase,_Proposition_K_(November_2016). Perhaps your “inchoate populist electoral rage” got in the way of the facts?

      In addition, 2016’s Prop K was not simply a transportation sales tax: it was a generic sales tax with the proceeds deposited in the general fund, with a second ballot measure that would have allocated some of the funds to transit and the rest to homelessness. But that’s pretty irrelevant since it didn’t pass.

      The relevant measure and spending plan is 2003’s Prop K. If Prop L fails, we’ll all still have to keep paying the current sales tax for another decade, but the city will be stuck with the old 2003 expenditure plan and won’t be able to use the money to fund transit, leading to cuts to Muni service and a crisis for paratransit funding, which is a critical service for people with disabilities funded out of the Prop K. It makes absolutely no sense for us all to keep paying a transportation tax but be unable to use the money for transportation because we’re stuck with a plan from 2003 that’s no longer relevant to today’s needs. Those urging a No vote on Prop L are trying to create just that bizarre outcome, and then if the measure fails, they’ll presumably turn around and loudly blame city government for the inevitable cuts to Muni service. You can’t somehow punish a transit service by nonsensically preventing it from effectively using the tax money we have to pay anyway; all you do is make things worse for some of our most vulnerable neighbors who must rely on Muni the most.

      1. I’ve forgotten more than most people ever learn. With no percentage in participation at that point I, like many others, had pulled back by 2016 and stopped paying day to day attention.

        This is even more damning, as the SFMTA did not take a clue from losing Prop K in 2016, then losing the bond in 2022, and is coming back for another bite at the apple unreformed? Will a hat trick catch their attention?

        It is laudable to go after Build Back Better dollars by retooling the expenditure plan. But to lie to the public in campaign comms that paratransit riders will “get it” unless voters shovel more cash at the SFMTA is inexcusable.

        That’s the kind of public misinformation misdirection that only diminishes SFMTA’s credibility: SFMTA Fake News. We have years before paratransit runs dry.

        Did SFMTA really expect to carry the agenda of the most upscale and entitled cyclists, drawing scarce planning capacity from making cycling safe in town where people ride for transport and where the most dangerous conditions are, to park play spaces for arrivistes while declaring a war on drivers, and billing this as a climate measure, would not alienate enough voters to imperil future plays for funding?

        I bike for transport. I do not hold our neighbors who drive responsible, as neoliberals are the ones who direct attention from systems and structures of power that get paid to deliver transit services that should compete with cars, but don’t, onto policing the conduct of individuals.

        The SFMTA made its bed with its history of politically questionable discretionary choices. These addicts will likely be deprived of their third fix and will only get more funding if they clean up.

        Does anyone really trust people like Manny Yekutiel to faithfully oversee administration of these revenues?

      2. Jason,

        Aaron Peskin got the ballot pregnant with Prop K in 2003 then watched with amazement as his child was saddled with genetic anomolies in vitro.

        He ended up opposing his own measure but it passed anyway.

        Worst thing it did for a former SFGTV addict was to destroy the Public Meetings of the Taxi Commission.

        I was going to vote yes for L but I’ll yield to Marcos.

        Someone wanted a First Step to reverse this malevolent tide and dis dawg thinks returning the choice for Office Chief of Police of the City and County of San Francisco to the People of San Francisco.

        It would change everything at the most important point of contact other than ambulance/emergency incident …

        It would make cops on the beat pay attention to you because if they didn’t, your chosen Reformer in the mode of former Sheriff Michael Hennessey would dump them.

        For peace on the street to return cops have to do their jobs.

        They have to walk Foot Patrols ALONE like their fathers and grandfathers and uncles and cousins all did.

        Face it, SFPD has an entrenched ‘Legacy Cop’ system which, combined with their ‘Underground Railroad for Thug Cops’ gives us hundreds of ignorant punks knocking down six figures.

        I have a friend whose kid really wanted to join SFPD.

        Did fine in application process til they checked references and I’d told him not to mention me.

        When they rejected him he tried another department but they talked to SFPD and rejected him too.

        Shrugged his shoulders, applied to law school at UC Davis, finished in 2 years, passed bar first try and is now a new Navy Jag serving at Guantanamo.

        Face it, in Banana Republics an unjust Army is the most dangerous personal thing for a citizen.

        In San Francisco it’s rogue cops.

        Cut and Run for Ten Large ??

        Go Niners !!

        h.

    3. I can’t say I agree with all your points, but I definitely can’t agree with your position that we need to hurt commuters on pubic transit to make a statement. That’s reactionary, foolish and, as this article notes, selfish.

      This isn’t about approving new funding resources. It’s about continuing one that already exists and is otherwise sunsetting.

      I’d encourage people, across the board, to express their anger constructively and not destructively. The last six years have seen enough elections nationally and internationally that have repeatedly demonstrated why it’s a terrible idea to light things on fire.

      1. There are literally no other vectors for voters to hold the SFMTA to account to get it to change its dysfunctional ways that have squandered hundreds of millions that could have gone to useful projects than to hold their funding hostage.

        The real question is why the SFMTA insists upon being allowed to continuing to squander money by the nine figures and lie to the supervisors, riders, drivers and the voters without changing its ways?

        Why does the SFMTA object to telling the truth? Why does the SFMTA object to reforms to prevent more Central Subways and Geary BRTs? Why has the SFMTA not taken stock of the light rail turn around failure that required a refund? Why has the SFMTA declared a war on cars and not a war against Muni delays, bunching, cleanliness and safety? These are radical, far out, unreasonable demands only if you’ve got something to hide.

        Good intentions do not obviate real structural deficiencies that must be repaired. Get the SFMTA to patch the sieve and we can throw more money into it. Until then, no more good money after bad.

        The SFCTA can always bring a new sales tax measure forward in the next election if this fails. It might even pass if the reparative political work gets done. Any losses in matching funds in the interim will be a wash when compared to the overruns on recent projects. Paratransit is secure.

  9. Joe,

    We’ll find out lots by how many posts the questions you’ve raised here draw.

    This is where the thoughtful souls and their, mostly paid, opponents come to sip fresh political water then pollute it with their political blood.

    Twenty years ago this column in the Guardian would have drawn a couple of hundred comments and the thread would have been hot for days.

    Today, the majority of folks who truly give a damn and work at giving a damn are beaten down and most folks never gave a crap anyway.

    Tomorrow’s election is about Anger and Fear.

    The angry voter’s rationality is clouded by their rage.

    The fearful voter is afraid of the Angry voter.

    Anger beats fear.

    What did that hick comic used to say …

    “I got a bad feeling about this one, Jethro.”

    We’ll always have Paris.

    See Brady work that miracle yesterday?

    We’ll always have Brady.

    h.