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.
“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.
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.
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.