Apparently, everyone has a breaking point and for San Franciscans things broke around COVID-19.
While public schools shut down amid the pandemic and parents were openly frustrated, the school board took several actions that landed it on the wrong side of voters. That led to the recall of three members in early 2022. Even the city’s Democratic leaders wondered why the school board ignored that re-opening problem and focused instead on oddball ideological pursuits.
A few months later, voters recalled the city’s progressive district attorney while he was shrugging off crime concerns. And now a near majority of county supervisors is calling for a repeal of the city’s ban on travel to and doing business with states that have passed allegedly discriminatory laws – a policy that critics say is a monument to “wokeness.”
Is the city lurching towards the middle? Probably not enough to shed its progressive persona, but certainly enough to show there are limits to how much people will endure.
So much of what happens in San Francisco determines what happens in the state. Three of California’s eight statewide office holders, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, are from the city, while two others are from the surrounding Bay Area. San Franciscans are disproportionately influential in the Legislature. One of California’s two U.S. Senators is a former mayor. Every two years, the city sends outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Congress.
But with this disproportionate power comes an equally disproportionate level of blame for the lack of results. Many voters now sense that San Francisco progressivism has not only increased the city’s intractable problems, but those statewide as well: the high cost of living, rising crime, homelessness, drugs, energy shortages, housing shortages, its flailing education system and more.
So many of the state’s ineffective policies – from strict zoning laws that dry up housing supply and policies that seem to tolerate drug use and street crime – are manufactured in the city. Progressives argue the problem is that San Francisco and the state haven’t grown progressive enough, but even they can’t explain away the lack of results and public disgruntlement at the growing sense of disorder.
Earlier this year, notable progressive writer Ezra Klein lamented in The New York Times that, “California is making liberals squirm.” Klein asked the obvious question: “If progressivism can’t work there, why should the country believe it can work anywhere else?” A few days later the city’s residents gave a resounding answer: They recalled the three school board members.
Though national media hailed the recall as a backlash to wokeness and COVID policies, the list of grievances was rather long. As students were suffering from school closures and learning loss, the board spent its time trying to rename a bunch of schools, even those named after former mayor and current U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the great abolitionist President Abraham Lincoln, and even iconic naturalist John Muir.
The district was also suffering financial problems and spending time on a controversial plan to change the merit-based admissions process to the district’s most elite school.
Throw in some racist tweets by a board member, lawsuits, countersuits and the board denying a gay parent of a bi-racial student a spot on a volunteer committee because he wasn’t diverse enough – and even San Francisco voters became fed up. They recalled all three board members in a landslide. The tightest margin was approximately 38 percentage points.
In the aftermath, San Francisco native and Los Angeles Times opinion writer Laurel Rosenhall wrote: “This wasn’t about a conservative backlash. It was just about a school board that didn’t do its job.” That echoed the views of Democratic Mayor London Breed and others throughout San Francisco’s political establishment. That’s true enough, but it’s hard to argue that the governing philosophy causing such incompetence was not the city’s out-of-control progressivism.
Voters did not stop making a point with the school board. Former District Attorney Chesa Boudin suffered a similar fate. While Boudin, who once worked for socialist Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, was not as blatantly incompetent as the school board members, he was pursuing decriminalization policies at a time when quality-of-life crimes were on the rise.
Boudin often was criticized for being dismissive of voters’ concerns. When shoplifters were ravaging businesses in the city, Boudin responded to one incident by wondering if the perpetrator was merely “desperate.” There has been much debate over whether crime was actually worse under Boudin, but in the end the point was moot because crime in the city felt worse and that’s all that mattered to voters, who decisively elected to boot him from office.
Fast forward to today and a handful of supervisors are pushing to remove or at least change a ban of publicly funded travel to 30 states deemed to have laws that allegedly discriminate against the LGBQT community, laws that impose certain restrictions on abortion, and laws that allegedly suppress voting. The San Francisco policy ostensibly prohibits the city from contracting with companies based in a majority of U.S. states.
Practically speaking, keeping the ban in place limits the city’s options in competitive bidding, leading to higher costs. But as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, the city granted hundreds of exemptions to the contracting prohibition, which has resulted in $800 million worth of business going to those states – showing that the policy was typical San Francisco-style moral posturing.
Most important, the supervisors questioned the effectiveness of the ban, writing to the city administrator that it’s “also unclear if this policy has been effective in changing the policy-making choices” of the affected states.
Of course, the answer is no. Other states, especially those leaning more moderate or conservative in their politics, are not turning to San Francisco for moral guidance – especially when the city so easily waives its morals to dole out hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts. So now the city is blinking.
People can debate whether San Francisco is actually becoming more moderate, but at least for now there seems no doubt it’s retreating from the excesses and failures of its progressivism.
Matt Fleming is an opinion columnist for The Orange County Register.