On Jan. 9, 2001, a ragtag group of neighborhood activists arrived in San Francisco's historic, oak-paneled Legislative Chamber to be sworn in as the newest members of the Board of Supervisors. Neighborhood preservationist Aaron Peskin's parents, Harvey and Tsipora, were brimming with pride as their son, the newly elected supervisor from North Beach, read nervously from a carefully prepared speech about the value of historic buildings.
"I remember my voice quivering as I tried to deliver the speech as though I was a seasoned politician and not completely freaked out," Peskin says. "I also remember thinking the election had been a rare and amazing thing that happens maybe once every 100 years."
While the excitement in the chamber was palpable, there was also apprehension. One aide to then-Mayor Willie Brown remembers looking at the boyish face of Chris Daly, then a 28-year-old tenant activist from the Tenderloin, and wondering what these outsiders meant for City Hall.
"I was sincerely worried about the future well-being of San Francisco when 11 different neighborhood advocates were in charge and not a single one cared about citywide issues," the ex-Brown aide says. "Chris Daly is the perfect representative of the Tenderloin, but would he also care about Hetch Hetchy, transit-oriented development, and violence in the Mission?"
The new board majority clearly meant there were going to be sweeping changes to the city's political landscape. The 2000 election was a municipal revolution enabled by the reinstatement of district elections. The city's outer areas expressed their dissatisfaction with Brown's style of patronage politics and the excessive development that was transforming their neighborhoods by electing a supermajority of "progressives," who may have had scant electoral experience (except seasoned incumbent Tom Ammiano) but were unbeholden to developers or downtown business interests. The six progressive newcomers included Peskin, Daly, English teacher Jake McGoldrick, Amtrak electrician Sophie Maxwell, deputy public defender Gerardo Sandoval, and deputy public defender and Green Party member Matt Gonzalez.
Nearly all of the candidates Brown backed for the 11-member board lost. It was a stunning repudiation of the status quo — analogous perhaps to the Democratic takeover of the House and Senate in 2006.
In the eight years the Class of 2000 members have controlled the board, they shifted the city's political direction markedly leftward. They've passed a universal health care law, banned plastic bags at grocery stores and Styrofoam containers, required nutrition labeling on restaurant menus, and endorsed an ambitious alternative energy plan to have half of the city's electricity from renewable sources by 2017. They've also put a great deal of successful legislation on the ballot, including instant runoff voting, $450 million in affordable housing bonds, and a measure establishing the first small business commission.
In the process they have made many enemies, particularly among downtown business interests, PG&E, and developers. "There's no doubt the combination of the board's actions and their ballot measures have been very problematic for business," says Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Jim Lazarus. "The vast majority of these supervisors have never had to meet a payroll and when all you've ever done is endorse the back of a check and never signed the front of one, you have a very different perspective."
Most of the Class of 2000 will be termed out of office in two months, and the old downtown-driven political machine is trying to recapture control of the Board of Supervisors, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat a new batch of progressive candidates. Some political observers are describing this election as a referendum on the board majority's performance over the last eight years.
In the meantime, some of the Class of 2000's members are trying to maintain their hold on city government even after they graduate. In fact, the once-ragtag group of neighborhood activists is hoping to create its own citywide political machine.
Shortly after the inauguration, the press christened the board's new supermajority the "Progressive Faction." The designation captured the fact that they were mostly to the political left of the board's business-friendly liberals (often labeled as "moderates"), but it also implied a unity and organization that did not exist. Before the election, the Class of 2000 did not participate in a slate and they made no joint campaign promises. After the election, they developed a reputation for internal squabbling and district-based battles over funding for neighborhood social services, which district would get police foot patrols and whose potholes would be filled first.
"We had to learn to work together ... live together, and it hasn't been easy," says Board President Peskin. "But all told, for a group who did not select one another, we've stayed on the same page more often than not."
In those early years, the progressives were perhaps best known for coming together on two issues: reining in developers and reining in Willie Brown.
After taking office, the Class of 2000 wasted no time in going after both.
Brown was now facing a board of supervisors that disdained his land use policies and was hostile toward his supreme powers over the city's Planning Commission. By 2000, many San Franciscans were fed up with Brown's dot-com building boom. The Planning Department was approving the conversion of light industrial buildings into offices at a mind-numbing rate, and live-work lofts were sprouting like weeds in the Mission, Potrero, and South of Market districts. The character of some neighborhoods was changing, and longtime residents were being displaced at a rate of 2,000 a year to make room for the new offices and pricey live-work lofts, according to the rent board. Moreover, there was the pay-to-play political environment for which Brown was infamous.
"It was as if the city had been taken over by developers," says Calvin Welch, the project director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations. "People were stunned and confused and there was a notion among the new supervisors that land use battles were what they were supposed to do."
Within weeks of the inauguration, the supervisors initiated a six-month ban on live-work loft permits and imposed fees on commercial developers to pay for affordable housing projects.