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Lacking (Progressive) Definition 

Lefty factions and a phony convention do not an effective political party make

Wednesday, May 30 2007
If there's one thing that a certain development lobbying group representing the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Wells Fargo Bank, Lennar Communities and other pro-growth outfits is certain of, it's that Supervisor Chris Daly is a hero.

"Pragmatically, we said, 'Let's recognize when someone delivers,'" said Tim Colen, executive director of the Housing Action Coalition, an organization that lobbies San Francisco government to allow new apartment buildings. "Daly is recognized as having been far more effective than any other supervisor, particularly when it comes to market-rate housing."

In honor of a string of last-minute deals consummated during the past couple of years — in which Daly has promised not to thwart permits for high-rise condo towers, sometimes in exchange for payoffs to nonprofit groups that support him politically — the Housing Action Coalition will present Daly with its "Housing Hero" award at its annual fundraising dinner this July.

I don't usually lead this column with piffle such as fundraising dinner awards. But Chris Daly's Housing Hero prize, which came about as the result of a suggestion from a lobbyist for developers, is a perfect lead-in to discuss another piece of flapdoodle: the mayoral political convention Daly convened this weekend to choose a candidate representing San Francisco "progressives" — the city's self-styled left-of-the-left.

Daly is right to urge San Franciscans to think seriously about replacing Mayor Gavin Newsom, who, I've argued, has been a gaseous do-nothing at a time when the city has urgent problems.

But by holding a quasi-political convention under the meaningless and misleading rubric of San Francisco "progressivism," the left-posturing South of Market supervisor all but guarantees Gavin Newsom another four years on the job.

For one thing, the idea that Newsom is not leftist enough sounds like a weak neenerneener taunt against the mayor who bathed the city in the good feelings of same-sex marriage, recruited idealists to work on his Homeless Connect program, and has made public gestures toward every known leftist ideal. Sure, these were all political-consultant-conjured pantomimes. But token genuflection is what S.F. progressivism most loves. And the ease with which Newsom maneuvered past the not-progressive-enough criticism that plagued the first months of his administration illustrates what a bereft "movement," "coalition," or "philosophy" San Francisco progressivism really is.

Daly's own rise to office as an anti-apartment-construction activist, and his subsequent transformation into San Francisco developers' best friend is an apt illustration of the incredible lightness of being an S.F. progressive. I applaud the hundreds of desperately needed market-rate apartments Daly's dealing has helped create. But this accomplishment isn't part of a philosophy of green urbanism or anything else. (Daly's office did not return a call requesting comment.)

Indeed, Daly's accomplishment of allowing South of Market to turn into a modern, environmentally friendly center of high-rise apartments has met with murmurs of disapproval from his progressive allies. When I told Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who's been touted as a progressive mayoral hopeful, about Daly's Housing Hero award, he grumbled at the height of the new Daly-backed SOMA apartment buildings.

The fact is, San Francisco progressives are not a group gathered around a set of coherent ideas or policy objectives. Rather, they're a loose and meandering political faction, allied around financial interests, old personality disputes, long-forgotten turf battles, all joined by rhyming rallying cries. The idea that shutting a crowd of these people in a room could possibly threaten the employment of our current incompetent mayor is a leftist utopian fantasy.

Sunday, April 22, New York City's first sunny 2007 weekend, was also bathed in warmth from another source: a remarkable speech by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He laid out an ambitious set of specific initiatives for addressing threats to cities, such as increases in population, energy demands, transportation needs, and global warming. He said he would plan for the additional infrastructure to accommodate 1 million new residents in a city already four times as densely populated as San Francisco. He would impose a fee on motorists driving into and within the city in order to clear automobile congestion. He would invest a fortune in upgrading the city's already world-beating transit system.

These were remarkable steps coming from a Republican, a designation that usually involves ignoring environmental problems.

The steps were more astonishing still coming from a big-city mayor. That's because during the past three generations big American downtowns have contentedly gone from being a font of solutions for needs such as housing, transportation, jobs, education, and quality of life to a source of problems. Witness the traffic nightmares of new urban giants such as Houston and Atlanta, or the corruption and incompetence quagmire of post-Katrina New Orleans.

With its stratospheric housing costs, typical half-day-long commutes, fitful economic growth, failing schools, unabated violence, and systematic corruption, the San Francisco Bay Area is a poster child for the modern impotence of American cities.

If our mayor's inattentive press release-based governing style is part of the problem, his progressive opponents' tangle of petty, personal agendas is a caricature of a solution. S.F. progressivism is a coalition of convenience containing so many cross-purpose private agendas that it's helpless to address city needs.

This dissonance has manifested in the listlessness with which progressives have approached the Nov. 6 mayoral election.

Progressive Svengali Randy Shaw, the executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, author of The Activists' Handbook, and anointer of politicians worthy to use the progressive name, has published missives recently in his online journal Beyond Chron questioning whether it's really necessary to oppose Newsom this fall. These polemics don't mention, for some reason, the fact that the policies of the current mayor have led to a tremendous increase in Shaw's influence over city funds. To carry out the mayor's promise to give the indigent housing and other services — instead of cash handouts — Newsom has accelerated a program by which the city and Shaw's organization arrange to lease flophouses from slumlords. This means renting to fewer impoverished tenants who used to come in off the street, and to more impoverished tenants from waiting lists. This hasn't added significantly to the number of rooms available to the indigent. It has led to an inflation of prices for ordinary flophouse rooms, leaving many streetbound. Whatever its failures, Care Not Cash has increased Shaw's power. In practice he's now one of the city's biggest landlords, with more than 1,200 units under management.

"There are many convincing reasons why progressives should not expend resources trying to unseat Mayor Newsom in November," Shaw wrote on May 23.

You don't say?

The city's self-named progressives are similarly hamstrung in coming up with solutions to city problems.

The city's left wing, like the mayor, is eager to bemoan the Calcuttalike nature of our public housing. Progressives are equally loath to confront the public-sector unions whose work rules and pay rates have contributed to public housing's decay.

This discomfort with the idea of confronting union leaders also enfeebles progressives' ability to address issues such as crime, quality of life, and public corruption. San Francisco police detectives collectively are some of the worst in America when it comes to solving murders. It might be possible to improve this record by changing police department workplace rules, which now call for promoting detectives based on seniority instead of performance. That idea's DOA because it would mean confronting the Police Officers Association.

The city's abuzz with corruption allegations involving neophyte Supervisor Ed Jew. But that's a public integrity sideshow compared with more entrenched city leaders. S.F. Airport Commission President and Labor Council Vice President Larry Mazzola is under federal investigation for flushing tens of millions of workers' benefit-fund dollars into a Lake County resort that adjoins his family's estate. There hasn't been a whimper of complaint among San Francisco progressive politicos. Could this be because Mazzola happens to lead the local Plumbers union?

San Franciscans, progressives included, revel in complaining about our municipal transportation system. This group also enjoys accommodating people who oppose improving bus and rail service. A case in point: A single Geary Boulevard beauty-supply store owner has managed to delay an effort to build fast, efficient rapid transit bus service from the city's western suburbs to downtown, because he believes it would take away some parking spaces in front of his shop. Opposing change in San Francisco is a sacred progressive birthright.

Much of what San Franciscans call "progressivism" would be called wistful nostalgia in other cities.

Instead of "Remember the Alamo," this group says, "remember the Fillmore neighborhood" site of African-American-owned Victorian houses razed for redevelopment projects during the 1960s and '70s. Residual anger over that debacle now threatens a proposed redevelopment project along Market Street, the site of flophouses, derelict porn shops, and other marginal businesses. Countless meetings later, redevelopment has been endlessly delayed, and may be defeated, even though the project would add thousands of units of housing, while providing some $100 million in tax increment financing for subsidized housing.

The subject of housing brings us back to the strange position Chris Daly occupies in the pantheon of San Francisco progressivism, which for more than a generation has meant opposing growth, while snubbing traditional liberal causes such as uplifting gays or African-Americans.

When San Franciscans, for example, were dying en masse from AIDS during the 1980s, progressives' minds were more preoccupied with opposing "Manhattanization," the term they coined for new office buildings. Today, when African-Americans in the Bayview District are losing their sons, nephews, friends, and neighbors to drug-related street violence, progressives' official political pamphlet is concerned primarily with enacting a moratorium on construction of market-rate apartments.

This makes Daly an odd progressive duck. Sure, he campaigned for public office as a vanguardista in the 1999 movement to stop construction of live-work lofts. But through his willingness to cut deals to allow new apartments in the district he represents, Daly's done more to permit housing construction — and thus promote the kind of vision elaborated by urban environmentalists such as Michael Bloomberg — than any San Francisco politician. This makes him a failure as an S.F. progressive.

If Daly wants to beat Newsom as he claims, he should toss the progressive moniker, and schedule a different convention of San Franciscans, ones who'd like to elect an effective mayor: Progressiveness be damned.

Could Chris Daly be that man?

"Among a lot of our members are people who don't get him, or are angry at him, or he makes them crazy. A lot of people barked back at us and said, are you crazy?" said Tim Colen, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

But truth be told, "He's not a NIMBY. He's the one member of the Board of Supervisors who is able to deal with physical change in the built environment," said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, another group that supports more housing construction.

In other words, Daly's not a San Francisco progressive. I can think of no better qualification for public office in San Francisco.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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