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Rise of the Zombie Voters 

Wednesday, Oct 28 2015
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About a year ago, buoyed by some limited but positive polling, there was talk that state Sen. Mark Leno, a former Brown appointee to the Board of Supervisors who terms out of the Legislature next year, would try to unseat Lee. Leno spent only a few months as the left's new hero before Lee's massive campaign war chest and the media's depiction of the mayor as unbeatable urged him to bow out (without ever really being in).

The episode revealed the ordered efficiency with which the local Democratic Party is run. In San Francisco, politics can resemble a waiting room, where hopeful job-seekers patiently sit until their turn is called. (Imagine if Barack Obama had acted similarly and ceded the field to Hillary Clinton.) This waiting game pays off for career-oriented politicians, many of whom see a path from here to higher office in Sacramento, and then possibly beyond — as long as the boat's not rocked, and as long as they work within this system.

Recent history suggests bucking the line can shorten your political career. The left loves to crow about the 2000 election, when a slate of lefties completed a near-sweep against supervisors close to then-Mayor Willie Brown.

Of those people-powered politicians, not a single one holds office today.

"If you look at that, you're gonna say, 'Gee, maybe they were too independent,'" says Gonzalez, a "Class of 2000" alum who currently works as the Public Defender's chief deputy attorney. "Today, you're probably going to have to play ball more with the establishment."

The result for voters, though, is an insipid sameness among candidates.

"Candidates are not bold. It's the politics of the lukewarm," says Avalos. "Stability and continuity are most important, so you have people who practice politics and yet don't feel strongly about anything. "

The simplest reason why Lee didn't face a challenge from a politician is that "nobody thought they could win," says Avalos. "That narrative has been hard to penetrate."

San Francisco's economic might is the envy of cities worldwide. In an attempt to emulate the city's total rebound from the recession — unemployment is now 3.2 percent, the lowest since the height of the last boom, in May of 2000 — some cities are rolling out the red carpet for the kind of tech jobs lured here by a favorable tax structure and outright tax breaks. (Other cities, such as Lee's hometown of Seattle, point to San Francisco as a cautionary tale).

There are now more than a million jobs in the city, according to the state Employment Development Department, and tens of thousands more at tech campuses throughout the Peninsula and Silicon Valley. To house the 10,000-plus people who now move to San Francisco every year, capital is flooding into real estate development from overseas, leading to a short-lived joke (which has wisely not been repeated as much, ever since the city's housing crisis led to protests of tech buses) that the omnipresent construction crane should be the city's new official bird.

It's the local Democratic Party's job to sign up new voters, be they monolingual Chinese-speaking immigrants or 23-year-old coders. And the party has struggled to keep up. Under the stewardship of party chair Mary Jung, elected in 2012, voter registration in San Francisco has fallen below the California average for the first time since 2000.

That year, more than 91 percent of eligible San Franciscans were registered to vote. This year, according to the Secretary of State, registration has dipped to 69 percent, the lowest in the Bay Area, and well below other major California cities such as Los Angeles, which has increased voter registration from 65 percent to 80 percent in 10 years.

(Statewide, 6 million eligible voters are unregistered, according to the Secretary of State, though not for long. This month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that will automatically register voters when they renew their driver's licenses.)

Jung did not respond to a request for comment, but the city's abysmal registration rate is not her fault.

San Francisco's environment in 2015 is good for business but terrible for democracy.

Many blame the tech boom, but it's not tech's fault, either — not entirely. Voter participation would be bad even if the new jobs were all hairdressers, baristas, or urban farmers.

And while the 18-to-30-year-old set is also notoriously bad at voting — only about eight percent of young people participated in the last California midterm — it's not all millennials' fault, either.

The city's current demographic trends are perfectly suited to foster non-voters. Young people don't vote, and newcomers don't vote, either. Whether because they choose to remain registered back at home in a swing state like Ohio, or because they're unfamiliar with the city and its political landscape, voters tend to take a few years before they take an interest in politics.

A city inundated with fresh waves of career-focused climbers, then, is a perfect storm of non-participation.

"We definitely have a challenge to get young people registered," says Supervisor Scott Wiener, a former Democratic Party chair. "It's a challenge faced across the country: A voter pool that doesn't fully reflect the population."

It's true that likely voters tend to skew older and richer. Yet San Francisco's status as a wealthy global city isn't helping local turnout, either.

Some of the city's better organized, activist neighborhoods are also enclaves of poverty. Places like the Tenderloin are hubs for community organizers.

"Tenderloin residents were very engaged," says Supervisor Jane Kim, who has represented the area since her election in 2010. "They could name their elected representatives, they knew what the top three issues before the Board were."

That was not the case when Kim campaigned elsewhere in the district, like in the condominium towers of Rincon Hill.

"People with The New York Times or The Economist under their arms could talk about health care or the war in Iraq," she says, "but they didn't know as much about who their local representative was. Usually people aren't engaged in local politics unless they need something that can be done at a local level."


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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