Even in San Francisco, progressives are seeing a backlash

·Senior White House Correspondent
·11 min read

Parents are outraged by the state of public education. Citizens are tired of property crime and theft. Their combined frustration has turned San Francisco into an unlikely sign of where American politics is heading as the congressional midterms near.

Pundits have looked for such signs in Virginia, where a close gubernatorial race is certainly consequential but potentially limited in its national significance.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, Democratic candidate for Attorney General Mark Herring, and Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor Hala Ayala finish speaking to supporters at a campaign event.
Virginia Democratic candidates Terry McAuliffe (for governor), Mark Herring (for attorney general) and Hala Ayala (for lieutenant governor) at a campaign event Monday in Roanoke, Va. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The signal coming from the West Coast may actually be easier to read.

On two highly divisive cultural issues — public safety and public education — even voters in this exceedingly progressive city have bluntly told their elected leaders that high-minded rhetoric is not enough. Their plainspoken frustration is a reminder that, as the old saying goes, there is no Republican or Democratic way of picking up the garbage.

In this city with its head supposedly in the clouds, voters appear intent on demonstrating that they are grounded in mundane realities. Grim conditions on the city’s streets led voters, late last month, to resoundingly endorse a recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who will face an election sometime next year.

Also headed to a recall are three members of the San Francisco Board of Education: Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga. Parents charge that they didn’t do enough to open schools during the pandemic while devoting months to a contentious and ultimately failed attempt to rename schools that had been named after purportedly objectionable figures like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

“Our school board chose to put ideology over the needs of students,” a local Democratic political operative, Joel P. Engardio, recently wrote on his website to explain why he wanted a school board focused on the basics of education, not the abstract notions of social change some progressives say are at least as important as those basics.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin leans against a railing outside his office in San Francisco.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin in 2020. (Eric Risberg/AP)

Similar debates about schooling and policing are playing out across the country. In Virginia, a down-to-the-wire gubernatorial contest between Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe has been closely scrutinized because of the emphasis on cultural issues, particularly having to do with how race is handled in public schools. At the same time, voters in Minneapolis are voting on a closely watched criminal justice measure that critics have likened to “defunding the police.”

San Francisco is neither exurban Virginia nor, for that matter, the Central Valley of California. Trump voters are as rare here as sunny days. Joe Biden won 85 percent of the vote. The city’s last Republican mayor left office in 1964.

Unlike Minneapolis, San Francisco was not scarred by months-long protests over a high-profile police killing. Even before the recent debate about public safety, San Francisco’s criminal justice apparatus was widely regarded as progressive in key respects. The mayor is a Black woman, London Breed. The police chief, Bill Scott, is also Black.

Yet even here in the birthplace of so many social justice movements, voters are showing a tenuous shift back to the center on the kinds of cultural issues that can be deeply motivating precisely because they are so personal. A similar move nationally could prove devastating to Democrats on a national level in the 2022 congressional midterms.

Progressives “haven’t made a case for their perspective,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California and a longtime observer of the state’s complex politics, in an interview with Yahoo News. “I am knocked back on my heels by what I am seeing these days.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom at a get-out-the-vote event.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom ahead of the gubernatorial recall election in September in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The certification of a recall petition is not nearly the same thing as an election lost; voters will now have the opportunity to decide whether to keep Boudin or the three school board members in a separate election to be held sometime next year. The state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, was forced into a recall election, just as Boudin and the trio of education officials have been.

Newsom survived the ensuing election with ease. Prospects for the San Franciscans are less clear. Boudin’s supporters had reason to hope after an initial recall petition effort fell apart earlier this fall after failing to collect the requisite 51,000 votes to trigger an election. But a second effort quickly followed the first, clearing the minimum signature count with 32,000 to spare. The school board petitions passed with similar margins, suggesting a high degree of enthusiasm.

Like much else about California, recalls are fascinating and frustrating in equal measures. They allow ordinary citizens to mount a new election — a do-over, essentially — of any elected official, provided a recall petition can first gain a predetermined number of signatures. If it does, an election follows.

The whole process has been called an “undemocratic mess,” in part because it favors motivated, organized parties with a grievance targeting a specific elected official. That reality has made some question whether the two recalls now underway in San Francisco have been powered by popular will or wealthy donors with organizational know-how.

Boudin’s supporters have pointed out that the first, unsuccessful recall effort was funded in part by David Sacks, a local technology investor. Sacks recently held a fundraiser for Ron DeSantis, the controversial Republican governor of Florida and prominent Trump protégé.

There have been 179 attempts to recall an elected state official in California history, but only 11 of these gathered enough signatures for an election to be held. In those 11 elections, the official lost his or her office six times.

Baskets of gubernatorial recall election ballots are stacked up, waiting to be processed, in Pomona, California.
Baskets of gubernatorial recall election ballots ready for processing on Sept. 15 in Pomona, Calif. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In other words, for a recall petition to actually lead to an election is exceptionally rare, with a historical success rate of 6 percent. A little more than 3 percent of all recall elections led to an actual recall when all was said and done. (Those figures don’t include the two recalls discussed in this article.)

It was a successful recall of Gov. Gray Davis that allowed Arnold Schwarzenegger to become the state’s governor in 2003. Schwarzenegger’s unlikely journey from Hollywood to Sacramento was the product of the last truly significant successful recall in the state, but that could soon change because of what has transpired in San Francisco.

As one top Democratic strategist with clients on both coasts put it to Yahoo News, progressive policies favored by “college-educated whites” are alienating more moderate factions of that coalition, including many people of color.

“And this is where we are running into a lot of turbulence,” the Democratic strategist said, speaking anonymously in order not to endanger long-standing relationships in San Francisco and elsewhere.

When he ran for district attorney two years ago, Boudin vowed to turn San Francisco into a model of criminal justice reform. Since then, critics say he has struggled to combine the practical and ideological imperatives of his job. Walgreens has closed a number of pharmacies, citing rampant theft. A supermarket is cutting back hours for similar reasons.

Advocates for survivors of domestic violence, activists in the Asian American community and other groups have said Boudin has ignored their pleas to fulfill the most basic duties of his office, an accusation that has put the district attorney on the defensive.

Protesters hold up signs at a rally for justice for Asian American and Pacific Islander crime victims on April 14 in San Francisco.
Protesters at a rally for justice for Asian American and Pacific Islander crime victims on April 14 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In July a San Francisco woman named Michelle Tandler wrote on Twitter that many of her friends were considering leaving the city. “The biggest driver is no longer cost of living,” she wrote. “It’s crime.”

A top Boudin deputy, Kate Chatfield, responded by likening Tandler to fans of “The Birth of a Nation,” the highly racist 1915 film about the Ku Klux Klan.

“Guess something I’m saying is hitting a nerve,” Tandler shot back. Chatfield deleted the tweet and, sometime thereafter, her entire account.

“San Franciscans don’t feel safe with this district attorney,” said recall organizer Andrea Shorter, a Black woman with a storied history of activism in the city’s LGBTQ community. Shorter has little in common with conservative pundits who sound off on law and order with harsh, racialized rhetoric.

But the recall isn’t ideological for Shorter or the other San Franciscans who say they never endorsed drug use on the streets or an unwillingness to send repeat offenders to prison for longer sentences.

That point was underscored by one of Boudin’s top deputies, Brooke Jenkins, who recently resigned and joined the recall effort against her former boss. “It made me really sad to think the victims of crime did not count among his priorities unless it helped public perception,” Jenkins, who is Black, told the San Francisco Chronicle in what amounted to a withering exit interview.

“Public safety is District Attorney Boudin’s No. 1 priority,” said Julie Edwards, a spokesperson for Friends of Chesa Boudin Opposing the Recall, an outside group fighting the recall effort. “He has focused on innovative solutions to reduce crime, like suing the manufacturers of ghost guns, while implementing important reforms and prosecuting crimes at a higher rate than his predecessor. Unfortunately, these facts have been ignored by recall proponents.”

Members of the San Francisco Police department are seen at the scene of a hit-and-run incident in San Francisco.
Members of the San Francisco Police Department at the scene of a hit-and-run incident in San Francisco in 2018. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Boudin’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

“The coalition of the party is stronger when all of the constituencies are united around things like job creation, growing the economic pie, ending systemic racism,” the Democratic strategist said, using President Biden as a uniting figure of that scale. “It’s very hard to accept social change when the pie is shrinking.”

The pandemic turned out to be a difficult time for social change. The three school board members who will face a new election in 2022 figured they were acting out the city’s unapologetically liberal values when they proceeded with a plan to rename 44 schools in the midst of the coronavirus lockdowns. But they badly misread the mood of parents who were far more concerned with Zoom school than reckoning with George Washington’s legacy.

None of the school board members facing a recall election responded affirmatively to a Yahoo News request for comment.

Ending standardized testing at the city’s most elite high school, Lowell, proved another point of contention, with proponents of racial justice facing off with Asian parents who thought they were being targeted by the change. To make matters worse, tweets emerged showing Collins disparaging Asians.

Asian Americans are a potent political force in San Francisco. They are also a rapidly growing national voting bloc, one whose concerns pollsters and candidates are only beginning to grasp.

People hold up signs on a sidewalk to protest vaccine mandates in San Pedro, California.
People protest vaccine mandates in San Pedro, Calif., on Oct. 18. (Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)

One quality San Francisco may share with other parts of the country, including Virginia, is widespread exhaustion with the pandemic and the restrictions it has enforced.

“The big driver is COVID,” Bebitch Jeffe of USC told Yahoo News, speaking of the school issue in particular. In Virginia, the rage over remote learning was channeled by conservative operatives into a rage over critical race theory, which is not taught in its public schools.

Critical race theory is not an issue in San Francisco, where progressive education ideals have long been put in practice. But educators’ failure to open schools engendered a similar frustration there as it did in Virginia, where tropes from conservative media have much more traction.

Boudin has also argued that the pandemic has frustrated his progressive agenda while making fighting crime difficult. And he and his supporters have correctly pointed to the fact that his policies have not led to an explosion in criminal activity.

That may not make a difference, just as it may ultimately not make a difference that Virginia schools aren’t teaching critical race theory to 6-year-olds.

“In politics, perception is reality,” Bebitch Jeffe says. The particulars of the San Francisco recalls aside, she sees conservatives winning on the cultural issues that led to those recalls in the first place.

“Their megaphone is louder,” she says.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated which recall David Sacks funded. It was the first, not the second.

Thumbnail cover photo: Jeff Chiu/AP

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